Punk Archaeology and the Mainstream
Perhaps all scholarship inevitably hazards descending into stale convention or becoming an insular academic pursuit. One of the most novel recent movements to unsettle archaeological conventions is “punk archaeology,” which is perhaps most clearly illustrated in William Caraher, Kostis Kourelis, and Andrew Reinhard’s edited 2014 collection Punk Archaeology. A fascinating Society for Historical Archaeology session last week examined punk archaeology, especially the public dimensions that Lorna Richardson has most closely examined. Punk archaeologists are leery of being narrowly defined, but a punk research perspective typically takes aim on “mainstream” archaeology: that is, in archaeology and many other disciplines the notion of punk seeks to transform scholarship that is normative, predictable, easily ignored, apolitical, emotionless, overly academic, or simply dull. Punk archaeology embraces a critical and compelling assault on unquestioned scholarly traditions and the academy, and it drew a roomful of people at the SHA conference and has received plenty of press coverage. Nevertheless, it may deliver death rites to a stereotyped mainstream and academy that have already disappeared or never existed in the first place.
Simply labeling any scholarship punk is a bit of a rhetorical maneuver, a point made by Zack Furniss’ Punkademics and also underscored in fandom scholarship that has contemplated the relationship between fans and academics since the 1980’s (cf. Matt Hills’ “fan-as-intellectual,” Henry Jenkins’ “Confessions of an Aca-Fan” blog, and Tanya Cochran’s study of “scholar-fandom”). A punk archaeology risks posing a clumsy contrast between, on the one hand, the notion of punk as spontaneous, experiential, anti-intellectual, and anarchic and, on the other hand, the stereotype of academic archaeologists as insular and unimaginative squares committed to jargon and tweed jackets. The line between academics and everyday people has long been much more complicated and frequently violated than we are often willing to acknowledge; there certainly are some academics committed to deep-seated scholarly traditions and clueless about The Simpsons, but there is little evidence that most academics are indifferent to everyday life and popular culture or that popular artists are not themselves intellectuals.
Punk scholarship’s potential may rest with its capacity to intellectualize everyday life without forsaking the meaningful dimensions of everyday experience. Such intellectualizing of a popular passion like music or fandom is often greeted by the devoted as a violation of that which can only be authentically understood by the faithful. In 1991, for instance, a fan complained in the letterzine Comlink about academic studies of fandom, arguing that “putting fandom under a microscope and scrutinized for the benefit of bored academics would have a chilling effect. Spontaneity and free expression in fandom are already endangered species.” Two years later a fan responding to Star Trek fandom scholarship wrote in The LOC Connection that “I’ve been a fan most of my life. It may currently be in vogue to be a Star Trek fan … but I was teased and insulted for it so unmercifully during my adolescent years that I’m still sensitive about any nonfan even knowing about my affiliation. And that goes double for K/S [Kirk/Spock fan fiction]. So I did feel quite threatened at the thought of these `ethnographers’ and other scholars making our underground `culture’ public.”
Punk archaeologists may be correct in their implication that contemporary scholarly conventions strip passion from our practice or refuse to acknowledge it publicly. Personal passions shape all academics’ scholarship in ways we rarely concede, but punk archaeologists and fandom researchers have given this sustained reflection. A host of fandom researchers have followed Henry Jenkins’ advocacy of a scholarship that embraces our passions and studies the likes of punk music, Star Trek, or cosplay if these are the things that fire our everyday experiences. Certainly much of punk archaeology is fueled by a comparable affection for punk music as a sonic, social, aesthetic, and material experience.
Nevertheless, Twilight scholar Melissa Click cautions that “combining fan and academic identity may have negatively impacted our scholarship–we may have put our fan identifications before our academic ones.” Media scholar Ian Bogost is likewise wary of shallow notions of academic fandom. He professes that passion for the subject is part of all scholarship: “More often than not, humanists in general get into what they do precisely because they are head-over-heels in love with it, whether `it’ be television, videogames, Shakespeare, Martin Heidegger, the medieval chanson de geste, the Greek lyric poem, or whatever else. Specialty humanities conferences are just fan conventions with more strangely-dressed attendees.” Yet at the same time he warns that “embracing aca-fandom is a bad idea. Not because it’s immoral or crude, but because it’s too great a temptation. Those of us who make an enviable living being champions of media, particularly popular media, must also remain dissatisfied with them. We ought to challenge not only ourselves, our colleagues, and our students—but also the public and the creators of our chosen media. We ought not to be satisfied. That’s the price of getting to make a living studying television, or videogames, or even Shakespeare” (compare Flow’s 2010 column on their uneasiness with aca-fandom scholarship).
