See, you may believe that punk has been co-opted and absorbed by the British establishment. And you may well think that Punk London, the National Lottery-funded programme of events and exhibitions, is an attempt to turn punk into a museum piece or a tribute act. In fact, you said that. You said: “Punk has become like a fucking museum piece or a tribute act.” You said it the other day in The Guardian. I read it.
Well, it is already a tribute act. You’re looking at someone who grew up during pop-punk. (I legitimately liked Blink-182 and I went to their gigs and everything. Yes, I know. Shudder.) It is also a museum piece. Loads of punk stuff is already in museums. Like this jumper designed by your parents, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. It was sold in 1976. It has been in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection for 22 years. You probably remember the V&A from when they did that richly successful exhibition of your mum’s work with all her punk clothing and whatnot. They did that 12 years ago.
Punk London isn’t just about letting middle-class people gawp at punk. Just because you think that punk is being recycled by the establishment to suit its own ends doesn’t mean that punk doesn’t belong in museums, nor that its cultural legacy should not be subject to the kind of critical inquiry that is made possible by museums, or historians. Punk has a history – one embedded in the history of our society and culture – and it is right that this history is understood and analysed. It helps us to learn who we are. We being the punks, we being the people. Does the (highly debatable) view that nothing like the Sex Pistols has existed before or since show that punk was a phenomenon that ruptured itself from cultural history, or from time? Of course it doesn’t.
You see, on behalf of historians everywhere, it makes us really upset when people destroy our sources. We fucking love sources. God, how we do. We love touching them, reading them, looking at them. But most of all – and this is where we really get horny – we love evaluating those sources in a bid to unpick assumed narratives of power handed down from the past and thereby democratising and radically transforming both our collective social understanding and our memories of who we are. We’re wild. We scrutinise the tales of the rich, critique the lies of the powerful, empower the voiceless. AND THAT’S ONLY ON THE HISTORY CHANNEL. What’s more punk than being a historian? Absolutely nothing. Honest to God, we’re great.
But we can’t do all of that cool shit when you destroy our sources. We need stuff. Now, there’s a field of historical inquiry that borrows techniques from anthropologists to study the past via the objects, things and stuff that humans made, used and owned – and humans made cultural expression through these things. Stop me if you know this. This stuff, this “material culture”, is cracking good. Not only is this a relatively new sub-discipline of history (about 20 years old, which in historian terms is fashionable as hell), this approach also offers exciting ways of studying the past that weren’t previously available to historians. So instead of just studying punk through, say, contemporary newspapers, TV coverage or photography, we can think about the things that were key to punk and elucidate their histories, their biographies.
Take, for example, that door handle you have, the one from the front door to Sex, McLaren and Westwood’s shop on the King’s Road. It’s a self-evidently valuable (I’m not talking £££) piece of punk memorabilia. It’s cool AF. It also tells us something about Sex that we can’t learn from photographs. For example, we can feel how heavy the handle is. You said it’s a metal handkerchief with a pink enamel logo saying ‘Sex 430’. I would guess that a metal handkerchief isn’t necessarily a very practical instrument with which to open doors. The weight of it, its shape, its size – these things tell us something about how Westwood and McLaren might have wanted us to feel about entering the shop. It might also tell us something about the processes that went into making it. Where did the metal come from? Who crafted it? How much were they paid? How old were they? Were they professionally skilled or a willing amateur? These questions help us to understand, among other things, the social, economic and political make-up of Britain in the late 1970s and 1980s. These questions help us to challenge the stories of the powerful that pretend that people like this don’t matter, that the histories of class, difference, protest and resistance are footnotes in the Oxford English Biography of Civilised Progress. That stuff is vital. That shit is dope. It is our history and it belongs to all of us.
