Literature Review

My thesis (working title “A Circle in the Text”) will examine the fiction of Flannery O’Connor through her relationship with the New Critics, with particular attention paid to how her writing can be read as both a blueprint and a critique of the New Critical formalist text. Since O’Connor’s development as a writer over the course of her career is an element in this, I will be looking at the complete range of O’Connor’s fiction, including Wise Blood (Faber and Faber, 1980), The Violent Bear It Away (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007), and Complete Stories. (Faber & Faber, 2009), as well as various other collections of her writing such as The Habit of Being (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988), Mystery and Manners (Faber and Faber, 1972), A Prayer Journal (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013), and Kinney’s annotated bibliography of her library, Flannery O’Connor’s Library: Resources of Being (U of Georgia P, 2008).

While the New Critics are not themselves the subject of my study, I will still need to consider a broad cross section of their work as background. This will include John Crowe Ransom’s “Criticism Inc”, Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy” (all in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), Cleanth Brooks’ The Well Wrought Urn (Dobson, 1960), and his later retrospective of the movement in The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton UP, 2012), the Southern Agrarian’s I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (LSU Press, 2006), and, perhaps most importantly, Brooks’ and Warren’s Understanding Fiction (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1971). I will supplement these primary texts with critical perspectives on the movement such as de Man’s in Blindness and Insight (Routledge, 1983), Eagleton’s in Literary Theory: An Introduction (U of Minnesota P, 1996), Malvasi’s in The Unregenerate South: the Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), Mark Jancovich’s “The Southern New Critics” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism vol. 7, (Cambridge UP, 2000), and Leitch’s in American Literary Criticism Since the 1930s (Routledge, 2010).

The first task of my thesis will be to examine the extent to which O’Connor’s writing was shaped by interaction with the New Critics during her time at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and this subject has been most notably broached by Mark McGurl in The Program Era (Harvard UP, 2009), which was in turn subject to a rebuttal from Eileen Pollack in American Literary History, Vol. 19.2 (Summer, 2007). Related to this line of enquiry are texts like Andrew Levy’s The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story (Cambridge UP, 1993), Kasia Boddy’s The American Short Story Since 1950 (Edinburgh UP, 2010) and Mann’s The Short Story Cycle (Greenwood, 1989), which I will use to further contextualise O’Connor’s work within the American short story tradition and its associated techniques.

My next step is to consider the ways in which O’Connor’s expression of her Catholicism through her writing, and especially the line of Thomist thought that her concepts of transcendence, mystery, and grace are derived from, might interact or interfere with the idea of text as a distinct ontological object that her formalist style points towards. Here, I’ll consider O’Connor’s reading of Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism (Sheed and Ward, 1930), as well as a few of the huge selection of critical texts on O’Connor’s Catholicism, such as Baumgaertner’s Flannery O’Connor: A Proper Scaring (H. Shaw Publishers, 1988), Brinkmeyer’s The Art & Vision of Flannery O’Connor (Louisiana State UP, 1989), Browning’s Flannery O’Connor (Southern Illinois UP, 1974), Cofer’s The Gospel According to Flannery O’Connor (Bloomsbury, 2014), Eggenschwiler’s The Christian Humanism of Flannery O’Connor (Wayne State UP, 1972), Giannone’s Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of Love (Fordham UP, 1999), and Kessler’s Flannery O’Connor and the Language of Apocalypse (Princeton UP, 1986).

Having established this, I would like to then think about the ways this might open up O’Connor’s text to political, social, and historical readings. Framing this argument will be revisionist readings of the American and Southern literary canons such as those in Pease’s Revisionary Interventions into the Americanist Canon (Duke UP, 1994), Patricia Yaeger’s Dirt and Desire (U of Chicago P, 2000), Kreyling’s “Toward A New Southern Studies” (South Central Review 22, 2005) and Ford’s response (“Listening to the Ghosts: The New Southern Studies” South Central Review 22, 2005), and Ladd’s “Literary Studies: The Southern United States” (PMLA 120, 2005) and Smith’s response (“The State of United States Southern Literary Studies”, PMLA 121, 2006). While there have been many critiques of O’Connor’s construction of race, class, and gender, I would like to push for a more intersectional understanding of how these aspects of her work interact. To do so, I will attempt to bring some of the previous writing on these subjects together in new ways, as well as adding my own critical interpretation of O’Connor’s texts.

