Twenty-five years ago, just after the outbreak of the first Gulf War, I moved into an anarchist co-op in the Upper Haight. (If you know the neighborhood at all well, you’ve almost certainly stood beneath my room: the bay window jutting directly above the ATM on Belvedere Street, at the time and for many years thereafter the only one for over a mile in any direction.) Though its every fiber was saturated with the sad pong of sexually deprived male bitterhippies in early middle age, the flat nevertheless (/therefore?) boasted one of the most impressive specialist libraries I’ve ever encountered.
No doubt because many of the flat’s residents had historically been associated with the Haight’s anarchist bookstore, Bound Together, its shelves had over the years accumulated hundreds of rare and unusual books on squatting, DIY technique, self-housing, revolutionary syndicalism, the politics of everyday life and so on. Among these was a curious 1976 volume called Radical Technology. Something between a British Whole Earth Catalog and an urban Foxfire book, Radical Technology presented its readers with a comprehensive and detailed blueprint for self-reliant, off-the-grid living.
Each of the book’s sections was fronted by an elaborate illustration depicting what typical British spatial arrangements — terraced housing, allotments, council estates, parish churches — might look like after they’d been reclaimed by autonomist collectives, in some not too terribly distant future. Unlike some of the more heroic imaginaries that were floating around in that immediate pre-Web epoch, you could readily imagine yourself living in their simple everydayness, making a life in the communal kitchen and sauna and printmaking workshop they depicted. From the material-economic perspective of someone residing in a shabby flat in the Upper Haight circa 1991, struggling to eke out a living as the city’s worst and clumsiest bike messenger, it would clearly be a good life, too: austere, perhaps, in some ways, but fulfilling and even generous in every register that really counts. (To be sure, this was a sense the illustrations shared with contemporary real-world outcroppings of late hippie technology in both its particularly British and its Bay Area variants, and I’d seen traces of it crop up in squats and urban homesteads back East, wherever someone resident had been infected by the Whole Earth/Shelter/Pattern Language ethos.)
I clean forgot about Radical Technology for a quarter century, but I never did forget those drawings. I had no way of reconsidering them, though, let alone pointing anybody else at them, until the other day, when Nick Durrant recognized my vague handwavings for what they were: a description of the “Visions” series anarchist illustrator Clifford Harper contributed to the mid-70’s British journal Undercurrents. (These issues of Undercurrents were subsequently anthologized as the book I’d come across; here’s scans of Harper’s entire series.) I had to smile when I read the account of “Visions” on Harper’s Wikipedia entry, as it could not possibly have been more on the nose:
These were highly detailed and precise illustrations showing scenes of post-revolutionary self-sufficiency, autonomy and alternative technology in urban and rural settings, becoming almost de rigueur on the kitchen wall of any self-respecting radical’s commune, squat or bedsit during the 1970s.
My memory of Harper’s “Visions” returned with such force not because I’d suddenly developed nostalgia for the lifeways of alternative San Francisco in the first ripples of its death spiral — though those house-feedingly enormous vegetarian stir-fries sure were tasty — but because the way of doing and being they imagined seems relevant again, and possibly more broadly so than ever before.
Something is clearly in the air. The combination of distributed, renewable microgrid power with digital fabrication, against a backdrop of networked organization, urban occupation and direct action, seems to be catalyzing into a coherent, shared conception of a way forward from the mire we find ourselves in. Similar notions crop up in Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, in Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society (the particular naivety of which I’ll have more to say about in short order), in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, and the same convergence of possibilities animated my own first pass at articulating such a conception, a lashed-up framework I rather cheekily called the “minimum viable utopia.”
These conceptions of the possible are all pretty exciting, at least to those of us who share a certain cast of mind. What they’re all missing, though, to a one, is a Cliff Harper: someone to illustrate them, to populate them with recognizable characters, to make them vivid and real. We need them to feel real, so when we print them out and hang them on the walls of flats where the rent is Too Damn High and the pinboard surfaces of the cubicles where we grind away the mindless hours, we remember what it is we’re working so hard to bring into being.
At the very least, we need them so that those who follow us a quarter century from now understand that they too belong to a lineage of thought, belief and action, just as anyone who’s ever been inspired in their work by the Harper illustrations does. Some days, just knowing that line through time exists is enough to get you through the day.
Compare and contrast:
– SHoP Architects, Dunescape, for the 2001 MoMA/P.S.1 courtyard competition.
— Zuloark Collective, el Campo de Cebada, Madrid, 2010.
Two of these projects involve the deployment of digital design and production techniques to create platforms for small-group conviviality, nestled inside larger spaces generally associated with high culture and the flows of capital that support it. The other two involve the use of low-end, commodity material to create platforms for face-to-face deliberation and the practice of democracy (as well as conviviality), deployed in marginal, interstitial or outright occupied spaces.
The appearance of a parallel evolution in these admittedly cherry-picked examples may say more about my wishful thinking than anything else. But it seems to me that there’s clearly something going on here, in the convergence of sophisticated digital design, on-site fabrication and software for the near-real-time user configuration of space in what we might call lightweight placemaking. In all of these projects, we see an emphasis on rapid mountability and demountability, and the mobility and highly sensitive user control they afford. We see high technique brought to bear on utterly commodified, widely available, broadly affordable (even free) materials. And we see these things used to bring people together, both to enjoy one another’s company and to discuss such matters of concern as arise before them.
There’s an especially lovely symbolism to the use of such humble materials in making the place of democracy, and if the use of commodity lumber doesn’t involve quite the same material rhetoric as the use of marble in the ennobling public spaces of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, well, neither is the public being invoked the same.
— SEE ALSO: Francis Cape’s We Sit Together, a history of the wooden bench in the American intentional-community tradition. Image courtesy Murray Guy Gallery.
Bootstrap Company, Dalston.
Following on from the other day’s post about systems of commoning, it occurred to me that what I find most galling about the social innovation literature (as it exists at present, anyway) is its refusal to acknowledge that the tactics of survival it celebrates have both a provenance and a valence.
Maybe I’d better explain what it is that I mean by “social innovation”? A discourse of relatively recent standing, social innovation aims to fix the problems we see all around us arising out of what a Marxist might call the “internal contradictions” of late capitalism, problems like deskilling, food poverty, the isolation of the elderly or the persistence of the digital divide.
All of this is to say that while social innovation is an essentially reactive and ameliorative discourse, it definitely responds to something real in the world: the failure of the neoliberal State, in its retreat from the provision of public services, to prevent a significant percentage of the population from sliding into circumstances of immiseration and precarity. (Looked at from another direction, one could argue these concerns are driven instead by market failure, and the inability of private actors to develop offerings that serve the needs of poor and marginalized communities while delivering reasonable returns on investment.)
