London’s Burning, part 1.1: Lee Edelman Fought the Law, and the Law Won—Edelman’s response to Halberstam
In a previous post I examined Halberstam’s use of the Sex Pistols to critique Edelman’s anti-relational negativity, and to argue for a “political” (or relational) negativity. Looking beyond Halberstam’s own somewhat narrow punk archive, I turned to The Clash and Joy Division to broaden the parameters of punk aesthetics and politics. The Clash’s negativity is more “political” or “relational,” and Joy Division’s aesthetic is a less messy, more controlled punk.
But now I want to think about Edelman’s own response to Halberstam. Edelman’s objection to Halberstam boils down to an observation that is all-too-familiar within punk subcultures: Halberstam has turned punk itself into orthodoxy. After the initial period of punk experimentation in 1976-77, some punks created and policed dogmatic aesthetic and ideological positions: some argue that The Clash’s post-London Calling work is not “truly” punk because it incorporates influences from dub, hip hop, and even disco; some argue that The Clash ceased to be “punk” when they signed a contract with Columbia Records…and so on. The Straight Edge movement is another example of punk-as-dogma. Anyone who has been involved in various dimensions of punk culture is familiar with the various ways that “punk” aesthetics and ideology can and have become quite reified. Although punk was initially driven by a revolutionary, progressive impulse, some punk communities can actually be extremely conservative. It is precisely this “policing of style” on which Edelman calls Halberstam out:
we might ask what policing style has to do with the ‘politics of negativity.’ Or rather, and here’s the important point: isn’t such a policing of style, even when aimed at destroying too-comfortable, normative social practices, the sort of reactive transgression, permit me to call it anarcho-oedipality, that pays those reassuring norms the flattering tribute of imitation? Doesn’t it suppose, after all, its own reassuringly regulated order in which one can always know in advance what a given style means or allows? Doesn’t it rely on a faith in the fixed self-identity of things, on their legible coherence, unmarked by the rupturing excess of what we might see as the queer remainder? (Edelman 2006. 822).*
Dogmatic/conservative punks presume to “know in advance what a given style means or allows”: only 3 chords, working-class politics, braces and boots, etc.
If we limit our reading of punk to the Sex Pistols, then we theorists engage in precisely this punk dogmatism. Punk is an expansive, multifaceted musical movement; it has significant and formative ties to hip hop, experimental music, and dance music. British rave culture has its roots in punk—i.e., in Factory Records, in Throbbing-Gristle-come-Psychic-TV. Because both punk and hip hop emerged out of Jamacian musical styles and practices, we can’t responsibly theorize punk without also thinking about its debt to Afrodiasporic musical traditions, and its co-evolution with hip hop. So, I really worry about the focus on the Sex Pistols to the exclusion of other punk bands and movements, and I particularly worry about the way these debates elide the actual music and focus exclusively on the lyrical/textual and visual dimensions of punk. Edelman frames crux of his objection to Halberstam’s concept of “political negativity” in terms of the lyrics of “God Save the Queen”:
Affirming, however, as a positive good, ‘punk pugilism’ and its gestural repertoire, Halberstam strikes the pose of negativity while evacuating its force. I focus on her explicit embrace of punk to distinguish the point I make in No Future from the ‘antisocial’ politics she locates in the Sex Pistols’ anthem ‘God Save the Queen.’ Though originally called ‘No Future,’ ‘God Save the Queen’ does not, in fact, dissent from reproductive futurism. It conventionally calls for England to awake from the ‘dream’ that allows for ‘no future’ while implying that the disenfranchised, those ‘flowers in the dustbin’ for whom the song speaks, hold the seeds of potential renewal. “ We’re the future,’ it tells us, against its refrain, ‘No future for you.’ Ironically, given Halberstam’s dismissal of style, its punk negativity thus succeeds on the level of style alone. Taken as political statement, it’s little more than Oedipal kitsch. For violence, shock, assassination, and rage aren’t negative or radical in themselves; most often they perform the fundamentalist faith that always inspirits the Futurch: the affirmative attachment to ‘sense, mastery, and meaning,’ in Halberstam’s words (Edelman 2006, 822).
Interestingly, Edelman seems to oppose “style” to “textual content”: Halberstam’s argument “succeeds on the level of style alone,” yet fails when “taken as political statement.” I worry that Edelman’s quasi-ironic adoption of Halberstam’s supposed “dismissal of style” is in fact his own attempt—conscious or not—to dismiss music. As I have been and will continue to argue both in this blog and in other venues, Edelman’s work often indirectly speaks about music without ever explicitly and directly addressing it as such. For example, there is the passage about the drone sounds in Hitchcock’s The Birds, and there’s the analysis of the Johnny Rotten’s lyrics here. “God Save the Queen” is not meant to be taken primarily as a political statement: it’s a piece of music, and a large part of its invective is directed against mainstream musical tastes. Certainly its lyrical conent and performative context (e.g., on a boat in the Thames on HRH’s Silver Jubilee) are meant to be shocking; however, we must not forget that punk is first of all a musical movement, meant to critique 70s glam, prog, and club music.
