LETTER NO. 9: ON AGGRESSION
by Chris R. Morgan
I suspect that your choosing of the topic of aggression for me to write about is, at least in part, linked to my ongoing—possibly misguided—attempt to synthesize the intensity and culture of punk with “the life of the mind,” so to speak. Of course, this could just be my natural obsessiveness and/or my rank opportunism speaking. It may be that I am overlooking with cruel indifference a longstanding fascination with the theme that eats away at you every bit as much as my own projects tend to eat away at me. So in going about this it seemed only appropriate to erect in my mind a Thunderdome for these two possibilities to settle this amongst themselves. It was a short cage match, alas, and regretfully any spirit compelling you toward aggression unrelated to mine must lurch back to its crypt with its participation ribbon. Because giving out participation ribbons at a theoretical Thunderdome makes total sense.
But, to be sure, exploring the subject on my own made me realize that I’ve long had an odd relationship with aggression. Or at least what I think is aggression. Truth be told, as a first in this series, I actually felt the need to look up the word; and by “look up” I don’t just mean “typed into Google.” I sought it out in the physical Webster’s dictionary I acquired through some kind of family book collection osmosis. “Aggression” is a word I’ve heard and read in a number of contexts. I have a taste for aggressive music. America is an aggressor against international peace. Canadians are aggressively polite. An unanswered text message is a blatant act of passive aggression. There are also microaggressions, which I had forgotten about until now. Aggression has a fluidity that rivals “obscenity.” Something is aggressive when it speaks unequivocally to our distaste. Yet it’s not as acute as rage, as confused as frenzy, or as inescapable as violence. It is a provocation and an atmospheric shift, but one that steadily lowers the temperature as much as raises it. Aggression’s ends are seldom clear, neither are its targets locked, even when it’s being put to use with full awareness.
Though I’ve been entangled in punk for the length of an entire childhood, I’ve actually never attended very many shows. I wouldn’t call myself an armchair (or cafeteria) punk, but the twisted physics of the shows most worth seeing being at once the hardest to access and the most draining to endure affected me pretty heavily. I’d say the last real show I attended was ten years ago when I saw Converge supporting Mastodon at Irving Plaza. And when I did it was always at the edge of the action, my closest encounter with mosh pits being entirely involuntary. Watching The Locust open for The Dillinger Escape Plan in Philadelphia in 2004, a pit teeming with bandana-masked Circle 9 members erupted a kind of solar flare into my corner of the venue, knocking me and a college classmate to the floor. The Locust could barely tolerate it before they couldn’t, stopping the show to call the moshers out, and in the insect costumes tightening around their rail-thin frames (people apparently do not eat in San Diego), it looked terribly silly.
But the moment framed a conflict as familiar in punk culture as it is unresolvable, striking, in fact, at the culture’s beating heart.
To say that punk is aggressive is not to be reductive by any means. It would take a cocktail of cynicism and credulity the potency of which only Dick Cheney could withstand to look anyone in the eyes and say that it is a culture of peace. It is more of a half-truth. If there is one goal that unites all or nearly all of punk’s branches it is the possibility of a just aggression. Youth is collectively within its rights to bite back at the antagonisms of adulthood, whether petty or oppressive, with all the negative energy it has in store, free of mitigations by decorum, subtlety, or compromise. This doctrine, if you can call it that, is its main source of resilience, but it is made complicated by conflicts that arise between performer and audience. The chaos engendered by call-and-response—or rather, appeal-and-condemnation—was mutually beneficial. Punk bands and their masses validated one another through negative reinforcement, both verbal and physical, like an inverted détente, each giving more or less as well as they got. But that would come to a head soon enough.
I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Judge, it’s kind of deep time even for punks. Founded in 1987 amidst the then-burgeoning New York City straight edge/youth crew scene, the band were a peculiar reaction to the critical flak their peers such as Youth of Today were getting for their willfully generic sound and uplifting but dogmatic message. Judge was more of a living straw man of unabashed militancy than a hardcore band, making explicit the menace that was otherwise implicit in the minds of the punk press, and taking the dogmatic into the reactionary. “A beer, a joint, like a gun to your head,” goes “Bringin’ It Down,” “The price that you pay is the blood that you bled.” As a rejoinder to Maximumrocknroll moralism it was quite clever, embodying Jonathan Swift’s desire to “vex the world rather than divert it.” But it was not so clever as to anticipate attracting outré demographics, like white supremacists. “When you’re in a position where you can write something, and people are going to listen to you, and you don’t take it seriously, ” singer Mike “Judge” Ferraro recalled, “you could cause a lot of damage.” The backlash put them on the defensive, killing the band, and sending Ferraro into a kind of exile upstate.“They wanted an excuse to fucking hurt somebody. And I was their excuse.”
It seems fortuitous that Judge came into existence the same year as Fugazi, whose heresy that punk is as much as refuge for the vulnerable as it is a forum for the aggrieved has proven compelling even outside of the indie world. But Judge’s legacy is every bit as calcified, only less for its satire and more for its righteousness. It’s been taken to earnest extremes by bands like Racetraitor, and Earth Crisis in particular, the vegan straight edge band whose signature song “Firestorm” calls for “violence against violence, let the roundups begin.”
But to hold up even the most problematic examples of punk would mean risking overstatement. Though it was a curious item on news magazines in the ‘90s, there are no roving gangs of straight edge vigilantes beating down on anyone drinking pale ale. Nor were Hatebreed or Converge fans responsible for burning down Woodstock ’99. I don’t even know why I thought it was a good example when there are so many more inexplicable and unsettling forms of aggression vying for our dread. I speak insensitively of ordinary people for whom aggression is, at best, a taxing solicitation of their time and energy, but which in any case seeks the end of wresting some amount of control away from them. With punk, there is at least the sense that its worst outcomes were unintended or at least unforeseen as possibilities. It was a response to rather than an embellishment of the Hobbesian reality outside the venue. CBGB’s Sunday hardcore matinées became too violent, and so to fix that it stopped hosting them and sent their patrons … back out into the city. “Your sun is setting/And your day grows late,” goes Judge’s “Warriors.” “As we walk home/This wasted land of hate.”
There was something deeply subversive in a band like Judge that was and remains rare in American punk. Maybe in the end it’s not just aggression’s case that punk is trying to make, but, in some perverse way, aggressive pacifism’s, or perhaps aggressive communitarianism’s. If there’s any value in my ongoing project to wring critical sense out of this thing I’ve spent the equivalent of at least three graduate school programs observing, it’s in teasing out the alternate ethics it engenders. More than aggression, punk seems flexible and accommodating to any disposition so long as it comes out the wrong way, so to speak, be it intelligence, irony, romanticism, piety, aestheticism, vulgarity, or what have you. I’ve been unable to find anything quite nearly as accommodating in American culture. Perhaps in religion there is something almost similar, but that always seems to risk either trivialization or invites co-opting.
This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.