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III. Détournements, décontextualisation et réappropriation

Post-Punk Politics and British Popular Modernism: The Reception of French Theory Within A “Renegade Tradition” of Music Journalism

Eugene Brennan
p. 199-213


Cet article se propose d’étudier la réception de la French Theory au sein d’une tradition du journalisme musical britannique qui s’est cristallisée autour d’écrivains clés de l’hebdomadaire New Musical Express pendant la période post-punk (1978-1984). L’accueil réservé à cette théorie française complexe dans des magazines populaires est intéressant en soi comme exemple d’une sorte de modernisme populaire. Tout en offrant une introduction à cet espace de traduction culturelle, le présent article analyse les conceptions spécifiques de la French Theory dans ce contexte précis. Pour Simon Reynolds, la French Theory séduit par ses pouvoirs d’ivresse intellectuelle. Plutôt que de recourir à la théorie pour « expliquer » la musique, les journalistes et écrivains étudiés ici s’intéressent à la théorie pour sa capacité à en renforcer le mythe et à transmettre les mêmes énergies pertubatrices qu’elle. Ils s’appuient sur la French Theory dans leurs écrits pour tenter d’obtenir une intensité affective et une désorientation semblables à celles associées à la musique. Dans cette même perspective, Reynolds a également recours à la French Theory pour critiquer les études culturelles britanniques, qui ont tendance à rechercher dans la culture populaire des zones de subversion et de signification. Reynolds et d’autres critiques musicaux, au contraire, sont séduits par cette capacité qu’a la French Theory à rejeter toute quête de « sens » et de « subversion », préférant les implications déstabilisantes de penseurs tels que Jacques Derrida, Georges Bataille et Roland Barthes. Cet article interroge les conceptions contradictoires du politique découlant de ce dialogue avec la French Theory, tout en tenant compte des conséquences pour la traduction culturelle.

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Notes de l’auteur

[all URLs referred to in this chapter were accessed on 20 August 2019.]

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  • 1 . (...)

1In a historical account of the British weekly music magazine, the New Musical Express (NME), Pat Long notes that there was a radical change in music journalism at the end of the nineteen seventies in the aftermath of the punk movement. An intellectually ambitious writing style became more evident, with writers frequently referencing French philosophers and grappling with difficult concepts from French Theory. As Long notes “suddenly the pages of NME assumed something of the atmosphere of the staff common room of the philosophy department of a small provincial university”1.

  • 2 . For context, Fisher also writes about theory and music journalism that “along with public servic (...)

2A British popular music magazine might seem an unlikely space for studying developments in the Anglophone reception of French thought but this is a significant and somewhat overlooked aspect of what is known as “French Theory”. This context provides an interesting example of intellectually adventurous writing, informed by French philosophy, but developed in relation to popular music and aimed at a wide, non-specialist readership. The cultural theorist Mark Fisher has described this context, the use of French Theory at the NME during the post-punk period (1978–1984), as an exemplar of “popular modernism”. For Fisher, this meant that the “elitist project of modernism was retrospectively vindicated”. At the same time, “popular culture definitively established that it did not have to be populist” (Fisher, 2014: 22–23).2 This is somewhat subversive in our broader understanding of French Theory. For example, in his landmark work French Theory, François Cusset suggested that the irony and populism associated with postmodernism was a reaction against high modernism (2005: 60). In contrast, the use of theory in British popular music writing, understood as an instance of “popular modernism”, shows us the extent to which popular culture can be intellectually challenging and still concerned with reaching a mass audience. While this is significant from a British perspective, given the frequently theory-phobic nature of British society, it is also a highly significant and overlooked moment in the reception of French Theory more broadly.

  • 3 . In the introduction to his history of post-punk, for example, Reynolds refers again to the tradi (...)

3The cultural scene we wish to trace in this article has been given a more specific designation by the music journalist Simon Reynolds. In his first book Blissed Out, a collection of journalism from 1990, Reynolds describes a marginal and unorthodox “counter-tradition” of journalism which has challenged preconceived notions about music writing. He identifies this as a “renegade tradition”, which was consolidated under the influence of post-punk music and the writing found in the pages of the NME during that period.3 Reynolds’s description of the “renegade tradition” echoes the French avant-garde journal Tel Quel’s conception of écriture. Against the unifying practices of reading, with its tendency to consolidate “meaning”, music writing, for Reynolds, disrupts meaning. He describes the “renegade tradition”, in the terms of Roland Barthes, as a turn from “plaisir” to “jouissance”, away from the “secure enjoyment of identity through time” to a discourse that plays “havoc with those tidy schemes” (Reynolds, 2011, para 5 loc 101). Reynolds describes his dissatisfaction with a number of critical discourses with their claims to subversion and unconscious resistance. These various discourses hold in common a fixation on interpretation and judgment. The rock discourse he is concerned with, in contrast, has “been host to a renegade tradition”. He establishes this outsider tradition as follows:

Instead of arbitration, these writers opt for exaltation. Instead of interpretation and elucidation, they seek to amplify the chaos, opacity and indeterminacy of music. Instead of reading and writing, they prefer rending and writhing. Instead of legibility/legitimation, they prefer the illegible and illicit. Instead of seeking to align rock music with constructive ends, they prefer deconstruction/destruction, the sheer waste of energy into the void. This counter-tradition would include figures like Nik Cohn, Lester Bangs, Paul Morley and Ian Penman, Barney Hoskyns and Chris Bohn. (ibid.)

