Punk, Postmodernism, and Navigating the Post-war Environment. 

Arianne Zajac 

 

The inspiration for this article came from a rediscovery of old interests. I am currently going through a punk-revival, digging into music that fell off my radar a few years ago, and diving into many more old classics that I had never given a real chance. I also got hold of a publication for an art exhibition; Superstructures, by Experimental Jetset. This reignited an old passion, the political publication of art and understanding how our environment shapes us – as every space we inhibit, ultimately, is political. I began looking upwards at what towered over me and curiosed the architecture around me. Modernist architecture is commonplace in my hometown, Sheffield, and I feel my love for such architecture has grown considerably since moving away, as it has become a signifier of where I grew up and creates a sense of unchanging familiarity. In light of this, I wanted to understand the ways in which punk developed among this urban environment and its lasting effects today, which firmly brought me into the realm of post-modernism. 

Punk is often viewed as reactionary and rebellious. It sought to challenge the dominant musical narratives of 1960s rock and rail against cultural commodification. It aimed to shock. Punk is characterised by its DIY spirit, creating an autonomous and insulated culture away from the mainstream, be it through the creation of its own media through fanzines, peddling its own record labels, or creating its own network and community. Punk was more than just a style of music – it was an identity. Punks made their ideology and tastes known from the outset, displayed through a meticulously developed fashion style. Intentionally ripped and torn clothing was steeped in vanity and self-consciousness, creating an unforeseen but unusual juxtaposition. The glory days of punk are commonly viewed as emerging in the 1970s and withering out towards the end of the 1980s.

 

Scholars may view Punk as a fad, tied to a specific socio-cultural, historical moment, that has never truly re-emerged. However, it is perhaps more accurate to view Punk as an attitude, thus a cultural movement whose arms continue to stretch through time. 

In this respect, Punk shares many qualities with postmodernism. Postmodernism, arguably, is a reaction to modernism. It served to critique the core tenets of modernity and grand narratives of modernity.

Under postmodernist philosophy, knowledge is viewed as socially conditioned, thus more time is focused on improving the conditions and adopting fluid discourses, rather than seeking to maximise progress and the promotion of object truths.Postmodernism is defined by scepticism, irony, and rejection. Characteristics which would not struggle to find a home within punk. Again, rather than viewing postmodernism as a reactionary moment in philosophy and history, we should view it as an attitude that is still very prevalent today. 

However, despite this almost self-evident link between punk and postmodernism – there are many limitations. To tie up the two movements entirely would be a simplification of the individual strands within each or ignore the nuances specific to each movement. Furthermore, the links may be overstated entirely. The left-wing desire to have a cultural history of rebellion may erase the racist, incessantly and ignorantly violent, and sickly nihilistic sides of punk. Often punk struggles to provide a utopian vision or alternative society meaning it can quite easily become a breeding ground for fascist hatred.  

Nevertheless, there is a distinct and dynamic relationship between punk and postmodernism. Culturally, it is possible to discuss post-modernism as the collapse of hierarchies and boundaries which results in all products being subject to commodification. On the surface, this is in diametric opposition to punk, which sought to authenticate itself, but when delving further it becomes clear that this is a necessary precursor to punk. As society becomes increasingly consumerist, individuals and groups are pushed further into niches to be able form identities as all culture becomes mainstream and consumable. 

How does this fall into place with post-war Britain? During this period a significant transformation swept urban cityscapes, as many were decimated during the War. Modernist architecture was (brutally) constructed. This architecture was designed with purpose – it followed that spaces should be functional and embrace minimalism while rejecting ornate designs. There was an almost utopic vision assigned to these structures, they served as a vernacular, espousing values of progress and development. Nevertheless, this compelling, utile vision did not last. As economic crises subsumed Britain in the 1970s and 1980s and class war took hold, modernist architecture that characterised the re-building of urban landscapes became a symbol of decay. Its dehumanising disposition became ever clearer, as cities seemed not to serve its inhabitants or environment but rather became concrete confinements. Social breakdown can be viewed as the trigger which allowed punk to emerge. The collapse of Fordism and erasing of the industrial economic system in the UK, created an era of discontent and disillusionment.  

Punk’s interaction with this architectural environment goes further than simply being a product societal crisis. The outward use of badges, patches, spikes, and studs have been characterised as para-architectural structures, as they served to be a kiosk to the world. While dystopian punk imagery can be traced back to sci-fi literature, especially that of J.G. Ballard, who wrote of high-rise alienation in concrete jungles. Punk, in some respects, emerged as a youth movement which personified the boredom and purposelessness of the suburban youth; this can be put into a wider context of the urban environment, as the intentional modernist architecture withered away into plain apathetic structures.