MOVE5 / “The Space of Possibles”: Punk Subculture and Modern Nihilism / Temmuz Süreyya Gürbüz

Image from manuscript for Blood and Guts in High School (1978) by Kathy Acker. Taken from the Duke University Libraries blog.

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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The term “punk” is closely related to a specific era, a certain moment in history, meaning the late 1970s when, as the common saying goes, “the punk broke,” but the punk subculture had influences and connections to other movements that broadened its influence. Greil Marcus’s popular book about punk subculture’s position in the history of radicalism and avant-garde, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century takes on this role of tracing connections between different art movements and punk subculture:

The question of ancestry in culture is spurious. Every new manifestation in culture rewrites the past, changes old maudits into new heroes, old heroes into those who should have never been born. New actors scavenge the past for ancestors, because ancestry is legitimacy and novelty is doubt—but in all times forgotten actors emerge from the past not as ancestors but as familiars.1

This kind of project of tracing back and forth the direct or indirect historical connections can run the risk of “over-reading signs,” but that risk itself signals an artistic tendency in writers that exhibit a punk sensibility towards these specific histories’ potential to remain alive, influential, and conscious. While for Marcus history can be a concept that is not exactly flexible, the idea that history is not over is something Sara Ahmed writes of in her blog Feminist Killjoys. In a different context concerning the dynamics between students and teachers within higher education, she critiques the behaviour of dismissal (belonging to the academics in position of power) that criticises some students for being “too” sensitive about an issue and unfolds the reasons behind this repressive, mostly anti-feminist, behaviour. She summarizes what over-sensitivity can mean to people who are over-sensitive: ‘Over-sensitive can be translated as: sensitive to that which is not over.’2 When she says that things that are not over, she refers to the things that are swept away within society by the dominant rule of thought, producing residues charged with reactionary impulses. Why Ahmed’s quote is relevant to how punk researchers treat the historicity behind certain artworks, “residual” artefacts, and momentary events lies in the importance of subjective experience in the activity of “over-reading signs”: for those who were/have been involved in a subcultural environment where involvement means participating in a ritualistic pattern of creativity and social activity, over-reading connections in history can mean reading that which is not over.

The punk discourse is the opposite of over; it is vast and still growing. As a result of the expanding documentations of subjective histories, punk has started to be taken mostly as a cultural formation available for subjectification and alteration, rather than a cultural framework whose formative affects are predetermined. This is evident in recent queer studies that have been uncovering the parallels between punk and queer subcultures with regard to the etymology of the terms (the evolution of the term “punk” being largely affected by the African American slang for gay),3 identity politics, and direct actions towards creating inclusive spaces—including the importance of subjectivity within collectives organized out of exclusion. For example, an issue of the critical theory journal Social Text, published in 2013, was dedicated to punk called “Punk and its Afterlives”. The editors list the rich reasonings behind their choice of theme in their introduction, making it clear that their main motivation was to boost a deconstructive undercurrent that questions the authoritarian voices in the literature around punk, seeking to “disrupt linear histories of punk” within the new field of “punk studies” that they are sceptical of.4 The theories included in this issue revolve around how to think about alternative time-places for subaltern ways of cultural production drawn from mostly queer theory, exemplifying the tangible formations that push for a reconsideration of punk altogether. The politics emerging from these intersections are not easy to define. Nor can they be reduced to a specific political agenda. We can say that their commonality is the emphasis on a temporality that disrupts the dominant social narratives. It is not a surprise that some of these studies build their arguments through delving into a lot of art works, music genres, performances, and films, drawing on the field of cultural production that Pierre Bourdieu calls the space of possibles. For Bourdieu, the field of cultural production is where power relations concerning cultural capital render every art a result of a certain position-taking: “The literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or converse this field of forces. […] Every position-taking is defined in relation to the space of possibles” (emphasis in original).5

But what if punk, as a position-taking in the field of cultural production, is in a reciprocal relationship with its creative media? Would the intersections of punk and queer cinema, for example, count as counter-cinema if counter-cinema still exists? “Punk cinema” does not refer to a genre here, but to an aesthetic that should not only be assessed by what it signifies, but also by what it complicates and what it can invoke. It is a term that does not seek to escape paradoxes. Perhaps this means that the term does not have to be detained by nihilism despite the early versions of the punk subculture having an especially anti-social outlook. Embracing paradoxes then allows for both probing the recurrent habit of announcing the death of a culture, a subculture or a movement and the fact that these announcements have never been accepted without protest. There were always and will be discussions around how a culture can die.

