Books on punk, particularly academic ones, often feel problematic unless they focus on a particular scene in detail and do the leg work to put the voices of those involved front and centre. The Ballerina and the Bull, by Johanna Isaacson, doesn’t at first glance even seem to be a book about punk given its subtitle “Anarchist Utopias in the Age of Finance.” I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all if I hadn’t read an extract about the Bay Area on the Repeater blog, but I did and I eagerly awaited its arrival before demolishing it in a couple of days.
I don’t want to go into all the reasons why I found it a difficult read, but I do want to take a month off from my usual writing to pull out a few key (academic) concepts that I think are useful for understanding my own relationship to DIY.
Building Failure: Writing about Mordam Records and its relationship to the economic boom in San Francisco, Isaacson notes the impermanence and precarious nature of punk institutions and projects as they come up against the limits of neo-liberal economics – such as Mordam being priced out of its warehouse space by gentrification (p.65). Borrowing from Lauren Berlant, the notion of ‘cruel optimism’ is useful:
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 attachment it allows is to a problematic and precarious object or situation (p.66).
DIY punk projects are exciting and offer new possibilities but are also almost always going to end in some sort of disappointing failure, even if that’s only a winding down or stagnation. Our excitement is for something that is unstable because it can’t fully move past the limits of living under neo-liberal capitalism and its “crisis ordinary”, the daily problems we all face trying to make ends meet. This precariousness of course isn’t limited to our projects, but also of our own lives:
..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 (p.65).
As the economy continues to pretty much tank, the amount and type of change in many of our lives can make it hard to keep something going long term. This makes me think also of cities where universities supply a constant coming and going of people involved in projects. Basically you’re pinning your hopes on something that is exciting because it offers a break from the usual bullshit but is unstable from the outset, as anyone who has tried to keep a DIY hardcore punk band together will tell you.
These “productive failures” though are complicated in that they may provide other positives. They can show the invisible limitations of what is currently possible, not as a way to show that our ideas are impossible but to show that there are walls we never knew existed that we somehow need to work out how to smash through:
As Stacy Thompson points out... a productive failure... highlights larger structural contradictions and the impossibility of true independence from the system (p.67).
The discussion in The Ballerina and the Bull focuses on Lookout! Records. Echoing themes that I’ve drawn on throughout this blog, for Issaacson, Lookout! was a failure in terms of not being able to economically challenge the commercial music industry. But with this failure comes success in that for a while it was able to exist outside of a lot of that economic model and for bands involved in the label – who were unable to make a career of it but none the less avoided contracts and were paid a better split on royalties than bands on commercial labels - the ‘work’ involved was considerably less shitty because it was something that they did for reasons other than paying the bills. So in losing one thing, something else was gained, which is a question that I often ask myself: what am I losing here if I adopt this practice or that piece of technology or buy in to this institution (or whatever)?
The labels failure to maintain its original business model (ugh) at least keeps visible the issues with the music industry that motivate a lot of DIY labels so that the critique isn’t lost. I feel like Lookout! is a poor example, chosen because the whole chapter is focused on the Bay Area. But the point still stands. Every project that collapses and burns out is at least an:
...idealistic failure [that] “preserve[s] the possibility of a potential social organisation that [does] not yet exist.” Unable to overturn the current system it “render[s] its logic visible and suspect (p.68).”
I.e. we might not win but by existing regardless, we call bullshit on your shit and one day, we’ll find a way to fuck you up.
I Don’t Want To Grow Up: The rhetorical power of infantilization is hinted at throughout book but expressed most clearly at its end. I can’t explain it any better than this quote:
Anti-capitalist gestures and hopes deserve anti-capitalist analyses that don’t fall into the easy neoliberal rhetoric of “maturity” and “realism”... The rhetoric of immaturity has come back in force with reaction to anti-austerity movements in Greece, Spain and elsewhere, with such infantilizing tactics as that of Christine Laguarde, president of the IMF, demanding, during negotiations with Greece, to speak to “the adults in the room.” This discursive infantilzation of struggle is part and parcel of a long legacy that bridges colonialism and neo-colonialism, as entire nations are economically conquered in the name of “civilising missions” to control supposedly child-like peoples... Instead of supporting these dichotomies between youth and maturity, we must analyse characteristic “youth movements” with what Ernst Bloch calls “militant hope,” keeping alive alternative logics and potentialities (p.136).
Wordy, right? But how many times when we express some sort of anti-capitalist DIY logic or practice are we told to be realistic, that we’ll grow out of it or that we’ll look back and see ourselves as naive and stupid? It’s a way to shut things down – ‘shush, the adults in the room are talking’.
One of the points that I often come back to is how in my late twenties, I felt like I had to reassert myself against the logic of a world that seemed to be saying ‘time to stop fucking around, your an adult now’, as if I’d had my 10-15 years of hard fought space and I should throw my soul out the window and become an estate agent. It helps to understand this as a rhetorical tool of capital rather than personal failure next time people start talking about their mortgages and you wonder if it’s ok to ask if you can move into their shed.
Anyone remember when we used to believe that music was a sacred place and not some fucking bank machine? Not something you just bought and sold? How could we have been so naïve? Well, I think when all is said and done, just cuz we were young doesn’t mean we were wrong.