Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Proletarian Science of the Pet Shop Boys vs. The Bourgeois Ideology of Crimethinc, or, desire within the ruins of subculture in late capitalism

s       "It was the beginning of the end of the world but not everyone noticed right away.  Some people were dying.  Some people were busy.  Some people were cleaning their houses while the war movie played on television."  Sarah Schulman, People In Trouble

      This posting has a somewhat curious origin. A couple days after I had posted my critique of Crimethinc, I happened to listen to an old Pet Shop Boys song, "In The Night,"while at the gym, using some machine that approximates the motions of running.  It really struck me that the Pet Shop Boys were able to provide a much more nuanced and deeper analysis of the relationship between subcultures and structures of domination than is offered by hundreds of pages of analysis created by Crimethinc within the context of a four minute pop song.  The group's analysis is developed through reference and analysis of a phenomenon during the Nazi occupation of France, the Zazou.

       The Zazou movement was an early form of youth culture, which formed as a sort of informal opposition to the occupation of France, and the collaborationist, Vichy Regime.  Zazou was a nation wide phenomenon, but were most often associated with Paris.  Neither a formal group, nor aligned with the Resistance, the Zazou expressed their discontent through elaborate forms of dress, avoidance of work, and an identification with jazz culture.  The combined transgressive effect of this is captured by a comment of a participant, Pierre Seel, “The Zazous were very obviously detested by the Nazis, who on the other side of the Rhine, had since a long time decimated the German cultural avante garde, forbidden jazz and all visible signs of…degenerations of Germanic culture…” (  The elaborate dress was a way to flouting government policies on the rationing of cloth.  The refusal of work's political significance should be obvious from anti-capitalist standpoint, but it was also a refusal of a nationalist narrative of labor, as well.   The name of group was probably drawn from the songs of Cab Calloway, and the embrace of jazz simultaneously challenges the conservative racial nationalism of Vichy and shows an affinity with the aesthetic avant-garde of surrealism and dada.
      Seel gestures toward the other transgressive thread that defined the subculture, the rejection of the rigid notions of masculinity that not only defined fascist Vichy, but simultaneously defined both the nationalist and PCF's versions of resistance culture.  They do so through their refusal to organize their libidinal energies within the logic of sacrifice, a sacrificial commitment to the nation.  Instead of operating within Schmitt's logic of the political, that is a space in which one is willing to kill or die for a cause, the Zazous create a critical the stylization of ephemera, a position which Dick Hebdige identifies as the form of subculture, par excellence.  As Neil Tennant notes, "I was just fascinated that they were totally out of the context of their times; that you had this beaknik culture in the middle of the Second World War in occupied Paris."  Tennant goes on to link the untimeliness of les Zazous to conversations about love and the meaning of life, as well their contempt for the 'masculinity' of the conflict between the resistance and Vichy.  The rage of the fascist response focused precisely on these refusals, recognizing the stylizations of les Zazous, particularly their long hair, as a refusal of nationalist ideology.  "They became Enemy Number One of the fascist youth organizations, Jeunesse Populaire Française. “Scalp the Zazous!” became their slogan. Squads of young JPF fascists armed with hairclippers attacked Zazous. Many were arrested and sent to the countryside to work on the harvest."  (

      The first three stanzas of the Pet Shop Boys song capture this dialectic of revolt and repression.

 Zazou, what you're gonna do?
There's a lot of people coming for you
Zazou, comment allez-vous?
A knock on the door in the night

That Zazou, he don't care
Dark glasses, long hair
Takes his time, sneers at men
Some ugly people want revenge

That Zazou, he sleeps all day
Then down to Select or Le Collisee
Sips his drinks, orders more
Says what he thinks and it's a crazy war

      There is a difference in emphasis between the narrative offered by the Pet Shop Boys, and the one that is found in the account in libcom, which can be linked to the implicit purpose behind each of the narratives.  For libcom, the purpose of reporting the history of the group is pretty simple.  Libcom is interested in looking at the ways that les Zazous constitute a form of resistant self-organization.  It is part of a larger libertarian, anti-capitalist project arguing for a non-vanguardist revolutionary practice.  We can see the power of people in revolt, and the ability to create an alternative social logic within the most repressive of societies.  The subculture gestures towards a set of lines of flight from the logic of the mass worker, mass production, etc.  It contains a refusal of a type of production, and, simultaneously, a gesture towards a logic that uses the commodity form, but is not caught within the commodity form.

      The difference in the Pet Shop Boys narrative is immediately signaled by Tennant's claim that the movement was 'non-political.'  The narrative of the song is far more interested in exploring the practices within the continuity, or perhaps as a untimely precursor of subculture, and more implicitly, the discotheque as a social and cultural space for gay men.  The song shifts the narrative of les Zazous from a narrative about men and women to a distinctly male figure who stands in for the movement as a whole, and it strips out the historical particularities one gets in the narrative.  The figure of the Zazou is defined by a set of traits that can run through any number of subcultural practices.  He is linked to a narrative of subcultural stylization (through the gestures towards dark glass and long hair), social antagonism through that stylization, and club culture.

The figure within the song is singular.  The narrative focuses on his passage through the public streets of Paris, rather than the collective intimacy of the club or the disco.  Within that context he is the one who hates and is hated, and that mutual antagonism can only be understood within the context of the non-normativity of his stylization.  The Zazou is hated because he refuses his role as a man in the public sphere through his refusal of the sacrifice of war, but also through the blank refusal of the gaze through his sunglasses and the refusal of the norms of masculinity through his long hair.  He also refuses the normative dialectic of conversation, remaining voiceless until his exit from the street in the club.  The figure of the Zazou then can be linked to the long history of the drag queen, which emerged antagonistically into the public through the Stonewall revolt, the history of gay liberation, as well as the transgressive intermingling of disco, often noted to be one of the only genuinely integrated social phenomenon in the United States.

