Photo Credit: Samik Greene
In Punk and Revolution Shane Greene radically uproots punk from its iconic place in First World urban culture, Anglo popular music, and the Euro-American avant-garde, situating it instead as a crucial element in Peru’s culture of subversive militancy and political violence.
David Pearson: What made you decide that Peruvian punk in the 1980s would make a good subject for an academic book? What possibilities did that open up that studies of punk in the US or Britain wouldn’t have?
Shane Greene: In general, I think the book is trying to do a few basic things, like decenter the Anglo punk story in part by reopening older cultural studies questions about whether or not, or what kind of, “revolutionary” can be found in subcultures of discontent like punk, to retell the Latin American experience of the “Cold War” from the vantage point of urban anarchists who are pretty absent from that story, and to challenge the way we write and think as academics, so adopting an experimental method of using different punk voicings and anarchist aesthetics within a still academic project.
DP: These days the word revolution is thrown around for practically everything other than the violent overthrow of the existing order. Bernie Sanders used the word. You develop a theory of punk revolutionary practice that hinges on the idea of underfucking the system. Could you explain this idea and how it existed and was affected by the context of armed insurgency by communists in 1980s Peru?
SG: One of the things we learned in the twentieth century is that Marxist experiments, when they’re actually successful, can also erect newly oppressive states. So I wanted to reopen the anarchist question of whether or not the state should be the objective. And whether or not there are other means and modes of thinking about what it means to be political in the world, what it means to use the word revolution in the world.
One of the things I saw happening in the punk scenes in general but was particularly obvious in the punk scene in Peru because there was a Maoist proposal to take the state was that there was sort of an articulation of a desire to strategically withdraw into anarchist communities and imagine a scenario in which taking the state was not the outcome of the revolution. Erecting a new state was not necessarily the desirable outcome of the revolutionary process. So a sort of disarticulation of the idea of revolutionary action and militancy from what has always been, in the history of Marxist militancy, the central, first objective, which is to take the state.
Disarticulating those two things became a point of active debate amongst some of these people, at least the more militant ones, in the same way that’s been a point of debate amongst anarchists of various stripes in the history of anarchism. Sort of an engaged retreat or an engaged withdrawal from the state. The kind of thing that the Zapatistas, for example, have been trying to articulate since the mid-1990s. Or other kinds of social-movement-based forms of political action that don’t see militancy against the state as the only option, but are trying to craft other kinds of options.
I suppose the crucial difference here is that this also goes into the realm of aesthetic action, of artistic, musical action, and the various kinds of ways that those actions involved their own engagement with the material world. You can’t be in a band, or produce music, or be an artist, produce a fanzine, without engaging in some kind of material activity. And often times, at least before the point of absorption or widespread commercialization, you’re doing it on the outskirts or underneath the surface of official channels, of official press, of official conduits of circulation. Usually using whatever tools you have at your disposal to do those things, to produce the art, to produce the fanzines. In the first essay of the book I write a lot about the central material role that photocopiers played in producing fanzines, distributing fanzines, getting the word out, getting visual art out in the context of fanzines. And the crucial role in the Peruvian case, and it probably would be the case in a lot of the Global South, that the cassette played. So thinking about the way that there were these underground circuits, material circuits, to get different kinds of information, different kinds of action, different forms of action into the world that do not have, as an objective, taking the state or becoming the state. But rather of producing an underground alternative or underproduced sphere of material action, sociality, artistic expression, etc.
That’s also more or less what I mean by underfucking the system—finding its loopholes and using them against it while not having this pretension to completely overhaul it. Because that usually historically has assumed becoming that which you don’t want to be, which is in power, from a statist logic. So in that sense it links with an idea of anarchist practice as an everyday activity rather than something that has the long-term objective of becoming the oppressive state that you so detest.
DP: Throughout the book you take swipes at a lot of conventional wisdom in cultural studies, anthropology, and related fields, often critiquing the words, such as transnationalism, that always get sheepish nods of approval from audiences at academic conferences. You express a strong distaste for any ism with a post prefix, and, in Interpretation Three, you call out what you consider rigid dichotomies in cultural studies such as ritual rebellion vs. revolution. Could you explain some of your critiques and why it is important to make them? Also, what is it about the institution of academia that reinforces the practice of allegiance to trendy jargon or the constant attempts to display novelty rather than substance in the construction of theory?
