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Ideas

Ideas

The rise of punkademia

How do you study a movement that doesn’t want to be studied?

Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols

Evening Standard/Getty Images

Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols

When I was a freshman in college, I heard a thrilling rumor one day about a graduate student in the government department. The rumor was he had a shocking past, and the next time I saw him, I sized him up, searching for signs of it. I found none. Samuel Goldman looked perfectly normal — clean-cut, well groomed, with dignified glasses. No way, I thought. No way this guy was a secret punk rocker.

But it was true. Though you couldn’t tell by looking at him, Goldman had been a fixture in the 1990s New York punk scene, as the drummer in a band called the Hysterics. To think he was now working as a section leader at Harvard, wearing blazers and writing a dissertation on critiques of religion in German philosophy! I told my friend Colby about it, and it blew his mind, too. Though we never tried to talk to Goldman, we looked at him whenever he walked by.

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What was so captivating to us about a graduate student with a punk rock past? Part of it was just curiosity: We wanted to know where Goldman had hung out before he quit the life, how he’d worn his hair, why he’d given it up. But at the heart of our fixation was the following fact: Being an academic is not punk. Being a graduate student is not punk, and neither is being a professor. In fact, most people would probably say that academia in general is about the least punk thing a person could ever be a part of. Submitting papers to journals, clamoring for the approval of esteemed colleagues — it’s hard to imagine a lifestyle more at odds with the snarling embrace of chaos and the violent rejection of authority that have been associated with punk rock ever since it body-slammed itself into existence in the 1970s.

And yet, the academy is full of former punks just like Samuel Goldman. And while many of them have long since abandoned their youthful passions — “I have the ordinary concerns of graduate students,” as Goldman told the Harvard Crimson in 2006 — others have stayed invested in punk culture, not only by continuing to identify with it, but by taking it up as an object of academic study. Together, these punks-turned-professors have built for themselves a small but growing niche — one that’s dedicated to better understanding what punk was, what it has become, and why anyone should care.

The field of punk studies is currently enjoying an especially fertile moment. In the past two years, punk studies has generated books like “Visual Vitriol: The Street Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generation” and “White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race,” and papers with titles like “The Jersey Punk Basement Scene: Exploring the Information Underground” and “Let the Shillelagh Fly: Dropkick Murphys and Irish Hybridity in Punk Rock.” The Harvard Film Archive recently screened a series of 10 films about American punk, including a punk rock zombie movie. Next month will see the publication of the first issue of Punk & Post-Punk, a new peer-reviewed journal devoted entirely to the subject of punk culture. Two other academic journals are putting together special issues on the role of gender and race in punk. And soon, a group of punk enthusiasts at New York University, including the curator of the premier punk archive in the United States, will put out a call for papers in anticipation of a planned academic conference marking punk’s 40th birthday.

“There seems to be a real kind of buzz about the subject at the moment,” said Philip Kiszely, a lecturer at the University of Leeds and the cofounder of the new punk journal. “Ever since we put out a call for papers, we’ve been deluged with materials.”

In one sense, punk is just another pop culture phenomenon being placed under the academic microscope. (See the conference on “Jersey Shore Studies” held last month at the University of Chicago.) But it also presents special challenges to those who attempt to study it — in part because it has been associated with a bewildering array of ideologies, traditions, and values over the years, and also because at its core, punk is essentially hostile to what academia represents. Scholars who take on punk find themselves working amid bedeviling contradictions, as they try to methodically define a culture that refuses definition, rejects method, and denies the very idea of expertise.

Some punks were tolerant leftists, while others wore swastikas on their leather jackets; some were art school dilettantes, while others came from the working class.

LNA/Evening Standard/Getty Images

Some punks were tolerant leftists, while others wore swastikas on their leather jackets; some were art school dilettantes, while others came from the working class.

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Punk rock arrived in the 1970s like a punch in the jaw, shocking parents and seducing teenagers who were viscerally excited by the fresh, unpredictable energy of bands like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash. Punk bands took pride in not being professional musicians — in writing songs that consisted of three chords and vocals that could be sung out of tune. They offered young people the promise of raw authenticity, an antidote to both the morally bankrupt mainstream culture and the tedious earnestness of the ’60s. The best bands enthralled their audiences with careening charm; the worst served as an inspiring reminder of punk’s radically democratic, “do it yourself” ethos.

It didn’t take long for academics to realize punk was interesting — that there might be real ideas lurking under the crashing and banging. Before the ’70s were even over, a young cultural theorist from England named Dick Hebdige had published a book called “Subculture: The Meaning of Style,” in which he analyzed punk among working-class youth in Britain, and traced its intellectual roots to avant-garde movements like Situationism and Dada. A handful of other writers took their shots at defining what seemed like an exciting, if brief, cultural moment.