As such, that handle belongs in a museum. Now, museums aren’t politically neutral. Of course they aren’t. Exhibitions and collections are very often expressions of power of various ruling groups and ideologies. For example, the British Museum’s forthcoming ‘Sunken Cities’ exhibition on ancient Egyptian cities lost underwater is likely to include a fair bit of Egypt’s past offered up as carnival for the white, western gaze. Indeed, some of Punk London’s events are barely-disguised and patronising admonitions of working-class culture. A quick look at the list of events will point to… hang on. What the… You’re on here! Your burning thingy! It’s right here on November 26. Listed as “Joe Corré burns his punk stuff”. You never said!
Well, now what? That’s sort of just proved my point. Now you’re a part of this tribute-act-museum-piece thing that you wanted to avoid. It’s almost as if you are part of the spectacle. Perhaps what this demonstrates is that the meaning of punk is far more complicated and far more powerful than you suggest. Punk isn’t a victim of capitalism; it needs capitalism. Its practices follow the most basic examples of capitalist enterprises. Produce, market, exchange, invest. Sell records, make clothing, spread the message. Far from being manipulated by the processes of capitalism for commercial gain, as you say, punks were heartily involved in commercial manipulations of their own.
After all, Westwood and McLaren were traders. They marketised punk, put a barcode on it and sold it to kids on the Kings Road before anybody heard the first G-chord of Anarchy in the UK. And they did rather well out of it. So did you. Inherited wealth, by the way, whether that is cash or assets tied up in punk memorabilia, is pretty close to the definition of “establishment”. (Ah, to be 48 and white and male and rich and punk!) Moreover, selling was always part of what punk was about. It has always been ephemera. It has always been throwaway trash. That was the point. Was it not always about holding up a mirror to meaningless degradations of capitalism, to the horrific unreality of its depressing spectacle, to highlighting the life-affirming truth that under the modern world’s alienating machinations we have all become sick?
So you are right to identify that the monetary value of your memorabilia is a warped way of understanding its importance. You are right, too, that “we need to explode all the shit once more.” But please, please don’t. On behalf of historians everywhere, put down the petrol can. Step off the flaming barge.
Giving this stuff to a museum is possibly the most punk thing you could do with it. You can help to challenge the stories of the powerful, stories that pretend that the people who created and adored this stuff don’t matter, that the histories of difference, protest and resistance are without value.
In so doing, you offer people their own history. Their own, for them to claim, if they want it. Future, no future. Whatever.
Why are there so few museums for the history of ideas? It is a question that sounds a little trite — like a first-year philosophy undergraduate who, after their first lesson in formative ontology, asks: ‘But is that desk really there?’ — or even unnecessary, wilfully ignorant or contrarian. Rather like those men who, annoyed at the spread of feminism’s so-called anti-male agenda coined the term ‘meninism’, it appears to be missing the point. Ideas, after all, are not ‘things’ in the material sense; we do not experience ideas in the same way our philosophy student senses the desk in front of them. However, ideas are at least partially formed through our experience of the material, and material objects are often experienced through the lens of ideas.
Things and ideas have lives and biographies. As historians use materials to understand and unravel the processes of the past, so too do historians use ideas and concepts for similar ends. Historians working in material cultures use museums as part of a dialogue with the past. An eighteenth-century tobacco tin owned by a merchant in the East India Company, for example, has a genealogy, a lineage of owners, uses, values, transformations and movements through space. Its materiality is inherent to its value as a source for the twenty-first century historian; the material turn in cultural and social history towards the end of the last century has opened new roads of inquiry. A major partner in that has been the museum, helping historians to negotiate a new relationship with things, preserving items of significance, refreshing and revising historical narratives and presenting those things informed by historical scholarship.
But no such partner exists for intellectual history. Terms, concepts and ideas are as much a part of the fabric of human experience and yet there are no public presentations of their history and potency; there is no exhibition for ‘authority’, no museum of ‘liberty’, or ‘property rights’.
In particular, while the teaching of intellectual history is dominated by political thought, the presentation of those ideas, perhaps influenced in the UK by Quentin Skinner and the Cambridge School, remains textual and linguistic. Too often, when historians talk about the history of ideas, they actually mean the history of a bunch ideas that fall roughly within the field of study of the humanities or social sciences. There is seldom much of a look-in for physics, biology and engineering, for Hawking’s Brief History of Time, say, within a tradition of intellectual history dominated by the study of liberal political thought and its landmark texts.