Whether the perceived failure is that of the State or the market, though, the shortfall of social provision is as serious as the proverbial heart attack. It’s left tens of millions of people in the developed world contending with overwhelming circumstances in daily life, circumstances that sap their energy, saddle them with anxiety and depression, and — surely of interest even to the most cold-blooded economist — threaten their ability to participate in the reproduction of labor power. We can list among the further consequences phenomena like the widely-noted epidemic of despair that is currently reversing a century-long trend of improving life expectancy in the United States.
Emerging in direct response to this situation, the community that’s gathered itself under the banner of social innovation aims to generate a stream of new ideas to help us deal with the collective challenges of contemporary life. These ideas have a few elements in common:
— They are rooted in civil society, which is to say that they are neither private, for-profit enterprises nor a matter of public provision;
– Canonically, they are local, “bottom-up,” grassroots and voluntarist;
– They are oriented toward force multiplication, toward the accomplishment of enhanced levels of social provision from reduced inputs of investment or other sorts of capital from public or private sources. (The Wikipedia entry, typically, glosses this as “doing more with less,” without ever explaining why there is more to be done in an apparent age of mass plenty, or why there should happen to be fewer resources available for such tasks than there used to be.)
As it happens, there’s a reasonably well-developed institutional infrastructure dedicated to propagating the discourse of social innovation. There are conferences, government and parastatal initiatives, tranches of available funding both public and private, downloadable resources galore, and inevitably media outlets dedicated to extolling its virtues. Learned societies take it up as a subject for discussion. There’s even an annual award to be won!
My beef with all of this activity is fourfold:
– That both the innovations it presents and the context within which those innovations arise are routinely depoliticized, as if interventions in the material and psychic economy of everyday life could possibly be any such thing;
– That initiatives are routinely presented as tactical, piecemeal and disconnected, in a way that tends to deny the efficacy or value of any purposive collective action at scale;
– That such tactical and piecemeal efforts are inherently vulnerable to capture and recuperation by the market;
– And that the entire body of thought is badly, culpably ahistorical.
“That’s when I reach for my revolver.”
Actually, the social innovation literature is ahistorical in (at least) two senses:
Firstly, but for a very few highly technologized exceptions, the ways of making, doing and being under discussion are not in fact novel in any way, are not actually “innovations” at all. Almost to a one, these methods and measures were developed over the course of history by communities under various kinds of social and economic pressure.
The reason this matters is because the success of such efforts as originally developed — the very thing that made housing cooperatives or shared-resource libraries or mutual lending societies work in their original contexts — had a great deal to do with the specifically political wellsprings of motivation. Whether by landless peasants, by queers and feminists, by freemen and former slaves, by impoverished immigrants, or by radicalized soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam, many if not most of the specific tactics celebrated in the social innovation tradition were originally developed by communities organizing for their own survival, under conditions that could best be described as “heavy manners.” In each case, the people participating had an acute sense of the institutional power arrayed against them, and equally, how survival in a hostile world would depend on their ability to form their own institutions. And that is something they simply couldn’t do without being able to name the sources, causes and means of their oppression.
Of course none of this ever makes it into the dozens to hundreds of chirpy, boosterish blog posts that are literally generated daily by the organs responsible for promulgating the discourse of social innovation. In each instance, we see an idea for collective living severed from its politically radical roots, and presented as if it’s just another in a series of essentially fungible plug-and-play accessories buyers of the fluky Late Capitalist platform can choose to upgrade their system with; in some cases, neither the blogger nor the community activist whose effort is being celebrated is aware that the central insight on which their project is founded even has a pedigree. It would be melodramatic and inaccurate to say that this history is being suppressed, exactly, but neither is it being recovered and told. In effect, it’s like an operating manual exists for our shiny new appliance, but we’ve thrown it out with the packaging…and now we wonder why the thing doesn’t work the way we were told it was supposed to.
The second mode in which ahistoricity hobbles a meaningful consideration of these projects is the failure of social innovation media (and parallel institutions) to track the fortunes of the efforts they celebrate as they unfold over time. However formally independent they may be from one another, it’s evident that many of the organizations involved understand their fundamental mission to be promotion of the field as a whole, and not the development of critique — not even the kind of detailed, concrete, constructive critique necessary to any field of human endeavor serious about its own iterative improvement. As a result, blogs serving the field almost never publish pieces that check back in with the initiatives they hyped in 2012 or 2014 to see how they were faring.
The discourse does get one thing very right indeed, and it’s hugely important. This is the understanding that there’s an incredible amount of human talent and energy lying fallow in our communities, and that surviving the dark times we’re confronted by with dignity and verve will have a great deal to do with our ability to tap into it together. Simply recognizing this is a big step forward. What if, like me, you want the kind of collective tools that are generally celebrated in the social innovation discourse to be more broadly available, and to work effectively on behalf of the people they’re supposed to serve? What can we do to increase the chances of any such thing happening?
— We can recognize that broadly speaking, wherever they display the character of self-determination and mutual aid, these activities properly belong to the history of the libertarian Left — to the currents of anarchosocialism, anarchosyndicalism and autonomism, specifically — and will need to be reclaimed as such to work properly in the long run.
– We can understand that these currents (as well as parallel movements like that toward participatory economics) propose to us infrastructures that are capable of uniting, upholding, securing and extending the potentially fragile efforts of individuals and local communities, and that we can avail ourselves of that power at any time.
– As participants, we can deepen our acquaintance with the history of thought about what makes collective action work over time. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is the outstanding example; somewhat less empirically and more philosophically, you might also find John Searle’s “Collective Intentionality and Actions” useful. (On this point I want to emphasize that many, many of the people I’ve met through their work in this space are, as individuals, profoundly aware of the relevant local and global history, and deeply conversant with the theoretical literature around collective action; indeed, they’ve taught me most of what I know. But it matters that the discourse isn’t any of these things.)
– Finally, we can demand a dual accountability of social innovation as a body of thought — of the individual efforts grouped under this rubric, and as well, of the media outlets and other bodies that promote it. We can insist that the practices underlying social innovation projects be properly situated historically, and that both individual projects and the discourse itself be rigorously assessed as to whether or not they do what they claim to.
In the end, the most cluelessly apolitical social innovation project you can point me at is probably acceptable to me, if it means that even one more person finds in it shelter from the failure of the systems late capitalism proposes that they rely upon for their subsistence. It’s cold out there — or rather it’s been made to be cold, the warmth and comfort of others depend on it being cold — every last hearth at which someone can wander in off the street and find warmth is to be welcomed, and better still is the hearth they themselves are enabled to stoke and offer to others in need. I especially don’t want to mock any well-intentioned enthusiasm for this set of ideas. I do want to challenge people who are enthusiastic about social innovation to think about the currents in human thought that originally developed such notions, and the infrastructures and architectures of consistently reliable mutual aid those currents can give rise to if we but ask it of them.
I’m indebted to Greta Byrum and Tom Igoe for prodding me to clarify my thoughts on this matter.