4It is worth pausing here to consider what exactly is the “French Theory” which this “renegade tradition” makes use of and what does it tell us about translation? In Reynolds’s definition, he clearly references two of the most prominent thinkers of French Theory as described by François Cusset and others: Roland Barthes (in the framing of plaisir/jouissance and Jacques Derrida (in referencing “deconstruction/destruction”). In this regard, he echoes many of the journalists fascinated with theory—such as Ian Penman and Paul Morley—for whom Derrida and Barthes had a particularly prominent place in their music writing. However, what is curious about the above definition is the direct reference to Georges Bataille and his theories of unproductive expenditure and The Accursed Share, clearly alluded to by Reynolds when he writes of “the sheer waste of energy into the void”. This is an accurate reflection of the interests of his “renegade tradition”: writers like Penman and others frequently referenced Bataille as much as Derrida and Barthes. But this seems to be unusual as an example of “French Theory” because that canon commonly refers to the generation of thinkers associated with structuralism and poststructuralism: Derrida, Barthes, as well as Foucault, Deleuze and others. Bataille, in contrast, belonged to a previous generation of thinkers, died in 1962 and would rather seem to be an influence on that generation of thinkers rather than being situated alongside them. However, while that is clearly the case in the history of French thought, it is worth remembering that French Theory is an Anglophone construction and the logic of chronological and teleological history is not always operative in the translation and construction of that canon. In other words, the reception of Bataille in the Anglophone world was often parallel to the reception/construction of the canon Cusset references in his major work on the subject. There are a number of complex reasons for this but one important and obvious reason is that Bataille was often translated alongside these thinkers and in the same American reviews which were the principal organs of French Theory. For example, one of the principal outlets for French Theory was Sylvère Lotringer’s Semiotext(e), which dedicated an issue to Georges Bataille in 1976. Other issues from around the same period included an issue devoted to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1977) and post-1968 re-readings of Nietzsche (1978) featuring work by Lyotard, Foucault and others. (One of the most landmark events in the reception/construction of French Theory, the Schizoculture conference, was also organized by Lotringer in 1975.) So Bataille, in his American translation, was often situated alongside the same milieu as that of the post-68 philosophers he influenced. It is not specific to Semiotext(e) either. Another major outlet for French Theory in America was the review October which cited Bataille on similar terms as Barthes and dedicated a special issue to him in 1986.

  • 4 . In this regard, Bataille has often been regarded in an Anglo-American context as a “proto-postst (...)

5Again, the prominence of Bataille in the milieu of French Theory is complex and there are many reasons for it. But we focus on it as an example of the context-sensitive nature of the translation of French Theory, where Anglo-American readers of a thinker such as Bataille might encounter him as if he belonged to the same generation as Foucault and Derrida.4 This is a clear example of how the translation of French Theory was necessarily de-contextualizing and de-historicizing. This carries problems as well as seductive potentials. De-historicization often leads to de-politicization as a negative consequence of the translation of theory. But at the same time, such decontextualization is often necessary in order to affirm the intellectual adventure and creation of new connections inherent in theoretical translation. It would be highly conservative and against the spirit of translation to be overly-dogmatic and insistent on relentlessly tying theory to its original context. From this perspective, examining the adventure of French Theory can teach us about what is lost in translation (the important political contexts from which concepts emerge) as well as what is gained: Translation is a creative process and ideas pick up “noise” and new intellectual vectors when moving from one context to the next. The latter part of our article will return to these questions of translation with a more specific example of ideas in transit, looking at how “the abject” first theorized by Georges Bataille, then more famously by Julia Kristeva, takes on new life in the context of British music writing.

6Returning to Reynolds’s definition of the “renegade tradition” then, when he refers to Derrida, Barthes and Bataille as the main sources of his conception of French theory it is not as illogical as it might seem. Rather than merely echoing the unstable and unlikely place of Bataille within that canon, it is another indication of the very instability of that canon itself and its subjection to the context of translation and construction. While much has been written on French Theory in America—the unusual case of philosophers being primarily studied at (comparative) literature departments, and the prominence of French Theory in American art writing, for example—our article considers the less known story of French Theory in British popular culture. As such, it aims to show some of the specific ways in which French Theory was used in Reynolds’s “renegade tradition” of music writing. In this regard, we will focus on how these writers’ used theory as an intellectual justification of their political (and anti-political) positions.

  • 5 . As indicated by the Pat Long quote at the beginning of this article, the uses of French Theory i (...)

7The first part of our article will provide a historical overview, giving readers an introduction to this tradition of music journalism and the ways in which some of the journalists understood theory. For Reynolds in particular, he is interested in how these “popular” non-academic uses of French Theory offer implicit critiques of the ways in which some of the major scholars of British Cultural Studies have understood theory.5 In the latter part of the article, we will show a more specific example of the translation of a particular concept: the theory of abjection, originally developed by Bataille, Julia Kristeva, and used prominently in the very different context of UK popular music writing in the nineteen eighties.

8Much of the article focuses on ideas around theory and politics emanating from post-punk, so we will begin by offering some further contextualization.

Post-Punk Politics

  • 6 . See also Ellen Willis on “the harsh, defiant, no-exit negativism of punk rock in the late sevent (...)

9The factors enabling the receptivity of French Theory in the aftermath of punk were myriad. The political context is crucial for understanding how French Theory gets read and used. We thus wish to consider the differing conceptions of the political arising from punk music, generally vastly more pessimistic than other subcultural movements which preceded it. Historical accounts of punk and post-punk have repeatedly framed this counter-cultural turn as a transition from the utopianism of the cultural politics of the sixties to the bleak, quasi-dystopian cultural affects which became more dominant in the nineteen seventies. Among other factors, the rise of punk has often been framed partially in response to the bleak socio-economic reality of Britain (Savage, 2005: 77). The narrative around punk has also been compounded by the fact that such socio-economic decline occurred in the aftermath of a particularly idealistic counter-cultural moment in the late sixties. “Punk” is thus often framed as being generated out of an antipathy towards the misleading idealism of sixties “hippy” culture, and its apparent political and social naivety. On similar terms, David Wise and Stuart Wise wrote a pamphlet dating from 1978 entitled the “End of Music” which traced the genesis of punk alongside English situationism. The Wises identify an exceptional negativity as being characteristic of both punk music and English situationism, a negativity divorced from any political usefulness, and actively hostile towards “the golden afternoon of hippy ideology” (Wise, 1996: 67).6

  • 7 . See for example, Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (eds.), 1991, and Stuart Hall, 1998.