SG: Part of what you call swipes has its logic of trying to adopt punk tactics. A lot the post this and the post that or the trans this or trans is that at the end of the day, there is a colonial logic to claiming novelty or firstness. Not just novelty, but the idea of having an established or incontrovertible claim on something, or having established a new historical or intellectual stage of some sort. That necessarily implies the logic of rupture, as “this other thing is now dated, this is now old, past.”
There’s always a bandwagon problem. But I think more fundamentally, it’s like what is the notion of temporality or time or history that it implies? There’s so much firstness in academia, or arriving first to something, to the next stage, to post-whatever, it’s sort of a colonial mindset. I’m interested in a theory of history, or a theory of time, or an understanding of history or movement as dialogic, not as ruptures or stages. Or the theoretical claim that allows you to establish that a new stage has in fact occurred. And I have this different idea of revolution, where it’s an everyday, anarchist practice that I’m interested in, rather than a final telos or seizing the state and becoming the state. Which has been its own way of declaring a new stage of history, and that’s sort of what Marxists have done around the world, claimed that a new stage of history has begun. They’ve erected a socialist order. I’m trying to get away from that idea and think about things dialogically. Moving through fits and starts, and backs and forths, flips and flops. That’s kind of how I want to time travel through history.
The primary logic to organize the book is as seven distinct interpretations because of Mariátegui’s Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality. I like the organizational style also because I wasn’t casting a single narrative, a historical narrative that’s moving forward in time. Each of the seven interpretations is supposed to stand on its own, rather than the assumption of starting at one point and moving toward an end point. I think they can be read in any order. It has to do with this dialogic understanding of history and resisting the notion of newness or rupture.
DP: Your book is not written like a typical academic monograph, especially with Interpretation Seven as an imagined dialogue between Mariátegui and Bakhtin, and with the model of José Carlos Mariátegui’s famous Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality structuring your book. How does the book’s unconventional form help bring to life its subject matter and maintain a certain fidelity to punk? Did this create problems for you in bringing it out within the academic world?
SG: Well it definitely creates problems.
The fidelity thing is interesting because I was trying to disrupt not just academic discourse, but also disrupt certain kinds of punk discourse claiming, implicitly or explicitly, that you can’t be authentically punk if you operate from within the non-punk institutional spaces of academia. I’m also trying to make the most “authentic” of punks uncomfortable. I was trying to force those different camps, the stoic and serious academics and the hardcorest of street punks, into an uncomfortable conversation with each other. That was certainly behind it.
I knew of course that Mariátegui was sort of an anti-academic thinker, an anti-academic intellectual, who didn’t have any formal training, and had an anti-institutional attitude about what he wrote and thought. So I was thinking about ways to put him in dialogue with people who see themselves as thinkers and theorists who have their own ways which don’t conform very well to academia as an institutional practice. So Bakhtin himself, who was castigated by the Soviet intellectual establishment. Or theorists that we’ll often cite in academia without recognizing the tense relationship they’ve had operating within or in parallel to formal academic institutions.
As much as we talk about neoliberalization and corporatization of the university and academia, I think it’s fundamentally still feudal. It’s still medieval. When you consider the banality of the profession, faculty claiming possession over students. There’s an incredible amount of time spent and energy and attention given to problems of status, of prestige, and of institution. What press you publish with, who you hang out with. It’s an obsession not with money, because there isn’t much money in the grand scheme things. It’s an obsession with prestige, with rank—it’s an aristocratic problem. That strikes me as the absolute other end of the spectrum from punk. And I wanted to tell those people to fuck off. On no uncertain terms.
I think for the punks I wanted to expand their vision. From my perspective, as a US hardcore kid in the 1980s, the idea of what punk could be, particularly in musical terms. In the 1970s almost anything, musically speaking, jazz influences, reggae influences, all kinds of influences, could be punk. With the hardcore scene it became, no, it’s gotta be three or four dudes dancing aggressively and wildly screaming. I wanted to open up the parameters of what a punk voice could be. Like the fictional dialogue between Mariátegui and Bakhtin. Once I started writing that, I was like, is this like a punk short story or not. And I said, it’s not just about punk, but the way they’re talking about things, the focus on the grotesque body, all the slang and informality, in addition to the content of what they are talking about.
