Sex Pistols vs the Banjo

The Sex Pistols Experiment

When I was in graduate school in the English Department, the teachers had introduced punk rock into the curriculum as a way of jolting their complacent students out of their complacent attitudes. They would show a video of the Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” at the outset of a writing class.

“God Save the Queen” is a classic statement of anarchy. Johnnie Rotten sings out his discontent with the hierarchical system. “They made you a moron,” he sings, before announcing “We’re the future. Your future.” The song ends with Rotten’s repetition of the phrase “No future.”

The goal of the song was clearly to knock the British public out of their complacency. Imported into an American classroom a decade later, “God Save the Queen” was intended to knock the American rhetoric student out of their complaisant attitude. They were expecting another boring class in writing. Instead they found themselves facing a psycho (their word, not mine) anarchist.

The use of this tool spread, so that it seemed like everyone in the English Department was using it. So some of the students went back and complained to their hometown papers that they were being subjected to “political correctness.” It was the 1990s, after all.

The Defense of the Sex Pistols

I understand why the department embraced the new way of teaching. A writer has similar goals as a punk rock band when they write. Understand that the goal of writing is not only to impart information. The goal of a writer is to shock people out of their complacency, to make them stand up and pay attention to what they are saying. Otherwise, their reader will put what they have written down and walk away.

The Sex Pistols instantly made the huge gulf between their writing teacher’s expectations and the expectations of their (largely passive) students apparent. The video placed the reader/watcher in an uncomfortable position immediately. Their teacher wouldn’t allow them to pass through this class unscathed.

In this, I agree with the goals of my fellow rhetoric teachers. However, there was a less satisfying ideology behind the model; and this is where my fellow teachers and I parted ways.

The Sex Pistols Roots

The model used by my fellow teachers can be seen by looking at Craig O’Hara’s The Philosophy of Punk: More than Noise provides a good explanation of why punk rock was such a model for academics who had grown up during the disintegration of the Modern period. The book opens with an argument drawn from Charles Taylor:

Few could argue that “Western man (and Eastern as well) has become mechanized, routinized, made comfortable as an object; but in the profound sense displaced and thrown off balance as a subjective creator and power.”

Okay, maybe no one could argue that; but O’Hara traces this feeling back to the industrial revolution only, not to a perpetual condition of mankind’s striving. This means that the intellectual is right to look backwards to a happier time, just as Goldsmith looks back a generation in “The Deserted Village.”

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied.

There’s no indication that my fellow intellectuals recognized that Goldsmith’s portrait of society (and hence their own) was a highly idealized portrait of the past. The intellectual community, looking backwards through the lens of Romantic nostalgia, sees himself as having known the truth, while the rest of the world wallows in ignorance.

While the intellectual community has often shown the ability to see the ‘big picture’ of how things really are, this insight has mostly been kept themselves in academic publications, and confined to the institutions of higher learning.

So what my intellectual friends were trying to do was create a revolutionary movement among the young. Knowing “the way things are”—“the way things are,” incidentally, is the subtitle of a political novel by William Godwin that was popular in the Romantic period—they set up a divide between wealth and a “bold peasantry.” “Rise up!” they seemed to be saying. “You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

In spite of the noble goals of my fellow rhetoric teachers, I objected to the use of the Sex Pistols in writing class.

What’s Wrong with The Sex Pistols Experiment?

“It is offensive,” I said.

“So what,” said one of my fellow rhetoric teachers? “That’s the point.”

“But it only works if the writer is correct in his estimation of the world. This is not an accurate portrayal of the writer’s stance in the world. So it’s just offensive.”

Mos and Pomos

I didn’t like the video because it gave you the impression that the postmodern world was equivalent to the end of the world. By having Johnny Rotten shouting “No future” at students, it was issuing a challenge to writers out of their conservative ways into the postmodern era.

Now Postmodern criticism is best explained by its engagement with Modernism. At its height, the Moderns held out the possibility that they would soon solve every problem put to them. People like Northrup Frye in literary criticism announced that they had managed—for the first time in history, mind you—to climb the mountain after so many had been forced to turn back. (I’m thinking of Petrarch’s Ascent of Mount Ventoux, here.). The Modern method had promised insight where there had been no insight before.