Prinzessinnengarten, Berlin, 2011. Photo by Marco Clausen.
This is a lovely article about what an actual sharing economy might look like. It’s suffused with hope and energy and good practical ideas, and that I can see there are three huge gaping problems with its premise:
– First, if the service ecosystem described in the article is in any meaningful way a “glimpse of the future,” the future glimpsed can only be the future of Berlin. There’s a well-developed, sustained, long-term local culture in Berlin, with ethics and values that support such activities; grown out of various anarchist, feminist, squatter and immigrant-rights struggles, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to describe that culture as one of resistance to the late-capitalist status quo.
So if you want this sort of sharing to thrive in your city, you’ll have to develop — or better yet, rediscover and reinforce — the values and the political culture that underwrite it. (Even in Berlin, initiatives like Prinzessinnengarten struggle to surmount the barriers thrown up by developers and well-intentioned but clueless bureaucrats. It should also be pointed out that while I personally think Prinzessinnengarten is fantastic, it’s faced accusations that it’s merely the thin edge of the gentrifying wedge, and comes no closer to serving the needs of a vulnerable local population than do Smorgasburg or Boxpark in Shoreditch.)
– There is also the fact that in most developed-world places I am familiar with, people’s desire for consistency and reliability of service can be seen to trump concerns with sustainability and equity, pretty reliably. Three or more generations of life in a consumer economy have trained them — let me be frank: us! — to prefer packaged, managed, branded services to quirky informality.
So you can have all the free community fridges you want, but in all likelihood all you’re doing is performing R&D and market research for the bozo entrepreneur who’s eventually going to come along, break off whatever part of the service can be monetized, do just that…and probably displace the free community alternative. Actually, worse: they’ll displace the community fridges, all right, but their poorly thought-out, stupidly-named, under-resourced startup will fail after having shited up the entire “space,” practically and psychically, leaving everyone back at square one.
– There is a third and deeper challenge to the broader adoption of informal sharing services, which is that this is how poor people have always lived — both in the favelas and slums of the “developing world,” and in the deprived communities of our own cities. (They don’t call it “social innovation,” by the way; they just get on with it.) And I have doubts about the degree to which significant numbers of people raised in Western culture’s last full flush of middle-class prosperity will adopt ways and means of daily survival they’ve been taught to associate with poverty, until and unless they have no choice in the matter.
One response to this challenge is indeed to package collective services, to brand them brightly and make them trendy, so people can harvest the specific frisson of social distinction we associate with luxury consumption from performing their virtue in public. (This strategy strikes me as being analogous to Bruce Sterling’s old Viridian Design project, the aim of which was to encourage the design of products that would allow people to consume their way to ecotopia.) And perhaps there’s some canniness to this insight: we all know that there’s a socially performative aspect to consumption, so why not harness it?
But while that social performativity does cut both ways, under the present dispensation it cannot help but do so in ways that work disproportionately to favor the time-honored modes of conspicuous consumption. While you can be sure there’s someone dying for you to notice that they’re restocking the Little Free Library on the corner, we can be sure that there are ten or even a hundred times as many seeking more conventional reinforcement — preening in the window at Drybar, perhaps, or making sure you see them climbing into an Uber.
And worse still, to build a service ecosystem on such foundations is to endorse the mayfly logic of the fashion cycle: that which is trendy this season is by definition a dead letter next year. By contrast, to function effectively in support of a community over the long term, participation in the commons has to be something more than a fad or momentary fashion. It has to be able to rely upon institutions, practices and arrangements that stabilize it and make it tenable as an approach to living. If those institutions, practices and arrangements are ones broadly associated with life under conditions of deprivation, the ingrained psychological resistance to adopting them may be the hardest of all these barriers to overcome.
The bottom line is that the practical insights that are necessary to render any such thing as a “sharing economy” workable at all get lost when this idea is depoliticized, as it all but invariably is in the “social innovation” literature and the popular press. If those of us who do not happen to live in a place like Berlin truly want to live this way, we’ll have to learn (or relearn) the preferences, habits, patterns of association and daily life that make peer-based commoning systems a realistic alternative to late-capitalist service provision. We’ll have to deal intimately and honestly with people outside the “innovation” subculture — not so much an issue for some of us, naturally, but evidently a major problem for others, including if we are honest some of those talking loudest about participation and the commons. We’ll have to develop (or redevelop) a vibrant, active, living culture of commoning, not because it’s convenient or trendy but because it responds to our values. We’ll have to organize the communities we live and work in. We’ll have to do so even if, for some of us, it means admitting that we are choosing to live in ways that have always been adopted by people facing hard times, at whatever cost to the self-image as a dynamic, successful, self-reliant competitor in the late-capitalist marketplace we’ve cherished and have worked so hard to uphold. And these investments of effort and energy are fundamentally a matter of the politics we choose to live.
This is admittedly minor, but I find it rather telling. At the moment, I’m doing some research on the so-called “sharing economy” for my book, and in particular am digging into the background of the travesty that ensued when the founders of the Couchsurfing hospitality-exchange network chose to pivot it from something built on purely voluntary participation into a for-profit enterprise.
I hadn’t been to the Couchsurfing website itself for quite awhile — as in, the last time I visited, it was a .org. So when I first loaded it this time around, I was looking at it with fresh eyes. And maybe that’s why all of the images on the page that are ostensibly of satisfied Couchsurfers registered so oddly to me. You really can’t help but notice that, for self-submitted pictures of people from all over the world — and, at that, members of a site dedicated to free hospitality exchange — they seem unusually straightforward, consistent and professional in their composition and lighting.
Put more directly, they look like commercial stock photography. And that isn’t what you’d necessarily expect from a platform that theoretically prides itself on the strength and genuineness of the peer-to-peer relationships it enables. A few years ago, I would have had to wonder whether these images did in fact represent happy Couchsurfers; now, of course, we have Google Image Search. It only took me a few seconds’ clicking around to confirm what I had suspected — or actually, something even more troubling.
It’s not merely that these are not at all images of actual Couchsurfers; in itself, that might readily enough be forgiven. It’s that the images appear to have been downloaded, altered and used in a commercial context without their creators’ knowledge or consent — in one case, in fact, in direct contravention of the (very generous) terms of the license under which they were offered.
Here, let’s take a look:
– The image labeled “Jason” is one of photographer David Weir’s 100 Strangers, originally labeled with a copyright notice;
– “Dang” is a crop of commercial photographer Anthony Mongiello’s headshot of actor Stanley Wong;
– “Sonja” and “Gérard” are two of Chris Zerbes’ Stranger Portraits. While Chris does make his photos available under a Creative Commons license, they are clearly labeled that such use must not be commercial, that it must be attributed to him, and that no derivatives may be made from the original image. All of those provisions are violated here.