     And yet there is still a profound ambiguity in this position, which is immediately apparent with the next couplet.  "Zazou, what you're gonna do?/ A knock on the door in the night"  This couplet immediately shifts the narrative from a timeless story of aesthetic revolt to a moment of decision.  The figure of the Zazou is left in this moment of suspension, indicating a vacillation, an inability to critically respond to fascist domination even in his own defense.  Within this context, Tennant makes the following analysis of his own song, "The song looks at the moral implications, because the Nazis hated them and the Resistance hated them, because they were fatalistic and didn't participate in the resistance, and the song asks whether that's collaboration.  It revolves around the chorus - "Well, there's a thin line between love and crime/And in this situation/A thin line between love and crime and collaboration" - because the fact of the matter is that if you're not really against something, you're for it, and in a way they collaborated with the Nazis just by carrying on a normal life.  So, in the end, I am criticizing them."

      And despite Tennant's conclusion, the song itself remains open, oscillating between the valourized revolt of the Zazous and its refusal or inability to enter into the political.  That oscillation pivots on the following lines of the song.

And when the soldiers strut, all he cares about
Is love
When the flags are out, all he cares about
Is love
Well, there's a thin line between love and crime
And in this situation
A thin line between love and crime and -
Collaboration (-ration)

     Although the chorus ends with the possibility of collaboration discussed above, its put into a context of a refusal, a refusal of the logic of militarism, and a refusal of the logic of nationalism.  That double refusal is countered by an affirmation of 'love,' or perhaps more bluntly, the narrative logic of romance.  That narrative is simultaneously the most banal narrative possible, dragged through the mud of decades of terrible pop songs, popular novels, and films, leaving us to wonder where the sentiment begins and the commodity form ends, and yet at the same time, it gestures to something that escapes both the logic of that form and allows for the Zazou to see the common nationalism and militarism contained in the logic of both the resistance and the conservative politics of Vichy.  The very banality of the lines gestures towards a sort of double bind between a unrepresentable logic that gestures toward the sort of revolt demanded by the radical project demanded by Libcom, and infinite ability for capital to translate romance into its own reproductive logic of exploitation.

      At this point, perhaps we should bring in the context of the release of the song, which came out as a B side to the "Opportunities" single, as well as being released as an extended remix on the first Disco complation released the same year.  It occurs at the height of Reaganism and Thatcherism, the beginning of a full scale counter-offensive on the part of capital that continues to this day.  On one side, we can see the release of the 1984 album please and the later singles tied to the collapse of a set of political possibilities contained in musical subculture, with the collapse of punk and post-punk as the end point of a terrain of ruins (please note that this narrative doesn't work quite as well in the English context, which I can discuss more in detail if you would like, but you could probably glean more on this from Richard Seymour's blog, Lenin's Tomb)  Disco also had collapsed in both its mainstream and avant-garde forms, and the electronic music dance scene that would replace it was only beginning.  Finally, the HIV crisis was devastating the gay community with the conservative administrations of Reagan and Thatcher acting in almost open complicity with the disease.

        The album please was then produced in this curious moment between capital's complete co-optation of subculture into post-Fordist consumerism, and the simultaneous indifference of dominant political institutions and temporary inability of the gay community to respond to the AIDS crisis.  Within that context, there is a curious erasure of the political in the narratives of the song, remaining caught up in the adventures of lovers, hustlers, and criminals, who are caught within the web of the bourgeois city without a horizon.  The songs offer us small moments of release, of joy, but only within the logic of a mutual criminality captured best by the song, Opportunities and Two divided by zero, which offer narratives of romantic escape through a criminality that mirrors the exploitative criminality of capital at a micro level.  It is a replay of Brecht's analogy between the one who steals from the bank and the greater criminality of the bank owner.  However, it does so without the revolutionary horizon of the proletariat.  At the same time, the crisis of AIDS leads to an aporia within the gay community, neither the privatized terrain of the disco nor the older narratives of liberation offering an adequate response to the crisis.

      Within this context, we can see the Pet Shop Boys intervention as a presentist historical narrative, presenting a productive contrast to both the nostalgia of libcom, as well as the willfully stupid naivete of Crimethinc.  It neither looks back at older forms of revolt as loss, nor does it pretend that our capital is the capital of the protestant ethic, the continual error of CrimeThinc.   It recognizes the only way to understand the history of subculture is to understand it as a history in ruin, or perhaps a history of ruins, defined by the dialectical oscillation of lines of flight and apparatuses of capture, a dialectic that neither progresses nor fully contains, but repeatedly mutilates.  We are marked by this history of mutilation, but not as a common phenomenon.  Instead, it constitutes and is constituted by histories of race, of gender, of sexuality, replicating and transforming the violence and constitutive division of the proletarian body in the 16th and 17th centuries.  (Please see Sylvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch)  And yet at the same time, the logic of "In the Night" is not fully that of please, containing a historicity that both informs the present, and at the same time, while unable to contain a horizon, gestures towards the very contingency of the present.

         I plan on offering a second part to this narrative through a reading of ACT-UP and the Sarah Schulman novel, People In Trouble.  I intend to argue that these might give us resources to think through the process of revolutionary reconstitution in the same way that the Pet Shop Boys allow for us to recognize the shifts in subculture, capital, and the thread of desire, and the aporia that faced counter-systemic movements at that time.  However, my argument will depend on an understanding of ACT-UP as crisis itself, and the knowledge coming out of the ruins of ACT-UP through its own contradictions.  I recommend the following website as a starting point.

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