In terms of race, I will consider Crawford’s “An Africanist Impasse: Race, Return, and Revelation in the Short Fiction of Flannery O’Connor” (South Atlantic Review 68, 2003), Edmund’s “Through a Glass Darkly: Visions of Integrated Community in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Wise Blood’” (Contemporary Literature 37, 1996), Fowler’s “Aligning the Psychological with the Theological: Doubling and Race in Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction” (Flannery O’Connor Review 13, 2015), Schroeder’s “Desegregation and the Silent Character in O’Connor’s ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’” (Flannery O’Connor Review 10, 2012), Alice Walker’s essay on O’Connor in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (Women’s Press, 2001), and Williams’ “Black and White: A Study in Flannery O’Connor’s Characters” (Black American Literature Forum 10, 1976). In terms of class, the texts I’ll look at will include Martin’s “Flannery O’Connor and Fundamental Poverty” (The English Journal 60, 1971) and Tedford’s “Flannery O’Connor and the Social Classes” (The Southern Literary Journal 13.2, 1981). Finally, in terms of gender, I’ll examine several of the essays in Flannery O’Connor: New Perspectives (University of Georgia Press, 1996), as well as Hoberek’s “Liberal Antiliberalism: Mailer, O’Connor, and The Gender Politics of Middle-Class Ressentiment” (Women’s Studies Quarterly 33, 2005), and Smith’s “Flannery O’Connor’s Empowered Women” (The Southern Literary Journal 26, 1994).

I will access the above materials through a combination of use of the UCC library, my own library, online databases such as JSTOR, and UCD and Trinity College libraries in Dublin, which I will access with my ALCID card. In terms of organisational software, I’ve been using Zotero as an effective way to manage my somewhat unwieldy bibliography. This is obviously quite a large range of texts, and I’m well aware that this approach runs the risk of my study becoming overwhelmed with secondary sources, rather than my own original reading of the primary texts. However, I’ve purposely attempted to keep the breadth of my study quite wide at this early stage of research, and, accordingly, the range of texts above will shrink as my study progresses and I hone in on specific aspects of the texts, and also as I begin to select certain paradigmatic or illuminating stories of O’Connor’s for discussion, while excluding others. As O’Connor herself put it, “I suppose you come to know yourself as much by what you throw away as what you keep and at times it is appalling” (195). As the range of texts narrows, I hope that the framework of the approach outlined above will remain flexible enough to accommodate my needs. In doing so, I aim to build meaningfully on the body of O’Connor scholarship that has come before me, while also developing my own critical skills.

Works Cited

O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters, ed. Sally Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988.

David Pattie : “‘At me too someone is looking’; Hidden Coercion in Beckett’s Theatre”

On 22nd March, Professor David Pattie presented a paper in UCC on systems of coercion in the work of Samuel Beckett, with a particular focus on the ethical response to this coercion. For Pattie, Godot‘s tramps experience the world they inhabit as one that’s coercive. Near the end of the play, Vladimir claims that “At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on” (84-85). Yet this implied onlooker, holding Vladimir and Estragon in place with their ghostly gaze, is never identified, and exists beyond both the text and the playing area. By appealing to this unknown, indeed, unknowable, outside force, Vladimir positions himself in the middle of a chain of coercion and control, and Pattie takes this absent onlooker as paradigmatic of systems of coercion which recur throughout Beckett’s work.

Though Beckett’s characters resist the normalisation of coercive systems, Pattie makes a distinction between how this functions in his prose and his theatrical work. In his prose, Beckett posits testimony as a way of dealing with an inimical world, emphasising the space between seeing and saying. His prose speakers are compelled to speak, and yet cannot capture their world truthfully. Instead they find themselves capturing an image of the world that disappears in the moment of capturing. This process is driven by stories that will themselves into existence; internal voices that tell these stories through the narrator, subsuming them. Pattie offers the continuation of the story in Malone Dies after Malone’s death as an example of such a moment, where Beckett’s prose storyteller is dissolved into the story, and suggests that this is a kind of internal coercion.

