- Shame and the Politics of Punk Fiction
Where was the soul that had hung back from her destiny, to brood alone upon the shame of her wounds and in her house of squalor and subterfuge to queen it in faded cerements and in wreaths that withered at the touch? Or where was he?James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
In an episode from the final season of a certain Reagan-era crime drama, Dr. R. Quincy, medical examiner, investigates the murder of a male teen killed inside a Los Angeles nightclub during a performance by punk band Mayhem.1 The victim's punkette sweetheart, while not the actual assailant, is charged with the homicide primarily due to the testimony of her progressively mortified mother, who has told investigators feverishly that she had of late been coming home to find her daughter "burning cigarette holes in her arms, shredding her clothes to bits, taking pills, and locking herself in her room listening to that violence-oriented punk rock music that does nothing but reinforce all those bad feelings." Awash in such histrionics, the program—today a cult favorite among punks, spawning the band Quincy Punx and the song "Quincy Punk Episode" by the postpunk group Spoon—insists that the parent of such an embarrassing child heed the signifiers punk subculture flaunts and act with quick aplomb to expunge its degrading influence.
Many years following the demise of Quincy, M.E., Aaron Cometbus and his self-deprecating cohorts Sluggo and Little Suicide attempt to escape their inner-San Francisco punk squat by taking up residence at a low-rent bungalow in Berkeley they affectionately christen "Double [End Page 133] Duce." Translating the affair into a serial novel, Cometbus, having witnessed months of depraved apathy by his housemates, finds himself aggravated by his fellow punks' chronic inability to create something productive from the self-loathing they have formalized through their adopted names. "What other culture is so critical of itself?" the narrator lectures his colleagues one evening:
What other culture strives to build up traditions and costumes, only to shun them? . . . we are punks and we jump through hoops to deny the very culture from which our daily life revolves . . . .
Let us remember who we are, and the fact that our failure and misery is but a tribute to our culture, the lifestyle of the true believer.(61)
"For Shame!" (61) Cometbus scolds finally, demanding that his collective recognize the power embedded in its filthy, embarrassed response to its late capitalist milieu. Sadly, the speech is for naught; over the novel's remaining pages a chagrined Cometbus can only document his mates' self-conscious, escalating degeneracy—and their inability to exploit such feelings as useful means to any ends.
Selected for their contrasting points of view and nonmusical context, these scenes reify the generalized and well-documented atmosphere of embarrassed self-hate embedded within punk rock subculture. Police, parents, and even punks agree: punk, in all senses of the term, is a disgrace, and this air of shame has stood firm for punks across time and place—in spite of the genre's evolving aesthetic. Noting how punks "have always seemed emotionally if not outright physically crippled—you see speech impediments, hunchbacks, limps" (273), rock critic Lester Bangs saw in punk a self-hate well established by the mid-1970s and observed how most punk music "merely amounts to saying I suck" (225). Countless examples from subsequent punk scenes on both sides of the Atlantic suggest such shame is representative; recounting his days singing for early 1980s hardcore group Black Flag, Henry Rollins, in an overstated tour diary eventually published as Get in the Van (1994), mopes from his "shed" that he often wondered, "why [do] I go out on stages in front of people[?] Maybe it's because it's the most alienating, humiliating, emptying thing I have found" (175). Around the [End Page 134] same time in Manchester, Joy Division's Ian Curtis lamented in "Isolation" from his band's posthumous album Closer (1980): "I'm ashamed of the things I've been put through / I'm ashamed of the person I...