Cruel optimism of the will in Bay Area punk production

Cruel optimism of the will in Bay Area punk production

This is an edited extract from Johanna Issacsson’s The Ballerina and the Bull: Anarchist Utopias in the Age of Finance (out now).

By 1986 punk was not just a battle cry, it was a scene that required institutions like show spaces and record labels. In this context we see the rise of the Gilman Street Project, an all-ages punk musical venue in Berkeley. The club opened soon after the closing of Mabuhay Gardens and The Farm, two important punk venues in the area. You could join as a member by paying $2 per year, and membership came with rights to participate in decision making. The rules included: no drugs, alcohol, violence, misogyny, homophobia or racism, and no major label bands were permitted to perform there. Says Zarah of her introduction to Gilman at 14 years old:

Gilman was dirty, it was small, but it was impressive because of how many people were there. I was meeting lot of people right away (people my age). I was in love with the place form the first time I saw it, even though it was, you know, gross.

For Eighties teenage Bay Area punks, Gilman was a semi-utopia: a creative, social space where they could come-of-age in ways not permitted in family and school institutions.

Alexander Kluge calls this kind of DiY institution a “counterpublic sphere,” a place that redefines spatial, territorial, and geopolitical parameters, reflecting new transnational boundaries while remaining subject to the constraints and logic of dominant post-Fordist forms of production. In this counterpublic sphere, the Gilman punk could experiment with residual temporalities, such as DiY artisanal production, without ever leaving the home of modernity — the sphere of universal, fungible commodity production. In this elastic sphere, people like Robert Eggplant, creator and primary writer of Absolutely Zippo, could find a viable way of life that was social and at times ecstatically political:

When I first came to Gilman (yes shortly after I came to punk) I was faced with something that I never encountered in my previous subculture groups, (that being rap and metal). There was more in the atmosphere than music. (Yes even more than liquor and sex). It was politics.

Eggplant describes himself as a somewhat lost soul until attendance at the “new world” of Gilman made him into a punk convert, speaking to his hunger for openness and community, totally immersing him in its culture and social scene.

Gilman materializes and spatializes this feeling of community, fortifying a subculture that could once only be described as an impulse or a feeling with a layer of solidity and permanence. The club has the appearance of spontaneity and haphazardness, but it represents years of concrete work that were put into finding, funding, and creating the space. The space supersedes the temporary squats and show spaces that preceded it. Most of the organizers developed their skills by organizing illegal shows, gradually building up to getting a permitted, legal establishment. The group that had been organizing underground shows collaborated with Maximum Rocknroll to find a location and to acquire the appropriate funding and permits. After lengthy attempts to get the city to approve, Gilman Street was born as a self-regulating institution. This permanence is an important asset to the scene and yet with every step away from the fleeting and ephemeral Gilman approaches punk’s dreaded nemeses: hierarchy, bureaucracy, reification.

Despite these threats, Gilman served as a punk haven and base from which to build a radical community. In the Eighties Gilman provided a home base for anti-racist punks to fight off skinheads. In this moment, racist skinheads were a strong, insidious presence in Northern California. Because of overlapping musical tastes, the Gilman staff had to drive off Nazis from hardcore shows and in some instances the punks of Gilman rallied to fight Nazis at racist demonstrations. In the Nineties Gilman became a center for punk protest against the Gulf War and the Rodney King decision. For Ben Sizemore, of the Bay Area anti-capitalist band Econochrist, these politics were inextricable from hardcore aesthetics. Radical politics were a bodily and totalizing power:

Bands like those got my heart pumping and my spine tingling. I could feel the chords hit me in the gut. I felt like they were singing directly to me. The music moved me, but it was more than music, it was something else, a more powerful feeling and it ran deep.

These were the politics of musical ecstasy and at the same time the politics of the mundane everyday, quotidian survival and mutual aid:

Hell, people I’ve met at Gilman have become some of my closest friends. I’ve met people at Gilman who hooked me up with work, housing, and have just helped me out with my problems. More importantly they’ve helped me realize I’m not alone and that there are alternatives to this fucking competitive, dog eat dog, oppressive, materialistic, earth raping, dominant culture that we find ourselves in.

