Radical Discipline

Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics

Gabriel Kuhn

Radical Discipline
Joshua Stephens
Gabriel Kuhn, ed. Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics. PM Press, 2010.
In his 1977-78 lectures at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault began charting the rise of what he referred to as governmentality, an exercise of power that differed from the sovereign and disciplinary forms he’d previously explored in two key ways. First, it concerned itself with populations rather than individuals; second, it derived from the practice of economy in the classical sense, conducting available materials, conditions, bodies, and forces the way one might captain a large ship. In these lectures, Foucault charted its development from the management of households to what we now recognize as the neoliberal state, hitting its stride in the unprecedented intervention of pastoral power in the lives of individuals during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, in what the church called the conducting of “the economy of souls.” Tellingly, this was where the practice of governmentality, for Foucault, encountered its fiercest resistance, in the form of what he called counter-conduct: “[T]hese anti-pastoral struggles, these pastoral counter-conducts [brought]... a whole new attitude, religious comportment, way of doing things and being, and a whole new way of relating to God, obligations, morality, as well as to civil life.”
The term was deliberately chosen, and was intended to function as something of a double-entendre: conduct counter to this particular formulation of power and a refusal to be conducted. In his lectures, Foucault zeroed in on five key instances of such refusal in the Middle Ages, the first of which was asceticism: “A form of internal challenge, if one can put it like that, which is also a challenge to the other.” In Foucault’s view, self-mastery was not a pursuit of personal salvation, but an embodied, ongoing practice within a broader and (more importantly) collective refusal of the “conducting of conduct” in one’s connection to the divine, or freedom. “Whenever and wherever pastoral counter-conducts develop[ed] in the Middle Ages, asceticism was one of their points of support and instruments against the pastorate.”
Coincidentally, at the very moment in which Foucault gave these lectures, a version of this challenge to the self and other was being taken up in punk scenes across the US. In a rather strident disavowal of punk’s creeping nihilism and its celebration of self-destruction, a number of the music scene’s adherents began turning its rejection of post-Fordist values inward, casting self-discipline as an unequivocally punk rejection of mainstream values. ‘Straight edge’, a term coined in the title and lyrics of a song by Washington, DC hardcore outfit Minor Threat, became something of a code name for this lifestyle, a practice of strict abstinence from intoxicating substances and a sometimes refusal of a sexuality driven by self-serving conquest. In the last three decades, the tendency has achieved global reach and its banner has been taken up with an often religious zeal, provoking everything from inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary, to occasional media obsession, to mockery.
A key, but often less-discussed, feature of this conduct (alongside a more nebulous set of sentiments around goal-oriented living, a positive attitude toward life, and a fierce loyalty in one’s personal relationships) was its individualization and general depoliticization. In its earlier years, with notably few exceptions, straight edge bands and zines eschewed much of any relationship with political themes, favouring a more personal lens or ethics. By and large, this remains the case in the US, where one finds little analysis or even awareness of how such moralizing, depoliticized and individualized, inheres a rather dangerous vulnerability to fascist politics.
The late-1980s New York band Youth of Today, for instance, lifted part of its signature anthem’s lyrical content directly from the Boy Scouts Oath, championing a life lived “physically strong, morally straight.” The band’s chief songwriters went on to join the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas, subtly popularizing often profoundly regressive takes on authority, gender, and sexuality, and inspiring a spinoff tendency that survives (with considerable marginality) to this day, known as Krishna-core. One band went so far as to adopt the name Vegan Reich, founding and advocating a “natural law” position, opposed to both homosexuality and reproductive choice. A 1995 punk music festival in Cleveland, OH ended rather abruptly in a riot provoked by the appearance of One Life Crew, a straight edge band whose lyrics referred to immigrants as “dirty leeches.” Perhaps most famously, Syracuse straight edge outfit Earth Crisis acquired the status of legend almost overnight with an anthem rather shockingly evocative of fascist themes, entitled “Firestorm,” proclaiming, “violence against violence; let the roundups begin.” None of these instances reflected the infiltration of self-identified fascist tendencies, as has been the case in other corners of the punk world; its expression was entirely homegrown, and thus remains largely uncontroversial, with the exception of One Life Crew. Many of these bands are widely celebrated, occasionally accompanied by a dubious irony.