It’s bad enough that Couchsurfing would choose to use stock photography, when imagery of actual site members would tell a much more compelling story. But that they’ve chosen to gank images from hard-working photographers, to do so for commercial gain, without even a gesture at attribution? To me, that says a great deal about just what kind of “sharing” we mean when we talk about a sharing economy.
UPDATED: Couchsurfing has since removed the images in question, without otherwise acknowledging this post or my other attempts to communicate with them. For the record, such as it is, I enclose screenshots of the page as it previously appeared.
The following is an interview with me conducted by the Italian architectural magazine Architetti Roma. This one focuses on issues of mobility and, as always, I hope you find it illuminating.
What are the urban contexts where technology and mobility have brought about the best outcomes?
To clarify, here we should make it plain that we’re strictly talking about networked information technology, and not, say, developments in power-train technology or materials engineering. And of relatively recent developments in this field, I’m particularly fond of a smartphone app called Citymapper. It’s like being handed the keys to the city.
Consider that I arrived in megacity London with nothing more than the vaguest mental map of the place, and still less of a sense of how to get around it. And what Citymapper let me do was dive right in, the night I got here. I could hop on a bus and go meet friends, and know exactly where I had to wait, what bus to take, where to get off and how long the trip would take me. It radically lowered the threshold of fear and uncertainty that keeps us sequestered in our local neighborhoods. Not within the weeks or months that it might have taken me to wrap my head around the transit network’s endlessly ramified field of possibilities in any previous age — immediately. And this is a service that’s available for zero incremental cost, to anyone with the wherewithal to afford a smartphone and a data plan. Now that is truly radical, a truly epochal development in urban mobility.
There are only two issues with it, really. The first is that Citymapper only works so well in London because TfL, our local transit authority, offers a generous selection of real-time APIs, the open application programming interfaces that allow a service like Citymapper to grab, represent and make use of that information. It wouldn’t be nearly the same thing in a city that didn’t, just not at all the same proposition.
The second, more serious problem is that Citymapper — like all other services positioned as products in the late-capitalist marketplace — is subject to churn. It’s not stable. A new version can appear at any time, might even be pushed to your device in such a way that you don’t get to choose whether you want it or not, and you’ll find that the features, conventions and metaphors you’ve come to rely upon and stored in muscle memory just don’t work the same way anymore. And if Citymapper’s CEO decides that his personal future and his investors’ outcomes are best secured by choosing to sell the service in toto to Apple or Google, then that’s what’s going to happen. And there’s not a damn thing you or I or anyone outside that decision loop can do about it.
So, yes: we’ve been handed the keys to the city, but they can be yanked away at any time. At any moment, TfL can decide that it no longer wants to provide real-time APIs, Citymapper can decide that it no longer wants to support a given city, Apple can decide that it no longer wants to allow third-party journey-planning services on its platform. Our golden age is real, but it’s terribly vulnerable.
Are you familiar with Rome? What in your opinion are the technology applications that could be suitable for Rome?
I’ve only spent three days in Rome in my adult life. I just don’t think I’m qualified to speak in anything more than generalities about what might or might not work there. But, sure, in any place where there’s a single accountable public transit authority, and that transit authority offers reliable real-time APIs, there’s no reason that something like Citymapper couldn’t work and work well.
Roman traffic is also, of course, legendary, and that’s something I can very easily see yielding to automated vehicle control. The deeper question there is the extent to which Romans actually cherish the impossibility of getting around, as part of their identity in the world. Letting go of that may be more of a obstacle than any of the material challenges of implementing automated mobility.
Considering Uber and similar services, do you think they are a positive solution for urban mobility?
My position on Uber is rather well-known.
Google’s self-driving car has just been presented. Do you think it will catch on? In what time frame?
Well, firstly, I think Google itself is further away from fielding a solution that will work anywhere outside of Mountain View than is generally understood. The media hype has been very misleading. And secondly, Google is far from the only actor currently working to resolve this envelope of challenges. Despite their power, reach and influence, we should never make the mistake of collapsing the ideas of “autonomous personal transportation” and “Google.”
That said, it will happen, one way or another. I don’t think it’s a question of “catching on,” so much as one of getting the necessary regulatory, legislative and risk-assessment frameworks in place. And this is one of those very rare contexts where I believe that the information-technological approach really is unambiguously superior to the way we do things now.
In the United States alone, we sacrifice more than 30,000 human lives a year to misplaced confidence in our own ability to manage the performance regime presented to us by the car. People drive drunk, while texting, when they’ve just had an argument with their partner. Long-distance truckers drive bent half out of their mind on sleeplessness and crank because that’s what’s demanded of them by the economics of contemporary logistics. People drive in the morning to minimum-wage jobs that are two hours away because they’re the only ones that were on offer, on sleep that’s already been brutally truncated by the two hours it took them to get home the night before. People use vehicles as weapons — to bolster their sense of self, to claim space from the others they feel encroaching on them at every turn, to assert dominance in a world that makes them feel like they’ve been zeroed out. And algorithms even at their clumsiest stand to do a better job in each and every single one of these circumstances.
But “unambiguously better” doesn’t mean “perfect.” The disruption, in particular, to working-class livelihoods will be dreadful. If unanticipated, unaccounted for and unresponded to, in fact, I venture to say it will cause misery easily on the order of those 30,000 annual deaths. And that’s quite a thing to say. It’s why I support the provision of universal basic income, to at least buffer the havoc automation is sure to wreak on our societies as it transforms mobility, logistics and a thousand other fields.
Could you draw some possible scenarios regarding the use of technologies in the field of mobility ten years from now?
Ten years is a long, long time in my field. It’s the far future. Consider that ten years ago, we didn’t even have smartphones. Given all the wildly interacting factors at play, and the ever-present likelihood that their interaction will render our world effectively ungovernable, I’m just not comfortable prognosticating.
In my weekly dispatch not so long ago, I’d mentioned that I’d been reading Mitchell Dean’s Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. This might at first blush seem like an odd choice for summer reading, but you know me: as long as I live, I’ll be immersed in the autodidact’s permanent project of filling in the gaps in my own understanding. The Dean book, if dense, really is superbly lucid. I found it hugely useful, and enjoyed it greatly.
At the time, though, I’d also mentioned a text I’d described as “far and away my favorite in the entire governmentality literature”: a song called “Gee, Officer Krupke,” from the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story. This wasn’t a throwaway joke. As we’ll see, “Krupke” is such a concise, vivid and memorable encapsulation of governmentality theory that it could readily be used as an introduction to this entire line of thought.
But first, for those of you who don’t generally dork out over such things, it’s probably best to spell out just what it is that I, at least, mean when I use the strange word “governmentality.” As Dean explains, this is a way of thinking about the art of state administration that Michele Foucault first presented in a series of lectures given at the Collège de France in the winter of 1977-78. There’s a specific problem Foucault is trying to address in these lectures, which is how power works in the modern, Western liberal democracy — specifically, how can a state guarantee the compliance of citizens who are at least nominally free, and upon whose ability to act freely the entire economic order is in fact predicated?