10The political negativity of post-punk coincided with a cultural turn which not only destabilized the boundaries between high and low culture, but emphasized the ambiguity and complicity of all forms of resistance within capitalism. The critic Robert Garnett has noted that punk’s emergence in 1976 was roughly contemporaneous with the rise in currency of the term “Postmodernism” within intellectual culture. Garnett writes that “It was around punk that the reconfiguration of the interface between high art and popular music first began to be conducted” (1990: 19). In this respect a leading intellectual trend of postmodernism, or the “cultural turn”, was the work of the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies. Garnett notes that one of the first studies to examine popular culture from the perspective of semiotics was Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style, written in the aftermath of punk in 1979. Similarly, Stuart Hall’s landmark essays appeared during this period in which he developed arguments and methodologies for popular culture as an essential field of academic and political analysis.7

11Cultural Studies viewed subcultures such as punk as a process of “containment/resistance” (Hall, 1998: 442–453). In other words, Cultural Studies avoids any easy moralizing dismissals of consumerism and searches for points of subversion within popular consumption. The consumerist impulses guiding subcultures does not render them a “pure” form of resistance but neither does it completely de-legitimize them as practices of resistance within and against capitalism and alienation. The “renegade tradition” of music journalism we wish to focus on shares this sense of ambivalence and complicity around forms of resistance within postmodernism, but as we will see, Simon Reynolds and other music journalists are often in direct antagonism with Cultural Studies’ notions of “subversion” and “meaning”, preferring instead “self-subversion” and a “pure waste of energy into the void”. Reynolds and others follow the attempts to destabilize high and low culture characteristic of postmodernism and Cultural Studies, however we argue below that the direct influence of French Theory comes in the form of a break with such concern for subversion in favour of what seems to be a nihilistic antipathy to the political.

12The post-punk scene, around which the “renegade tradition” was consolidated, shared the bleakness and negativity of punk but with a more sophisticated political consciousness. The primal anger or “agit-prop protest” of punk music quickly came to be seen as too simplistic (Reynolds, 2006: xxii). Simon Reynolds, in his study of post-punk, writes that as well as recognizing that “the personal is political”, “the most acute of these groups captured the way in which ‘the political is personal’—how current events and the actions of government invade everyday life” (ibid.). An exploration of the insidious effects of ideology on everyday life was a more viable and realistic political expression than a merely oppositional one which punk sometimes limited itself to. The NME journalist Andy Gill exemplifies this perspective on subtlety in post-punk politics in his 1979 review of an LP by the group The Residents who, he writes, “instead of identifying a cultural malaise and ranting on about it”, have “made an album which hints at a problem and, without laborious explanations or crocodile tears, actually implements a possible solution, forcing the listener to adopt a role other than consumer” (Gill, 1979: 50). Rather than directly confronting ideological and political issues, the argument is that their insidious effects on our lives demand a response which is similarly indirect and complex. Since the group only indirectly “hints” at the political problem, the listener is encouraged to make their own intellectual and political conclusions.

  • 8 . Laura Mulvey and Victor Murgin interviewed by Hilde Van Gelder and Alexander Streitberger, “The (...)

13For the NME writers working through the complex relationship of music to politics, their political thinking during this period was majorly influenced by French thought, ranging from the marxism of Guy Debord and the Situationist International to the increasingly prominent poststructuralism of thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. It is worth noting here that the reception of French Theory in Britain at this point was partially facilitated by the rise of a cultural negation of “Englishness”. For example, the theorist Laura Mulvey has spoken about a “kind of oedipal rejection of Englishness” by a counter-cultural and intellectual youth, introducing phobic points normally detested by traditional Englishness, especially French ideas.8 Alongside these broad cultural shifts, changing conditions in the music press also furnished more possibilities for encounters with radical French thought. In 1973, when Nick Logan was appointed editor of the NME he began recruiting writers from the underground press. The attempt to incorporate writers who were not necessarily formed as music journalists was significant because it meant writers were often as well versed in counter-cultural politics and radical theory as they might be in music. The critical culture at the NME, and beyond, became more significantly intellectualized, and thus receptive to French Theory in the late seventies.

“Theory” and “Music”: The Renegades’ Critique of Cultural Studies

14In his history of the music press, Mark Sinker notes that in post-punk Britain “French critical theory was far from pervasive even in academic at this date” (Sinker, 2018: 27-28). One of the most erudite and theory-conscious writers was Ian Penman, who began writing for the NME in 1978 at the age of 17. As Sinker notes, one of the vanguards for French Theory at this point was the British film journal Screen, and Penman most likely encountered French thought through this magazine as well as early translations of Barthes and others sold at Compendium Books in Camden.

  • 9 .

