Punk in the Academy: Emails to a Journalist, Reconstructed

author David Ensminger, 1989, Machesney Park, IL

Leon Neyfakh, a vivid writer for the Boston Globe, recently tracked me down to discuss “punkademia” and the irony of studying a slippery group of rebellious people who often distrust academic aims, institutions, and language. I was deeply intrigued by the concept, and I think he navigated the issues wisely, starting out with his own perspective and experience discovering a punk rock graduate student in his midst during his keen school years. In the piece, which can be read here, he highlights new and old punk academic texts and speaks to a few key people working to explore the complex discourse and cultural history of punk, like the eminent writer Alex Ogg. Below, I am offering up meaningful portions of my emails with Neyfakh, for I think my own blurbs warrant further context. I offer no complaints. He dealt with my insight in a quite balanced and fair form.

For those Visual Vitriol readers who might also wonder about the topic too, I simply wanted to add clarity and depth. In the pursuit of transparency and a sense of immediacy, I tried to present my text below in a format akin to the actual email transcripts.  Also, this does not employ straight argumentative aims – my logic is circular,  de-centered, and conversational. This is the ‘way of the blog.’

There’s Gonna Be a Blackout in the Academy Tonight!

Leon, thanks for the inquiry! Actually, my book extends its scope beyond visual culture and discusses the role of women, gays and lesbians, Hispanics, and black punks! My articles on queer punk were published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies, while my work on black punk was published by Postmodern Culture, both last year. I also have blogs dedicated to similar subjects, like:


My collected interviews are being published by PM Press in 2012 — a who’s who of punk personalities over the last ten years, from The Buzzcocks and Dead Kennedys to much newer acts, like Strike Anywhere. Visual Vitriol is really about punk multiculturalism and pluralism. The flyers are one mode of documenting that diversity. You can see my interview a few weeks back in The Economist here:

As you may know, the singers of Bad Religion (science), the Descendents (science), and Articles of Faith (history) were/are academics, as is the guitarist Gregg Turner of the Angry Samoans (math). But yes, plenty of people also study punk academically as well: for instance, my mentor Daniel Wojcik, a former L.A. punk and Professor of Folklore at the University of Oregon, wrote a book on punk tribalism, death/transgressive culture, and body art in the mid-1990s.

We made this youtube video together on the topic, seen here:

I think you’re asking — knowing that punks tend to be anti-intellectual (or at least that’s what the discourse written about punk promulgates) and Do-It-Yourself/anti-expertise leaning, is it ironic, and even futile, to integrate and incorporate punk studies into the academy?

Well, for one, punk has always had one foot firmly entrenched in colleges — especially in places like the U.K. — The Mekons, The Buzzcocks, Gang of Four, even members of The Clash attended university. Certainly, this was also true in San Francisco, and even New York, where college nerds Talking Heads held sway at times, as well as art-dissidents Sonic Youth.

First wave punk is, though, a different kind of scene, trend, genre, and body politic than hardcore, which tended to be younger, suburban, male, and street tough. As punk exploded in the “outliers,” it lost some of its formerly built-in diversity, like having shows at gay clubs and even The Deaf Club in San Francisco, and the music transformed into a more stripped down, choleric, chauvinistic, severe, and conformist version to a degree. But, plenty of bright spots did exist in hardcore, like the Big Boys and The Dicks in Texas, who proved that hardcore did not have to adhere to cookie cutter sameness. Both bands added a heavy dollop of performance art, savvy politics, skate-punk tenacity, street art gumption, and gay tolerance (both singers were openly gay punks).

Academics DO have a large role to play because for years a misguided, slanted, and even wrongheaded assessment has been the norm. Punk, for instance, was not solely an Anglo, male, middle-class phenomenon. Yet, very few academics have documented another side to that story — the true democratic impulse, the blurring and fraying of gender norms, the polyglot dispersal of the punk impulse and style across borders, and the huge impact of women, gays and lesbians, and people of color that truly made punk of and by the people, of all stripes, creeds, and kinds.

Many fault lines do exist.

For instance, if you have time, see my work on black punk rock, which outlines some, here:

In my texts, for instance, I argue that punk was a convergence culture, punk street art was an interrogation of contested space, and punk spaces like clubs and squats were liminal zones. People wholeheartedly disagree. And punks have attacked my emphasis on punk pluralism as well — they’ve said demeaning things about my profession, my sexuality, and my research, but they have also been flat wrong, in most cases. For instance, I am not a sociologist, I am a folklorist: two very different fields!

Folklorists often place high value on self-reflexive ethnography —
participation, embodied knowledge, and having cultural currency within a group being studied. Other fields do not readily use such approaches, and in fact may frown on them on for being less empirical or scholarly.

