Punk Archaeology

Saturday, February 16th, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis
Punk rock seems to be one of the most urban music movements of the late 20th-century in contrast to the Arcadian aesthetics of the hippies. An aversion to nature helped the punks define themselves against the hippies, one of their many professed enemies. From the outdoor concerts like Woodstock to the creating of self-sufficient alternative communities, the Sixties fit into romantic tradition where the countryside reveals paths to goodness, hope and rebirth; hippies were the offspring of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Enlightenment and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism. The desire to build a new society took hippies outdoors, dancing on the tabula rasa, living physically within nature, freely cultivating natural substances that induced heightened sensorial experiences and practicing non-hierarchical organic social relations like free love. Cities, the consummate product of the bourgeoisie, were not good places for such an enterprise. Even if dwelling in urban centers, the hippies abandoned the modern city as an intellectual project. This is not to say that alternative communities did not flourish in cities. San Francisco is a good example, but even here the image of Golden GatePark dominates. The political component of the Sixties had a visible urban manifestation in the anti-Vietnam and the Civil-Rights movement. We can hardly visualize 1968 without urban demonstrations. And we can hardly generalize the Sixties; experiences varied from region to region. May 1968 in Paris, for example, was undeniably one of the highest expressions of urbanism (incited by Guy Debord, Henri Lefebvre, the Situationists). But was the Parisian left, really hippie? Already we encounter some technical problems in defining “the Sixties.” The French experience differs greatly from the American experience; not only was it more fundamentally urban, but also more politically structured around the Communist party. 

However we encapsulate the Sixties radical generation, it was undeniably different than the generation of the late Seventies and Eighties. Something happened in 1977. The contemporaries were keenly self-aware of articulating a new movement and, in retrospect, they historicized it in their narratives. One distinctive difference between punks and hippies lies in their urban commitment. Punks found the hippies idealistic, deluded and soft. Replacing escapism with nihilism, the punks embraced urban blight and tailored their identities to fit within the physical spaces of abandoned urban form. Rather than communing with nature, punks squatted in the city; they literally inhabited abandoned buildings and shaped an aggressively edgy existence out of domestic ruins. Growing up at the heights of suburban flight and the demise of the American city, the punks were the first post-industrial generation. Hippies, on the other hand, grew up at the heights of industrialism, benefiting from America’s postwar prosperity. The same industrial might that won World War II had been redirected to domestic social realms: cheap suburban houses, comforts, appliances, social conformity and streamlining. The American dream of the Fifties was a dream of victory. The hippies grew up in a prosperous, although socially constraining environment. Coming of age within the coherence of the Fifties household, they accumulated a profound social confidence. If their parents could reinvent—and rule—the world so could they, except that the world they desired was different. Living the optimism of the American dream, deceived them into unreachable goals, such as creating an equally universal alternative.

The punks emerged at the tail end of economic prosperity. In the words of Jon Savage, they came together “in a network of relationships as complicated as a the rabbit-warren London slums of Dickens’s novels” (England’s Dreaming, New York, 1992, p. 3) Their internalized sensibility was one of coping, resisting and collapse. The punks experienced abandonment the way that the hippies experienced flight. Whether conceived as a music movement, a youth movement, or a cultural movement, they created a pervasive ethos with various characteristics, including an archaeological one. I will explore the connection between punk and archaeology in a series of case studies. For me, the connection is obvious at a visceral and deeply personal level. Generally speaking, I belong to Generation X—I even read the manual as soon as it came out, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture (1991). My formative youth experiences (high-school and college) fit comfortably within 1981-1991. More specifically, however, I grew up in cities. My attraction to the post-punk music and social culture began inColumbia, South Carolina, and flourished when my family moved to Philadelphia, which at the time was one of the most devastated cities in the East Coast. As a teenager immigrant, I never quite fit in main stream youth culture (Michael Jackson, proms, malls) but was attracted to the intellectual sophistication, public sphere and sensual character of the musical underground. The punk/post-punk scene manifested itself in multifarious musings and gatherings within the urban fabric. Punks squatted in the abandoned houses of West Philadelphia, where they also formed bands and performed; these were my friends, this was my dilapidated neighborhood. The movement’s superstars (like the Clash, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat) had such a limited audience that they performed at small venues, church basements, rotary clubs, bars, houses. There were no “concerts” only “shows.” To get the full historical flavor of the scene read, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (2001). Having grown up around an underground that lived and breathed the abandoned city, I hope to articulate what I can only describe as an archaeological. It is not a surprise to me that the punk ethos directly cultivated in me an archaeological predilection. The punk ethos has caused much conflict in its generation by its sheer negativity. How do you continue to fight the power when you accumulate power as a mature member of society. Professionally, I translated punk’s spirit of abjection into archaeology, which I practice academically. Thus, the case studies that follow are exercises in self-reflection if not self-validation. The archaeological manifestations of punk are clear to my friends who shared these formative experiences during our teens and twenties. Not surprisingly, many are now academics. More importantly, they have shaped their respective intellectual inquires according to some feature of this shared punk ethos (whatever it might be). I didn’t fully realize the poetic significance of this generational experience until reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005); of course, we all knew that we were part of something larger from Greil Marcus’, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1990). I owe many of my ideas to the critical discursive culture that the punk scene generated. I will probably bring their stories to bear, so I will enumerate those friends as a preliminary expression of gratitude. They are Jennie Uleman, Stephanie Camp, Elias Markolefas, Laurel Taylor, Emily Hage, Jules Dingle, Jenn Ball, Bill Caraher .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: