MOVE1 / John Cooper Clarke’s Punk Poetry – Staging the Excess / Jonathan Hannon

Images by Emma Aylett

MOVE: Subcultures, Movements, Aesthetics is a series of documentation, a critical-collective output of the “Researching Subcultures and Aesthetics Postgraduate Symposium” that took place at National University of Galway Ireland in September 2019. This event was organized as part of the Punk Scholars Network event series, with the aim of bringing students and early career researchers who work on subcultural movements and arts together and offering a space to connect sociological studies on resistance with the more Humanities-oriented discussions around countercultural aesthetics. 

The three episodic clusters in the series are designed to reflect the gaps and connections between disciplines, aiming to demonstrate the necessity of re-conceptualizations and how each paper can be thought as both specific to itself and part of a story, an episode of a collective research chapter. Topics ranged from neglected subjects and refusals in the literary world to the politics of independent music and punk subculture, from experimental filmmaking practices that blur the borders of American video art and cinema to the occupy, diasporic and subcultural movements in Romania, Brazil and the UK.

MOVE will run the course of autumn 2020 while the covid-19 is fluctuating in different time-spaces, gesturing towards new ways of moving under restrictions. Thanks to all the contributors, Moore Institute at NUI Galway and Punk Scholars Network for support and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J. You can access all MOVE essays here.

– Temmuz Süreyya Gürbüz (Editor)

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“I’m not the one who will have my life turned into legend, it will be John Cooper Clarke”
 – Tony Wilson

This essay discusses some aspects of the poetry of John Cooper Clarke and, thinking through the work of Jacques Rancière, will position Clarke’s performativity as a dissensual moment or what may be positioned as a ‘staging of an excess’.  The false discursive dichotomy that separates’ art into a high and low binary can be traced through various genealogies emerging throughout the artistic modernist tradition and policed by an adherence to Platonist principles.  Within this framing, punk can be understood as a form of cultural dissonance, where a bourgeois art form; in this case poetry, is subsumed by an apparently lower socio-economic group and unleashed with a sometimes disturbing antagonistic aesthetic.

The life and poetry of John Cooper Clarke, one of the many voices of the punk movement, attempts to create a space, an event and a radical aesthetic moment that seeks to challenge the perceived dominant high culture through a poetic form of symbolic inversion.  Poetry, with its inherent logic of sound and structure, is turned in upon itself with themes of subversion, coercion, panopticism and a disruption of a socially reproductive order.  Until recently, poetry has not been an art form often associated with the punk movement and in many ways Clarke has been handed the mantle of Punk Poet laureate.  Stylistically, Clarke’s work follows a clearly understood metre and logic, but the point upon which it assumes a radical intentionality is through his process of openly appropriating the logic of British Romantic poetry and refashioning it through a process of reverent irreverence.  He resists didactic narrative, embraces enigma and has made his career preaching contrarian reason to apparently unreasonable people.  He is a master of ambivalence.

The moral panic that followed the birth of British Punk in the late 1970’s is by now well-known.  Punks were seen as a moral threat, a danger to social cohesion and almost a personal affront to the little England sensibilities of the average Daily Mail reader.  British society was caught within a process of cultural and political flux while the winter of discontent was all it described.  Although daily news broadcasts included such horrific events as bombings in Northern Ireland and England, union and worker unrest, economic stagnation and poverty, the figure of the punk, the deviant, the menace was deemed important enough to be marked-out for cultural exclusion, what Rancière calls ‘the part of no part’. Its worth noting that any genealogy of deviancy could equally be constructed as a genealogy of moral panic.  Parallel to this process of punk induced moral panic, one could also understand this phenomena as another branch of modernity’s great ordering project.  It could be seen as the ‘task of order, or order as a task’ (Bauman, 1991, p. 13).  Bauman further asserts that ‘if modernity is about the production of order, then ambivalence is the waste of modernity’ (Bauman, 1991, p. 15).  The disruptive subjectivity of punk revelled in the sea of discontinuities from which it emerged.  The bourgeois economic model and normative conceptions of human activity found itself challenged, as it had done during many previous ruptures.  Michel Foucault describes this entrenched bourgeois notion as the ‘dream of a city where an authoritative synthesis of nature and virtue reigned supreme’ (Foucault, 2009, p. 78). Punk understood as a moment of rupture and sought to unmask this discursive construct.