I realized I wanted to do these visual arts collaborations, and I ended up collaborating with a comic book artist who came out of the punk scene, and was one of the better illustrators who came out of the punk scene. So doing these collaborations with people who came out of the punk scene only made it that much more real. Fidelity is not necessarily the voice or the moves that I’m making as much as the relationships that I developed with people, artists, musicians, comic book artists in the process of doing the book. Not just interviewing them, but having them be part of the production of the book.
DP: So what problems did this book pose for academic publication?
SG: I sort of ended up creating a conversation around that in chapter four. The relationship between language, sexuality, and gender. Those are the three primary threads in that chapter. But it had four different lives. It started out as an experiment on my part to engage in a sort of pornographic tone. Because I was engaging with María T-ta as the center of that piece, who made it part of her repertoire to be as vulgar as possible, and whose punk feminist discourse centered on sexuality and the use of language, bodily, performative, discursive and so on.
That piece in fact went through a series of prior iterations that were very different from the one that’s in the book. I learned a lot from the critiques I was getting. Some of the critiques were fairly straightforward, like “you can’t do that.” Usually, it was more about what my assumed subject position was. Like if you are going to say the word “pussy,” what does that mean for you? So there was this fairly large concern about the pornographic words and terms I was using from within an academic context.
Three iterations of that piece were rejected by six or seven different Anglo academic journals. But ironically enough a Spanish-language version of one of the early iterations was published immediately with no requests for revisions in Colombia. And it was mostly understood by people as an interesting experiment in radically sexualized language, but in Spanish, the language of María T-ta. So, it kinda depends on the audience, the audience of academics, and what language they’re reading it in maybe.
I also got some pushback when a version of Interpretation #2 went out to the Journal of Popular Music Studies, and they didn’t want me to call Dick Hebdige “Dickhead.” Go figure. They were fine with the rest of the “fucks,” but “why don’t you take dickhead out?” I was told by a guest editor that they were worried about a libel suit. I was like, “really?” If anyone is gonna get this joke, it’s gonna be Dick Hebdige. But it’s in the book version, it’s in the Duke University Press version of that essay. So there has been a lot of playful back and forth to see what I could get away with. I got away with more than I thought quite frankly.
DP: In Interpretation Four—on women performers in Peruvian punk—you argue that intersectionality, as it’s articulated in the U.S., doesn’t apply well to 1980s Peru and note the sharp difference in reception to your feminist analysis in Latin America vs. in the US. Could you explain these seemingly related phenomena?
SG: The second one has to do with what language I was being read in. The use of vulgar language—when you’re using the exact same words that María T-ta was using, they don’t sound the same in your head when you’re reading them if it is in the original language. So, generally speaking, Spanish readers are like, “Oh, he’s using her language. He’s using the language of the people he’s engaging with and taking it seriously.” And then the theoretical relationship, in earlier versions I was relying heavily on the Spanish queer theorist Beatriz Preciado, who also writes and theorizes vulgarly. Anyway, I think once you switch it over to an Anglo context, all that flops or something, like Anglo academics just can’t fathom me trying to align myself with María T-ta’s sex politics and instead just think I’m a run of the mill porn addict or something.
I think intersectionality is a perfectly viable conceptual paradigm for trying to analyze this infinitely difficult problem of how to put together race, class, gender, sexuality and so on. What I don’t like about the way certain people use it is that it easily leaves the context from which it emerges unclear and takes on an assumed universality. And so I’m asking the necessary question: Is it in fact translatable to different contexts that have their own theories of race, class, gender, and so on? What I lay out very briefly in that essay is the problem that I’ve always seen with intersectionality when it arises in the US context. Whether people realize it or not, it assumes a geometric reasoning.
It’s about an analogy to geometry, it’s about intersecting points on an imagined social grid. That’s where the metaphor comes from. So what’s behind the metaphor is that you have presumed quadrants of race, quadrants of class, quadrants of gender, or sexuality and so forth and you try to figure out the complex ways in which the quadrants come together or the lines intersect. At least metaphorically speaking that’s what it’s doing. I think that’s no accident. Particularly when you think about race in the United States, where there’s a long-term problem of negating racial mixture, relying on narratives of racial purity, and of pretending that mixture doesn’t exist.