A new approach to the display of the history of ideas could transform the field, renegotiating lines of demarcation, revisiting key texts and thinkers in visual, metaphorical, allegorical ways. Opening to the public the scholarship of intellectual historians could help to reverse or renegotiate the ahistorical assumed hegemony of concepts like ‘human rights’, ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy’ as timeless ideals handed down to us from the Greeks (of the British Museum). ‘People don’t realize how much they are in the grip of ideas’, Saul Bellow wrote. ‘We live among ideas much more than we live in nature.’
Can we be so sure that the material and the immaterial are so different? George Berkeley, a late seventeenth-century philosopher, questioned whether material things were really things at all, instead reasoning that material objects depend on minds to perceive them. Berkeley held that ‘we perceive qualities, not “things” or “material substances”, and that there is no reason to suppose that the different qualities which common sense regards as all belonging to one “thing” inhere in a substance distinct from each and all of them’. This reasoning is valid. The concept of the ‘thing’ is unnecessary to our perception of its qualities or its ‘thingness’. Berkeley also holds that there are unperceived objects, since some things in reality are unperceived, and that when a thing is perceived we ‘mean something more than that it occurs.’
Bertrand Russell, however, doubted Berkeley’s idealism: ‘[A] mind and a piece of matter are, each of them, a group of events. There is no reason why every event should belong to a group of one kind or the other, and there is no reason why some events should not belong to both groups; therefore some events may be neither mental nor material, and other events may be both. As to this, only detailed empirical considerations can decide.’
Berkeley had a profound influence on problems in twentieth-century philosophy, such as subject-object quandaries and perception, and his valuable insights are relevant for the present discussion. As events mental and material cannot satisfactorily be separated by our perceptions, the practices of material history, which operate among these relations, can be modified and informed by a new approach to monumentalising ideas in the form of a museum. Considering how museums have been conceived in conceptual spheres, it will be possible to locate ‘museums of ideas’, metaphorical or otherwise, and argue for the value of such projects.
The conceptual museum has been developed by artists. Artists collecting art has a long history but, Kynaston McShine writes, ‘it has relatively recently expanded into the idea of making a museum of one’s own’, that is, in ‘applying museological practices to the field of art.’ Often requiring neither a permanent location nor a permanent collection, artists have helped to pioneer the ideational museum.
Claes Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum (1965-1977) was ‘a freestanding structure containing a collection of fictionalized objects (some found and altered, others created by the artist)’. These included foods, body parts, tools and souvenirs. The museum was ‘a comment partly on collecting (the selection’s combination of irrationality and obvious system throwing the whole practice into question) and partly on the ingenious, yet inane, mass of mechanically reproduced material that floods our society’.
Susan Hiller’s From The Freud Museum (1991-96), a collection of fifty cardboard boxes containing personal objects belonging to the artist, allowed her collection, ‘a construct of the artist’s imagination’, to become ‘a personal epic with biographical, archaeological, and political elements that move the spectator through a gamut of intellectual and emotional tonalities, from the banal and sentimental to the academic and metaphysical.’ Hiller succeeded in raising a fundamental issue of the museum, for both the curator and the visitor, McShine, writes, that is ‘the need for visitors to establish their own rapport with what is presented and to create for themselves a unique, personal poetic experience.’ Indeed this personal experience is one of metaphysics, envisaging the item one perceives in contexts other than the one in the current collection; the visitor traces the item into their imagination, dematerialising the thing, giving it impermanence and taking it from (perceived) mind-independence to something intellectually real. As these artists have shown, the conceptual museum has us dematerialising its collection, putting the multifarious thingness of the things at the heart of the collections. Ideas are at the core of the museum.
Reinhart Koselleck, the German historian who pioneered conceptual history, was arguably such a collector. Along with Werner Conze and Otto Brunner, he co-edited the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Basic Concepts in History: A Historical Dictionary of Political and Social Language in Germany, 1972-1997), a multi-volume encyclopaedia in intellectual history which charted the genealogy and development of concepts in (not exclusively) political thought such as “solidarity”, “anarchy” and “ideology” in the context of their historical meanings.
