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Existentialism as Punk Philosophy

Stuart Hanscomb argues that existentialism is punk philosophy par excellence.

Whenever I’m asked “So, what exactly is existentialism?” I experience a sinking feeling. It’s a difficult philosophy to explain; efforts typically end up trivializing or obfuscating so much about it that is important, original, and relevant. A number of things account for this, but an important one is that existentialism is a state of mind as much as it is a collection of ideas. As Kierkegaard’s ‘aesthetic’ works, and the novels and plays of Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus demonstrate, the communication of this form of philosophy benefits from being indirect. To appreciate its significance you have to be there, in amongst the detailed stories, rolling critiques and inspirational prose: you have to catch a dose of it through its resonance with your own often unarticulated fears and aspirations. Along these lines I am offering a new way in; a hook in the form of an analogy with a movement in pop and rock music. Existentialism, I want to claim, is the punk rock of philosophy.

Punk rock I’m characterizing as nihilistic, extreme, passionate, liberating, inclusive, amateur, and violent. It had precursors, and it still exists, but Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols and all that they catalysed in the mid-Seventies are its most important moment of impact. Punk was a wake-up snarl to an atrophied establishment – a “loud raucous ‘No!’” (Garry Mulholland, Fear of Music, 2006). It sought to destroy, and in the ruins left behind it flexed its gnarly uneducated wings and expressed anger and frustration in a crude but deliberate subversion of the previous rock scene. In place of refinement and privilege, it offered energy and inclusiveness. The distance between band and audience shrank, and sometimes disappeared. In place of a rider of white wine, Evian and cocaine, it offered spit, sweat and blood. In place of systems, plans, improvable pasts and functional futures, it offered an exhilarating and dangerous present like a hyperactive adolescent. It couldn’t be stage-managed. It wasn’t a performance in any conventional sense of the word, but a happening.

no future: Nihilism

Dada is art that is anti-art. Punk is music that is anti-music. Existentialism is a philosophy that is anti-philosophy.

How do they avoid the contradiction? They walk a tightrope, which is part of the point. Punk music is an “outsider aesthetic” (Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming, 1991), but it’s still an aesthetic. Likewise, existentialism must recognize a place for reflective rational discourse, since that’s necessary to philosophy; but part of its agenda is to identify the limits of such discourse, and in so doing redirect us to what this perspective marginalizes and represses. It will rail against conceits such as the possibility of absolute knowledge, universal moral codes, an ultimate meaning of life, a final harmony between individual and state, or between the self and its possibilities. It will, in short, point to the limits of rational enquiry, and accordingly, the limits of the rational mind’s jurisdiction over emotion, desire, and the body. Hegel was the Prog Rock of philosophy.

‘Right Guard will not help you here’: Extremes

The most radical element of this ‘anti’ stance, inheres as much in the subversive nature of existentialism’s metaphors and stories as in its theory of the human situation (as valid as that theory is).

Punk Sartre
Sartre portrait © Athamos Stradis 2010. With hairstyling by Katy Baker 2016.

Punk was “a politics of energy” (Stewart Home, The Assault on Culture, 1988), and also traded in extremes: short songs aggressively delivered, Mohican haircuts, ripped PVC, and the pogo dance. The medium, like the message, was intense and to the point. Similarly, the existential in Kafka is firmly linked to the surreal and grotesque worlds of dung beetles, hunger artists, and burrow-dwellers; Camus presents murder, despotism, plagues, and the punishment of Sisyphus; Sartre began with the neo-horror of Nausea (1938) and moved on to suicide squads, jealous assassins, and condemned prisoners; Kierkegaard used seducers and infanticide to illuminate the human condition; and Nietzsche styled himself as the anti-Christ. Since human existence is so vividly exposed by exploring its boundaries, extreme situations present the existentialist with a perfect method.

The Filth and the Fury: Passion

“Punk broke out across the face of Britain like a disfiguring rash” (Stuart Maconie, Cider With Roadies, 2004). The Sex Pistols were an “attraction/repulsion machine” (England’s Dreaming). At a punk gig, to be spat at was a compliment. The emotions and moods at the epicentre of existentialism are anxiety and disgust. Anxiety recognizes the instability and contingency in life; and disgust is often manifested as anger and cynicism towards a complacent bourgeoisie who are insensitive to possibility and the fragility of their forms of life. In the grotesque or immoral lurks a strange beauty that corresponds with the unsettling ambivalence that often results from existential aesthetics.