The exact opposite is the case in Latin America, where you have a long history of theories and ideas and experience of racial and cultural mixedness. The dominant trope and figure of the mestizo. People are very accustomed in Latin America to talking about social life in messy terms, where categories get conflated and confused. Where one day you’re this and the next day you’re that, depending on what you’re wearing or how you’re talking. There’s a kind of receptiveness to messiness rather than geometric quadrants. This doesn’t produce an obvious solution to racial or other kinds of inequalities, but the point is they have their own theories of how social categories work out in practice. And I’m that kind of ethnographer, I use those as a point of departure, rather than theories that have been constructed in a different context.
DP: What were some of the particularities of doing ethnography for this book? I was thinking especially of Interpretation Six, where you have a series of brief stories on people labeled X.
SG: The particularity of interpretation number six is that it was conceived of as a situationist-inspired art project which includes these narratives and these images that I designed or produced in collaboration with people who submitted images to me when I put out an open call. I did my own collages is basically what they are. And then a friend of mine, Shad Gross, helped me do hi-resolution photography of them. They’re actually physical, three-dimensional designs.
I feel like in scholarship there’s the classic case of the single individual author / hopefully a genius, and part of this spectacle of or pretension to be the individual author / genius who’s making a radically new claim on X. At the other end there’s group research, where you all assume that you’re on more or less the same page or you occupy the same status. I just wanted to break both those molds. I definitely wanted to break with the spectacle of the individual genius mold, and have other, quite literal hands involved. Literally, those are people’s hands who’ve drawn stuff or photocopied stuff and sent it to me. They ended up being cut and pasted and messed around with in my design. I wanted to break with that by having these people’s bodies and imaginations and fantasies and their own handwriting in the book. Literally in the book, rather than as something represented or something I’m talking about or analyzing from a distance. This is also not the team research model, where people meet every Thursday in the lab to talk about how they’re making progress on the thing they’re trying to produce. No, more like “hey, everybody, give me images that I wanna roll around on my floor with and do something with.”
Then the particularity of representing everybody with X – not just everybody, but every place, every date, every name, every band name, every art name, with X. Once, when I was thinking about that piece I sat down and wrote out everything X means, in mathematical terms, symbolic terms, linguistic terms, historical terms. X used to be the thing that people who were illiterate used to use for their signature, it is both the variable to be discovered and the variable that has no fixed value in Math, etc. It has all these complicated meanings. Interpretation Six is also an homage to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, which has a series of numbered texts, and he used a sequence of numbers as a way to structure thinking. So the use of a sequence of letters is an indirect reference to that, with the caveat that it’s not going to end at Z, but at X. With the final X image, every single individual who submitted something to the project, at least some part of what they submitted is present in it. So, there’s this culminating effect of everybody ending up in a symbolical mosh pit in that final image.
Then there’s the obvious ethical implications of what I was doing. I was describing things that got people killed, or put in prison, or about people who took refuge in other countries for political reasons. Some people are more open about talking about these things than others, but a lot of people are still extremely hesitant and needed assurance that their identity is not going to be revealed. So it was an act of shielding.
And to be honest, this project was fun. I met so many people that I immediately became friends with and that I continue to be close friends with. Many of them ended up talking about difficult circumstances and times in Peruvian history and in their lives. But they were doing so retrospectively with at least enough distance, in most cases, to not feel entirely burdened by the conversation. Despite that feature of it, that painfulness of it, the delicacy, outside of that stuff, it was just fun. It was just fun, hanging out with Peruvian punks I should have been hanging out with the whole time I’ve been going to Peru. Because there’s a certain kind of punk sensibility that really is sort of universal on some level. You just pick up on that. Not in the sense of, “Oh, we’ve been listening to the same bands for the past thirty years.” There’s just some kind of punk sensibility, which I couldn’t define for you, you just kind of feel it. That was my experience doing that particular project.
I’m not saying everybody, but there was a small group who I developed intimate friendships with. Some people were just, “Yeah, I’ll give you an interview,” and that’s all it ever was. Or a handful of people didn’t really want to talk to me, so I just had to not worry about them. But overwhelmingly it was defined by friendliness. It was remarkably pleasurable in that sense.
DP: Finally, how does Peruvian punk in the 1980s break out of conventional narratives on globalization, postcolonialism, and popular music?