Koselleck, in his entry on “crisis”, in the third volume, sought to reappraise the usage of “crisis” in the modern period as a descriptor of temporal semantics, conveying a certain human drama or an end point. He compared the term’s use in an Ancient Greek context, identifying the root of the word (“krisis”) to mean, roughly, a moment of diagnosis by a doctor. Its negative connotations, as it is taken in a modern context to mean a dangerous state in which an individual or society may be at risk, developed historically, coming to mean in the Middle Ages (in the Christian world) something eschatological, used to describe a telos in which human history would come to an end. In the age of revolutions in Europe, “crisis” came to mean a political disaster but one subject to rational prognosis, one which required the cognition of probabilities, as politics prepared for the future; it came to mean something mundane, a man-made problem resolved by man as opposed to a spiritual one resolved only by the awesome destructive power of God.
The Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe functions a little like a museum. We can see Koselleck’s processes of collection across eight volumes and 122 concepts, his mode of curation, citing concepts alphabetically (Volume 1: A—D, and so on) rather than by theme or period and his method of representation, displaying his concepts in textual form, attempting to defeat the reductivism of such a collection via an engagement with the complexity of the concepts, using economic and philosophical approaches to historicise the concepts and their changing semantics. It is a museum devoid of the material, but operates on the same plane as a museum.
Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk (Arcades Project, 1927-1940), a substantial body of works on urban life in nineteenth-century Paris was, though never finished, a significant critique of bourgeois consumer culture. Benjamin reproduced the nineteenth-century Parisian arcade in a palimpsest of images and short aphorisms. Benjamin sought to present quotations from others alongside discussions of his own, categorising these insights into groups as apparently disparate as ‘photography’, ‘Baudelaire’, or ‘progress’.
A material historian might take a particular interest in Benjamin’s interest in commodities by which he historicises the modernist era (and pre-empts the postmodern one). Conceived as a Marxist analysis of urban commercialism and space (and supported, in stipends, by Theodor Adorno for that reason), it is a work profoundly embedded in tensions of temporality, concerned as Benjamin was with the experience of time in the nineteenth century. His grouping of reflections is undoubtedly a form of curation, inspired by his concern with contemporary efforts to exhibit materials. World exhibitions, he wrote of the Exposition Universelle (World Exhibition) in Paris, ‘glorify the exchange value of the commodity. They create a framework in which its use value recedes into the background. They open a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted.’ Benjamin saw the commodity as impossible to imagine without its conceptual framework. His ‘museum’ of the arcades can be read as a project in the history of ideas.
A more recent example of such a curation is in the work of Orhan Pamuk. The Nobel Prize-winner’s Masumiyet Müzesi (The Museum of Innocence, 2008), is a fictional ‘museum’ within a 2008 novel in which Kemal, the male protagonist, attempts to aid his emotional pain at separation from his lover, Füsun, by collecting objects important to his memory of her. Each object comes to represent a temporal moment in their relationship, often a moment of happiness for Kemal. He then displays these items in Füsun’s home, after they are again separated, as a ‘museum of innocence’. Influenced by Milan’s Bagatti Valsecchi Museum, a reconstructed home made from found objects from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Pamuk created a museum of his own, based on the one in the novel, in Beyoğlu, Istanbul. The museum has a collection of items that in some way represent the period in Istanbul in which his novel is set, containing the ephemera of everyday life, minute conversations with the rules of existing culture, a dialectical process that Certeau might call the ‘procedures’ or ‘tactics of consumption’. The novel and the museum are as one, to be considered as partners in our experience of his work. ‘Still,’ Pamuk writes, ‘words are one thing, objects another. The images that words generate in our minds are one thing; the memory of an old object used once upon a time is another. But imagination and memory have a strong affinity’. Indeed, the imagined (not to mention to fictional) is key to Pamuk’s concept of the museum, his mode of presenting memory and time. The immaterial, for him, is as crucial to the museum as its physicality.