What seems like the most fruitful aspect of the “punk is dead” debate is the rhetoric it uses, treating punk as an organism which could die. This treatment is not special to punk; from Nietzsche’s widely quoted “god is dead” to “cinema is dead” announcements in every decade (from Peter Greenaway’s famous “zapper” comment to the latest announcement made by Scorsese), the figures most capable of dying typically represent a canon. Nietzsche’s epic challenge against Western values forms an interesting opening for connecting punk to modern nihilism. Considering the certain nihilist tendencies and “no-future” aspect of the initial punk moment (and how both phrases “god is dead” and “punk is dead” became t-shirt slogans), the rhetoric punk shares with Nietzsche asks what happens when a specific set of values, religious or subcultural, is perceived as an organic entity that can or could die. What is the implication behind saying “punk is dead” instead of “punk ended”?

The use of this metaphor actually kills punk by announcing its death, and we see in certain accounts that this metaphor also gives way to its rebirth. For example, Dylan Clark does not only announce the death of punk, he also claims to perform an autopsy on punk’s dead body: “Perhaps the result of our autopsy will show that subculture (of the young, dissident, costumed kind) has become a useful part of the status quo, and less useful for harboring discontent. For these reasons we can melodramatically pronounce that subculture is dead.”6 While in his article Clark further accounts for the rebirth of punk and explores its regenerations, Ana Raposo offers a more conclusive post-mortem:

“The date of the ‘death of punk’ is a disputed issue, ranging from early 1978 to 1979 (symbolically marked by the death of Sid Vicious). The reason for punk’s official demise is not in dispute: its incorporation into the mainstream. It had been ‘made safe’ and a generation that had adopted the revolutionary proto-political concept of punk felt betrayed. […] Anarcho-punk aimed to free punk – and punks – from corporate industries and organised politics. Placing a strong emphasis on individuality and DIY (do-it-yourself) politics, it produced a current that diverged from what punk was becoming. Because if punk died in the late 1970s, it was reborn, as a more self-conscious movement where political stances were more overtly exposed.”7

Whether later movements, such as anarcho-punk, that are born out of the initial punk anti-establishment DIY ethics could free punk from corporate industries is subject to the discussion about the im/possibility of such emancipation. These examinations are part of a larger trajectory regarding modernization and how all human values, moral issues, and cultural phenomena have been subjected to incorporation within the capitalist economy and their assimilation by the dominant ideology.

In short, the death of punk has been explored mainly in relation to punk’s recuperation by the mainstream, making use of the metaphor of the death of punk to underline punk’s importance in the formation and the loss of identity and authenticity for its participants and practitioners. Moreover, the reason behind the popularity of this metaphor and how it came to dominate the discussion around punk and mainstream can also be contextualized in relation to the larger scheme of the existential contradictions associated with the experience of modernity within which Nietzsche’s philosophy has also found its place. Punk’s rhetorical and metaphorical “death” ties it to the modern nihilism that Marshal Berman explored in All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1982). Berman shows us how modernist methods of producing art and knowledge failed to challenge the capitalist economic system that supposedly makes them possible in the first place. He writes:

“The problem of nihilism emerges again in Marx’s next line: ‘The bourgeoisie has resolved all personal honor and dignity into exchange-value; and in place of all the freedoms that men have fought for, it has put one unprincipled freedom—free trade.’ The first point here is the immense power of the market in modern men’s inner lives: they look to the price list for answers to questions not merely economic but metaphysical—questions of what is worthwhile, what is honorable, even what is real. When Marx says that other values are ‘resolved into’ exchange value, his point is that bourgeois society does not efface old structures of value but subsumes them. […] any imaginable mode of human conduct becomes morally permissible the moment it becomes economically possible, becomes ‘valuable’; anything goes if it pays. This is what modern nihilism is all about.”8

By pointing out how, in Marxist thought, what is honorable and real cannot be measured independent from the economic system of valorization, and that a transcendent and ethical value judgement system does not exist outside of capitalism, Berman opens up the discussion of how to create value that is intrinsic and authentic to ourselves. He reads The Communist Manifesto as a modernist text, challenging the more common sociological approach of analyzing the traits of modern life through the prism of Marxism: he reads Marxism through the prism of modernism. This theoretical reversal enables him to address possible contradictions in the Marxist idea that productive and innovative methods of bourgeois society provide the means through which a communal life can be built upon the ashes of an overthrown capitalism. He challenges the assumption in Marxist thought that, with the abolition of capitalism and elimination of the class difference between bourgeoisie and proletariat, people will be able to gain their agency and true sense of self devoid of the pressure of economic status and prestige. Berman asks: “But if bourgeois society is as volatile as Marx thinks it is, how can its people ever settle on any real selves?”9 Overall, he encourages the reader to ponder the question of the authentic self and identity, forcing us to reflect upon our sociopolitical existence.