15In one of Penman’s earliest articles, a live review of Iggy Pop in the summer of 1978, he describes the singer’s stage arrival in dramatic terms. “No coloured, only white lights on” he writes. “Musicians subdued. Iggy steps forward. He could be the existential hero, he could be a cabaret singer.”9 This oscillation between existential hero and cabaret singer encapsulates the shifts taking place in writing about music at this point, indicative of the broader postmodern, or cultural turn, where the distinctions between high and low culture were becoming increasingly destabilized (see Jameson, 1998). Penman’s writing suggests that the excitement and collective experience generated at a popular concert creates a visceral impact, but also a space for intellectual reflection. Midway through the gushing review in which Penman struggles to find words to match the intensity of the experience he declares “I need a new vocabulary for this.” Penman’s attempt to grapple with the ineffable in a mass cultural format exemplifies what Mark Fisher refers to as “popular modernism”. This form of journalism suggests that “difficulty” and ground-breaking aesthetic representation are not the preserves of any one genre, social class or cultural hierarchy. For Penman, a pop concert is an encounter with important and challenging culture. Similarly, as is implied here, a popular music review in a mass circulation music magazine was as valid a format of exploring the limits of linguistic representation in relation to cultural experience as any other form of writing. This attitude was not unique to Penman but was exemplified by many writers at the NME during this period.

  • 10 . A key example of this approach is K. Eshun, 1998.
  • 11 . Eshun’s book uses an unconventional pagination system.

16The relation between “high” and “low” culture, evoked by Penman here, is worth dwelling on, as it helps us to clarify the appeal of theory. One of the problems with some conventional Cultural Studies accounts of the relationship between popular music and theory, or between low and high culture in postmodernism, is that the same hierarchical schemas are maintained, merely with different points of emphasis: the “low” simply becomes substituted for the “high” in an inverse value scheme, unwittingly producing an un-postmodern form of binary thinking. In this regard Roger Garnett offers a pertinent critique of Simon Frith, the noted cultural studies scholar, and his landmark Art into Pop (1987, co-authored with Howard Horne). Frith’s perspective, Garnett explains, does not really deconstruct the relationship between “art” and “pop”, but merely affirms the “popular” side of the equation, “which is, consequently, over-privileged and thus the opposition is re-enforced. When reading studies like this, it is not difficult to detect behind the ‘postmodernist’ façade a misplaced counter-chauvinistic prejudice against the aesthetic” (Garnett, 1990: 19). The “renegade tradition” at its best challenges the false populism of this postmodernist perspective in which the “popular” is overstated and overcompensated for. It disrupts and deconstructs such forms of binary thinking. The tradition advances the idea that theory can be a generative process of its own, rather than merely a representation of reality. Theory contributes to the constitution and intensification of a reality, more than description or simply representation.10 Ian Penman has often challenged the very distinction between theory and music. In an essay from later in his career in which he reviewed the 1995 Tricky LP “Maxinquaye”, Penman astutely notes “But the mistake that all too many too-literal critics still make is to keep ‘music’ and ‘theory’ separate. ‘Theory’ is still what the critic cooks up—later—out of the ‘raw’ matter of the Song. But dub unsettles that whole schema” (Penman, 1995: 13). In other words, weird and ground-breaking music (in this case Dub music) necessitates a theoretical vocabulary (“I need a new vocabulary”) to evoke the uncanny within. Challenging concepts are not simply added on to the music. From this perspective, it is already, to an extent, immanent. Similarly, Kodwo Eshun argues that the use of theory in conventional music journalism and academia placidly de-libidinizes and stabilizes the music rather than intensifying and accentuating its chaos. Eshun complains that “theory always comes to Music’s rescue. The organization of sound is interpreted historically, politically, socially” (Eshun, 1998: 00[-004]).11 Eshun instead accentuates the immanence of theory within music, and its libidinal pull towards disorientation. Like Reynolds, he is hostile towards “interpretation” and seeks more disorienting effects and affects. In this regard, Reynolds has argued that the appeal of theory is “precisely its power to intoxicate”. Rather than simply being intellectually illuminating, it is the thrilling and disorienting effect of theory, comparable to an effect of intoxication, which is appealing. Theory could have a similarly disorienting aesthetic effect as the music.

17But there is a tension running through the “renegade tradition” between this idea of theory as an intoxicant, and Penman’s implication of theory as a critical necessity. If too much emphasis is placed upon the idea of theory as an intoxicant, then this potentially portrays the writer in the position described by Penman “cooking up” ideas out of the “raw matter” of the music. However, an overemphatic use of theory as being solely informed by necessity would also be limiting. This might imply that the music has an objective ontological status with a stable truth to be extracted. Theory would be an epistemological/ontological exigency. But surely the view of theory being advanced is based on the instability of any one narrative about epistemological or ontological reality. At its best then, the “renegade tradition” advances both positions at the same time. The consciousness that concepts and theory are immanent to certain musical forms, that abstract thought is a necessity, is accompanied by a libidinal investment in theory and an awareness that the writing is also intensifying the music, taking the listener/reader’s experience of it in new directions. If we think of the role of theory as either libidinally alluring or critically necessary, both sides of this tension deconstruct the false populism of certain less critical iterations of postmodernism, as pointed to by Garnett, where the separation between “theory” and “music” is simplistically and sometimes unwittingly reinforced.

Aesthetic-Political Debates: “Entryism” or “Marginality”?