Rancière provides a similar, but I would argue more elaborate view of modernity’s attempt to order.  His concept of The Distribution of the Sensible/Le Partage de Sensible has two senses: – on one hand demonstrates how the sensible structures what is seen/unseen, audible/inaudible, how certain objects can be related or not, and on the other hand, at the level of individual subjectivity – who can be seen or not.  Joseph Tanke asserts that ‘the sensible distribution provides to thought its view of the world – a field of possibility and impossibility’ (Tanke, 2011, p. 2).  The key question underwriting Rancière’s wider polemic about the sensible order, he writes is whether it is founded on the principles of equality or inequality. Punk poetry thus sets out to expose an inherent system of inequality and expose the logic of class domination which attempts to manifest itself through culture. Performative Punk poetry thus claims its own ability to appropriate aspects of a wider culture and do violence to its inherent ordering processes.

In the case of Clarke’s punk poetry this process is undertaken through the appropriation of the forms and poetics of British Romantic poetry, an art form defined by either the description of the beautiful or recognition of the sublime.  Within the Romantic schema, a type of linguistic harmonium should emerge so long as the reader or aesthete sufficiently understands its power and logic.  Experience, thus becomes divided into those who understand and those who don’t, a distribution of the sensible.  People take on identities, proficiencies, roles and spaces that are largely defined in advance.

What is at stake in Clarke’s punk poetry then, is the disruption of these identities and positions; – the creation of new subjectivities.  Through a process of dis-identification the potential subject has rejected their assigned identity, role, sound, capacity and place. Punks write poetry and punks listen to and understand poetry; punks jump around to poetry, punks identify with poetry, punks are poets.  As a teenager, when Clarke first began to read and write poetry, he imagined the poet as ‘a fella that skips around with a butterfly net’, he now sought ‘a new way of doing things, a spirit of dissent’ (Ross, 2012).  Rancière may describe this radical reordering as an attempt/gesture towards the ‘aesthetic revolution’;- one in which the ‘material realization of a common humanity still only exists as an idea’ (Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 2011, p. 25), a new common subjectivity, or a quest to unmask a shared subjectivity, through the demonstration of the equality of intelligence.  This ‘connecting the aesthetic to the political’ is essentially ‘rooted in the aesthetic anticipation of the future [..] but on the side of the invention of sensible forms and material structures for a life to come’ (Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 2011, p. 29).  The challenge is the process of remaking the subject.

Rancière describes the subject as an outsider, or, more ‘in-between; inasmuch as they are between several names, statuses, and identities; between humanity and inhumanity, citizenship and its denial; between the status of a man of tools and the status of a speaking and thinking being. Political subjectivization is the enactment of equality’ (Rancière, Politics, Identification and Subjectivization, 1992, p. 61). In this light, punks have been assigned an identity to which is attached a pejorative connotation of disruption and dissonance. In one of Clarke’s poems entitled “The Pest” (Clarke,, he describes a random act of resistance from which ‘the powerful police picked up the pest: pronounced him a poof, a pansy, a punk rocker, a pinko, a poodle poker (Clarke, 1979). The poem concludes with the death of the pest at the hands of the police, while his ‘personal political premise’ lives on in book form as a manifesto to future pests.  Here the pejorative connotation of disruption has been re-rendered by the pest as an act of disobedience that intentionally enflames moral panic; the observers scream to ‘arrest the pest who so pointedly pissed in that public place, pleaded the peeved people, practically palpitating’ (Clarke, 1979).  The police indulge the moral panic, all the while ‘pickpockets picked pockets in pairs’ (Clarke, 1979).  While it is easy and probably correct to dismiss such petty acts as political nihilism, a claim that at times can be rightly posited towards sections of the punk movement, it is the actions of the pest after he has been submitted to a ‘painless personality purge’ – that lay claim to its positioning as a radical aesthetic act.