In this milieu mutual aid extended from attending and supporting Gilman shows to all realms of the everyday — dumpster diving, parties, and communal living.

Gilman’s everyday politics provided a social and political world for young punks stranded in an atomized world where, as in Karl Marx’s prognosis, “all that is solid melts into air.” But with the anchorage of Gilman as an institution came what Econochrist calls “the same damn old circle game”:

we scream fight the system’s schemes/but we still work for the machine/so safe in our social clique/time to part this sea of shit

With the materialization of Gilman as an institution comes a creeping entrepreneurial ethic, an urge to codify and market the punk convergence of art and life. As one of the many who came of age at Gilman, Mike Stand lived this ambivalence. He was a high school kid in Berkeley in 1986, at the birth of Gilman, and clung to its “all-ages” ethos, which defied the strange age segregation of the suburbs. Before he went to the club, Mike hadn’t met anyone between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. This age segregation belies the myth that a wholesome suburban life is the proper path to maturity. Suburban life actually prevented teenagers from meeting young adults, carefully cordoning them off from any adults who hadn’t already settled into the suburban norm. Slipping into the role of Gilman’s coordinator and manager, Mike matured quickly, but this led to his tacit disavowal of the youthful spontaneity that is the core of the punk aesthetic. Mike framed himself as the resident “pragmatist” who learned skills that would help him in the business world. He kept Gilman afloat, calling for membership fees and making it fiscally sustainable, but, as Erick Lyle points out in his account of the punk role in the San Francisco Mission District’s gentrification, contrary to the boosterish slogans of urban development, a rising tide does not lift all boats.

Chris Appelgreen also “matured” quickly in the nurturing countersphere of Gilman, inheriting Lookout! Records from Larry Livermore at the age of twenty-three. Drawn to punk for its social space more than its musical qualities, he describes coming from a small town and immediately becoming absorbed in the club and Lookout!

I couldn’t really differentiate what made punk rock better than say Depeche Mode or other mainstream bands that were on the radio. Then I started seeing this humanity and personality and connection you just couldn’t have if you were a fan of Tina Turner or Bruce Springsteen, for instance, also the band members were people my age. I felt really empowered. (Edge 152)

He notes that this was a first step in taking himself more seriously and led to his quick ascension to heading Lookout! At the same time he recognizes that his involvement with Lookout! complicates his relationship to Gilman:

It was also a difficult place to come into things from, since I had to maintain somewhat of a business relationship with the people in the bands on the label, people who I was friends with. It was different than I think most people’s experiences were with Gilman. (Edge 153-154)

The permanence of Gilman and Appelgreen’s position in it came at the price of a certain degree of specialization and alienation.

The paradox of the punk entrepreneur or manager is not a stark problem of choice. Rather, it’s a necessary consequence of what Guy Debord called the culture industry’s “rigged game” in which there is no possible autonomy from entrenched systems of production and private property. The punk anti-corporate myth faced new challenges in the late Eighties when this independence moved from the realm of the aesthetic to the realm of commerce. Independent labels were never as pure as their mythic status. For instance, the Bay Area band Dead Kennedys has been held up as a pure signifier of this form of delinking, but in 1980 the Dead Kennedys signed to IRS records which had a distribution deal with the major label A and M, the third largest label in the US (O’Connor 3). It was not the Dead Kennedys who rejected this label, but A and M who dismissed the Dead Kennedys because of their offensive name, precipitating the advent of the Dead Kennedys’ label, Alternative Tentacles. It was only well into the Eighties that punks began to distribute and produce most of their own records. This coincided with punk becoming more niche oriented. For example, in 1980 the Dead Kennedys could sell 150,000 copies of the album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, but by the mid-Eighties it was rarely heard of for even the most popular punk band to sell 40,000 albums (O’Connor 3).

The widely published punk music zine Maximum Rocknroll was central to what can be called punk’s “economic turn.” At the same time the zine was widely distributed, its editors and writers, especially central editor Tim Yohannan, were deeply committed to notions of authenticity and independence. Maximum Rocknroll is at the hub of many of the debates about the management and goals of Bay Area punk institutions. It began in the 1980s and went on to become a central site of punk scene interaction nationally and internationally, facilitating growth through its ever-expanding letters column and involvement in many areas of Bay Area punk music, venues, and labels. It was also an ideological hub of punk, featuring debates and manifestos about the meaning, politics, and goals of punk music along with interviews with bands and global scene reports. Although the zine was profitable, it donated these profits to DiY projects such as Gilman. Maximum Rocknroll was passionately committed to the ethos of autonomy and would only carry ads and review records from independent labels. This was important, because Maximum Rocknroll was a central source of information about bands.