18To exemplify how these writers conceived French Theory as both immanently contained within the music, and an expression of their political (or anti-political) positions, let us look at some more specific examples. In alternative music throughout the eighties and nineties, music writers frequently referred to theories of abjection directly influenced by Julia Kristeva and Georges Bataille. Abject theory had a special prominence in popular music writing in the early eighties because the experimental music culture of post-punk gave rise to a dilemma: to pursue the outer margins of alternative culture (staying artistically pure but risking irrelevance), or to attempt to adapt to the mainstream and radicalize “pop” music from within (Reynolds, 1990: 467). While many NME writers such as Paul Morley began to champion “entryism”, the idea of leaving the subcultural underground to try to penetrate mainstream pop music, other writers such as Barney Hoskyns advocated radical alterity, and a complete antipathy to mainstream music. Hoskyns did so through an explicitly abject imaginary which he found in groups like The Birthday Party and The Fall, and reinforced by drawing on ideas from Bataille and Kristeva. To get a sense of the political nature of this debate we can examine a 1981 article on The Fall. Rebelling against the emerging celebrations of “pop” in the NME, Hoskyns championed the uncompromising separatism and negativity of the group The Fall for the potential to reconstruct political antagonism on terms completely incompatible with “pop”. Hoskyns refers to this divide when he writes that “Real desire cannot be attained inside the insidious synaesthetic-cultural trick of pop. The Fall may politically propel you outside it.” (Hoskyns, 1981b: 15) Hoskyns develops an abject imaginary by focusing on the lyrics from the first Fall LP, “We are The Fall, Northern white crap who talk back”, which he says has a special significance. In reclaiming patronizing and derogatory perceptions of northern working class identity, the message implies that there will be no process of sanitization to become more palatable to the London music press. The implication is that British class system dictates northern working class people must leave behind aspects of their background in order to socially “ascend” to the values of the British bourgeoisie and the London-centric press. Hoskyns admires The Fall and their lead singer Mark E. Smith because they refuse to play the game according to the normal rules of the British cultural industry. Hoskyns says that by provocatively claiming this affiliation with “northern white crap”, Smith portrayed the group as “fiercely intelligent, with none of the sanctioned palatability that is requisite for working-class people to be intellectual. The working-class hero was hackneyed now, and the Clash’s struggle against the ‘man’ perpetuated the problem” (Hoskyns, 1981b: 14). He suggests that the figure of the “working-class hero” is a romanticized idealism and politically righteous groups like The Clash are, for Hoskyns, too simplistic in their opposition to “the man”. The Fall by contrast are honest and provocative about the unglamorous aspects of working class culture. As Hoskyns writes, Smith “simply kicks us head first into the shit of proletarianism—booze, barbiturates, bingo parlours, slates, slags, etc. —and rubs us in it” (Hoskyns, 1981a).

  • 12 . See for example, “Give this man an Oscar: The Wild Side of Marx Almond”, NME, 6 August 1983, htt (...)

19Where groups like The Clash represented a naïve political idealism, groups such as The Birthday Party and the Fall offered a more radical (anti-)political alternative, theoretically resonant, for Hoskyns, with Georges Bataille, Julia Kristeva and Fredrich Nietzsche. Many of Hoskyns’s articles quoted directly from Bataille during this period12, while his theorization of the Fall follows the theoretical schemata Bataille and Kristeva used in articulating the abject.

20Before looking at more musical examples then, it is worth pausing here to give a brief outline of abjection’s theoretical origins in France.

  • 13 . Stereotypical examples included prostitutes, homeless people and the famous figure of the ragpic (...)

21Abjection was one variation of Georges Bataille’s base materialism as developed in several articles in the late nineteen twenties and early thirties. Bataille’s theory of abjection should be understood in two movements. Firstly, the subjects of abjection are those who are excluded from society as ignoble. Politically, Bataille linked this to the lumpen proletariat, the poor and excluded portion of the population who have no institutional representation, and no support networks such as unions. They are thus even excluded from the organized working class.13 In its second movement, Bataille implies that there are instances where those who are excluded as abject can subsequently weaponize their alienated position and autonomously claim a state of abjection. Such exclusion does not participate in the dialectic of struggle between ruling and official working classes, so the abjects have the potential to rupture that dialectic. All social formations depend on an exclusion, but that exclusion when seized upon and amplified has the capacity to threaten the social structure. Abjection thus describes a process of excess which has threatened todestabilize the structure from which it has originally been excluded. Bataille stresses that abjection is negative in a very formal sense and must pass through a passive phase of exclusion. Abjection thus arrives initially “par impuissance en raison de conditions sociales données” (Bataille, 1970 : 219). Bataille stresses the “social conditions” from which the idea arises in his essay on abjection. In other words it is relational, based on an initial “impuissance” which then becomes turned to one’s advantage. There is a movement from passive exclusion to active weaponization of abject identity. This is clearly exemplified in Hoskyns’s analysis of The Fall’s lyric “northern white crap who talk back”. Those excluded against their will in a passive manner by London-centric middle class England, it is suggested, might turn their exclusion around and seize it in an active manner, embracing their state of abjection as a critical attack on the society from which they are rejected.

  • 14 . Bohn wrote many of these articles under his pseudonym “Biba Kopf”. See Biba Kopf, 1985: 40–41.

22Even more than Hoskyns, the NME writer Chris Bohn would take up this view of the abject throughout the 1980s with a series of articles called “Abject Pop”. These articles referred to a number of musicians who evoke similar critical ideas around abjection. In one article, Bohn chastises “right on” artists and musicians for espousing the same left-wing positions in very predictable, repetitive and sanitized conditions. Bohn says that “In their refusal to force an issue, to transgress the boundaries of its debate, lies their powerlessness. Further, they too readily accept the place allocated to them.”14 This means that they end up becoming more and more complicit within the system they are apparently opposing. The subsequent result is that those (among whom Bohn includes himself) who want a more libidinized, adventurous pop music that falls outside the parameters of a conservative mainstream are “made to feel dirty and somehow diseased”. This mirrors the first part of abjection, the passive operation of exclusion. Bohn’s writing then echoes the second step, arguing for an autonomous embrace of abjection:

Well, these disaffected might respond, if dirty we are, then dirty we shall be. If pop rejects us, makes us feel abject, abjects us from its social club, then we shall in turn embrace all that is abject. In the abject we shall dig our hole, make the hole our own, thereby become whole. (Biba Kopf, 1985: 41)

23As with the iterations of the abject in pop music which we’ve explored so far, it has emerged as an anti-political gesture, seeking to break with outmoded humanist forms of resistance which are seen as impotent and futile. Embracing abjection is not seen as a totally nihilistic gesture but as a means of transgressing the “boundaries” of “debate”. Similarly, the negation of the social pre-empts a new form of the social, where digging a “hole” opens up a new opportunity to “become whole”. We find a paradoxical sense of unity in disunity, a sense of belonging in a shared sense of alienation. If this discourse is characterized by a degree of nihilism it is not an entirely apolitical one.

