Professor Nicholas Smith redefines the Punk scene

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Pink originated in the late ’70s and was direct both in sound and message. Visiting philosophy Professor Nicholas Smith gave “Punk” a new definition in his essay “Punk as Praxis.” Photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels

Visiting philosophy Professor Nicholas Smith has recently given “Punk” a new definition in his essay “Punk as Praxis.” 

Professor Smith discovered punk music in Liverpool, England during the late-’70s, but only recently was he able to reflect on it from a philosophical point-of-view. 

Punk originated in the late ‘70s under a vastly different musical context, said Smith. 

“It was in the context of degenerative pop music which had become very cliche: Bonnie Os. George Stewart. More progressive rock bands had become music virtuoso, so there were very long songs and albums with maybe one or two tracks, a lot of instrumental music– the Pink Floyds.”  

In contrast, punk was direct both in sound and message, Smith described.  

“The Sex Pistols came along. The Clash came along. And my favorite punk band, Buzzcocks came along. I loved the sound. Plus the sense of being part of something new, a culture and community that was challenging things and presenting an alternative, an alternative way of thinking and doing things to the conventional ways … And, oh! I also really like fashion,” Smith said. 

So when sitting down to write his article Smith asked “What is punk?” The common way of thinking about it as a set of songs on a playlist was not satisfying. Perhaps it was the attitude that accompanied those songs – the rebellion, anger and angst, but that was not satisfying either. 

“The Sex Pistols came along. The Clash came along. And my favorite punk band, Buzzcocks came along. I loved the sound. Plus the sense of being part of something new, a culture and community that was challenging things and presenting an alternative, an alternative way of thinking and doing things to the conventional ways … And, oh! I also really like fashion.”

Nicholas Smith, visiting philosophy professor

“Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols, “Garageland” by The Clash and “Boredom” by the Buzzcocks are all songs that embody the essence of punk according to Smith. 

“It was more like a form of life. It was a way of doing things. Making music, forming bands, producing, distributing songs, creating record covers and magazines. That’s all part of it … action of a certain kind. So I came up with the idea, ah, well punk is praxis. So what is praxis? First of all, I tried to explain that [in my essay], and then in what sense is punk praxis,” Smith said.  

Praxis, through the Aristotelian perspective, is defined as an “activity that is done neither in the service of a master nor for the sake of some product … an activity that is its own end” via Smith’s essay

In this way, Smith added, the youth is drawn to punk and it still has something to say. 

The things punk challenged still need challenging Smith said.  

“It challenged conformity and complacency. Part of it was a refusal of things, and I think those things still need refusing,” Smith said.  

Punk artists challenged the menial, low-paid and insecure work that was promised to young people. It was a refusal to accept the end goal of just getting a job, earning money and spending it, he said.  

“There’s a certain sense in which the American dream was being criticized. The Dead Kennedys in particular have a mind about that. Now it’s not as if that has disappeared. In fact, arguably it’s even worse now. The pervasiveness of inauthentic life is still with us,” Smith said. 

Smith added that the time between now and the birth of punk has brought many changes. Changes in employment and social security did not allow Punk to remain untethered from the world of employment and capital.  

“You didn’t have to write a hundred applications for jobs every week, you could just get a library card and you could go to the library without any money and spend your time educating yourself. You could go to university without having to pay,” Smith said. 

The creation and pervasiveness of social media has made a big difference as well.  

“Back then, it was very much a matter of getting together, doing things together face to face in local communities, and that was an important part of the culture– the fan scene, the record shop. The alternative to what still needs to be refused isn’t quite available today as it was,” Smith said. “Whether punk presents us with a viable alternative now like it did then is another matter now.”  

Smith concluded by promoting the Undergraduate Philosophy Society where he gave a talk about his ideas.  

“It was fantastic and really well organized. The discussion went on for ages afterwards, and we got to listen to a few great punk songs. I encourage other people to go,” Smith said. 

If you would like to read Smith’s essay in full, you can find it on his website for free or withinPunk Rock and Philosophy” by editors Joshua Heter and Richard Greene. 

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