Also, if academics only know punk through discographic analysis, like analyzing records and reviews, or skimming and incorporating secondary sources rather than primary or ethnographic research, their perspective might be shaped by previously misleading, inaccurate, or slanted “truths.” In my book, I call punk a series of “contested truths.”

Even when progressive academics, say, focus on Riot Grrrls as a subject matter, which has been quite popular among a generation, they might, perhaps unconsciously, create a narrative bias and series of misconceptions sewn into their analysis of that sub-group. If we don’t focus on the variety, multi-vocality, and diverse nature of female participation, like women in garage punk, Oi, and performance art bands, then those women fall into the gaps of history, while the Riot Grrrls are elevated, creating distrust amongst women who might feel neglected and ignored because their bands didn’t adopt the stage strategies, rhetorical stances, or musical hallmarks of Bikini Kill.

This is not the fault of Riot Grrrls. It’s the fault of academics.

Part II

I was drinking a beer beneath wallpaper made from old punk flyers at a gastro-pub on the freeway edge earlier tonight when these old conversations came to light, re: your question about the irony of studying punk culture within the academy.

They reinforce my notion that punks are not anti-intellectual (both of these informants are very well-read, fluent in theory, and avidly articulate), but they do harbor ambivalences about academic institutions.

I was interviewing International Noise Conspiracy’s singer, Dennis Lyxzen, around 2001 — they were a heavily politicized Swedish post-hardcore band — and this conversation about the academy emerged:

In “The End of History,” Fukuyama states that liberal democracies have won the ideological battle.

I don’t believe in the end of history bullshit. I hate that sense of post-modernism. It’s like they’re saying, we haven’t figured out what to do, so we’re going to paint up this really bleak picture and then get on with our lives as university professors. All those post-modern writers have to come up with new theories so they can maintain positions within the university hierarchy.

INC at the time of the interview, Mary Janes, Houston, TX, by David Ensminger

It’s just another selling point?

It is a selling point, totally. Many of them even admit that they have to come up with something new so they can maintain their position within the hierarchy of intellectual thoughts, so I don’t believe in the end of history.

Is that what you mean when you’ve said, “We don’t want to fall into the trap of exploited nihilism”? Those professors are exploiting such nihilism to maintain a job, nice car, and two-story home?

Yeah, definitely. And you read them. I like Baudrillard because of a lot of his points. I’m really into post-structuralism, but I think that a lot of the stuff is just bullshit. A lot of those people talk about the end of history, that there’s no real…


I recalled another conversation, one with Thomas Barnett, the singer of Strike Anywhere, a melodic hardcore humanist-leftist band from Richmond, VA. Note this discussion:

What does the band see as the most immediate, specific threats right now to the collective underground, musically, politically, and personally?

Politically: …  I’d include the recommendation that bands take a wider view and focus on common threads right now. Punk doesn’t need to mimic the failures of the Left: picking fights over theory and aesthetics, narcissistic teacher’s lounge shit that has consumed, contained, and cancelled too many good ideas. Those which wait for synthesis and practice outside the cloisters of intellectual auto-erotic asphyxiation. Punk also needs to acknowledge the importance of all of its branches and eras, its legacies resplendent with contradiction and self-reflection, and now needs to find harmony and admit a wholeness. This will give a fuller fabric and make it at once more explainable and nourishing to the post-millenium kids.


Their critical tone, probing choice of words, and rhetorical stances are illuminating. They find fault in the academy’s institutional empowerment schemes, self-serving methodology, and divisive and alienating “intellectual auto-erotic asphyxiation” (not unlike condemning masturbatory guitar solos), and defeatist effects.

These conversations remind of the time when I was pulled aside in the mid-1990s by a radical lesbian government professor at the Univ. of New Mexico, when I was protesting the New Gingrich “Contract with America” and disturbing the Board of Regents. She told me that I should hit the books, not the streets. Perhaps she was delivering a friendly warning, but I felt that she was undermining the efforts of progressive students. After that, I felt she was a mere armchair radical compared to the punks I knew. It changed the way I understood academics forever.

To give you a recent slice of testimony, since my book came out in July, only one person — the chair of my division — has come forward to discuss the subject matter with me at length; in fact, he catalyzed me to organize the women in punk poster show at the college the last few weeks. The subject still makes me keel like a kind of outsider, a black sheep. Then, add street art, Xerox instant art, and multiculturalism polemics to the research mix, and the divide may even get deeper. When do English literature “researchers” use ethnography? Almost never.

Back to our earlier discussion. Punks bands have always borrowed, hijacked, and appropriated material from the academy, since year zero.

Within the the last decades, J Church blithely tapped into Baudrillard on their record The Procession of Simulacra/Map Precedes the Territory, while Milemarker wordplayed Salmon Rushdie on their EP Satanic Versus.