Maximum Rocknroll functioned as a global hub that launched punk culture into small towns and other countries, serving as what Andy Asp of the Oakland punk band The Pattern calls the “internet of its times,” allowing punks to connect to Mexico City, Croatia, and other global punk communities. Maximum Rocknroll’s power and influence, along with the strong opinions about politics and culture in its pages, made it a global center, but also launched debates about whether the zine’s centrality served to standardize punk. Tim Yo was seen by many to be morally rigid and authoritarian, a complaint voiced by Tim Tonooka:

He was deeply concerned that kids might think incorrect thoughts unless they were provided with carefully selected correct info… Because left to their own those people might come to the wrong conclusions. The mentality is elitist and condescending.

To the annoyance of many, Tim Yo served as the superego in the Bay Area quest for punk authenticity. He attempted to run Maximum Rocknroll as a prefigurative anti-capitalist project. It was produced in the house where the staff lived and everyone worked for free. Even though the zine passionately defended hardcore music, in private Yohannan expressed less interest in the music than the hope that it would provide youth with collective revolutionary identity.

DiY’s incursion into the economic everyday required great organization and collaboration. Maximum Rocknroll’s powerful place in the Bay Area punk scene was based on reciprocity with other institutions, such as the distributor Mordam Records, which was dependent on the business brought in through Maximum Rocknroll’s wide distribution and therefore also upon the involvement of Tim Yohannan and other Maximum Rocknroll editors. Because of Mordam’s scale and ambiguous place as an autonomous/profit-driven punk institution, the label makes clear the tensions between punk aspirations and material realities. Mordam attempted to remain autonomous by refusing to sell through major labels or to distribute any zine that accepted major label advertising. Paradoxically, they were largely able to maintain this independence because of the great success and commercialization of the Bay Area band Green Day. When Green Day signed onto a major label, their earlier releases became popular, eventually selling over a million copies through Mordam.

While Mordam grew and expanded due to this boom, the intransigent nature of real estate in the Bay Area simultaneously curtailed this expansion. With the dot com boom, real estate prices soared and Mordam could no longer afford their large warehouse once their lease expired. These vicissitudes cannot be explained through a reductive binary that pits authenticity against selling out. Rather, the context of a post-Fordist economy must be taken into account. This can be seen in the class position of DiY entrepreneurs, which reflected the emerging occupational structure of the US, the shift to services, and the importance of what Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital.” Punk culture participants, musicians and workers are emblematic of a new kind of precarity. They often come from middle class homes, but do not inherit stability from their parents. In some senses, then, these institutions present a limit case of neoliberal entrepreneurialism.

These experimental forms of DiY institutions and collectivities are impassioned but equivocal responses to a period dominated by precarity and impasse. Lauren Berlant argues that the fantasy of the good life characterized by economic success has been disrupted by contemporary crisis and the “fraying” of fantasies such as meritocracy, upward mobility, job security, intimacy, and political and social equality. In place of these hopes, individuals and groups form optimistic stances in relation to jerry-rigged, DiY, forms of habituation and precarious public spheres, acting as “an intimate public of subjects who circulate scenarios of economic and intimate contingency”. Impasse is for Berlant both a temporal crisis and opportunity:

a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance that collects material that might help to clarify things, maintain one’s sea legs, and coordinate the standard melodramatic desires.

Punk’s teetering and inquisitive dialectical position between active resistance and passive style embodies this experience of crisis.