SG: That’s at least partially one of the things the book’s doing, but not necessarily giving a grand theory. I don’t really like grand theories. I like eclectic theoretical engagement and very grounded theoretical engagement. In terms of globalization, it’s not just the fact that I’m dealing with the 1980s and not the 1990s, which, to be perfectly honest, the conversation about globalization begins in the 1990s. Globalization is used as a marker of the fall of the wall, the fall of communism, the disarticulation of the Soviet Union, third wave democratizations. It’s seen as the transition to a triumphant form of capitalist democracy. And then criticized as neoliberalism. The fact that I’m doing this in the 1980s is not necessarily the primary point—it’s the Cold War context. This is Peru’s experience of the Cold War, which comes sort of late in the 1960s to early 1990s period of the Cold War, but nonetheless it was Peru’s experience with the Cold War. So in that sense it’s pre-globalization.
I’m clearly invested in the material dimensions: How could we talk about globalization without obsessive reference to the internet as crucial to the infrastructure of globalization? The whole rise of the internet and the digital age have also been tantamount to announcing the period of globalization. This context is of course pre-internet, and so too are the forms of circulation that were taking place – photocopy machines were an important technology. Cassettes were an important technology. People sending letters from Peru to Maximum RockNRoll in San Francisco and waiting two or three months for a response. That was the mode of global engagement. Or sending their cassettes. With rare exceptions, everybody was recording to cassette, and most everything was only circulating on cassette. Despite [now] the fact that there’s this misplaced nostalgic trend to convert what was originally Peruvian punk cassettes into foreign-produced vinyl, because there is no vinyl production in Peru to speak of.
I feel like the problem with thinking about the analog versus digital divide as also marking the transition to globalization is that it leaves unanswered questions. Like the fact that things in prior periods were also circulating globally, they were just so much fucking slower, but they were circulating widely across borders.
For example, Martín Sorrondeguy from [the Chicago-based Latino punk band] Los Crudos – he was an absolutely crucial conduit to bringing various kinds of Latin American punk into the United States. When I interviewed him and asked him where he found it, did he have to go to Latin America to get it, he was like, “No, not at all.” You could go to used record stores in Chicago in the 1980s and find a copy of [Peruvian punk band] Ataque Frontal’s EP. Who would have thought? But there it was, and I’m sure it took a zillion months to get there. The only claim that globalization has going for it really is velocity. Things have sped up. But the actual processes are just fucking ancient, so again a rupture it is not.
In that way I was also sort of resisting globalization discourse and transnationalism discourse. Because I was saying I’m going to read this story from within the context of Peru, and be totally comfortable with that, but when it seems relevant or interesting to point out the connections that are beyond Peru, I will do so. But I want to remain grounded in this context because I think there’s something utterly unique about it. So you see in different chapters these different international connections taking place—I just don’t obsess about it, and I also don’t have a particular global or trans paradigm to sell on it.
Like, I have this picture of an envelope from Tim Yohannan of Maximum RockNRoll at my friend Richard’s house. I documented those sort of things to show that this conversation was taking place across large expanses of geopolitical, linguistic, and cultural distance. It just took a long time to converse. And it was literally like, “Hey Richard, thanks for the this. We’ll get it in one of the next issues.” The classic Maximum RockNRoll response.
Just trying to disrupt these post-ness and trans-ness claims about new periods or paradigms having arisen, or being nicely neatly aligned with something like the digital age. Look at every digital platform, and there’s almost always a reference to something analog, like the little play button, the stop button, the fast forward button. You’re not actually physically forwarding through anything like you were on a tape, you’re just using that symbol which was created in the analog era and it’s now been transposed into the digital era. Again, I’m just not interested in ruptures or new stages or radical revolutionary breakthroughs of that kind. I’m interested in the complex everyday flip flop of dialogue and life.
Shane Greene is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University Bloomington, writes about social movements, music, art, politics, race and ethnicity in Latin America and sometimes elsewhere. He also plays in a bilingual rock band, El Cuervo Sucio.
Book website with alternative versions etc.: www.punkandrevolution.com
El Cuervo Sucio: https://elcuervosucio.bandcamp.com/releases
Video Project (related to book): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onWJk336sL8
David Pearson is a doctoral candidate in musicology at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York and an adjunct instructor at Lehman College. His dissertation, “Constructing Music of Rebellion in the Triumphant Empire: Punk in the 1990s United States,” provides a cultural history of the 1990s underground punk renaissance as well as style analysis and hermeneutic interpretation of crust-punk, extreme hardcore punk, and So-Cal punk.