  • 15 . Early journalism from Reynolds quotes directly from Bataille and references Visions of Excess. S (...)

24An account of abjection, then, is often used by these writers to justify positions opposed to both the mainstream and more (apparently) naïve forms of political opposition. The intellectual inheritance is clear since Hoskyns often cited directly from Bataille and Bohn’s subsequent development of “abject pop” was clearly informed by Julia Kristeva, whose account of abjection is more developed and more well-known than Bataille. Where Bataille’s work on the subject is limited to articles from the thirties, some of which were translated in the Visions of Excess collection from 1985 (and which Reynolds references)15, the more famous and developed account of abjection comes from Julia Kristeva in her Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. This text gets a special mention from Reynolds when he writes of meeting some of his idols from the “renegade tradition”in the aftermath of post-punk and comments on the theoretical influences of“writers like Barney Hoskyns, whose Nietzsche-infused ravings literally changed my life, and Chris Bohn, who lent me his copy of Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982)” (Reynolds, 2009).

25Considering the broader stakes of this contextualization of French Theory here, it is worth noting that just as Hoskyns and Bohn’s writings on ‘Abject pop’ music identify a related group of transgressive musicians which they frequently refer to, Reynolds actually refers to the music writers themselves as part of a transgressive tradition. For example, Reynolds describes the writer Paul Morley, as being influenced by the “avant-porn pantheon of Sade, Bataille and Genet” (Reynolds, 2006: 505), just as the group DAF are similarly described as “erotic renegades in the tradition of Genet, Sade, and Bataille” (2006: 340). This tendency to create a chain of equivalence between highly different writers is also pertinent to the canon of French Theory itself. Indeed, it has often been noted that this canon brings together a hugely disparate group of thinkers who do not actually have that much in common. It is a canon which attempts to impose unity upon disunity, homogenously organizing a heterogeneous set of thinkers. And Reynolds explicitly appeals to that canon when framing his renegade tradition. As we saw at the beginning of this article he goes through a number of concepts from French Theory, before naming the set of music journalists as if their “canon” is comparable. He referred to the fact that they do no seek to align rock music with constructive ends but rather “they prefer deconstruction/destruction, the sheer waste of energy into the void.”, evoking Bataille and Derrida. What unites these different thinkers for Reynolds is the attack on “meaning”. This is where the “renegade tradition” is distinct from Cultural Studies and where it is ambiguous or often critical towards clearly defined left-wing political positions. The appeal of French Theory as Reynolds and others understood it here is to critically undermine any stable position, whether it be intellectual, political or otherwise. French Theory is also used, paradoxically, to justify this political ambiguity. The use of the abject, for example, is not apolitical as much as anti-political. That is to say, the abjects’ opposition to both mainstream popular culture and left wing opponents is not apathetic indifference or a complete renunciation of interest in the political. Rather, they use an intellectual tradition to justify their ambiguous (anti-)political positioning.

26Indeed, this falls into a pattern of wider uses of French Theory which it is worth briefly dwelling on before concluding. For example, in his Logics of Failed Revolt, Peter Starr notes that the canon has often been used to intellectually justify ambiguous political positions. Starr says that the various logics informing post-68 theory in France often “served as argumentative pretexts, allowing Barthes, Kristeva, Cixous, and others to construct the existing political field as an impasse in order to justify significant displacement of political energies (including a politicization of the literary text)” (Starr, 1995: 17). In other words, the rise of theory, Starr suggests, is bound up with attempts to find ways out of direct political commitment, or to justify the absence of commitment in the face of a political “impasse”. We can exemplify this by briefly looking at Tel Quel’s response to the events of May 68. The journal was famous for the ways in which it evoked and repeatedly referenced a lineage, a pantheon of outsiders, alongside which it tried to affiliate itself and leaned on for intellectual support of its contemporary positions. Names such as Sade, Artaud, Bataille were regularly evoked as transgressive predecessors and major influences. The appeal of figures like Artaud and Bataille in particular was because they were “dissident” in relation to surrealism and the Marxist left. And in the aftermath of 68, Tel Quel re-activated these debates in order to justify the fact that they did not support the student uprisings but did not want to be seen to be as complicit supporters of De Gaulle either. In the summer of 1968, they republished Georges Bataille’s polemic against Andre Breton and in the same issue Philippe Sollers repeatedly referenced this polemic, siding with the “dissident” surrealism of Bataille, in order to assert Tel Quel’s own materialism against what Sollers identified in ‘La Grande méthode’ as the various reigning forms of idealism, which include both student anarchists and conservative voices. They make reference to a materialism “excluant tout idéalisme” which is used as a means of justifying their distance from the position of the students and workers during the events of 68 (Sollers, 1968: 22). In his history of Tel Quel, Patrick Ffrench has also noted how the group drew on an aesthetic-political polemic to justify their own political ambiguous position (Ffrench, 1995: 118). Similarly, throughout the Anglophone reception of French Theory, this intellectual maneuver – appealing to an intellectual canon of outsiders to justify the problematic political ambiguity of one’s contemporary position—would be reproduced.