Pattie points to Anna McMullen’s Performing Embodiment in Beckett’s Theatre as a work that has helped shape his thought, particularly McMullen’s linking of the inscription of authority on another’s body in Catastrophe with the harrow of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. In Kafka’s story, man and machine die together, and Pattie extends this comparison to places in Beckett’s work that show the exhaustion of both the tortured and the mechanisms of torture, and links this to Beckett’s systems of coercion by positing the process as a wearing down of both the coercer and the coerced. Pattie suggests Rockaby as one such place, where the entropy of such motions are exposed as they seem to come to an end.

Beckett on Film - Rockaby trim
Rockaby, Richard Eyre, 2002

Pattie also points to Trish McTighe’s “HAPTIC INTERFACES: The Live and the Recorded Body in Beckett’s Eh Joe on Stage and Screen” as an influence on his work. Interestingly, McTighe’s essay is also concerned with the relationship between body and machine in Beckett’s work, and, like McMullen, also suggests Kafka’s Penal Colony as text which might help us understand this. She notes that “[Walter Benjamin’s] destruction of the aura, described in deeply tactile terms, is the mark of a society intimately intertwined with technology and its products. One can perceive a similar intertwining, or a chiasm, between machine and body in Beckett’s Eh Joe” (464). In the play, “Voice is intimately allied with technology and acts as an instrument of torture and punishment. Like Kafka’s harrow in the short story In the Penal Colony, Voice attempts, through knowledge, memory and imagination, to inscribe guilt on Joe’s body. The ‘cut’ is also the act of cutting a story into the image, onto Joe’s listening face. In the televised version the camera is trained upon this confluence of technology, flesh and knowledge; the staged version sees this confluence writ large upon the screen.” (465). It is this use of voice as an interrogative instrument, one which pokes and prods the body, that interests Pattie.

Here, Pattie introduced what he calls the “negative immanence” of Beckett’s theatre, based on Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza, which posits one nature for all bodies and individuals, and nature as an infinite number of variations of these bodies. This concept of negative immanence is slightly opaque in its construction, so I’d like to expand on it. Generally, immanence is defined, if not strictly in opposition to, at least in relation to transcendence. If a system based on transcendence is structured by that which is outside of it, then one on based on immanence is structured by the internal relationship of parts. In Spinoza, this takes the form of monism, which denies any distinction between the divine and material worlds. We can take this concept and apply it to a moment in Beckett’s theatre such as the end of Endgame – here we would explain Clov’s inability to leave as a denial of the possibility of transcendence; his world consists purely of the social relationship he has with Hamm. He cannot leave, because there is no outside, no other which would delimit the space they inhabit. There is no there, only hereTherefore, all that Clov can do is to perform leaving, dressing himself up and announcing his intent: “this is what we call making an exit” (132). Yet he remains suspended on the threshold, subject to what Pattie calls “coercive space”. According to Kenneth Surin, “for Spinoza, there are two primary kinds of forces which diminish life – hatred, which is turned towards the other; and the bad conscience, which is turned inwards” (261-262), and this distinction can be easily applied to much of Beckett’s work. In this light, we can read Pattie’s negative immanence as a system of inexhaustible torture, grounded in social and psychological relations.

While both sides of the coercive equation are weakened and eventually destroyed by negative immanence, unlike Kafka’s harrow the systems themselves remain intact because, as with Didi’s unseen observer, or the unheard prompting voice in Not I, they are based on an external authority, never seen but undeniably there. Pattie takes the example the player of Act Without Words I rebounding from an invisible wall as an example of just such an authority, both present and absent. For Pattie, these coercive mechanisms can never be exhausted in Beckett’s theatre because they persist in a space beyond the stage, the scope and limits of which, we cannot begin to imagine.