In this precarious and crisis-ridden era, punk arguably ceases to be a genre, transforming into a more nebulous modality. Fredric Jameson sees the postmodern as a post-genre moment marked by pastiche and the death of referentiality. However, punk’s aesthetic can be seen as the flip side of pastiche. It has no pretension to originality, but rather takes up the detritus of meaning and referentiality, cutting and pasting these shards to negate their original meanings in an intentional way, a process formulated by Guy Debord as détournement. As Dick Hebdige argues, punk’s cut n’ paste aesthetic can allow a critical incursion “through perturbation and deformation to disrupt and reorganize meaning”. This counters what Benjamin Noys sees as an “affirmationist” trend in contemporary literary and theoretical formations, which imagine an autonomous aesthetic “site of creativity and play detached from the forms of capitalist economy and value” (“Recirculation”).

Lauren Berlant’s notion of cruel optimism can help with the investigation of punk’s role in spheres outside of the purview of subcultural theory. Berlant’s formation of “cruel optimism” develops the critique of affirmationism and positive representation, by bringing it into the field of everyday life, extending an analysis of détournement and hacking, as analyzed by McKenzie Wark, into the arena of jerry-rigged counterpublic spheres. The optimism in these moments of the “crisis ordinary” can be seen in the vibrancy of these social experiments, but the “cruelty” of this situation is that the attachment it allows is to a problematic and precarious object or situation.

Within this “crisis ordinary,” DiY projects like Mordam, Maximum Rocknroll, Lookout! Records and Fat Wreck Chords optimistically create new forms of social and spatial practice. However, because of the “cruel” circumstances of these formations, these desires end in what I want to call, following Stacy Thompson, productive failure, with “failure” operating as a troubled category. This is echoed in a lyric from Echonochrist’s song “Bled Dry”: “What you call success I call failure.” Jameson points to failure or impasse as a possible means to cognitive mapping in which “a narrative of defeat” can cause “the whole architectonic of postmodern global space to rise up in ghostly profile behind itself, as some ultimate dialectical barrier or invisible limit”. The trajectory of Bay Area label Lookout!, headed by Larry Livermore and later Chris Appelgreen, maps this contradictory form of failure. One of the early utopian stances that the label took was that it initially did not sign contracts with its bands, which allowed bands to come and go as they pleased without tying them down to requirements to tour or sell a quota. They also gave bands a significantly higher percentage of profits: 60% as opposed to the average of 12-15% in commercial labels. In 1998 Livermore sold Lookout! to Appelgreen, who changed these policies to be more commercial. As Stacy Thompson points out, this transformation was not simply a selling out, but a productive failure that highlights larger structural contradictions and the impossibility of true independence from the system.

Here “failure” is a complex term. Punk productions “fail” in selling on a scale that would register in the commercial sphere. The DiY approach doesn’t pose any significant economic threat to the music industry, representing only a tiny sector of the indie market. This failure, however, is a success in that it allows these labels to avoid being controlled by economic logic. A second productive failure is the inability of punk to supply a living income to musicians, condemning them to supplement their income by working in the commercial sphere. This, however, is “an inverted form of success,” prohibiting music from becoming merely a means to an economic end. In zines such as Maximum Rocknroll the volunteer aspect is philosophically central; each issue notes that all the work is donated and all proceeds are invested in nonprofit projects. The smaller scale of Lookout! is a “partial failure that renders visible the problem inherent in punk’s attempt to free itself from the sphere of commodity exchange”. Punk records cannot fully escape the need to make capital available and to purchase the means of music production, and bands themselves must do some alienated labor, such as touring and repeating sets. However the work done is considered less alienated than other forms and much of it is unwaged. The implicit logic of the ongoing passionate argument about selling out in the punk world is an interpretation of winning as the true loss. Maximum Rocknroll becomes the arbiter of this failure, refusing to review, interview, write articles, or allow advertisements by bands that appear on major labels or that appear on indie labels but are distributed by major labels or their affiliates. In the face of the impossibility of creating a totally new community, punk’s idealistic failures “preserve the possibility of a potential social organization that did not yet exist.” Unable to overturn the current system it “rendered its logic visible and suspect”.