As Foucault describes it, the ultimate aim of liberal governmentality is the production of subjects who do not require much in the way of active administration, because they administer themselves. Most of us, most of the time, do not literally have a gun to our head, and yet we continue to act in ways that continuously reproduce and legitimate certain conceptions of State power and our own relation to it. Foucault’s project was to ask just how these conceptions came to be, and how we ourselves came to internalize them.
In order to do this, he undertook a genealogy of the successive ways in which power has been seen to work throughout the history of the West, and the conceptions of citizenship, self and subjectivity that corresponded to each of them. Broadly speaking, the main modes of power he identified were sovereignty, which is the naked power to kill or let live, originally founded in the divine right of kings; discipline, which originates in the detailed training and regulation of human bodies and becomes a series of (predominantly spatial) technologies for the production of docile, compliant and useful subjects; and eventually biopolitical govermentality, which is concerned with maximizing State power by optimizing fertility, longevity and other biological processes at the level of entire populations. In his exegesis, Dean is careful to emphasize that though these modes emerged historically, they aren’t strictly speaking periodizations: liberal power will always consist of some admixture of sovereignty, discipline and biopolitics, though the proportions will shift from state to state, and over time within a single polity.
Just to add a layer of nuance and complexity, in the Collège de France lectures Foucault also contrasted the essentially pastoral model of administration inscribed in the Christian tradition (the “shepherd/flock game”) with an earlier, Greco-Roman model of public virtue that he calls the “city/citizen game.” The distinction is between whether individuals are primarily understood as sentient beings with needs and a potential for wellbeing that must be discovered via the development of detailed knowledge, or as citizens, with freedom, rights and obligations that are negotiated through legal and political processes. The former conception implies a burden of care on the part of a benevolent (“welfare”) State, but also the necessity of submission to that State’s fundamentally paternalistic administration; the latter is perhaps better suited to a political community composed of fully autonomous individuals, but lacks any organic commitment to those who are unable to shift for themselves. The one is total in every sense, a vision of the beloved community that yet patronizes its members; the other is atomized, but also liberating. Autonomy, in other words, both giveth and taketh away. (Dean’s framing of the tradeoff is stark: in a notional society of “juridical and civil equals, there are no grounds for a right to assistance but nor are there grounds to issue commands.”)
And all of these complicated and, at times, fundamentally incompatible ways of constructing subjectivity are interwoven in the contemporary governance of the liberal state, as well as in the institutionalized contestation of the right to govern that we think of as party politics. (In fact, we can understand a great deal about policy — from military conscription and abortion law to subsidized public transit for the elderly and proposed limits on the sizes of sugary soft drinks that can be sold — by trying to identify which historical conception of citizenship it’s appealing to.) The necessity of arriving at some kind of modus vivendi on a day-by-day basis means that in practice this unstable hybrid is patched together, but the fault lines remain and they run deep.
As I read it, anyway, those faults re-emerge whenever society encounters a situation it defines as a “problem.” Different modes of institutional expertise are brought to bear, each of which proposes its own way of framing the problem, and therefore the wisest course of action for its resolution — but again, always with a mind toward restoring society to a condition of self-regulation. So-called nudge theory is perhaps the most recent elaboration of this way of thinking, but the tendency has been evident in Western societies for the better part of a century.
And this brings us to “Gee, Officer Krupke,” as sung by Action, Snowboy, Diesel, A-Rab and Baby John — members of a working-class white street gang called the Jets, whose “turf” occupies a few square blocks of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. The song is about their encounter with the agent of State power they are most familiar with, NYPD patrolman Krupke, and their sarcastic, exhausted explication to him of the various modes of expertise brought to bear on them as living, breathing exemplars of a social problem.
In “Krupke” we’re not quite at biopolitics yet, concerned as it is with the administration of the processes of life at the scale of entire populations, but just about every other element of governmentality theory is given a turn in the lyrics. In fact, the song is so point-by-point compliant with Foucault’s schema that I’ve half convinced myself he had Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics in mind when he first composed his lectures.
Deeeeeeaaaaar kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand,
It’s just our bringin’ upke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks!
[First, the problem is named. Urban America in the immediate post-war period will be haunted by the specter of the juvenile delinquent — the JD, the punk, the hood. The JD is, by definition, an adolescent (or more distressingly a post-adolescent) with poor impulse control, mired in anomie, addicted to “kicks,” and therefore unregulable and virtually unemployable. Corrupted by a lumpen culture of comic books and dangerously sexual jukebox singles, this figure and his lifeworld are vividly depicted in Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, amped up to a feverish 11 in Harlan Ellison’s short story collection The Deadly Streets, and of course later parodied by the Ramones.
The problematic of juvenile delinquency and its management will become one of the main obsessions of American mass media and government alike, in the years before the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the emergence of a putatively “New Left” furnished them with more urgent concerns.]
ACTION AND JETS
Gee Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.
We ain’t no delinquents,
Deep down inside us there is good!
There is good!
There is good, there is good,
There is untapped good!
Like inside, the worst of us is good!
[Again, as a distinctly liberal art of management, governmentality is concerned with the production of subjects whose behavior does not require detailed administration by the State, because they self-administer. The events of the play will demonstrate that the State clearly still has quite some way to go toward achieving this goal, but the seeds of a nascent social contract are already present in the Jets’ protest that they are good. Far from rejecting the State’s claim to a legitimate interest in their behavior, they here express the desire to be recuperated as usefully contributing members of society.
The Jets further propose that the question of delinquency will be decided on the terrain of the social, a sphere of human activity discovered by the West during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though conditioned by State power and the dynamics of an economy which is itself conceived of as natural and autonomous, the social is properly external to these. The contours of the social can most clearly be discerned at the scale of individual families, hence the Jets’ insistence on the significance of familial dynamics in explaining their failure to conform.]
That’s a touchin’ good story.
Lemme tell it to the world!
Just tell it to the Judge!
[The extension of governmentality into everyday life requires the deployment of multiple registers of specialized technical expertise, typically the sort of expertise that devises categories or taxonomies of human behavior and assigns people to them; Foucault calls this “power/knowledge.”
The usual domains of this power/knowledge are medicine and public health, psychiatry, economics and law, each of which has a distinct way of conceiving of the human subject and the field of its interactions with other subjects. Are we most usefully thought of as biological bodies with a capacity for organic health or illness (and a vulnerability to contagion), economic actors with material interests, or citizens with rights and obligations under law?
This latter, legal (or, to be properly Foucauldian about it, “juridical”) register of knowledge constitutes a framework of collective agreements for the formal specification and detailed regulation of the permissible limits of human behavior. As certain decisions the Jets make as individuals and as a collective mean that they are perpetually running afoul of these limits, the New York City juvenile justice system is the primary institution of expert knowledge they encounter in their lives, and therefore the first they invoke in their quest for resolution of their delinquent status.]
Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,
My parents treat me rough.
With all the marijuana,
They won’t give me a puff.
They didn’t wanna have me,
But somehow I was had.
Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!
[Note the acknowledgement that the individual delinquent may well be the issue of an unplanned pregnancy. By implication, delinquency as a phenomenon can be understood as the consequence of a failure of State policy at multiple levels, i.e. both the failure to integrate a meaningful family-planning curriculum into secondary education, and to distribute or otherwise guarantee access to contraceptives and other necessary resources. This is a presentiment of the quintessential biopolitical concern for scaled management of the processes of life.]
DIESEL (as JUDGE)
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs a analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!
[In the first of a series of reframings — or alternately, evasions of responsibility — that will characterize the Jets’ encounters with the bearers of expert knowledge, the Judge finds that the law provides him with inadequate tools to manage delinquency. He rejects the notion, indeed, that this is a collective problem at all, suggesting instead that both the roots of delinquency and effective responses to it can best be discovered by undertaking the treatment of individual psychopathology.
Note that the vowels in both Diesel’s pastiche of the Judge and the Jets’ response should be sounded as a front-rising diphthong, i.e. coibed/distoibed. This is a once-distinct and broadly-recognizable New York City accent that is now rapidly disappearing.]
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.
DIESEL (spoken, as JUDGE)
Hear ye, hear ye! In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.
[In speech act theory, this is what is known as a “performative utterance.” That the Judge prefaces his comments with a command to hear and then literally pronounces sentence is what makes it effective. Still more intriguingly to me, the notion that there exist sequences of words so potent that uttering them properly and under the correct conditions is all it takes to do work in the world is at best only quasi-rational. It makes certain kinds of speech — here, legal speech — akin to magickal operations intended to manifest change in accordance with Will.]
Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived!
DIESEL (as JUDGE)
So take him to a headshrinker!
My father is a bastard,
My ma’s an S.O.B.
My grandpa’s always plastered,
My grandma pushes tea.
My sister wears a mustache,
My brother wears a dress.
Goodness gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!
A-RAB (as PSYCHIATRIST)
Officer Krupke, you’re really a slob.
This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job.
Society’s played him a terrible trick,
And sociologic’ly he’s sick!
[The Psychiatrist downplays the significance of multiple traumas in the childhood household — the stigma of illegitimacy; substance abuse, addictive behavior and exposure to the narcoeconomy; and unresolved issues of gender presentation and conformity — arguing instead that delinquency needs to be understood as a symptom of market failure. Only by participating in and usefully contributing to the economy will the former delinquent find himself redeemed.]
I am sick!
We are sick, we are sick,
We are sick, sick, sick,
Like we’re sociologically sick!
A-RAB (as PSYCHIATRIST)
In my opinion, this child don’t need to have his head shrunk at all. Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease!
Hey, I got a social disease!
[A bit of wordplay here: “social disease” is a common 1950s euphemism for sexually-transmitted disease. Action is delighted because the term implies institutional recognition and/or validation of his sexually active status.]
A-RAB (as PSYCHIATRIST)
So take him to a social worker!
[Decisively denying a still-Freudian psychiatry’s applicability to the problem at hand, the analyst recommends instead that the delinquent’s situation be addressed by a case worker specifically tasked by the benevolent welfare State to perform outreach and propose interventions in the city’s economically-deprived communities.]
Dear kindly social worker,
They say go earn a buck.
Like be a soda jerker,
Which means like be a schmuck.
It’s not I’m anti-social,
I’m only anti-work.
Gloryosky! That’s why I’m a jerk!
[Though as written, this passage rhymes earn a buck with be a schmuck, it was offensively (if effectively) bowdlerized for Hollywood as make some dough/be a schmo.]
BABY JOHN (as SOCIAL WORKER)
Officer Krupke, you’ve done it again.
This boy don’t need a job, he needs a year in the pen!
It ain’t just a question of misunderstood;
Deep down inside him, he’s no good!
[The delinquent, reasonably enough, is starkly dissatisfied with the low-status, entry-level service jobs that are the only ones available to him in the post-industrial economy. The social worker, on the other hand, having gone to all the trouble of gathering information about available positions, is disgusted with this refusal of personal responsibility, and concludes that the delinquent’s problems are so severe that they can only be resolved by his being sentenced to a penitentiary — the paradigmatic disciplinary space.
This brings us full circle: if delinquency can neither be resolved via socioeconomic provision, nor through the psychiatric care of the individual delinquent, juridical sanction may be the only arrow society has in its quiver. The cost of this reframing, however, is that if the delinquent can neither be constructed as an unwell body or a disadvantaged economic actor, he can only be understood as a more-or-less willful transgressor of the social order. Action, of course, sees this clearly, recognizing that…]
I’m no good!
We’re no good, we’re no good!
We’re no earthly good,
Like the best of us is no damn good!
DIESEL (as JUDGE)
The trouble is he’s crazy.
A-RAB (as PSYCHIATRIST)
The trouble is he drinks.
BABY JOHN (as SOCIAL WORKER)
The trouble is he’s lazy.
The trouble is he stinks.
The trouble is he’s growing.
The trouble is he’s grown.
ALL, as CHORUS LINE
Krupke, we got troubles of our own!
Gee, Officer Krupke,
We’re down on our knees,
‘Cause no one wants a fella with a social disease.
Gee, Officer Krupke,
What are we to do?
Gee, Officer Krupke,
See what I mean? It’s all in there! One or two other songs from West Side Story are almost as good — my other favorite, “America,” is about postcolonial subjectivity, the subaltern’s daily experience of the metropole and the politics of differential infrastructural development — but “Krupke” really does explain how this particular mode of power works in an incredibly efficient way.
There’s something refreshing, too, in the fact that by mocking the way they’re framed by these successive agents of authority — as alternately unwell bodies to be treated, unfairly deprived economic actors to be restored by gainful employment, and finally as criminals to be disposed of by the State’s corrective apparatus — what the putatively ignorant Jets are really doing is rejecting the State’s right to define them at all. Maybe there is no “problem of juvenile delinquency” after all, they appear to be saying, and on this history at least appears to have borne them out.
Some of you may remember that I’m lucky enough to count among my friends the members of the legendary Philadelphia-based hardcore band RUIN. Not too long ago, they wrote to let me know they’ve got a double-disc, fully-remastered retrospective coming out on
Alternative Tentacles SOUTHERN LORD!!! later on this year — and did me the honor of asking me to write liner notes for the release. With their permission, I share them with you here.
You and I, we enjoy a prerogative that very few of the several billion human beings who walked the Earth before us could possibly have imagined. Most of us have ready to hand, at this very moment, a machine that’s capable of siphoning a train of modulated pulses from the ether and turning those pulses into the organized sound we call music. We can pluck down music literally from the very air, across all boundaries of human time and space and culture: as much as we want, whatever we want, whenever we want it.