Beckett on Film - Act Without Words I trim
Act Without Words, Karel Reisz, 2002

As a brief amendment to Pattie’s reading of the inexhaustibility of Beckett’s coercive systems, I think that here we might also consider the Nietzschean eternal return in relation to the inherent repetition of performative art. Deleuze’s distinction is that what recurs for Nietzsche is not sameness but difference, each repetition varying from what has come before. In a fairly obvious sense, this repetition of difference can be broadly applied to theatre, where performance is repeated by different actors, in front of different audiences, in different places, and at different times, resulting in countless minor and major variations. But more specifically in Beckett’s work, performers are restricted in physical performance (Nell and Nagg’s dustbins, Winnie’s mound of earth, the urns of Play) and vocal performance (the tape recordings of Krapp, Breath, and What Where, the mechanical monotone of Voice in Eh Joe), thereby diminishing major variation and centring focus on the minor, and thus emphasising the inertia which coercive systems impose on the body of the individual.

Works Cited:

Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Dramatic Works. Faber and Faber. 2006.

McTighe, Trish. “HAPTIC INTERFACES: The Live and the Recorded Body in Beckett’s Eh Joe on Stage and Screen”. Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui. Vol. 22, Samuel Beckett: Debts and Legacies (2010), pp. 463-475.

Pattie, David. “‘At me too someone is looking’; Hidden Coercion in Beckett’s Theatre”. University College Cork. 22/3/17.

Surin, Kenneth. “Spinoza, Baruch (1632-77)”. The Deleuze Dictionary ed. Adrian Parr. Columbia UP. 2005. pp. 260-262.

Textualities ’17 Conference Reflections

While it may have been a minor event in the grand scheme of things, for me at least, the 2017 Textualities conference on 10th March was an intense yet rewarding undertaking. Twenty-three speakers, all using the Petcha Kutcha presentation style meant eight hours of 2.5 words per second, with intermittent breaks for coffee, chitchat, and hyperventilating in alcoves of the North Wing corridor. The tenor of the conversations I had had with my peers in the days leading up to the conference was one approaching blind panic, but on the day everyone came together and pulled off their presentations with style and grace.

I presented on Flannery O’Connor and the New Critics, and was fairly happy with how it went. It’s an odd thing, having to put together a visual accompaniment to a presentation on literature and theory that doesn’t rely on text. Presenting on the New critics, this problem made me think of one of the academic schools they were reacting against, people like Arthur Quiller-Couch, who would simply stand in a lecture hall and evoke the great works of literature they were teaching, through a kind of performative reading. Yet how can we evoke a text without reference to it? I tried to find visuals that suggested the link between the transcendent and the material that’s so central to O’Connor’s work, and mix this with diagrams that might somehow evoke the systemisation of art at work in New Critical thought, thereby creating a sort of miniature model of my own approach to O’Connor. It didn’t hurt that O’Connor was a woman not without a certain air of mystery herself.

Somewhere between presenting my own research, liveblogging one panel and chairing another, livetweeting, having discussions with other MAs, PhD students, and lecturers about my research and theirs, I began to feel simultaneously tied to the reception and creation of something far beyond each of us as individuals. For just a moment we were no longer mere windstrewn motes of the academy, but, instead, an assemblage giving voice to a sonorous heteroglossia, with a clear view of the immanence driving ourselves into becoming.

Pound said of the vorticist, “you may think of man as that toward which perception moves. You may think of him as the toy of circumstance, as the plastic substance receiving impressions. Or you may think of him as directing a certain fluid force against circumstance, as conceiving instead of merely observing and reflecting” (97), and, in that moment, I found myself in a room full of just such magicians.

The panel I chaired was the last of the evening, and I pitied my presenters their torturous wait. One panellist suggested that Petcha Kutcha might somehow be an offshoot of the peculiar kind of ritualised public ridicule so ubiquitous in Japanese gameshows. I could see her point. The cold mathematical logistics of the thing hack away at the perhaps and maybes of your nascent thoughts until all ephemerality is shorn. What’s left is a lustrous core, nude and shimmering in the fading evening light.