Chris Matthews made one of the key points at the SHA session in favor of punk as a scholarly metaphor. Punk music had quite ambiguous evaluative standards, favoring the joy of making and hearing music—especially if it was dissonant, vulgar, and inept—over the social and marketplace commodification that focuses on what is “good” or “bad” music. Matthews argued that the sheer joy of playing music and perhaps unsettling some audiences is an excellent parallel for archaeological practice and expression, but the pleasure of digging often is missing in archaeological scholarship. Archaeology is not dull at all (compare Colleen Morgan’s thoughts on the trope of archaeology-is-boring), but it sometimes finds an insular and tedious expression in hotel conference halls or peer-reviewed journals that mask the curiosity, idiosyncrasy, and pleasure of things.
Punk in particular and music in general works as a compelling metaphor underscoring archaeology’s improvisational and idiosyncratic expressiveness, pushing back against status quo standards that structure how we interpret material things. Good cases could be made for hip-hop, death metal, or disco archaeologies that each aspire to represent particular experiences, improvise in certain ways with their own goals, and craft distinctive expressive forms. Jazz, for instance, invokes a provocative notion of improvisation rooted in the syncretic and tactical nature of everyday Black life. Jazz’s central features are improvisation, spontaneity, and performance, and much like punk it defies easy definition and routinely produces heated debates over the distinction between authentic and commercial forms.
Jazz’s origins are in African diasporan music, but it is a fundamentally participatory expressive form that has always incorporated other traditions and thieved from popular music as much as it reproduced sub-Saharan musical traditions. Jazz was long popularly associated with African Americans, often receiving the damning praise that it was an “authentic” or “primitive” expressive form. In 1929, for instance, the astute dancer and jazz writer Roger Pryor Dodge argued that jazz was music “produced by the primitive innate musical instinct and of those lower members of the White race who have not yet lost their feeling for the primitive.” John Gennari stresses that Dodge intended this as flattery, noting that Dodge likewise considered Bach a “primitive” who shared jazz musicians’ improvisational flair.
However, many more inter-war jazz critics were loathe to allow jazz a toehold in popular culture, fearing the inter-racial appeal of African-American expressive culture. In 1922, for instance, a New York City Episcopal rector intoned that “Jazz is retrogression. It is going to the African jungle for our music.” In 1947, Morroe Berger reported in the Journal of Negro History that the “intense, emotional opposition” to jazz revolved around “an image and an interpretation of the Negro that were not compatible with the image and the attitude in the minds of the leaders of white society in America.” Of jazz, Berger argued that there “is perhaps no other area of Negro-white contact, except possibly in radical political parties, where the Negro is accepted so fully as an equal (and so often admired as a superior) without condescension.” In that formulation, jazz was a popular cultural expression with profoundly consequential anti-racist implications that reach well beyond music.
A “jazz archaeology” framework revolving around improvisation, cultural syncretism, and the impression of the color line is simply another way to conceptualize the material world and archaeological practice. Both it and punk archaeology share an interest in shaping how we define our fundamental scholarly and social practice. Punk archaeology’s resistance to convention may distinguish it in some ways as it focuses on the means rather than the ends; that is, punk archaeology is at its heart a critical voice pressing us to be wary of scholarly and expressive norms but reluctant to establish or accept conventions.
In that sense, punk archaeology is tactical, spontaneous, and situational rather than strategic and universalizing. Punk music’s politics are sometimes clumsily reduced to shallow anarchism, but an activist thread of UK punk in the late-1970’s included anti-racist labels like 2-Tone and the Rock Against Racism campaign, though punk’s anarchic messages found an undesired resonance with fascist groups like the National Front. Brock Ruggles’ dissertation argues for a continuing American punk politicization in the 1980’s, focusing on examples like the Washington, DC Dischord label.
Andrew Reinhard’s SHA paper “Disruptive Archaeologies: The Theory and Practice of Punk” acknowledged the activist implications of punk archaeology, but his examples focused on the political weight of tactical and spontaneous grassroots politics. Much as in music fandom, spontaneity and tactical politics risk being cast as confirmations of authenticity denied to rehearsed, constructed, and strategic scholarship. Reinhard’s most interesting strategic political goal may be advocacy for concrete issues like academic publication reform (interminable publication delays and homogenizing peer reviews treat novel subjects unevenly, and the inaccessibility of peer-reviewed publications outside well-funded institutions is demoralizing for every author). Nevertheless,the central point of punk may reasonably be that its goal is simply to defy convention and leave subsequent political formations to emerge from other discussions.
