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Scott McLemee

Related: New York intellectual - nobrow


People sometimes call me a "public intellectual," which is probably a euphemism -- a polite way around the fact that I have no degrees, no institutionally recognizable field of specialization, and, indeed, no credentials of any kind, beyond the work you will find at this website.

As a teenager in the late 1970s, I discovered the work of Alfred Kazin, Seymour Krim, Paul Goodman, and Susan Sontag, among others. Also, punk rock and Marxist politics. Everything at this site ultimately can be traced back to that combination of influences. --http://www.mclemee.com/id3.html [May 2006]

Safety Pin as Signifier

Related: punk - Mudd club

A review of the nobrow theories of Bernard Gendron's Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club (2002).

In the summer of 1977, Time and Newsweek informed their readers of a new subculture, called "punk," that had emerged at a few rock clubs in the United States and Britain. It was a style of exuberant ugliness. Men and women alike wore short hair that had been cut seemingly at random, and dyed unnatural colors. Flesh was pierced in sundry locations, at times with safety pins. Punk bands had names like the Dead Boys or the Clash. The music was very loud, very fast, and seldom involved more than three chords. Dancing was spasmodic. Spitting was common.

Horrified readers may have recalled the hippies' "Summer of Love," in 1967, and pondered how much the world had changed in a decade. Jimmy Carter would later use the term "malaise" to characterize the American mood in an era of energy crisis, "stagflation," and Third World insurgency.

Meanwhile, the noise coming from the punk clubs in 1977 sounded like the collapse of Western civilization itself.

... "Punk was always the intellectuals' favorite," says Bernard Gendron, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "Academics were interested in punk from the start, in England especially. One of the first really classic texts in cultural studies from the early 1980s was Dick Hebdige's Subculture, which stressed the semiotics of punk -- trying to read the 'live' texts of punk clothing's signifiers, for example. In the United States, it was the art world that was really taken with punk." Mr. Gendron traces the movement's ambivalent relationship with high culture (and vice versa) in his recent book, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde (University of Chicago Press).

... The history of the subculture includes some distinguished ancestry. In Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, 1989), the rock journalist Greil Marcus traced the sometimes roundabout way French Marxist thinkers such as Guy Debord influenced early British punk. The manager of the Sex Pistols, for example, used Debord's scathing critique of consumerism in The Society of the Spectacle (1968) as an alibi for his cynical manipulation of the media.

Mr. Gendron's analysis of the New York underground also starts in Paris -- but with a much earlier phase of bohemia. In the 19th century, artists in the Latin Quarter began frequenting popular venues such as cabarets; later, jazz became the preferred music among venturesome intellectuals. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu's arguments about how different social groups accrue "symbolic capital," Mr. Gendron argues that the worlds of avant-garde culture and mass entertainment have repeatedly been drawn to one another. Artists were lured by the wider audience enjoyed by popular musicians, while the latter craved the prestige conferred by associating with "legitimate" culture.

When punk emerged, it scrambled the distinctions between high and low culture even more severely than bebop jazz (whose practitioners sometimes wore "existentialist" goatees and horn-rimmed glasses) had in the late 1940s. The term "punk" had been coined in 1971 by critics who, disgusted by what they considered pretentious "art rock," were championing obscure American groups from the 1960s such as the Sonics and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators -- garage bands that made up in energy (and volume) what they lacked in instrumental finesse. As Mr. Gendron points out, the punk aesthetic attracted a following in the arts by overlapping with the rise of minimalism among experimental painters, sculptors, and composers. Punk bands such as the Patti Smith Group, Television, and the Voidoids included writers and artists who were as likely to allude to Rimbaud's poetry as to science-fiction movies.

-- http://chronicle.com/free/v48/i47/47a01601.htm

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