Modernism failed, as so many systems before had failed, not by advancing some knowledge where there was no knowledge to be had, but by promising more than they had the right to deliver. Over time, people realized that there were cracks in the Modern system, and that it could not, like a Gödel formula, answer every question put to it.

Into this cavity slipped Postmodernism. But the postmodern critics—they call themselves “pomo” critics; it’s academia’s version of “cool”—followed the Modern—who, curiously, don’t refer to themselves as “mos”—in announcing that they had found the end of knowledge. However, in contradistinction to the Modern’s confidence that all questions could be solved and put on a secure footing at last, the Postmoderns embraced a thoroughgoing skepticm in regards to all that the Moderns held dear. By having Rotten shouting that there was “No future,” I thought that they were trying to ensure their continuing relevance. There was no future after the pomos had arrived. Embrace us, or be swept onto the dustbin of history.

They, like the Moderns before them, had shifted attention away from America back to Europe, which was announcing its death in the Sex Pistols song (“ God save the Queen, we mean it man!”; they didn’t mean it!). And in doing so, they were drifting towards port at the end of the long journey of world history; they were also drifting into decadence.

Now no one is more decadent than I am, but decadence is not the sum and substance of life.


But as soon I objected they classified me as one those “conservatives” who had sprung up in the 1990s like mushrooms after a spring rain. And, to be fair, I was more fiscally conservative than they were. But that was not why I objected to the use of the Sex Pistols video.

The problem, from my perspective, was that it destabilized a student’s knowledge, but left the teacher in a position of power and authority. This was fine with English teachers, because it gave them authority that they lacked in the world of commerce. They often offered to share power with those beneath them in the manner of  a nineteenth century aristocrat: as an act of noblesse oblige. This was consistent with their principles.

Here is a diagram of how I thought my fellow rhetoric teachers viewed their position in the world:

Teacher-student knowledge

Teacher-student knowledge

Since I didn’t agree with them, their instant reaction was to put me in the position of the student, as well. They would attempt to convince me of their secure position. The fact that I would resist would convince them that I must be more conservative than I was admitting to. I became an object of suspicion on the Left.

How I Viewed my Situation

But I viewed the situation differently. I was a actually a strong proponent of the anti-foundational system adhered to by Michael Berube, one of my professors. I always wanted to push the boundaries of relativism as far as was possible. And in my opinion, even Michael had not gone far enough.

This, in turn, left a foul taste in the mouths of my conservative professors. I was pursuing a degree in the literature of the Middle Ages, one of the most conservative in academic circles. At the time, my medieval colleagues were feeling oppressed by the rise of the (then-new) postmodern approach to learning. Old English had passed from the last university (Oxford, I believe it was) that required it as a requirement to graduate with an undergraduate degree, and my medieval professors thought that this was a terrible thing. And so, when I would ask about the foundation of medieval knowledge and question whether or not we could ever have secure knowledge of the sort that medievalists have been squeezing out of reference books for a generation, they positioned me on the Left.

I went through graduate school like “The Man Without a Country” in that story they made us read in grammar school, getting no respect from either the Left or the Right. I learned to be careful about expressing my opinion in public.

The Flight From Commerce

As I said, my problem with the Sex Pistols video arose because believed it destabilized the student’s knowledge, but it left the English teacher’s knowledge in place. But on what basis can we grant “higher” authority to our teachers?

It’s usually on the basis of their idealism. They pose questions as Plato posed them. Plato’s world was described in terms of base material and noble soul coming together to form an individual man (it’s called hylomorphism). In a hylomorphic uneverse, matter is bad; soul is good. This imposes direction to Plato’s approach to the universe. Up towards the soul is good; down towards matter is bad.

In accordance with the pattern he thinks has been established by nature, Plato uses the intellect is used to sort through the various levels of being. At the lowest level, people are trapped in a cave and they use their minds to look at shadows on the wall. However, some men turn around and they see the true sun, and they realize that what they thought before was true, was merely a shadow.

Those people at the top of the intellectual hierarchy are given the right (or responsibility) to rule the idiots in the lower intellectual realms in Plato’s Republic. Of course, Plato knew that the world as it should be was not the world as it was, and he managed to depict his ideal world as perfect only inside Socrates’ head.

This is the model that governs the academic flight from the world. Leaving the “real” world alone, these Platonic idealists wall themselves apart from the rest of humanity in an ivory tower. They tell themselves that the people in the world are ignorant, that they and they alone have managed to fly the bonds of their imprisonment, as they turn themselves towards “true” knowledge.

