Institutional Critique: Me vs. We (A Brief History of Punk)

How do you define punk? Well, there is no tidy answer to this question, but according to the Director of the NYU Fales Library & Special Collections, at its most basic functioning, punk is a form of institutional critique. But more on that in a bit.

I was at Fales for a field trip of sorts. My Reporting Downtown class came to view the library’s collection of Punk zines to provide a historical and cultural context for our reporting.

Fales houses the Downtown Collection: an amalgamation of primary documents in all media of a few literary, artistic, and musical movements in downtown Manhattan from 1975 onward. The collections are on the third floor of Bobst, the primary NYU library. They are not available for general browsing, but students, faculty or staff can make appointments to use the collections if they have a relevant research project.

Judson Memorial Church

Certain content is also available through the special exhibitions, which are open to the public. Currently, the Fales Library is hosting an exhibition on the Judson Church which highlights the Church’s contribution to performance art. If you’re at all interested in alternative culture, critical theory or social movements, then the exhibit is a must-see. It’s ongoing until January 7, 2011.

What’s so special about a collection of books? Director Marvin Taylor said it best, “The physicality of the object is as important as the text.” Cover images and other physical characteristics provide a context that is lost in the library’s general collection.

Taylor discussed the origins of punk and showed us original copies of punk literature coupled with images of inebriated punk icons. Despite the provocative material, the most thought-provoking moment of the trip was a quick exchange between my Reporting Downtown professor, Betty Liu, and Taylor. Liu asked if Taylor could define punk in one sentence. “I can’t answer that,” Marvin said. “It means a lot of different things to different people.”

There was a blatant irony in my professor’s question: Liu was asking Taylor to compartmentalize punk, to make the movement fit within existing institutional boundaries. Here was our professor trying to push punk into a structure that the movement was attempting to destabilize.

This draws me back to punk’s predecessors according to Taylor: the French symbolists. This avant-garde subculture demonstrated, among other theories, through multiple mediums how language limits us from embracing parts of our world. Language forces you to navigate within the boundaries of the existing power structures, making some aspects of culture and critical thought unavailable. This backlash against language and, more broadly, hierarchy is known as institutional critique. To invoke the words of Audre Lorde, black lesbian feminist, “the masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

But when you bar the use of language and resist definitions, you inevitably become a self-referential community as you exclude outsiders. You become an institution.

In this way, the non-use of language is also limiting.

Returning to the initial exchange between Liu and Taylor, perhaps my professor was ingenuous in her inquiry, but also consider Marvin’s resistance. What are the consequences of his resistance? Does he then exclude the masses that Liu is attempting to communicate to through language? The answer is yes.

So who really wins here? This depends entirely on the nature of the movement. Social and cultural movements steeped in institutional critique must consider the consequences of popularizing the movement through making it available to a wider audience or privatizing the movement through the exclusivity of language. Participants must decide on a movement’s goals.

Or try to find some middle ground between these two oppositions, which is much easier said than done.

In the case of punk, exclusivity was perpetuated under the guise of a democratized cultural movement. This of course led to punk becoming an institution unto itself.

Punk aside, Fales also has a Food & Cookery Collection, which I unfortunately did not get a chance to see, but it’s great to know that such a collection exists. Similarly to punk, the ‘food movement’ is a form of institutional critique: at its core is the destabilization of the current food system, we aim to create alternative modes of distribution and provide the American public with options outside of those predetermined by the existing power structures. We too are faced with a choice on how to present our movement to the masses. But again, more on the later.


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