27The comparison we are drawing on is obviously not to suggest any direct influence or correlation between the hugely different contexts of Tel Quel in France and a popular magazine like the NME in Britain. But across these and other different contexts and encounters with French Theory we can nevertheless see a similar intellectual-political gesture which is comparable on a formal level: the use of a transgressive intellectual tradition to justify one’s ambiguous (anti-)political position by critically attacking the “idealism” of more conventional leftists. While the comparison between such disparate scenes as Tel Quel and the NME is tentative, it is striking that Simon Reynolds (co-writing with Joy Press here) justifies the ‘abjects’ ambiguous political positioning by taking aim at a similar kind of “idealism” Tel Quel criticized in the students at ’68:

The idealism of combat and crusading rock is an attempt to transcend the biological reality of adolescence: hormonal turmoil, unfamiliar and insistent urges, unsettling bodily changes. Icarus rock’s ascent into a sublime higher realm (political righteousness, spiritual abstractions) is a flight from the base animalism of the human condition, an attempt to soar over the dank, dark realm of abjection. (Reynolds and Press, 1995: 85)

28This anti-political intellectual maneuver ties in once again to our more focused considerations on abjection. The “dank realm” of abjection suggests that there is a truth that those blinded by “idealism” and “combat and crusading rock” cannot see, in Reynolds’s discourse. There is a highly problematic moralistic tone here and the references to the truth of “biological reality” is suggestive of further problems in how a theory like abjection has been translated. It associates abjection with a specific space, with biological substances or fluids such as blood and excrement. This is in line with the Kristevan account of abjection, but as we have noted Bataille developed abjection as a relational theory, defined by a process rather than any substance: the process of a social class (the lumpenproletariat) being ejected/abjected, and thinking through this in the context of the rise of fascism. This political context is overlooked by Kristeva in her linking abjection with substances. Indeed, Sylvère Lotringer challenged Kristeva on precisely this point in an interview:

According to Bataille, the abject is not a particular substance, one that can be phenomenologically described, all that is rejected from the body, etc. And some critics have reproached you for thematizing abjection that way. The abject is, in fact, a construction. The abject is defined by the rejection, the exclusion that is made of it. (Lotringer & Krauss, 1999: 23)

29To think about the implications of this in the British context then, the translation of French Theory could be considered under the terms of Deleuze and Guattari as a process of simultaneous deterritorialization and reterritorialization, uprooting from one context and becoming re-rooted in another. This is particularly pertinent in the case of the abject because the original context in France (class politics and the rise of fascism in Georges Bataille’s nineteen thirties, or Kristeva’s psychoanalytical politics in the nineteen seventies) is lost in transit, but in its new context, there is a danger of going too far in re-rooting. There is a danger of too much territorializing, of ontologizing the abject as a substance, as a specific space of the “dank realm” of abjection, rather than a more complex process. We would argue that in this context there is a dialectical tension internal to the translation of French Theory. The danger of ontologizing a concept, especially in these terms, carries potentially reactionary implications. (In the case of ideas like abjection and transgression for example, subculture musical writing has often deployed these ideas in highly machismo and unpleasantly aggressive male terms.) But translation, like transgression, is inherently disruptive and impure, and carries paradoxical possibilities at the same time. If the music writers in question are trying to translate something of the intensity of the music into the written word, to make words carry the same excitement as the music, then they are doing so with the assistance of a translated and decontextualized body of thought which is used to aid in the quest for written intensification. The ontologization of abjection is suggestive of how these writers wish to take the abstractions of French Theory and translate them into a greater intensity of feeling.

30To conclude then, We have been underlining some of the parallel tendencies in the translation of French Theory in different contexts, but we also want to point towards reading tendencies which have given rise to (productive) inconsistencies and surprising encounters. For example, on the problematic (anti-)political tendencies, we have been quoting from writing on the abject predominantly from the nineteen eighties, but it is worth noting that since then Simon Reynolds’s writing has taken a distinctly politicized turn without necessarily taking distance from the canon of French Theory. In other words, readings of the same theorists in different contexts have given rise to very different political conclusions, and the same holds true for other writers in the tradition. Since these kinds of developments are unfortunately beyond the scope of this article, we want to conclude with a reminder of the performativity of French Theory in translation, which François Cusset and others have highlighted, but which has its own rich history of unexpected uses (and abuses) within British music writing.

31This article has attempted to show the specificities of French Theory within Simon Reynolds’ “renegade tradition” of British music writing – a specificity characterized by a tension with conventional Cultural Studies, and an irreverent and playful attitude towards the “intoxicating” thrill of theory. The article has also attempted to show the continuity of this scene with other iterations of French Theory in its similar patterns of political positioning. In concluding by evoking the discontinuities left to be explored, the performativity of theoretical texts in translation and shifting political readings within this tradition, we wish to point towards our own future work on the mutations of theory throughout British popular modernism.

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Bataille, Georges, 1970, “l’Abjection et les formes misérables”, in Œuvres complètes II, Paris, Gallimard.

Cusset, François, 2005, French Theory, Paris, La Découverte.

Eshun, Kodwo, 1998, More Brilliant than the Sun, London, Quartet Books.

Ffrench, Patrick, 1995, The Time of Theory: A History of Tel Quel, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Fisher, Mark, 2014, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Winchester, Zero Books.

Garnett, Roger, 1990, “Too Low to be Low”, in Sabin, Roger (ed.), Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk, London, Routledge.

Gill, Andy, 1979, “The Residents: Eskimo”, NME, 6 October 1979, p. 50.

Hall, Stuart, 1998, “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular’”, in Story, John (ed.), Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, London, Routledge, p. 442–453.

Hall, Stuart & Jefferson, Tony (eds.), 1991, Resistance Through Rituals: Youth in Post-War Britain, London, Harper Collins.

Hoskyns, Barney, 1981a, “Anti-Social Workers: The Fall at North London Poly”, NME, 13 October 1981,

, 1981b, “Hip Priest: The Mark Smith Interview”, NME, 14 November 1981, p. 15.

Jameson, Fredric, 1998, The Cultural Turn, London, Verso.