In the case of Clarke’s “The Pest”, the police order, tasked with the regulation of bodies in time and space arrest the pest and draw an end to his nominal resistance.  But thinking through Rancière, in this case the police order is not a totalizing system in the sense that The Pest nonetheless dis-identifies and remakes a potential future in the shape of an artistic manifesto. The dying manifesto acts as the medium of dis-identification, which Corcoran defines as a ‘ruptural untangling of constructed and perceived bonds that assign bodies and speech to specific places’ (2015, p. 9).   Discipline is understood by the pest as a technique, which can be defied and ruptured in the face of a police order through the production of a manifesto.  A fleeting example of the joining of an aesthetic form to the political. In the instance of The Pest, the manifesto is the artistic medium or mediating object, however temporal or liminal, that seeks to challenge what is sensible, thinkable and doable. But at no stage does it surrender its identity as art and hence maintains initially at least its autonomy as an object that nonetheless generates an effect upon a set of social relations.  A demonstration of the paradox of the aesthetic.  The thematic arc of the poem, in many ways mirror, the aesthetic intervention undertaken by Clarke’s wider punk poetry project.  James Joyce referred to Ulysses as a ‘useless book’; it had no other purpose than to be a great work of art, which nonetheless challenged what was doable and say able within a given police order.

Life, arranged by what Rancière refers to as police orders, emerge regardless.  Rancière describes them ‘an order of bodies that defines the ways of doing, ways of being and ways of saying’ (Rancière, Disagreement, 1999, p. 29).  Punk had its hierarchies, its rules and conventions. But how do we firstly imagine the potentiality of these orders and how do we manage our social relations within these constantly emerging police orders?  We are social creatures and we organise ourselves collectively in most situations.  The key question, echoing Tanke, is whether these police orders are founded on a radical conception of equality or domination. In understanding art as a practice or a range of practices that we employ to liberate and utilize the aesthetic, allows us access to a moment of aisthesis. Mustafa Dikeç, drawing extensively on Rancière, contends ‘how this world is constructed, disclosed and disrupted is a matter of politics, – making sense of the world requires aesthetic forms, ‘aesthetic’ understood as perception by the senses (aisthesis)’ (Dikeç, 2016, p. 1).  This disruption of the sensible allows distinctive gatherings of beings that establishes relationality and the opening of new spaces, however temporal they may be.

A key aspect of this schema is the opening and creation of differing aesthetic spaces that facilitate the creation of new modes of play/being.  Rancière quotes Fredrich Schiller when he declares that ‘man is only completely human when he plays’ and assures us that this paradox is capable of ‘bearing the whole edifice of the art of the beautiful and of the still more difficult art of living’ (Rancière, Dissensus, 2015, p. 123).  Here Rancière foregrounds Schiller’s contention that the power of the aesthetic lies in his promise of-and, ‘the promise of both a new world of art and a new life for individuals and community, namely the aesthetic’ (Rancière, Dissensus, 2015, p. 123).

At the core of this promise we can observe the two movements within Clarke’s performativity, one being the repartitioning of sensible forms through the act of punk poetry, rendering what is perceived as noise to one that is perceived as speech – a new world of art; while at the same time through the repartitioning of space and time which creates an active audience and by extension a new life for individuals and community – namely the aesthetic.  This redistribution of the sensible manifests itself as a neutralization of the normal distribution at the heart of Plato’s schema implying the ‘domination of the better over the worse’ (Ranciere, The Aesthetic Dimension: Aesthetics, Politics, Knowledge, 2009, p. 3).  This process of neutralization is a key aspect of dissensus; – a repartitioning of the individual soul and by extension the collective soul.  According to Rancière, this is achieved through the ‘the staging of an excess, a supplement that brings about a more radical way of seeing the conflict’ (Ranciere, The Aesthetic Dimension: Aesthetics, Politics, Knowledge, 2009, p. 3).

This piece has attempted to liberate and operationalize some of the key concepts at work within Rancière’s wider polemics.  One could construe them as a series of invitations to potentially think through the phenomena of culture in a different way and attempt to analyse that which troubles the relationship between art and the political.  There has been much analysis and scholarly theory attached to both the aesthetic and the avant-garde, and in an attempt to move beyond historicist methodologies, or, indeed overly-didactic theoretical interpretations, – (both of which may stand accused of judging the movements as historical failures),; another approach may be to position such artistic interventions as a pivot grounded within a radical contingency, an attitude or a modality of action.  Thinking through Rancière, Clarke’s form of punk poetry is thus positioned as the radical aesthetic actor, the master of ambivalence, disruptor of the sensible, operating within a field of action that may be referred to as an avant-garde form.

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