Such a museum of concepts or ideas can have value to historians in pedagogical, genealogical, proprietary, representational, temporal and metaphysical terms.
The first use for a museum for ideas would be in pedagogy, in the simple instruction of ideas and concepts to historians and the public as a means of presenting the past. In transferring knowledge in philosophy, law, politics, science, culture, art, and beyond.
The second use would be in reconstructing new genealogies of fundamental ideas and concepts which would inform both the study and practice of history and also our social memory, our communal relationship with the past. Genealogy, Michel Foucault wrote, must ‘record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous family; it must seek them in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history — in sentiments, love, conscience, instincts; it must be sensitive to their recurrence, not in order to trace the gradual curve of their evolution, but to isolate the different scenes where they engaged in different role[s].’ A museum of ideas could help to track the development, emergence and dominant powers that have helped to shaped the critical concepts of modernity.
Another use for such a museum might be to reflect on the proprietary rules within a ‘material’ museum and consider how this may be similar to the ownership of particular concepts and ideas, the persons and nations that may seek to claim an idea for their own. A reflexive dialogue between historians of the material and the intellectual, it would open up new borders of inquiry as material historians sought to unravel the possession of museum items within conceptual frameworks.
A further technique for the historian may be in considering how a museum of ideas presents its content: which ideas are missed? As historians consider museums for their representation of artefacts, so too might they consider the role of curators in hosting the immaterial.
Furthermore, concepts in (for example) political thought are in certain ways invented, designed or developed to remedy changing conceptions of temporality. Scholarship in the shifting relation of time to ideas – which began in earnest with Koselleck – is of vital importance to historians. Just as the material historian appeals to a concept of time at all stages of reading a particular text, so too must we understand the temporal forces which act at all times upon that text.
The final approach may be to consider the way metaphysics shapes material history. The evaluation of a text, in the mind of a material historian, analysing mind-independent things, appeals to metaphysics, to physicality beyond sensual experience. Metaphysics in this way helps to do the history but it is largely lacking from the narrative so-called, of history. The ideational has spheres within the material world.
As many material historians might say that some things in the past are not mind-independent, what thing, not of myself, can I study as a thing if it is part of myself? History, after all, is not biography. Things that we cannot perceive cannot be studied by material historians, but they are part of the tools of the historian. Things that can be both perceived and imagined can be so studied. Those things perceived by the material historian are a soup of interpretations, politics and contexts; they are appeals to concepts that may or may not be in relation to something mind-independent.
The museum of ideas has a vital role in stitching these paths together.
 Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 599.
 On the subject-object dilemma in relation to things, see: Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York and London: Routledge, 1993).
 McShine, ‘Introduction’, in The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1999), pp. 11-23, in Bettina Messias Carbonell (ed.), Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 506-520
Cf. Marcus Broodthaers’s conceptual museum Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, 1968-1972).
 McShine, ‘Introduction’, p. 509. See also: Malcolm Baker and Brenda Richardson (eds.), A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1997).
 McShine, pp. 509-510. See also: Christian Boltanksi’s Archives (1987) exhibition.
 Koselleck, ‘Crisis’, Journal of the History of Ideas (2006), Vol. 67, No. 2, pp. 357-400; Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (London: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1979).
 Niklas Olsen, History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012).
 Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, (Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991).
 Hannah Arendt (ed.), ‘Introduction’, in Benjamin, Illuminations (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), pp. 1-58.
 Benjamin, The Arcades Project (London: Belknap Press, 1999), p. 7.
 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol: 2 (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1998; 1980), p. 108.
 The book contains a ticket printed on one of its pages which is stamped at the door of the museum for free entry.
 Pamuk, The Innocence of Objects (New York: Abrams, 2012), p. 18.
 Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in John Richardson and Brian Leiter (eds.), Nietzsche (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 341.
 Stephanie Moser, ‘The Devil is in the Detail: Museum Displays and the Creation of Knowledge’, Museum Anthropology (2010), Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 22-32.
 Koselleck, ‘Modernity and the Planes of Historicity’ in Futures Past, pp. 3-21.