Kopf, Biba, “Abject Pop (‘Down and In’), New Statesman, 27 September 1985, p. 40–41.

Lejeune, Anal, Mignon, Olivier & Pirenne, Raphael (eds.), 2013, French Theory and America Art, Berlin, Sternberg Press.

Long, Pat, 2012, “The Ghost of Roland Barthes is Suitably Perplexed: NME in the Post-Punk Era”, London, Portico Books,

Lotringer, Sylvère & Krauss, Chris (eds.), 1999 More & Less, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Semiotext(e).

Morley, Paul, 1980, “The Myth Gets Stronger”, NME28 June 1980,

Penman, Ian, 1978, “Iggy Pop: Music Machine, London”, NME, 24 June 1978,

, 1995, “Black Secret Technology”, The Wire, 133, p. 39.

Reynolds, Simon, 1990, “New Pop and Its Aftermath”, in Frith, Simon & Goodwin, Andrew (eds.), On the Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word, London, Routledge.

, 2006, Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, London, Faber and Faber.

, 2009, “Music and Theory”, FriezeBlog, 18 September 2009,

, 2011, Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, London, Rock’s Backpages.

Reynolds, Simon & Press, Joy, 1995, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock’n’Roll, London, Serpent’s Tail.

Savage, Jon, 2005, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, London, Faber and Faber.

Sinker, Mark, 2018, “Introductory Essay”, in Mark Sinker (ed.), A Hidden Landscape Once a Week: The Unruly Curiosity of the UK Music Press in the 1960s-80s… by those who were there, London, Strange Attractor Press.

Sollers, Philippe, 1968, “La Grande méthode”, Tel Quel, 34, p. 21–27.

Starr, Peter, 1995, Logics of Failed Revolt: French Theory After May 68, Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Willis, Ellen, 2012, Beginning to See the Light, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Wise, David & Wise, Stuart, 1996, “The End of Music”, in Home, Stewart (ed.), What is Situationism: A Reader, London, AK Press.

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1 . (All URLs referred to in this chapter were accessed on 20 August, 2019).

2 . For context, Fisher also writes about theory and music journalism that “along with public service broadcasting, the NME constituted a kind of supplementary-information education system, in which theory acquired a strange, lustrous glamour” (Fisher, 2014: 17).

3 . In the introduction to his history of post-punk, for example, Reynolds refers again to the tradition emphasising the new importance for music writing during this period, seen almost on the same level as the music itself: “The writing of the new generation of music journalists who took over—Morley, Savage, Ian Penman, Jane Suck, Dave McCullough, Chris Bohn, to name only the most influential—seemed to be made of the same stuff as the music they championed” (Reynolds, 2006: xviii)

4 . In this regard, Bataille has often been regarded in an Anglo-American context as a “proto-poststructuralist” or a “post-structuralist before his time”. We neither wish to support nor challenge this view here but merely to point out that theoretical translation often risks such historical flattening.

5 . As indicated by the Pat Long quote at the beginning of this article, the uses of French Theory in this tradition music writing was particularly prominent at the NME during the post-punk period (1978–1984) and as such we will largely focus on this period. However, Reynolds, as a member of a younger generation who only started publishing music journalism with Melody Maker from 1986 is also a key source. He tried to recreate this kind of theoretical music writing. Indeed as both a theorist of the tradition and a participant in it, Reynolds is both a key primary and secondary source.

6 . See also Ellen Willis on “the harsh, defiant, no-exit negativism of punk rock in the late seventies” (Willis, 2012: xxvi–xxvii).

7 . See for example, Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (eds.), 1991, and Stuart Hall, 1998.

8 . Laura Mulvey and Victor Murgin interviewed by Hilde Van Gelder and Alexander Streitberger, “The British Bridge”, in Anael Lejeune, Olivier Mignon and Raphael Pirenn (eds.) French Theory and American Art, p. 199.

9 .

10 . A key example of this approach is K. Eshun, 1998.

11 . Eshun’s book uses an unconventional pagination system.

12 . See for example, “Give this man an Oscar: The Wild Side of Marx Almond”, NME, 6 August 1983,] or Barney Hoskyns, ‘The Birthday Party: The Bad Seed EP’, NME, 5 February 1983,

13 . Stereotypical examples included prostitutes, homeless people and the famous figure of the ragpicker.

14 . Bohn wrote many of these articles under his pseudonym “Biba Kopf”. See Biba Kopf, 1985: 40–41.

15 . Early journalism from Reynolds quotes directly from Bataille and references Visions of Excess. See for example, Reynolds, Blissed Out (‘Introduction’, para. 13, loc 143).

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Eugene Brennan, « Post-Punk Politics and British Popular Modernism: The Reception of French Theory Within A “Renegade Tradition” of Music Journalism », Palimpsestes, 33 | -1, 199-213.

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Eugene Brennan, « Post-Punk Politics and British Popular Modernism: The Reception of French Theory Within A “Renegade Tradition” of Music Journalism », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 33 | 2019, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2019, consulté le 13 novembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/palimpsestes.4649

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Eugene Brennan

Après avoir soutenu sa thèse sur la réception anglo-américaine de la pensée française en 2016, Eugene Brennan a enseigné l’anglais et la littérature comparée dans diverses universités y compris l’Université américaine de Paris, l’Institut catholique de Paris et l’université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3.
Il a aussi enseigné la politique internationale à l’University of London Institute in Paris. Ses principaux domaines de recherches sont la théorie critique et les études culturelles. Il a publié dans plusieurs revues universitaires, magazines et journaux anglophones tels que Theory, Culture and Society, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Washington Post et Blind Field: A Cultural Review. Il est coéditeur de Literature and Intoxication: Writing, Politics and the Experience of Excess (Palgrave, 2015).

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