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Rummaging in the Ashes: An Interview with Simon Critchley

Simon Critchley interviewed by Andrew Gallix.


The following is an extract from an in-depth interview that appears in Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night (Zero Books) edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix.


AG: In Very Little… Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature (1997) you write beautifully about ‘the sheer romanticism of early punk: its pure consciousness of the moment expressed through fragments of explosive and abusive noise, above which utopian heresies were screamed or sneered.’ Is it primarily because punk inherited the idea — common to all avant-garde movements — that life can be transfigured through the power of the imagination, that you define it as an avatar of Romanticism?

SC: The passage you are quoting from is from a long discussion of early German Romanticism and I am trying to think through the idea of Romanticism as our naivety, namely the idea that life, politics and everything passes through the medium of the aesthetic or the literary; the idea that the everyday can be trans- formed through a work of art, and into a work of art. And I am trying to think about Romanticism in the context of responses to nihilism, namely the devaluation of the highest values, the death of God and the rest. The spectacular energy of punk, for those early months especially, allowed us to push back against the pressure of reality with the force of the imagination, in little three-minute musical droplets of Wordsworthian sublimity.

AG: You also describe punk as ‘a working through of the creative possibilities of boredom that resist any easy translation into pleasure’ and go on to assert that ‘Boredom as the self-consciousness of naïveté is the Grundstimmung of punk.’ Could you explain this?

SC: I am alluding to Heidegger here, for whom anxiety is the Grundstimmung, the basic attunement that allows the world to withdraw and fall away, and allows for the possibility of the creative nothingness of freedom. Heidegger also talks, in the late 1920s, about ‘profound boredom’ as another possible basic attunement, and I was trying to link that to the theme of boredom that runs like a red thread through early punk, notably in the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch and the opening track ‘Boredom,’ as Howard Devoto sneers. But I’m also trying to make a distinction between Situationism and punk. The debt that punk owes to Situationism is clear, especially in the manipulations of Malcolm McLaren: ‘cash from chaos.’ But the difference is important. Situationism was a diagnosis of the society of the spectacle that believed that liberation was possible through pleasure. As Raoul Vaneigem says, ‘we have a world of pleasures to win and nothing to lose but our boredom.’ Punk was different. 1977 was the inversion of the emancipatory drive of 1968. We were bored with pleasure, with the sterile hippie pleasures that had been retailed to us for the previous decade, especially sex (we were very anti-sex and thought it was reactionary — remember Johnny Rotten’s remark that sex was just two minutes thirty seconds of squelching noises). We wanted to stay with boredom and use boredom as a tool for a more minimal and more overtly nihilistic form of Romantic naivety. All forms of Situationist détournement would always be recuperated by the music and culture industry that punk sought to subvert. But that didn’t mean ceasing from all subversion, but to go on détourning, to go on making and listening to music, in the full awareness of the naivety of what we were doing and its limitations. We were not going to change the world and the world was rubbish anyway, just another council tenancy.

AG: Philosophy, you have often said, begins in (religious and political) disappointment. Could a parallel be drawn with punk, which was born of the twin failures of the consumer society (following the first oil shock) and the counterculture?

SC: Absolutely. My idea that philosophy — by which I simply mean thinking, conceptual articulation — begins in disappointment, comes straight out of my experience with punk. We were not flower children or even revolutionaries. The 1968 dreams of liberation had been shown to result in shallow complacent hedonism. And this was also reflected in the drug culture. We didn’t want to experience another world, we didn’t take LSD or hallucinogens. We took speed in order to experience the degradation and flat tedium of a collapsed world with greater intensity. The only drug I ever had a problem with was speed, because it was so much fun. But it can really mess you up. Oh, and amyl nitrate was fun too. We used to buy it from sex shops in Soho (when there were still sex shops in Soho).

AG: If we leave aside punk’s enduring legacy, the original movement had nowhere to go — no future. Going forward meant that it would no longer be an event, just another collection of professional rock bands. As a result, punk was backward-looking, like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history; haunted by the nebulous primal scene of its own creation. Each new wave of bands sought out this point of origin: punk prior to its negation by language, when the cult with no name (or several names) was still in the process of becoming. The moment when memory’s exile would come to an end and literally take place. The moment that would coincide with the moment. ‘The now of nows,’ as you write in Memory Theatre (2014).

During a conversation you had with novelist Tom McCarthy, the latter explained that in cases of trauma, the brain often fails to integrate the traumatic event into memory’s narrative thread: ‘That gap, or absence, that few seconds of silence on the tape, become real; since everything else that is on the tape is fake, that gap must be real’ (How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, 2010). Is the search for punk’s ‘now of nows’ — those weeks or months that everybody missed — akin to ‘that few seconds of silence on the tape’?

SC: I think that’s a great thought. My industrial accident was like that gap, when reality sliced through everything, metal through flesh, making everything suddenly seem fake. Punk was like Benjamin’s angel of history with a prohibition on the future because there was no future, as the Pistols said. The past was a new palimpsest of possibilities in the process of emergence, the creation of some new idea of heritage, and punk was devoted to that now of nows when one would be lifted up and out of the everyday in order to see it all more clearly, with greater intensity and lucidity. Punk was lucid, it always seemed to me.





Simon Critchley is Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. His books include On Humour, The Book of Dead Philosophers, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, Impossible Objects, The Mattering of Matter (with Tom McCarthy), The Faith of the Faithless, Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine (with Jamieson Webster), Bowie and What We Think About When We Think About Football. He is series moderator of ‘The Stone’, a philosophy column in The New York Times, to which he is a frequent contributor. Read 3:AM‘s 2008 interview with Simon Critchley here. Read 3:AM‘s 2014 interview with Simon Critchley here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 10th, 2017.