I think it would help us all a lot if we actually looked at, you know, the music as music (and not text or visual performance). It might help us clear up some of the conflicts, ambiguities, and questions both in these specific analyses, and in the discourse of queer futurity/anti-futurlity more generally. That’s why I’m doing this series of posts—to develop a more nuanced understanding of theory by examining music as a philosophical text.
*Edelman, Lee. “Antagonism, Negativity, and the Subject of Queer Theory” in Forum: Conference Debates: The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory, in PMLA 121.3, 2006: 821-23.
this is fantastic and i really feel i need to go back and read the first part, now.
(and it reminds me of so many unpleasant experiences i had in the 90s in various punk/hardcore scenes… which is oddly comforting, at this point.)
I think it is worth noting that both Shane MacGowan of the Pogues and Penny Rimbaud of Crass have cited the Sex Pistols not only as an influence, but as a catalyst for the music they went on to make.
Rimbaud asserts that they were very disenchanted wen they discovered that the Pistols were in fact *just* Music, as opposed to text or visual performance. I don’t think you can look at the creative output of Crass as anything other than music *and* text. The song Punk is Dead off of Feeding of the 5000 is as broadly influential an essay on this very subject as you will find.
Shane MacGowan said that seeing Johnny Rotten sing “God save the queen, She ain’t no human being, There is no future, In England’s dreaming… while being so obviously fucking Irish.” Gave him the idea to play traditional Irish music.
Maybe their needs to be better clarity about how political music is *as music* parallel to the clarifications you are looking to establish.
@TheCramp: Thanks for your comments. I guess I worry that you are taking music to be (or your reading encourages the view that) this neutral substrate that text and visual performance gives meaning to. Although people who are not trained musicians are better at reflecting on and analyzing how the lyrics and visual components of a song or a performance create and communicate ideas, affects, and emotions, music itself nevertheless conveys meaning, even if we aren’t explicitly aware of how it does so. When we ignore the music, we make it seem like a value-free, neutral substrate that images and words infuse with meaningful content. Critical inattention to music as music (i.e., as compositions that have form, pitch, harmony, melody, rhythm, timbre, instrumentation, mixing, production, etc.) normalizes or naturalizes the ideological positions or presuppositions music contains and communicates. Because musical structures are not value-free, we cannot fully understand the visual and textual dimensions of a performer’s work apart from their musical dimensions.
So I’m not arguing that we look only at music, but that we forefront music in this multimedia form of expression. I think this is important because music is itself full of meaning/assumptions/ideology/etc. I think people who are nonmusicians tend to be unaware of how music works *as music*, and thus how music itself is political. I’m also not trying to take some quasi-Adornian position that music is political in its separation from text/politics/etc. I just think we need to not talk exclusively, or even primarily, about lyrics. We need to talk about pitch, rhythm, timbre, harmony, compositional form, etc.
Were on the same page, I was eating toast and thinking about my day and otherwise unclear. “Maybe their needs to be better clarity about how political music is *as music* parallel to the clarifications you are looking to establish.” Crap sentence. Meant: We don’t have clarity, culturally and academically, about music’s political and social meaning apart from the content of the lyrics.
I’m the only member of my nuclear family who is not a musician, and grew up immersed in music. Rock and Roll, Blues, traditional Irish, Afro-Brazilian Samba, folk… Imagine “Natchez Burning” covered by Katie Perry (loved your plastic bag essay.) Most of the meaning would be so drained out. Shane MacGowan’s move, if you will, was that just playing traditional Irish music, in London in the early 80’s was perhaps the most “punk rock” thing anyone had ever done. The anti-Irish sentiment was at a fever pitch, the IRA was in full swing, more militant splinter groups were forming, Irish ex-pats were ashamed of being Irish. As Irish Americans at the time, the Pogues came along and through doing little other than add a rock edge to traditional tunes, made political music using “pitch, rhythm, timbre, harmony, compositional form…” brilliant. The clarity you are asserting allows us to understand how Shane MacGowan did what we did, because the Pogues’ text alone doesn’t do the heavy lifting that the music does.
This line of thinking helps understand how Calypso was depoliticized in a way that Reggae never was, but I’m going to have to spend some more time laying my thoughts on that matter out. (If you have a chance to listen to the Smithsonian Folkways recording “Calypso Awakening,” do it. Steal drums were meant to be machines that kill fascists.)
I find your reasearh very exciting. Thank you.
@TheCramp: Thanks again for your comments. I really appreciate being pushed (in friendly, intellectually fruitful ways)!