Some gig reviews get written on the bus home. Some are written in an orderly way, the following morning with a nice pot of the black stuff, with a marshalling of the facts, a prosaic and faithful transcription of the show. Some are hurriedly scribed on the backs of hands before being finished, in haste, at 4am. But all are written – whether kindly or unkindly – from a place of arousal, with opinions being teased or tempted out, completed when one has emptied the mind of all it was provoked to say. That, amongst other truths, was utterly detonated by A Wilhelm Scream at the Borderline on Saturday night. Sitting down to write this almost 48 hours after the show, I am hampered by the total inability to feel – my sensibilities brutally, gloriously, majestically exploded. It is impossible to begin to get this show, to get near it, to enter its post code. The cliché is (almost) warranted: there are no words.
The Borderline is a scraggly place. A dusty, red curtain hangs behind the stage, framing the action like a poor school play. The sound is a little cruel. From anywhere other than five yards back, plum centre, it can sound a bit like a fart in a packet of Maltesers. But Gnarwolves, the featured support, fire gamely through, sweeping all away in the melody of the brilliant Community, Stability, Identity like a frenzied Menzingers, a proto-anthemic Parquet Courts.
No words, indeed. Let’s have a go. It’s owed. Opening with the tanking duo of Boat Builders and The Kids Can Eat a Bag of Dicks, the former from the headliners’ new album Partycrasher (No Idea, 2014), it’s clear we are all about to get hurt. The heat is incredible – sticky, aching heat through which A Wilhelm Scream have to carve rather than play. And how they play. Trevor Reilly and Mike Supina (the newest member of the band, having joined in 2008 after Chris Levesque, who captured some of the supreme work on Ruiner (Nitro, 2005), departed) swap frenetic glances, looks of delight, madness, endeavour, as they share orchestral fretwork and grinding palm muting, this kind of totalising guitar romance. A Dave Murray and Adrian Smith for punk rock.
Is this punk? Who knows. It’s fast. A 19-song set is kicked into the throat in just about 45 minutes. Their sound has all the jangling, gothic ephemera of Iron Maiden but all the snotty muscularity of Pennywise or Dead Kennedys. Their set is beguiling. They take liberal fistfuls of material from past albums, like The Soft Sell, I Wipe My Ass With Showbiz, 5 to 9 (the latter stitched together fiercely), with Partycrasher’s highlights like The Last Laugh and Born a Wise Man. It is uncompromisingly urgent.
Breaks are minuscule, to be taken only so as to take fluids and not die. And then it is on, forward, to something unreal. Brian Robinson is frightening all on his own, bass-playing of such a remarkable quality, so high a top drawer that most, including myself, just gaze at his fingering with eye seared open, almost forgetting to blink. (Speaking of fingering, overheard at the bar: “I saw Rage Against The Machine at Wembley Arena and I got fingered.”) Skid Rock displays all his powers, thundering along the fretboard, matched, pound for pound, by Nicholas Pasquale Angelini’s acerbic beats, his charging kick pedal. Nuno Pereira jumps buoyantly, grinning like an eight-year-old. Peak up, vest top, flinging himself like Pepe Reina, he looks thrilled to be fronting such a breathtaking unit, as we all are to be there witnessing it. But Pereira has chops of his own, growling like Chuck Ragan or Mike Ness, a quick-lipped Eddie Vedder. “Tie me up to the radiator! Trust the sweat, not the face it’s on!”
The technicality at this speed is simply something beyond what other punk bands can do. And it has long been known. A Wilhelm Scream, the band’s band. The band bands wanted to tour with, the one they listed as inspiration. But now, nearly ten years in, the Borderline caught the fusion of skill and deft songwriting that their recorded work had so often captured so sweetly: songs so catchy they seem to vacuum the air from the room. Come tomorrow night to Kingston, Pereira said, when it will really get “hot and nasty”. But this room is baking enough. Punters fly into each other, leap from the stage and hang upside down from the lighting rig. The King is Dead is followed by an encore of Hike and The Rip and we tread out, exhausted.