It’s the long dreamt-of celestial jukebox. Just about anyone who feels the itch can plumb the depths of the Cole Porter songbook alongside Ella Fitzgerald, explore the mysteries of Arvo Pärt, or queue up an hour of obscure Throbbing Gristle releases at will, complete with alternate takes. They can turn the entire Trojan Records catalogue into a playlist with a few keystrokes, encounter the name “Ros Sereysothea” for the very first time, do a quick copy & paste and be listening to her five seconds later. (You’re welcome, by the way.)
It’s all very effortless, is what I’m getting at. Now this is a truly wonderful thing, for those of us for whom music frames, shapes and maybe even defines the way we respond to the things which happen in our lives. It’s a gift of all-but-inconceivable value.
But maybe, just maybe, it means that music doesn’t weigh quite as much as it used to. It doesn’t mean exactly the same thing. How could it, when each new piece of music you hear is acquired with very little investment of effort, at effectively zero incremental cost?
I want to take you somewhere else.
Welcome to Philadelphia, 1985. These were bad years in America — the mid-Reagan years. Evil little shits like James Watt, Phyllis Schlafly, Oliver North and Grover Norquist were busy laying the groundwork for the titanic clusterfuck we’ve since inherited, each in their own way. The center hadn’t held, and the cracks were evident everywhere. The temporarily ascendent Japanese (always “the Japanese,” as though the entire country were a single monolithic hive entity, burrowing its way beetlelike through the moribund US economy) were buying up American landmarks like Columbia Pictures and Rockefeller Center. Never mind that they were being taken for a ride. It was the optics of the thing that counted — all those drab salarymen, cash in hand, standing athwart the monuments of American cultural supremacy.
The official media papered over this and the many other hints that the American Century had come to a premature end with jingoistic schmaltz like Red Dawn and Rambo. Like the actual invasion of Grenada, these were overtly intended to reignite the national mojo, restore the sense of limitless power and the serene belief in the justice of its cause the nation had lost after Vietnam. Even at the time, they seemed pathetic.
And then there was AIDS. Nobody quite knew what caused it yet, so no matter who we were, we brought biohazard protocols to bed along with our partners — those, and more fear than is quite healthy for the growth of anything supposed to be founded in love. It was that, or get the virus, waste away and die. That happened, too. The anti-retroviral cocktail was still years away. (Ronald Reagan couldn’t even bring himself to utter the word “AIDS” in public until 1986.)
In all this gloom, voices with any experience of opposition or of building an oppositional culture were in perilously short supply. The Black Panthers, of course, had long been hunted to extinction; other prominent Sixties radicals, notably Jerry Rubin and Jane Fonda, wasted precisely zero time in announcing to all concerned that hell yes they were selling out, and to the highest bidder they could possibly land. And still others retreated into the thankless, unglamorous, constant and not particularly public work of ensuring that some kind of solidarity-based infrastructure survived through the long cold years of neglect.
If the mid-Eighties were grim years for America, they were harder still for Philadelphia. The local vibes were just ugly. There had been a time when you could credibly name Philly alongside New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, but by the end of the Seventies those days were irretrievably gone. The industrial base on which the city’s economic vitality had depended for over a century had evaporated, seemingly overnight; as the factories went, so went the jobs, leaving black and white working people eyeing each other warily across a shrinking pile of scraps.
And of course there were those pleased to exploit this unease for their own benefit, notably a former police chief named Frank Rizzo, who as mayor in the late Seventies ran the city with a fascist swagger his core constituency just ate up. (During a period of more than usual civil unrest in 1969, then-commissioner Rizzo famously attended a gala ball with a nightstick thrust in his cummerbund. Any exploration of the Freudian implications thereof is left as an exercise for the reader.) Though he was out of office by ’79, Rizzo set the tone for the decade of Philly politics that followed; from him, the mayoralty passed first to the anodyne Bill Green, then to a nonentity named W. Wilson Goode. Briefly and justly celebrated as the first black mayor of this majority African-American town, Goode was soon enough notorious for standing passively by during what remains the only bombing of an American city by its own police force. An entire neighborhood of family rowhouses burned to the ground. Eleven people died. Five of them were children.
This was the city we came of age in: a city consuming itself in slow motion, like some particularly shabby and low-rent version of Samuel Delany’s Bellona. It called forth the most intense feelings of dread and love and confusion, but offered very little in the way of anything to channel them into. If you were between the ages of, say, twelve and twenty-five at the time, things were especially surreal, because the official culture available to you didn’t reflect any of this. You got Quincy scripts founded in the murderous, elemental badness of mohawked ne’er-do-wells. You got Larry “Bud” Melman. You got a double shot of the Hooters on WMMR.
It was maddening. You felt x’d out of existence. So you, we, did what all the others who felt the same way were learning to do at about the same time, in cities from Osaka to Helsinki: we made do, we made shift and we made culture of our own.
Actual concert venues were out of the question, on grounds of amateurishness and lack of pull both. Like other local punk scenes, then, the Philly milieu was cobbled together around a loose network of lodge halls, steak shops and church cellars, not to mention private dwellings from frat houses to out-and-out squats. (I saw Circle of Shit play to a crowd of seven, in a dirt-floored basement halfway to Upper Darby. That particular moldering funk of West Philadelphia earth is in my nostrils as I write these words, thirty years removed in time and the full reach of the Atlantic away.)
Commercial airtime, similarly off-limits — though thankfully Philadelphia was relatively well provisioned with noncommercial outlets willing to play the occasional Gang of Four side, and keep a channel open. Eternally manic Lee Paris hosted “Yesterday’s Now Music Today” on the University of Pennsylvania radio station, and that was good. Drexel’s WKDU was arguably even better, but their signal was weak — any more than twenty blocks or so from their transmitter, you’d literally have to walk your radio around the room to find a spot where whatever music was coming out of the speaker could be heard over the static.
You couldn’t just hear a song on the radio and then go buy it. Before Chaos Records opened up, later on, this was a city of two million souls that offered but one place you could have any hope of reliably finding punk rock records: specifically, the milkcrate sitting in the concrete dust and mouse droppings on the floor against the back wall of the basement of Third Street Jazz. I admit that I did once, inexplicably, turn up a French Stiff Little Fingers EP at the Sam Goody in the Gallery — but otherwise you went to Third Street, you braved the sneers of the jazzbo staff and you brought home whatever they happened to have in that crate.
There was no media coverage to speak of, save for a sole, entirely risible profile in Philadelphia magazine. We made ‘zines instead: shitty missives Xeroxed after hours at a parent’s office, chock full of record reviews, “political” rants and terrible poetry. These we left in tottering stacks at shows, in piles beside the cash register of whatever oddball retail store would have them.
And beside all of this, and above it, and under it, and through it, some among us made the music that tied it all together.