Then, instead of burning out, the punk tribe splintered in spectacular fashion during the ’80s and ’90s, spawning innumerable local scenes around the world and mutating at a steady clip. Some proclaimed that “real” punk was dead, while others saw its influence only spreading. New forms of punk music appeared — American hardcore, Oi!, riot grrrl, third wave ska. Today, one can detect the influence of punk at every level of culture: The music can be heard on Broadway as well as basement shows in Allston; the fashion appears on runways and on the kids in the Harvard Square pit. Some Occupy protesters claim a punk lineage. So do some nihilistic skinheads.

It didn’t take long for the discord over the true meaning of punk to start leaking into the academic literature. Hebdige’s book on punk, as well as other early analyses by Dave Laing and Greil Marcus, came under fire as overly simplistic and too focused on a handful of major bands in New York and London. In 1999, a British cultural critic named Roger Sabin published an anthology of academic papers called “Punk Rock: So What?” which was billed as a radical revision of punk’s history: According to Sabin, punk needed to be seen as an enduring, amorphous force in the broader culture, a patchwork of attitudes and competing ideas that permeated not just music but art, literature, and film.

Punk studies as it exists today took shape over the next 10 years, as scholars raised ever more specific questions. In addition to broader efforts like Nicholas Rombes’s book, “A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974-1982,” the field has also produced a shelf of more esoteric studies: a scholarly paper on punk cuisine, another exploring the intersection of punk and religion. Marvin Taylor, the curator at the Fales Library at NYU, has investigated the origins of punk’s signature black leather jacket, and traced it back to a couple of Russian-Jewish immigrants who invented it on the Lower East Side in the late 1920s.

Taken together, this work has amounted to an interrogation of punk’s essence — an attempt to figure out why this explosive and self-destructive-seeming movement has proven so persistent, and what it has meant to all the different people who have embraced it. According to Anne Cecil of Drexel University, who oversees punk programming at the annual meeting of the Pop Culture Association, the reason for the apparent surge of interest in punk among academics comes down to simple demographics. What’s happening, she said, is that people who participated in the scene as kids during the late ’70s and ’80s have reached a point in their careers where they can spend time studying what they’re really passionate about.

Issue one of Punk & Post-Punk will be a milestone for the field. Founded by a pair of British cultural historians, Kiszely and Alex Ogg, the journal is being billed as both a repository and a catalyst for new, creative thinking about punk. According to Kiszely, the goal of the journal is to get behind the myths that have built up around punk over the past 40 years, and to figure out how its various permutations have influenced the broader culture.

Describing punk in an academically rigorous way can be challenging, in part because punks have always made such an effort to be inscrutable to outsiders. The punk movement, insofar as it is one, does not yield easily to scholarly interpretation. Some punks were tolerant leftists, while others wore swastikas on their leather jackets; some were art school dilettantes, while others came from the working class. Even punk’s supposed privileging of authenticity is challenged by the fact that the most famous punk band of all time, the Sex Pistols, was assembled, boy-band style, by a Svengali figure named Malcolm McLaren.

It’s never been clear to what extent the punk tradition is informed by a coherent set of ideas at all — whether there are meaningful things to say about its grounding in radical politics, ethics, or economic thought. According to David Ensminger, a folklorist and a practicing punk who teaches at Lee College in Texas and who wrote the book “Visual Vitriol,” this is not because punks are anti-intellectual: It’s more that they have always been promiscuous when it comes to ideas, adopting bits of Karl Marx, Fredric Jameson, Guy Debord, and Noam Chomsky as it suits them. Ensminger said in an e-mail that he deliberately avoided trying to “pin punk down” when he was writing his own book — an approach that struck some of his more scholarly colleagues as insufficiently academic.

Ensminger wasn’t surprised, he said: He knew he had taken a deliberately punk rock approach in his scholarship, and he knew that in certain ways, that was going to fly in the face of academic values. After all, he said, “The language and rhetoric of the academy, its narcissism, self-importance, territorialism, and sheltered pomposity, was exactly what punks detested.”

Kiszely and Ogg, who already have the second issue of Punk & Post-Punk in the bag and are working on the third, don’t see this as a reason to turn away from punk studies. On the contrary, Kiszely said: “There needs to be an analytical approach to punk, because it’s so culturally important . . . .It’s resonated so deeply that we need to make sense of it, and we need to understand why something that happened so quickly, and which was ostensibly such a negative thing, has had such a lasting impact.”

As for the mysterious Goldman, I looked him up last week. He’s now a post-doctoral fellow in the religion department at Princeton. I told him in an e-mail about how my friends and I had been fascinated by him in college. He said, in his response, that he was “amused but pleased” to hear it. Later, when I noticed he still includes his contributions to the punk zine Maximumrocknroll in his official biography, I felt the same way.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.

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