This “failure,” is often framed as “the death of punk,” but can be seen as rather the mark of punk’s deepened incursion into the everyday, in a period that coincides with the Bay Area replacing New York as the capital of DiY. The post-Seventies phase of DiY culture has become self-reflexive, bringing its own foundations and discursive assumptions into question and developing a more sophisticated critique of the culture industry as “a skilled predator on the prowl for fresh young subcultures”. Punks saw that the general speed-up in absorption of stylistic innovation in modernity meant that grassroots culture could become commercialized in a matter of months. An aesthetically fragmented punk could partially evade this cooptation of what Dylan Clark calls “market democracy”. This phase of punk is already post-punk in that early punk relied on shocking a confused mainstream. As Fredric Jameson often notes, the postmodern mainstream becomes more and more adaptive to experimental forms. Because of this, late punk’s strategy had to be an evasion of spectacle and a deepened critical anarchism. This phase draws on the stripped down ideology of earlier punk and its dedication to experience in place of symbolic encounters. Punks refer to the scene in which they hang out rather than calling themselves punk, and evade concrete descriptions of themselves but rather participate in political projects such as anti-corporate movements, Earth First!, and Reclaim the Streets. In this way, “punk faked its own death,” decentralizing and losing its markings, becoming instead “a loose assemblage of guerilla militias”. As it enters this phase, the punk aesthetic becomes inextricable from anarchism. Jeff Ferrell notes that while some participants may draw their practice from an overt understanding of anarchism,

this isn’t a necessary prerequisite, appropriately enough for an orientation founded on direct action, many seem to find their anarchist politics right there in the experience of everyday life.

In a moment where, as the situationists argue, the everyday is fully colonized by capitalist logic, it is also, conversely, permeated by the political in all its mundane forms.

Bay Area institutions such as 924 Gilman and Lookout! point to what John Charles Goshert refers to as the “pervasive economic and social attitude in the Bay Area punk scene”, with Gilman providing a political meeting space, local collectivity, and creativity. San Francisco becomes the capital of punk modernity as these institutions become the models for other labels, bands, and venues throughout the country. With the rise of punk as an economic and institutional force and the gathering of political and other communities around these institutions, punk had the opportunity to become more diverse. So in the early Nineties, Gilman hosted diverse genres such as performance art, funk, jazz, heavy metal, and country alongside the predominant punk shows. The explicit anarchism and collective running of Gilman allowed for this collaboration, and freed punk from rigid aesthetic requirements. Instead, it was understood that punk’s survival was becoming dependent on “constant mutation and unrecognizability”.

Larry Livermore describes this phenomenon in the zine Absolutely Zippo, in a discussion of the play of a high school student (although she is not named, it turns out that it’s Miranda July who went on to be a well-known performance artist and film maker) at Gilman as embodying the spirit of punk by avoiding punk clichés and avoiding reification, rather stressing what he sees as innovation and independence. His description of July gets at a core punk value of refusing punk clichés:

I also have to tell you that even though I’ve never seen her at a show and she doesn’t have any piercings or tattoos (not that I saw, anyway) she’s more punk than 95 percent of you reading this mag. Why? Because she does something, she takes her vision and makes it your reality, she takes imagination and shapes it into something we all must contend with… Because she’s not waiting for the next edition of the punk handbook to tell her the appropriate ways to rebel and be creative.

This constant evolution of punk as a logic rather than a set of encoded practices is central to its capacity for expressive negation as subcultures struggle against increasingly adaptive forms of capitalist logic.

This understanding of the relationship of subcultural music to a transformed everyday helps to explain how punk music can be simultaneously popular and difficult. Fantasies of punk authenticity are belied by the fact that markets themselves are parasitic on grassroots taste. This push and pull of resistance and complicity forms the core contradiction of the punk approach to everyday life. These marginal phenomena: DiY musical, entrepreneurial, and everyday production thus navigate success and failure, high and low, inside and outside, rebellion from and absorption in everyday life. Because of the complexity, diversity and centrality of the contemporary city, the everyday merges with high, experimental art, “the avant-garde project of purposefully mismatching perception and the taken-for granted in order to release perspectives from the fetish of common sense tends to find a contemporary realization in the daily culture of the metropolis” (Chambers). This relationship to capitalist temporality, ratiocination and ambition in the ghostly “25th hour” of a counterculture temporality does not constitute a clear political program or a full utopian transformation. Instead, Bay Area DiY is a flexible form of utopian negation that necessarily fails, and in doing so succeeds in mapping the impasses that must be known in order to one day be surmounted.

The Ballerina and the Bull is out now, available from all good bookshops and online.