Works Cited:

Pound, Erza. “Vortex. Pound.” Modernism: An Anthology ed. Lawrence Rainey. pp.97-99. Blackwell Publishing. 2005.

Presentation Image Sources:

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Towards an Academic Imperative

I’ve been finding it hard to write lately. Writing has never come easy to me – the things I have to say which are worth saying come slowly, and with difficulty, if at all. I’ve spent the last few weeks researching a piece on anthropocentric narratives in nature documentaries, but given the chaos unfolding in the wider world at the moment, I’ve had a hard time pushing myself to finish it. As I watch the systematic destruction of the values I hold dear from afar, a deep hush descends, blanketing all. How can I justify holding forth on literature when fascism, white-supremacism, and mob rule are in ascendancy? And yet I know as well as anyone, silence is complicity. So I must act, act now and not later. I’ve always thought I believed deeply in the power of literature, and yet, submerged in the maelstrom of the now, I can feel those foundations start to quiver. Make no mistake, we are already at war, and if we in academia (and especially those of us in the humanities) do not now learn to use the critical tools at our disposal to defend ourselves and those around us, our side is already forfeit.

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Academic writing at the end of 2016. Credit: KC Green

Just before Christmas I ran into someone from the English department in Waterstones buying John Williams’ Stoner as a gift for a relative, and I wondered if this was not some secret expression, a subtle cry for help from the humanities as a whole. Like William’s ordinary academic, we must struggle to live with dignity, compelled to sacrifice ourselves to the commercial machinery of the academy, which cares for us not a jot. I think of Stoner’s Archer Sloane, broken by the war and his failure to save the young men in his care from throwing their lives away. Looking at that harrowed face, preserved in the tomb of a department office, I see the reflection of our own.

At the same time, I was researching a piece on Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Reading Benjamin and Adorno, looking at the ways they tried (with some failure, some success) to take a stand against the rise of fascism in Germany using critical theory and cultural analysis, unveiled the shortcomings of my own. I spent weeks abject, unable to work because I could not justify the existence of that work, even to myself. I fell into despair, and worse, self-pity. Today it is not enough just to work, or even to work well. We must now justify ourselves, and the worth of our work, not only to ourselves, and our academic communities, but to the world at large. Though I mean this in an ethical and political sense, in the end I fear the justification must also be a financial one.

The thing that helped me to reconcile my desire to work with the imperative to resist (aside from reading what others have said before me) was an invitation to present at a thesis-in-three conference held by the Undergraduate Awards. I was to present a paper which I had written last year on McCarthy’s The Road, but to an interdisciplinary audience, with just three minutes to speak, and a single slide. While I had been happy with my work as a piece of literary criticism, these new parameters forced me to think seriously about what in it was of real material value in this moment of history. What could I take from it to show to the world and, without hesitation, say “Here. Here is something worth even a short amount of your time”? I do not know if I succeeded, but what I decided on was this:

In a historical moment such as ours, when our systems of language, of knowing, of belief, and of truth have been shattered into countless fragments, it may seem natural to desire a return to the grand old narratives that once cohered our society, and our culture. And yet this return is a purely destructive one, a move towards unbecoming.

Given this, I’d like to look at Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, not simply as a parable of our time, but as illustrative of a potential praxis, which might move us towards reconciliation.

The novel presents a post-apocalyptic landscape, where all systems of community, of law, ecology, and epistemology have failed. Language is fading from existence, as the names of things and their meanings are forgotten. All that is left is a man and his son, who must struggle against this world, and find order.

The road itself presents a type of language, a system for understanding one’s relationship to their landscape, via the medium of travel. For the characters, the road becomes a schema for progress, for perpetual motion towards an increasingly nebulous goal. It also provides linear rendering of spatial dimensions, the only semblance of order that they can aspire to impose on their oppressive landscape. Yet this too seems to be slipping away, as the roads crumble, and so too does their map, broken into tattered fragments.

The structure of the novel itself mirrors this process, the sequence of events becoming only loosely connected at points, while at other times McCarthy inserts elliptical paragraph breaks right into the middle of tense moments of action fragmenting the unity, not only of time and space, but the page itself.