And so to words. They come easily to Pereira whose barked aggressions fire into the Charing Cross Road like rockets but, then, unfathomable flair comes easily to this band. It is left to the reviewer, when words consistently fail to do justice, to feel. And that feeling, that emotion when you watch a band so tight, so energetic, so mesmeric that you feel your eyes tingle and the back of your neck burn white with anticipation, with the sense that time might have just fallen off its track, that feeling when you see such a ferocious statement of authority, when a gulf in punk rock might just have been ripped open, when you encounter what might be the best hardcore band since Black Flag, that feeling – if we can find but one word – is awe.
The legitimacy of a not-even-six-month vegetarian questioning the ethics of meat-eaters, piling on them as animal-slaughterers, bastards and fiends is highly dubious. But let’s plough on.
Yesterday, an MP and secretary of Parliament’s animal welfare group joined John Blackwell, the president-elect of the British Veterinary Association, in calling for the end of the religious slaughter of animals for food. Andrew Rosindell said that Muslims and Jews kill more than half a million animals a week in ways that are inhumane, cutting their throats to satisfy the meaty whims of their respective deities.
“If you asked the average British citizen whether they agreed with this, they would say ‘No’. An animal has to be killed for food, but it needs to be done in a humane way,” Mr Rosindell said. “Why should we allow that kind of thing to go on in this country when it goes against everything that we really stand for as a people?”
Denmark recently banned the killing of animals by that method, citing inhumanity, thereby legalising bigotry and the exclusion of religious minorities, preventing thousands of people from access to the meat they want to eat according to their values. Those values are undoubtedly a right load of turnip, but the problem here is a logical one.
If you say you care about the treatment of animals, it is not a logical position to choose to eat meat. Meat comes to your mouth, in the overwhelming majority of cases, via a system of meat production that requires the animal to be killed. It is not possible to care about the welfare of animals and at the same time want them dead. It’s inconsistent.
A = I want to minimise the suffering of animals.
B = I want to eat animals which are killed and which suffer pain via meat production systems.
A and B are, quite simply, inconsistent statements. So the question remains as to the rationale for the ban on halal and kosher meat. Are we seriously making an ethical argument that takes this form: it’s OK to beat, under-feed, abuse, degrade, effectively imprison, stun, murder, slaughter, cut to pieces, trade and commodify an animal but not cut its throat because that is in some way crossing a moral line? Despite the pain the animal undoubtedly feels from the minute it is born to the minute it is gassed or (in the case of chickens) hung upside on a conveyor belt and dipped headfirst into a electric water bath, all of that is fine just so long as we stun it? Because what the Muslims and the Jews do is really barbaric. It’s a heavy slab of exceptionalism and sounds a lot like racism.
The animal has to be killed in x way, x then being considered barbaric by some people. Halal/kosher should be an option too, because it not being an option excludes Muslims and Jews from the practice of eating the food they wish to eat. At the same time, consumers should, to an extent, be able to have a say in how their food is prepared. But adherents of either option can’t make consistent arguments as to why the other may be more unfair. They are increasing the aggregate suffering of animals with negligible difference between them.
Not eating meat or meat products is, within the practice of food consumption, the logical conclusion of position A (above): I want to minimise the suffering of animals. You can call it religious privilege if you like – but really you’re criticising religions for doing something you pretty much do anyway. What’s the difference?
Of course both halal and kosher practice are mad superstitions and it is not really logical (meaning: ‘consistent’) to say that you object to one particular type of pain and suffering that probably isn’t any worse than another type which, as a meat consumer, you are happy to partake in. There is a good argument about the legitimisation of batshit crazy religious ritual in mass consumption, and it’s a better reason to reject halal/kosher chicken sandwiches. But, meat-eaters, the argument about harm to the animal is invalid for you.
Muslims and Jews would like to be able to eat meat that corresponds to the stipulations of their belief system (in public and in private). This necessarily or in some ways means that the non-religious may then consume ritual slaughter meat, but standard levels of meat production are equally or at least comparatively barbaric.