With, perhaps, the exception of animal liberation struggles, the space in which radical social transformation and punk have been conventionally understood to overlap is a terrain virtually bereft of any reference to straight edge. In Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics, Gabriel Kuhn has attempted to stake out a sort of counter-narrative, charting encounters between punk sobriety and a radical politics drawn largely from left anti-authoritarianism. Curiously, Kuhn has settled on an edited anthology to accomplish this task. The collection is a sort of vignette built around five would-be chapters focused on bands that carried the banner of straight edge; particular geographies in which the practice took up radical politics; manifestos from various zines; reflections from individuals who have played some role in radicalizing straight edge, largely in the form of interviews; and perspectives from people similarly involved, largely in the form of reprinted essays. Given that much of the subculture’s encounter with left politics occurred in the course of its migration to Europe from North America, Kuhn’s final product can be credited as the first deeply international account of straight edge, comprised overwhelmingly by contributions from Europe, Israel, and South America, and perhaps the first to draw from the voices of women and queer folks as central, rather than ornamental, to the subject’s history.
It’s a curious choice of format for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it replicates the documentary template one finds in the vast majority of intellectual explorations of straight edge. These accounts – including Beth Lahickey’s All Ages, Marc Pierschel and Michael Kirchner’s film Edge: Perspectives on Drug Free Culture, and myriad documentaries available on YouTube – tend to privilege an account of straight edge over any analysis of it.
Kuhn’s premise strikes a stark contrast with prior treatments of this subject matter. Where previous film and written works have alluded to straight edge and political themes tangentially, they’ve generally done so with little interest or considerable confusion. Worse still, the documentary and sociological angles from which straight edge has consistently been tackled tend toward compartmentalization and self-reference and take economic and political forces for granted. According to these accounts, we’re to believe the phenomena itself is the context. Its relationship to anything beyond or prior to it has – with somewhat stunning consistency – been deferred or dismissed. The result has mostly been a glimpse into a vaguely exotic strategy to meet the logic and demands of neoliberalism. We see mostly suburban, mostly male voices making appeals to sobriety as a means to competitive advantage in navigating the demands of capitalist production (high school, athletics, university education, professional life, etc.) and the discipline necessary to secure and maintain particular advantages therein. Straight edge, in these accounts, intentionally or not, provides something of a “model minority” within punk subculture. To the extent that straight edge is portrayed as a critique of a dominant culture, it’s generally in dialectic with a “grown up” hypocrisy concerning substance abuse. This antagonism is almost invariably resolved in some vindicating, assimilationist compromise with neoliberal modes of living. Straight edge achieves intelligibility as a force for greater efficiency within the established order.
This presentation is, thankfully, nowhere to be found in Sober Living. Arguably, it is inverted, staking out something of a corollary to Foucault’s description of counter-conduct as “a refusal of civic education, of society’s values, a refusal of a certain obligatory relationship to the nation and the nation’s salvation, of the actual political system of the nation.” In Sober Living, one repeatedly encounters variations on a claim found in a widely-read manifesto that Kuhn has reprinted, entitled “The Antifa Straight Edge”:
Abstaining from intoxicants [is] an actual and symbolic mode of promoting a life of responsibility, awareness, and independence through regaining self-control and shunning dependency on the political, social, and economic powers of a capitalist society (5).
This sentiment recurs throughout, articulated from differing points in the proverbial room. While we never get terribly deep with it, Kuhn nonetheless gets us face-to-face with what one rarely encounters in just about any discussion of straight edge: the fact that any lived discipline disrupts one’s inertia and produces meaning; that constraints, whatever their content, are productive of possibilities, utterances (broadly conceived), and ways of being that are inaccessible (or simply unintelligible) to us otherwise.
On some level, anyone seriously engaged with an ethics drawn from feminist or queer politics understands this, even if only at the level of intuition. Feminist demands concerning practices of sexual consent have yielded new ways of inhabiting sexuality, attentively and proactively. Radical queer rejections of assimilation (marriage, for example) have been borne of and have given way to new practices and, in turn, structures of companionship, community, and so on. In fact, it’s in the queer and feminist reflections in Sober Living that this correspondence is drawn into bold relief, culling reconstructive proposals from a practiced ethics, rather than situating the individualized proliferation of said ethics as a measure of transformation. Nowhere in Kuhn’s collection is this better illustrated than in Nick Riotfag’s essay, “My Edge is Anything But Straight: Towards a Radical Queer Critique of Intoxication Culture”:
The reason why alcohol plays such a central role in the lives of many queer people is simple: we need to meet each other, it’s not safe to meet each other in most other places, and the places where we can meet almost all center around alcohol… Combatting isolation by meeting one another is absolutely crucial, often a matter of life or death; if sober spaces don’t exist, we have to find each other where we can (204).
Illustrations of how embodied self-practice informs both collective and reconstructive practice in reflexive, non-fascist forms are, however, mostly peppered throughout Sober Living, as opposed to anchoring it. The figures speaking through its pages seem, much of the time, to be groping (often desperately) at links between sobriety and a politics of collective liberation – that is, when they’re not jaded by the contradiction or disconnection entirely. Jonathan Pollack, a co-founder of the Israeli group Anarchists Against the Wall, refers in his interview to straight edge as an eschewal of “just another – and not even a very central – aspect of a fucked up world; another item in the endless list of boycott-worthy items” (112).