To escape this death of language and landscape, the child must reject the narratives put forward by his father, his “old stories of courage and justice”, in favour of something as yet undreamt of, true only to him, and his world without teleology.

He must also reject systems of commodification, both the old system of capitalistic commercialisation, and its apocalyptic counterpart – cannibalism. For McCarthy, something fundamental is shared by these systems of unchecked consumptive greed, and the child instead chooses to live by an ethical code that encourages equality, breaking the egocentric and anthropocentric boundaries of the old world.

The world that has died in the novel is that of American mythology – of exceptionalism, of the frontier, of survivalism, and of capitalism. These myths are auto-cannibalistic in nature – to propagate, they must feed upon themselves. Paradoxically, for this mythological cycle to continue, it must be destroyed and rebuilt in the shape of the now, and this is the key realisation for our moment in time.

The image conjured by the phrase “make America great again” is not one of birth into a new era, but rather one of regression, of the child being dragged screaming back into the womb, towards its undoing. As McCarthy suggests, the beginning and ending of things are closely linked; “Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made”. So instead, I’d like to suggest that the imperative should be to first make a greatness that is American, to break those grand old narratives down, and find ways in which they might help, rather than hinder, create, rather than destroy.

this_is_not_fine
Academic writing at the start of 2017. Credit: KC Green

So what now? Does this really solve anything? Perhaps I overestimate the value of what we do, but if that’s to be my undoing, I’ll go out with a smile. That said, a critical approach is of no value whatsoever without a counterpart of material praxis. The call to academic action is returned by the call to political and social action on local, national, and international levels. Debate, volunteer, protest, donate, boost the voices of those silenced – these types of action are as vital in the sociopolitical sphere as they are in the academic one. Together, just maybe, we’ll endure.

Works Cited

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Picador, 2007.
Williams, John. Stoner. Vintage, 2012.

Anarchy and the Culture Industry

As part of our theory coursework, we’ve been looking at the work of Frankfurt School critical theorists such as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, particularly their ideas on the culture industry and the avant-garde, as well as music’s role within these. Because I am who I am, I immediately started to think about how these concepts of political dissidence and consumption in art related to the punk movement of the late 70s and early 80s. How are the political aims expressed by the lyrics, musical stylings, and fashion of these groups reflected in their means of production and dissemination into the public sphere? And in what ways can punk address the Umfunktionierung of its own format?

Adorno, speaking about the protest music of the 60s, was doubtful as to the real political potential of music within the confines of a commercial system and the formal and stylistic norms imposed by this. He claims that

“attempts to bring political protest together with ‘popular music’ – that is, with entertainment music – are for the following reason doomed from the start. The entire sphere of popular music, even there where it dresses itself up in modernist guise is to such a degree inseparable from past temperament, from consumption, from the cross-eyed transfixion with amusement, that attempts to outfit it with a new function remain entirely superficial. And I have to say that when somebody sets himself up, and for whatever reason sings maudlin music about Vietnam being unbearable I find that really it is the song that is in fact unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumption-qualities out of it” (Brown).

However, by time punk music rolls around, at least initially this “crossed-eyed transfixion with amusement” appears to have gone. Rather than masquerading as an easily consumable product, punk deliberately exploits discordant sounds and chaotic public performance to reflect its challenging political content. This achieves what Benjamin refers to as “shock effect” – an awaking of the consumer from their passive existence through confrontation with the means of production.

However, whether you interpret the style of late 70s UK punk exemplified by the Sex Pistols as an avant-garde series of elaborate situationist pranks, or the nihilistic roar of a young working class being starved by a crumbling economy, any contention that this was a serious challenge to the capitalist establishment is undercut by the groups’ reliance on and operation within the mainstream record industry. Likewise, the record industry’s happiness to co-opt rebellion against itself and exploit punk’s theatrics for profit demonstrates capital’s readiness to wear the mask of revolution, while in truth shoring up its own authority. Just what does the “anarchy” of the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the UK” signify? Surely it is more bauble than gunpowder plot. Punk, at least in this early form, is a carnivalesque reflection of mainstream culture that, because it can only exist with the consent of that order (using its capital to produce and promote records and tours), cannot affect structural or sustainable change against that it. Each would-be revolutionary is in fact a double agent against their own will, as détournement inevitably cedes to recuperation.