Why shouldn’t Muslims and Jews feel/be as equally entitled to eat meat as everybody else? If you want to eat meat but don’t want halal/kosher meat as a ‘preference’, then your preference is bullshit. It’s not a sound ethical argument to claim that one form of animal murder/captivity is more ‘good’ than another if you care so little about what is ‘good’ for the animal as to have it killed, eaten and held captive anyway. It’s absolutely worthwhile to criticise halal/kosher practices of animal slaughter – but why stop there? Keep going with that reasoning and you should find that it’s harder to justify eating animals at all.
Are tweets spaces? Not many philosophers would want to answer that question. ‘Space’ is a term – like ‘narrative’ or ‘deconstruction’ – that while it has its role in thinking about humans, and has its philosophical antecedents, has now become impossibly ‘postmodern’ in the pejorative sense. To a philosopher it says imprecision, or worse: AHRC funding.
As for tweets, few philosophers have so far grappled with the questions of self in an age of digital self-division. It is often left to the arts to try and give meaning to human experience and so it is with the ostensibly non-digital realm of contemporary dance. IJAD, a London dance company, have continued their negotiations with social media (read: Twitter) in the third in a series of productions based loosely around temporality and space.
In-Finite Space, a project of choreographer Joumana Mourad, is notably concerned with transcending the gap between how the audience thinks about the work they are seeing, relating it to experiences of their own, and how, reflexively, the dancers can return interpretations of those experiences. The production, quite remarkably, relies on the tweets of its audience for its inspiration. It is brave art.
In this latest show at Waterloo’s magnificent Vaults, part of the Vaults Festival, the audience are asked to tweet their favourite space, that being in the perceived world, the digital world, the imaginary world, and so on. Many of these tweets are trite; answers like “Horizontal on cool grass” are clumsy but contribute to the problem with the production. (The worst tweet, which I saw from over a neighbour’s shoulder, was a space “on a train, travelling through a continent.”)
If the tweets here are to be honest accounts of one’s experiences, we ought to take into account, if we are to interpret them, the time-spaces in which these tweets are formed. The issue for IJAD is that a tweet occupies multiple digital and conceptual spaces owing to its availability to all people at all times. It takes on new meanings in new spaces. It has a history, a personality. I tweet about how I feel in the Vaults, but that makes little sense to my followers who aren’t all here with me, even though I’m using a hash tag to siphon off my tweets for this show. My knowledge of this – plus social embarrassment (and that not everybody uses Twitter to be honest) – might mean that I do not engage with the show as Mourad intends. Indeed, my embarrassment at being asked to think, an impolite request if there ever were one, meant that I shied behind tweets that were mostly self-aggrandising or merely took the piss. But the worry is that the production so rests on a dynamic that must be taken seriously. There is an irredeemable collapse between the audience and their honesty which renders the expression of their spatial relationships vague and unsatisfying. What isn’t explored is whether we need anonymity to feel the space we want in our multitudinously digital world. Why does Twitter only appear to have one dimension in a production, ironically, about time and space?
The phenomenal power of the movement (Alice Gaspari in particular involving herself in a nice nod to apples and Newtonian physics) is worshipful. The improvisation adopted to express the tweets is often extraordinary. But this second part of the performance is too short. I could gleefully have watched this for longer. Not much off of half an hour, it gets really exciting towards the end, which comes to soon, as all five performers move wonderfully in unison.
After the audience had been asked in the first part to explore the danced space with torches and tweets, this second part feels much more static. Spaces are demarcated between audience and performer. The tweets then function merely as source material. They could be read from a book. It matters not that the tweets are truthful or not, only that they are given in spaces that may require them to be truthful. Spaces house powers upon the tweeter and with IJAD, courageous though they are, this is lost. Tweets convey brief moments of agency but they are welded to the perceived recipient of the author and this production misses the vital component, therefore, of the digital self: dishonesty. Tweets are lies in space. And while this production rollicks with such a confident ingenuity, you can’t believe a word of it.
• In-Finite Space runs until Saturday, March 8 at the Vaults Festival in London