Babylon’s Burning: Inclusive

We refer to authors as ‘existential’ as much because of their anti-systematising intensity as for their distinctive ideas. This is not a trivial point. The style models both the fact that only you can know what it’s like to be you, and the desire to inspire the reader to wake up and take responsibility. Kafka wanted to ‘shake us awake’; Kierkegaard described his life as an “epigram calculated to make people aware”; and Sartre stressed that existentialism is a philosophy of action, not quietism. We are all the philosophers of our own lives. Existentialism is therefore inclusive. Punk attitude is “reacting from your own self, your own spirit … and not accepting what’s supposed to be established.” (Jim Jarmusch, in Don Letts’ film Punk Attitude, 2005). We can all live authentically. Anyone can start a band. Bassist Sid Vicious became the whole point of the Sex Pistols and couldn’t even play his instrument.

Oh Bondage Up Yours: Liberation

Nihilism – that “desperate stubborn refusal of the world” (England’s Dreaming), is not an end-point but a rite of passage, a temporary descent into the underworld. Existentialism isn’t just a reaction against rational or academic excess, it also promotes self-creation and spontaneity. Equally, Malcolm McLaren’s mantra was “get a life and do something with it.” His stepson recalls how “he made up the best bedtime stories, but they always stopped in the middle and you had to finish them yourself” (The Word magazine, June 2010).

Punk shouldn’t be just listened to, and even dancing isn’t enough. It’s about a mood that needs full commitment – not just appreciation of grooves and tunes, but the total attunement of one’s rebellious, absurd self. To dwell too soberly on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground or Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra also misses the point. They are designed to capture and create adrenalized moments with the escape velocity to inspire life-changing self-awareness.

Do it Yourself: Amateur

A high proportion of philosophers classed as ‘existentialist’ have had tenuous relationships with the academic establishment. This doesn’t necessarily make their output ‘amateur’ in the pejorative sense (though Camus was accused of this), but it does in the sense of placing them outside of the establishment. The result can be a freedom and spontaneity in their ideas, and a perspective on life less biased by the analytical gaze of an academic persona. Also, to be on the outside creates a kind of anxiety that focuses thoughts on the concrete content of life as lived. The outsiders feel more in need of a home than those employed by an institution.

Like the boiling lines of the punk cartoon Roobarb and Custard, existence is shaky, and the unemployed are more aware of this than most. A career and the training or education it implies is a source of stability which can create a halo that falsifies existence as a whole. The punk is granted no such illusion. Cult punk spoken word guru Henry Rollins wasn’t aiming at anything like a career in music, but he was dedicated to punk and to the spirit of his band Black Flag. Nor did he aim to be a stand up comedian, but he turned his hand to something like it, and the results are his highly unusual spoken word performances. He’s an amateur and an auteur, himself inspired by Dostoyevsky and by Nietzsche’s ‘pithy one liners’. He imagines Nietzsche’s return as a stand up comic: “There’s the crazy crowd at the back – Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” (Sweatbox, 1992).

White Riot: Violent

There is good violence, such as violence against oppression, or violence serving as a metaphor for the ostensibly harmless expression of frustration. Most punk is good violence. But of course there is bad violence, and punk has a truly nasty fascist wing. Nietzsche and Heidegger were violent philosophers; they challenged the entire canon of Western philosophy and with it the infrastructure of civilized values. But to apply a cultural purgative is to run risks. By ‘philosophizing with a hammer’ Nietzsche courted misappropriation. Heidegger was for a while existentialism’s Nazi Punk.

I have here attempted an indirect and partial illumination of the well-known but little-understood philosophy that is existentialism. It’s not the whole picture for sure; the punk analogy can’t encompass its gentler claims about the mysteries of the human condition and its more harmonious ties to the academic establishment via, phenomenology, hermeneutics, psychotherapy and virtue theory. Nevertheless, more than any other Western philosophy, it’s one to be inhaled with keen personal awareness and exhaled in the living moment. For this reason its proper force must be communicated indirectly.

Punk, says Jon Savage, was “at its most powerful when impossible to define” (England’s Dreaming). There is something about vitality that precludes satisfying definitions or manifestos, and so all the time existentialism defies clear categorization there’s reason to believe it’s alive and well.

© Stuart Hanscomb 2016

Stuart Hanscomb is lecturer in philosophy at University of Glasgow’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies (Dumfries). A version of this article appeared in Café Philosophy (Auckland) in 2014.


no future Song from the album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols

‘Right Guard will not help you here’ A line from the Dead Kennedys’ song Holiday in Cambodia

The Filth and the Fury The biopic of the Sex Pistols

Oh Bondage Up Yours A song by X-Ray Spex

Babylon’s Burning A song by The Ruts

Do it Yourself An album by Ian Dury and the Blockheads

White Riot A song by The Clash

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