Benjamin, in criticising the “new matter-of-fact” literature of his time, claims “their function is to produce, from the political standpoint, not producers but agents. Agents or hacks who make a great display of their poverty, and a banquet of yawning emptiness. One could not be more totally accommodated in an uncozy situation” (264). This is a line of thought further developed by Adorno’s assertion that “in capitalist times, the traditional anti-mythological ferments of music conspire against freedom, as whose allies they were once proscribed. The representatives of the opposition to the authoritarian schema become witnesses to the authority of commercial success”, with the end result being that “the listener is converted, along his line of least resistance, into the acquiescent purchaser” (273). Stewart Home points out that a similar attitude that took hold in punk:

“What punk did do was tap into a reservoir of social discontent and create an explosion of anger and energy. Punk wasn’t offering a solution, it was simply a genre of novelty music being hyped on the back of the manic and frequently pointless exploitation of social tensions. Punk was pure sensation, it had nothing to offer beyond a sense of escape from the taboo of speaking about the slimy reality of life as the social fabric came apart. After all, if Punk Rockers had preferred ‘analysis’ to ‘rhetoric’, they’d have been attempting to organise a revolution instead of pogoing to three minute pop songs” (23)

This is less the fault of the bands themselves (whose aims were genuine, if somewhat short sighted), but rather of the record industry’s exploitation of their protest for profit. Thankfully, before long groups would form that were very much more concerned with revolution than pogoing, and unafraid to dispose with the capitalist wrapper surrounding punk. One such group were Crass.

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While it’s safe to say that there would be no love lost between the anarcho-punks of Crass and the authoritarian Frankfurt Marxists, there is a significant intersection between both groups’ ideas regarding the production of art within a capitalist society. Crass were part of an anarchist collective centred around Dial House in Essex, and deeply involved with the anti-globalisation movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Their lyrics directly and specifically addressed issues of ethical consumption (particularly vegetarianism), feminist issues (their album Penis Envy an express response to and critique of the “macho” image of punk), and the austerity of the Thatcher government. This last target lead the group to establish an approach of direct action, quickly recording and releasing records which commented on the Conservative government’s war in the Falklands such as “Sheep Farming in the Falklands”, “How Does It Feel to Be the Mother of 1000 Dead?”, and “Yes Sir I Will”. These later recordings abandoned the three-cord strictures of punk for atonal arrangements indebted to free jazz and avant-garde classical music. In a sense these choices demonstrate an awareness of and resistance to Benjamin’s model of shock effect being eventually absorbed back into acceptable art forms, favouring a constantly shifting perspective delivered in a form which ceaselessly denies any passive consumption.

If the Sex Pistols appropriated the motley appearance of anarchy to sell records for Virgin and advertise Malcolm McLaren’s Sex shop, then Crass adopted the branding and packaging of the record industry and subverted it for their own means. Crass’s records and live shows were accompanied by an iconic logo, releases on their record label had a uniform design, and on stage band members appeared in only black. This explicit branding allowed Crass to eliminate any sense of “aura” or idea of modernist individualism in the commercial aspect of their records, while the music itself reasserted the responsibility of the individual to resist the capitalist establishment. By clearly separating the form and content of the art, Crass avoided conflation of protester and target, and this approach undoes the conversion of listener into “acquiescent purchaser” that Adorno observed.

Works cited:

Adorno, Theodor W. “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by Andrew Arato, Eike Gebhardt, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1993. 270-299.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Author as Producer”. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by Andrew Arato, Eike Gebhardt, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1993. 254-269.

Brown, Ric. “Theodor Adorno on Popular Music and Protest”. https://archive.org/details/RicBrownTheordorAdornoonPopularMusicandProtest.

Home, Stewart. Cranked Up Really High, Codex, 1993.