This line of thought inevitably leads us to postmodernism and the loss of self. This is where the investigation of subcultures is necessary, since subcultures promote communality and individualism (i.e. DIY practices) while not necessarily making any direct claims of building a completely new future. Subcultural lives lay bare the potential meaninglessness that emerges from the idea of self as an independent concept that is disassociated from the capital. This activity of laying bare along with the embodiment of a nihilist ideology “coalesce around praxis.”10 They form, in practice, a subcultural response to modern nihilism; the contradictions within this response provide the roots for deconstructing identity formations. Berman renders the free self unattainable and places its unattainability at the core of his interpretation of modern nihilism: “The nature of the newly naked modern man may turn out to be just as elusive and mysterious as that of the old, clothed one, maybe even more elusive, because there will no longer be any illusion of a real self underneath the mask.”11

There is a fundamental lack here. As Angela McRobbie detects in her early review of Berman’s book, “there is no analysis of gender in this meta-critique.”12 What happens to people who do not identify as “man” in this paradoxical existence could have been useful to explore ideas around the attainability of a free self – something to be created out of the experiential knowledge of oppression and exclusion, rather than found by “the newly naked modern man.” On another note, Berman is not inattentive to subcultures, especially because he views cities and urbanization as sites for potential changes, perhaps, the space of possibles.

 This unattainability of free self is closely linked to the metaphor of the death of punk: punk, as a subculture, can only reproduce, develop and maintain itself as long as it has the underground habitat that is produced by the very socioeconomic system that it aims to attack. Berman asserted that modern art and literature may have failed at exposing its own participation in the brutality of modernization and the attendant normalization of class difference and subordination, ossifying the methods that elongate the distance between high and low cultures. Angela McRobbie, by way of injecting the influence of punk on the new generation of women in the 1980s in the USA into her reading of Berman, sees the potential for creating the space of possibles through the recognition of “new forms of misery” that she detects in Berman. I would like to finish with quoting her last paragraph from her review of Berman’s book, as she is less romantic about the urban aesthetics and more attentive to the underground forms of resistance, the inevitable cooperation between punk and feminism, and the power of subcultures: All that is Solid urges us to consider not only the new forms of misery which capitalism in its decline creates but also the new forms of culture and politics which direct experience of these conditions brings into being. And for the Women’s Movement this might mean new and different, even unrecognizable, forms of feminism appearing across a range of social locations.”13


  1. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 21.
  2. Sara Ahmed, “Against Students”, Feministkilljoys, last modified June 25, 2015, <> [accessed 22 December 2018]
  3. Tavia Nyong’o’s two articles are key resources for an etymological and racial exploration of the intersection of “punk” and “queer”: Tavia Nyong’o, ‘Do you Want Queer Theory (or Do You Want the Truth)? Intersections of Punk and Queer in the 1970s’, in Radical History Review, 100 (2008), pp. 102-119. Nyong’o, “Punk’d Theory” Social Text, 23:3-4 (2005), pp. 19–34.
  4. Jayna Brown, Patrick Deer, Tavia Nyong’o, ‘Punk and Its Afterlives: Introduction’, in Social Text, 31:3 (Issue 116) (2013), p. 2.
  5. Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, (Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 30.
  6. Dylan Clark, “The Death and Life of Punk, The Last Subculture.” The Post-Subcultures Reader, edited by Rupert Weinzierl and David Muggleton (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2003), pp. 223-236 (p. 223).
  7. Ana Raposo, “Rival Tribal Rebel Revel: The Anarcho-Punk Movement and Subcultural Internecine Rivalries” The Aesthetic of Our Anger: Anarcho-Punk, Politics and Music, edited by Mike Dines and Matthew Worley (NY: Autonomedia, 2016), pp. 67-89 (p. 79).
  8. Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (NY: Verso, 1983), p. 111.
  9. Berman, 110.
  10. Clark, 230.
  11. Berman, 110.
  12. Angela McRobbie, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Marshall Berman (Book Review)” Feminist Review , 1:18 (1984), pp. 129-133 (p. 130).
  13. McRobbie, 133.