Sober Living never really surmounts this, a fact one can hardly imagine is lost on unsympathetic or skeptical readers. That said, there’s nothing terribly unique about this failure, inasmuch as it turns on an assumption at the core of just about every discussion of straight edge, political or otherwise. Practitioners and onlookers alike seem to operate from the same premise: content trumps form. That is, no methodological error is assumed in approaching straight edge as a politics of limit; a politics of what one doesn’t do – even as it is broadly understood that an anti-racist politics, for example, takes us well beyond merely abstaining from racially prejudicial utterances. The practice of either politics is a matter of intervening against social forces acting on and speaking through us, continuously. Given how infrequently radical politics are conceived as something practiced in this way, charting the politics of straight edge from abstention, or the things from which one abstains, seems fairly arbitrary.
Beyond this, the preoccupation with sobriety – with the content of straight edge that almost necessarily becomes a preoccupation with a particular moral claim – is precisely what lends the tendency its vulnerability to fascist impulses. It’s worth striking a contrast here between the personal disavowal of alcohol, tobacco, and gambling among anarchists in fin de siècle Andalusia, documented by Jerome Mintz in his book The Anarchists of Casas Viejas, and the prohibitionist legislative priorities of recently-elected Salafi politicians in post-Mubarak Egypt or drug war politics in the US. Sobriety as a discipline undertaken to condition one’s own participation in a broader political project is rather obviously distinct from sobriety as an enforced moral-political claim. There seems little means of mining the content of straight edge in search of a politics without arriving at something along the lines of the latter scenario. Approaching it as form, as an embodied practice undertaken to remake oneself and one’s practices in the image of broader political transformation, however, suggests another project entirely, one often neglected in a conventionally left politics.
The emergence of recent global uprisings, and more specifically their function as laboratories for self-formation, begs consideration of the role embodied practice plays in revolutionary transformation. This is the case whether we’re discussing the adoption of various practices of direct democracy, techniques for intervening against subtle, entrenched forms of oppression at the ground level, or, as a recent conference of Arab bloggers noted, the shift from subject to citizen. After all, in most cases since the outbreak of the Arab Spring – and certainly with respect to Occupy Wall Street – material and institutional transformation has thus far been modest, even inadequate in the view of its own participants who continue to struggle with considerable ferocity Given that some of these movements have toppled longstanding political institutions, any account of what has so captured the popular imagination since the fall of Ben Ali necessarily comes face to face with transformations that are decidedly less material than the overthrow of a regime.
In the case of Sober Living, one comes away with little sense of the strong relationship that Foucault described between embodied practice and resistance. It’s conspicuous, insofar as Kuhn’s credentials include a background in recent French thought, which has devoted considerable attention to this theme, and he is largely recognized these days for an impressive translation of the German anarchist, Gustav Landauer, oft-quoted for his insistence that the state is a condition and set of social relationships that we dismantle to the extent that we “contract other relationships, and behave differently.”
Kuhn’s own negligible presence in the book, beyond the anonymous voice of the interviewer, is bewildering. Despite being perhaps one of the most underrated and thoughtful writers in contemporary anarchism, and certainly a voice capable of an adept reconsideration of straight edge, he seems inclined toward binding his own obvious insight and capacity for astute analysis (to say nothing of his able delivery squarely within the shadow of primary sources). This is true as much with Sober Living as it is his later work, Soccer Against the State. One is lured in by his brief introductory contributions and then abruptly dropped into interviews and reproductions of primary source material of varying quality, with only limited guidance or context. The impulse is an understandable one: let the histories speak for themselves. It’s simply not clear, however, that collecting these particular sources into a single volume was all that necessary. The essay, “Towards a Less Fucked Up World,” for instance, is still being printed by Radix Media and is widely available. Much of what appears in the form of liner notes from particular albums is still in print as well. There’s some value to bringing geographically disparate voices together through the interviews Kuhn has done, but it still leaves the stated theme feeling under-served.
To be sure, Sober Living is the only English-language work of its sort to address this territory in a concerted fashion. But especially given Kuhn’s skills, far more provocative lines of analysis could have been forged. Given that young readers are likely to be especially drawn to just about any work on the subject of punk culture, Sober Living constitutes a lateral move that feels a missed opportunity to both establish the relevance of the intersection it proposes and reimagine both its axes. H

1. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-78 (UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 182.
2. Security, 184.
3. Security, 185.
4. Security, 176.