Punk is simply one of many discourses that confirm none of us believes ourselves to be “mainstream.” Reinhard, for example, characterizes punk archaeologists as “the margins of our discipline, the neglected, the weird, the freaks on the very edge of archaeology and often outside the Academy.” Much as in contemporary life, we all feel marginalized by a host of dominators, capitalists, and squares, so nearly nobody seems to see themselves as the status quo, let alone firmly situated at the heart of an untroubled bourgeois life: where we once all sought normality, we now seem to all aspire to be on the margins.
Punk appeals to our self-embraced outsider indignation as it views most norms skeptically if not contemptuously and betrays many scholars’ frustrations with the discipline. Much of this frustration with present-day archaeological practice may be rooted in the enormous labor inequalities in the discipline, where many working archaeologists cannot secure a fair working wage and increasingly more academic archaeologists are consigned to adjunct posts. Nevertheless, suggesting a “punk sensibility” might be divined across time is perhaps pressing the metaphor too far, searching for a past in which people are idiosyncratic, conflicted, creative, and unpredictable: indeed, much like we fancy ourselves to be.
A post-processual critique of mainstream archaeology that began in the late 1970’s shared punk archaeology’s wariness of convention, but punk archaeology’s roots in popular culture and everyday life depart from the dense theoretical assault waged by post-processualism. Punk archaeology remains complexly theoretical, evoking the likes of the situationists and Henri Lefebvre’s critique of everyday life, but most of that theory is under-stated or implicit. Punk archaeology’s central threads of DIY, spontaneity, irreverence, and idiosyncratic material seem to owe more to Malcolm McLaren than Marx (who happen to both be buried in Highgate Cemetery).
The apparent reluctance to over-theorize punk archaeology probably reflects a desire to break from academic conventions and dense prose, but it risks lapsing into an instinctive picture of the material world; that is, we hazard studying only the idiosyncratic things that resonate with us. We should study the things we feel strongly about and use the emotions that we have for those passions, but we should also turn our eye to the things we loathe, the subjects that seem boring, and the stuff we cannot fathom. It is worth knowing the Clash’s oeuvre and the prophecies of Lou Reed, but Muzak and American Idol deserve our attention as well.
Punk archaeologies borrow their namesake’s penchant to resist mainstream codes that determine research methods and questions, instead championing a Do-It-Yourself ethic that operates outside traditional funding sources, publication outlets, and familiar data. Nevertheless, there will always be measures of what research is “good” or “bad” or what is acceptable in ethical, methodological, or political senses that cannot admit everything “outside the box.” Joshua Samuels raises this issue in his contribution to the Punk Archaeology volume, where he contemplates the outcry against metal detecting TV shows: Samuels points out that much of the anti-academic populism in series like Savage Family Diggers may actually capture an anarchic spirit that punk archaeology encourages.
The mainstream academy is a much more complicated target than it appears in punk archaeology critique, and the mainstream may be imagined if not ideological, rather than a social and material reality. Punk secures much of its appeal because it so assertively positions itself opposed to the predominant conventions that frustrate many of us, and much of its power and pleasure comes from simply defying normality. It may gradually shift its focus to the development of concrete strategic goals: Advocacy for labor fairness in archaeology, developing new scholarly outlets, and fostering new mechanisms of community engagement all seem to be at the heart of punk archaeology’s mission. It may not be that all scholarship becomes stale convention or that mainstream academic convention inevitably dulls critique or muffles passion; rather, it may simply be that there is no clearly defined mainstream at all and the conventions may be much more fluid than we acknowledge. It may also be the case that it is simply energizing and pleasurable to defy conventions, scream vulgarities at normality, and see what comes from that everyday expressive politics.
A PDF version of this blog is on my academia.edu page for those who understandably don’t have the patience to read it online.
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Tanya R. Cochran
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Kathryn Dunlap and Carissa Wolf
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Charlie Parker group image from Charlie Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress
Punk Archaeology cover from Mediterraneanworld blog
Ramones mailer image from Design Observer
Rock Against Racism march image from Sarah Wyld, own work
St. Louis punk show flyer from JB Kopp