Some Thoughts on Punkademia

Over the last few weeks I’ve been slowly making my way through Zack Furness’s edited volume Punkademics (2012), which brings together a wide range of academic voices on the influences of punk rock on the “ivory tower.” As a colleague of mine quipped, I like that this book exists. In fact, I wish I had known about while putting together Punk Archaeology; Furness would have been a great contribution to our work.

The book consists of a wide range of essays that, generally, interweave the history of punk with the personal stories from professional and academic life. The contributions are generally readable and a pair of interviews with Alan O’Connor, who studied the punk scene in Toronto, and Milo Aukerman, a research biologist with DuPont who is a member of the Descendents, added to the immediacy of the volume. 

I won’t do a full review, but I do have a few quick, day-before-Thanksgiving, observations:

1. Politics over Aesthetics. One of the key points of this volume is that the punk movement was more than just aesthetic posturing by bored, image-conscious youth (as postulated by, say, Dick Hebdige’s 1979 classic, Subculture: The Meaning of Style), but a legitimate form of political expression. Furness and company paid particular attention to the late 1970s punk scene in the U.K. where bands like Crass brought together left-wing, anarchist sensibilities in their lyrics and approach to performance and the music industry. The devoted less attention to, say, the American version of punk rock which developed in close connection with the New York art scene of the late 1960s and had close ties to, say, Andy Warhol’s Factory. American punk particularly as it developed in New York City had a much greater focus on aesthetic challenges to the increasingly banal world of American consumer culture. This was a critique of consumer culture, suburbia, or even the absurdity of everyday life, but it was less overtly political. 

2. Gender, Race, Orientation, and Community. Furness’s contributors considered the tensions that existed between the attitudes within the punk scene toward women, minorities, and gay and queer participants. These attitudes vacillated between the open and accommodating to the overtly hostile. Even a casual listener to the punk rock music can appreciate the misogynistic sentiments expressed in punk lyrics and the use of insensitive (at best) and intolerant language in the sometimes tense relations between groups and bands. While in some ways, the anarchic and left-leaning politics of punk created a safe place for minorities of all kinds, the aggressive tone of the music and adversarial posturing could sometimes create a hostile environment as extreme political and social rhetoric masked puerile oppositional showboating. 

I was particularly struck by the critique of gender in punk, and it made me very aware that the first, published iteration Punk Archaeology was very much a boys’ club (with the exception of Colleen Morgan, the Patti Smith of the Punk Archaeology movement, Kris Groberg, and Heather Gruber). This was all the more troubling because Mediterranean Archaeology has tended to be an (old) boys’ club in many ways and remains almost exclusively the domain of white folks.

3. Punk Pedagogy. Several authors dealt explicitly with the influence of punk on their classrooms, and it was fun to see some of my approaches to teaching considered to be punk pedagogy. Two particular things stand out. First, I share with punk pedagogy a willingness to cede power to my students, within limits, and to attempt to create a space for radical creativity in my classroom. I think that some of Furness’s authors would see the punk in my experiments in the Scale-Up classroom which drew heavily on the thinking of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Moreover, I was happy to see that punk teachers shared my deep skepticism of the industrialized academy, but none appeared interested in exploring what a return of a craft approach to higher education might look like (at least in those terms). 

4. DIY. The essays advocate do-it-yourself practices that sought to intentionally undermine our dependence on mass produced consumer goods and practices. Of course, this has become increasingly difficult in an academic setting as the creeping spread of regulations, standards, assessment practices, and corporatized expectations has encroached upon our ability to operate outside of institutionally controlled practices. It was interesting to me that few of the articles spoke to any resistance to DIY practices from institutional concerns. For example, there was considerable outcry surrounding the development of a DIY book scanner, and the increasingly stringent copyright laws which we’re told protect our “intellectual property” often make it more difficult to produce meaningful scholarship or to circulate our works. DIY practices offer a way to subvert, endrun, and defy these policies and practices, but also carry increasing risk as our intellectual and creative autonomy is seen as a threat to those who want to monetize it.

(Some day, I will write about my efforts to start a press at the University of North Dakota.)

5. Punk as Failure. One of the most redeeming things about this book is author’s openness regarding the successes and failures of their efforts to … (continued below)

Interruption:

Ok. I really want to continue this post, but when we woke up this morning our dog looked like this:

IMG 2374

His eyes usually look like this:

IMG 2367

So now I’m going to take him to the vet. I’ll finish this post when I get back.

Continuation:

… integrate a punk ethos into their academic lives. The stories of failed efforts to create a punk infused classroom or to integrate their intellectual and political commitments to the shrill rhetoric of punk performance. The willingness to the contributors to admit and scrutinize the failures of punk to accommodate the academic life and professional world was heartening to me as I look back on my own struggles to bring my most ambitious and personal projects to satisfactory completion. The process of punk is perhaps more important than the product. Or, as my colleague quipped: I’m like that this book exists. 

Have a very punk rock Thanksgiving.

2 Comments

  1. Of course in punk it was okay to fail. Various bands failed in various ways and did it with style. I came across the blogpost on a news aggregator on twitter and was posted to many others before I finally found the source but it was worth the journey reading it.

    I hope your dog was okay.

    Reply

    1. Yep! He was fine and back to ramming us with his stuffed elephant by the end of the weekend!

      Reply

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