Milemarker at Notsuoh in Houston, TX by David Ensminger

As soon as a punk professor tries to pin down and describe punk, an outlier explodes, and a new subgenre emerges, like screamo, queer-edge, D-beat, or powerviolence.

Or a band like the Make-Up arrives, declaring themselves cultural exiles within America, converging French pop music, gospel gusto, and post-punk underground ethos, all while actively pursuing a Situationist style cultural insurrection. They name a record, the lo-fi Sound Verite, after French film terms, act vaudevillian, and look like a band from a  John Waters’ movie.

They don’t fit with the Clash or Minor Threat — or do they? Academics have done a poor job reckoning with punk’s tributaries, the specialized community insiderness of punk: the academics keep repeating cliches that amateurism is the main thread, or anger, or volatility. Can they square wayward experimental Pere Ubu with straight-edge Youth of Today, even though both bands wound up in the same fanzines?

Not likely. Punk kicks against the constriction imposed often by academic terms and methods, by neat categories, easily digested capsulized variants, and the orthodoxy of experts. Another cliche is that punk was more spectacle than active socio-political agent of change, and even I admit that punk was more rhetoric than action, but my newest blog asks: did punk put money where its mouth was?

So, I use my flyers, as usual, to do the heavy work, the documentation:


My goal: place one such political, social, or environmental punk flyer on the site every day or so for the next year, so academics and fans can get the fullest possible picture of punk’s political-social-
cultural concerns, strategies, and outreach. This is one way to bypass an academic construction of a “meta-narrative” of punk and a way to examine its living history, its close-to-the-ground operations, which again, academics have often shrugged off, omitted, or ignored.

In fact, if the first wave of punk was at least partially indebted to Situationism, Foucault, Bataille, and Barthes, which has been debated as well, then the second wave, hardcore, was closely aligned with Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. Maximum Rock’n’Roll covered C’s work, and  Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys features him on the Alternative Tentacles website.

Punk was, and is, at least to me, still anchored in anti-authoritianism impulses, reflecting Chomsky and Zinn, so those icons became kind of punk doppelgangers or avatars in the academy. If punk prided itself on resistance, shape-shifting, spontaneity, flux, and symbolic disorder, the academy did seem like an opposite, antithetical pole. It was the realm of reason and rationality, cool-headed observation, calculation, the discourse of reason, and the creation and maintenance of canons and codes — the nomenclature of expertise.

I actually tried not to pin punk down in my book: I resisted the notion that I have the truth in my pen scope, or can encapsulate punk in well-meaning, tightly controlled, academically adroit phrases. I tried to expose the dialectic of punk, the dizzying array of attitudes, the multiple perspectives that clash and conjoin, the democratic cultural soup of punk.

Some of my academic, scholarly readers found fault with this. They wanted pigeonholed answers, glib quotables, ready-to-use jargon, a stack of references ready for their own intended projects.

If the authorities said punk was a white cultural production, I complicated it. Punk is people, perfect for folklore. Therefore, it varies so much it lacks concise cohesion. But folklorists are also skeptical of folk groups that may actually be just a hodgepodge of idiosyncratic people too, lacking in clearly disseminated traditions.

Many punks, like the Riot Grrrls, were knee-deep in the academy, others saw it as just another bloated bureaucracy, inherently conservative, reactionary, distanced and elite. Yet, many 1970’s punks went to radicalized universities in the 1970s and early 1980s, in which teachers taught Fredric Jameson with ease, and led efforts on Sane/Freeze issues, anti-apartheid divestment campaigns, and pro-Solidarity events. They saw the potential in the academy to be propelled progressively.

I also think that the language and rhetoric of the academy, its narcism, self-importance, territorialism, and sheltered pomposity, was exactly what punks detested. They culled what they desired from intellectuals, some basic tenets and frameworks, and fitted them to their own agendas and modus operandi, their engine of anger and subversion, their vitriol and  ugly beauty. The logos of the academy is no match for their pathos, they contend, implicitly.

They are the raw, their teachers were the cooked. They were rough and ready, their teachers were denizens of the cool and calculated. Punks offer the lightning bolt in the heart, while the academy dissects the heart as a weather system.

Did it frustrate me, to put my heads in both worlds?

Somewhat. But I feel as one who has only spent one and a half years of his life not in school (as student or teacher), that punks need to worm through the core of the academy, because their story, their truths, depend on it. The discomfort is a measure that I am doing something pertinent. If I didn’t feel challenged, uncomfortable, and caught in-between, I would not be very punk.

The academy will resist, it will impose, it will mandate, and it will attempt to corner punk and earn prestige and ranking from it, but then part of punk will always be too shambolic, too messy, and too uncontrollable. Punk is not a poem, it is people.

People are messy.


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