History lesson, Part III. The Philly punk scene was always harder to get a handle on than some others that come to mind. Neither as mired in blue-collar machismo as the second-wave NYC scene then coalescing around CBGB’s Sunday matinees, nor as (self?)righteous as the Dischord-centric DC community, Philadelphia threw nothing but curveballs. McRad, the Dead Milkmen, Pagan Babies, Scram: none of them quite fit the template, somehow. They were too weird, too goofy, too unpredictable, too hard to fit into the categories that were already then beginning to solidify.
Which brings us at last to Ruin.
Originally active from 1982 to 1986, in its early lineup Ruin was a five-piece unit, often described to the unaware as a “Buddhist hardcore band.” (You see what I mean about not fitting easily into the established categories.) In that time they released just two albums: the definitive blast of 1984’s He-Ho and the somewhat more polished Fiat Lux of 1986. An additional few tracks trickled out on compilations like the much-loved Get Off My Back, We’re Doing It Ourselves and the obscure, cassette-only Welcome Worlds, before eventually being reissued on Blackhole’s comprehensive Songs of Reverie and Ruin. One or two cuts, like “The Rain Comes Down,” remain uncaptured. But that’s the recorded output. That’s it.
This leaves us with twenty-six songs, of which four are covers. This is not an unreasonable tally for a hardcore band of the era — Minor Threat’s Complete Discography, for example, which sure enough does what it says on the tin, similarly clocks in at a mere 26 tracks — but it’s not in absolute terms very much at all. And yet it’s in those relatively few tracks that everything happens. You hear a bunch of kids throw themselves headfirst at Philadelphia, and America, and even at 1984, intent not on simply beating themselves against the membranes that contain them but on breaking the fuck through. They are, I say it again, kids, who have nevertheless understood or intuited something critical about what it means to live this life in this container or vehicle we call a body, something that most people never fully internalize at any age. They’re not going to tell you what that thing is. They’re going to enact it. And they’re going to take you along with them.
If you were lucky enough to see them play, you never forgot it. There were rugs. There were, no lie, candles. The band filtered onto the stage dressed in white from head to toe. The message was unmistakable: whatever it was you were about to witness, it wasn’t going to be yet another clutch of Black Flag wannabes, sounding off about their petty beefs with still pettier authorities.
One New York City Christmas many years ago, an ex-girlfriend took me to midnight mass at the cathedral church of St. John the Divine. Neither one of us was religious, was a believer of any kind, but we went for the fellowship and the warmth and the sheer ritualistic spectacle of it. That Christmas Eve glows in my memory as a soft haze of light and song and incense from the thurible. And for the first time in my life I understood what a cathedral is — what any church is supposed to be, really, in the layout of its nave and the arrangement of its parts. It’s a runway for God, complete with landing lights and air traffic control.
I’m going to risk sounding unbearably pretentious by arguing to you that this is more or less what Ruin was trying to do on stage. They were trying to create a bubble of space and time in which musicians and audience alike could experience something heightened, something preverbal, something that words can only ever fail. I would argue to you, further, that they succeeded: not completely, but reliably enough, and for as long as ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch. Ten or fifteen minutes spent outside your name, cut loose from your ego and that collection of regrets, fears and desires you call a self, pummeled this way and that by the crowd’s Brownian churn: not such a bad ROI for a few bucks at the door.
Could you have experienced something similar at another band’s gig? Similar, sure…but not quite the same. Ruin were, and are, astonishingly physical performers, even by the standards of hardcore punk. They brought a commitment and an intensity of focus to the act of playing music before a crowd that I have only very rarely encountered. Most schools of Buddhism place great importance on each of us being fully present in this moment, neither caught up in retrospection nor immobilized with thoughts of what is yet to come. You wouldn’t have needed to know the first thing about the band or its members to see the impact of this way of thinking on their music. It was all right there.
And here we come to the question of ancestry. You can learn a lot about how a band sees itself by its choice of covers — what it thinks it’s doing, what line of descent it wishes to claim as its own. I can promise you that in the Philadelphia of the mid-Eighties, Leonard Cohen was not a major presence on the punk hit parade, that in some quarters even covering “White Rabbit” could be read as a dangerous concession to hippie lamery. By wearing these influences on their collective sleeve, the members of Ruin were declaring their independence from the petty doctrinaire bullshit that so often characterized that scene, despite its manifest weirdness, and in fact hobbles all scenes and always will. That declaration said, “You go on ahead and draw your lines.” It said, “We come from a place where those lines add up to nothing.” Ultimately it implied you’d be welcome in that place, too, if you didn’t mind letting go of your need for lineation.
A cover song is what literary critics might call “intertextuality,” and what most of us would call “a conversation.” Ruin’s records were having a conversation with other musics. But — and this is important — not just other musics. If you were prepared to let them, these conversations unfolded in ways you just weren’t primed to expect from punk rock. They were drilling straight through Jefferson Airplane to Lewis Carroll, and right through him even to the ontological weirdness that animated his greatest work. Similarly, Leonard Cohen was just an inn and a place to rest for the night on the way to Basho.
When you place so much emphasis on the ones that came before, you also imply that someone will come after. Somebody will come along to discover your work and claim it for their own. Maybe not as a gig flier stapled to a telephone pole and left to fade in the wind and rain. Maybe not as an older sister’s taped-over Elton John cassette, band logo lovingly crosshatched onto the label in smeared blue Bic, passed hand-to-hand in secret like high school samizdat. But maybe in ways that could barely be imagined at the time of creation. As a well-formed uniform resource indicator fully compliant with the https scheme, for example, which is to say: an emailed link.
So what does this music mean, in a world where music is something you stream from Spotify on a whim, rather than wrest from a maddeningly wavering college-radio signal? What does a fierce insistence on being present in this moment mean, when the very next moment could as easily hold Daft Punk or Palestrina or just as likely a leap out of the music app altogether?
One way to answer might be to say that in pressing “play,” you’re listening to the air of a different time and a different place. This is essentially a historical document, in other words — though perhaps one with a certain uncomfortable resonance for us, now that we once again find ourselves come upon hard times. The contemporary listener may not have lived through the Philadelphia of the mid-1980s, goes this line of thinking, but Frank Rizzos and Gary Heidniks and Budd Dwyers turn out to be sadly archetypal characters, so music forged in their time and place has as much claim to resonance and permanent relevance as any other ever penned.
Another way of answering would position these songs as a reminder that everything that means anything comes with a weight and a cost. This is not to say that meaningful things need to be joyless and self-serious. It just means that their realization invariably required some investment of human effort, whether that be a few late nights up writing, a strain on the vocal cords, a wrenched shoulder, or half a lifetime outside of the main current of human fellowship. This is music that asks its listener to sit still with the fact of that cost, if one can sit still inside a cyclone. I wish more music were like that, but the fact that these songs even exist is and will have to be enough.