This is why my rejection of the Sex Pistols video caused them so much anxiety. It meant that I was not “one of us”; I was “one of them.” They had set themselves up in absolute scale of truth on the Platonic model; but the scale of truth was premised on the basis that everything was relative EXCEPT the view that everything is relative. That view was the only acceptable absolute view.

This made sense in the 1990s, when so many conservatives were looking backwards to the now-lost position of modernism, which (the Postmoderns said) imposed order and unity on the world by subjecting it all to a “master narrative.” The postmodern thinker wanted to break down all master narratives (except their own). In constructing their world, they left themselves with the only absolute position in the world. Everyone else was simply deluded; but the academics were safe in their ivory tower, separated from the world of grasping men by their dedication to the truth.

This meant, in my view, that the position of the entire English Department hinged, not upon their relative position at all, but on the vestigial absolute position that they held. But why should we allow any position absolute status in the world, I kept asking.

My Encounter with Skepticism

The realization that my academic colleagues thought something was secure in their worldview led me back to philosophical skepticism.

Philosophical skepticism, however, is an old movement with many variations, and contrasts with the view that at least one thing is certain, but if by being certain we mean absolute or unconditional certainty, then it is doubtful if it is rational to claim to be certain about anything (Wikipedia).

Modernism and the conservative movement had asked “How much can I know?” It turns out that we know a lot. But postmodernists had come around asking “What don’t we know?” And it turned out that we knew less than we thought we did.

The postmodernists had a point when they asked the question in terms of their skepticism about knowledge: “How much can I doubt?” It turns out that you can doubt quite a lot. In fact, Descartes himself opens his Meditations, the seminal and foundational work of modern philosophy, by doubting all.

Well, not all. Some. He leaves God in place as the one absolute in his universe. Only by providing for such an absolute good can he secure his system from relativism. Of course, few modern academics actually believe in God, so this has meant that relativism has progressed apace for years, at the expense of the religious thinker. But academia has not abandoned that last glimmer of hope: that the academic has a hold of  THE truth, even if  that means that everyone else is an ignorant pig.

My English teachers were following Descartes: doubting some, but leaving enough of the older absolute universe to save their dignity. Everyone else’s knowledge is relative, but theirs was secure. This put them in the position of philosopher kings of Plato’s Republic. They should be in charge in a perfect world, but since the world is imperfect, the next best thing was to leave the world for the philosopher’s position high above the world in the ivory tower.

This is not how I have learned to ask the question.

How I Have Learned to Ask the Question

So I asked the same question as my academic colleagues, but without any sort of absolute statement that left me in charge of other people’s minds. And I shifted my argument from Europe’s announcement of its own death to a still-evolving American music.

I Am Cooler Than You

I did it by making a ridiculous statement at the beginning of the semester: I told them that I that I was cooler than they were.

They would laugh nervously, of course.

Then I would tell them the reason. “You listen to pop music, or rap,” I would say. “But my favorite musician plays the banjo.”

Then they would just laugh at me outright. The thing is I know my students, and this means that I know that whatever else they think they think the banjo is an instrument played by hicks.

So I would smile for a moment, as if I was congratulating myself on being cooler than they were before appearing to notice that they were laughing at me.

“What’s that? You don’t think of the banjo is cool?” I pretended to be shocked.

I would go further than this. I’d show them pictures of hicks in old country dress playing banjos. “Is that what you think people who play the banjo are like?” I would ask them.

I would then ask them whether they’ve ever seen this scene from the movie Deliverance. “Is that what you think people who play the banjo are like?”

I know what they think, and I am working their expectations. In most of their minds the only thing worse than listening to banjo, maybe, is listening to classical music. Sure, some of my students like classical music, but those students still think I’m an idiot because I believe that listening to banjo makes me cooler than they are.

“I see. You’re are snobs,” I say. There is nothing like a challenge to wake up a class. This one works every time because almost all of my students listen to music, and they think that because they have a jazz record in their music collection that they are entitled to claim that they “like all sorts of music.”

So then I ask them about their other musical deficits. “I’m wondering what other things you don’t know about?” I pick, seemingly at random, the bassoon. I ask them whether they even know what a bassoon is. Some do; some don’t. So I put a picture on the screen of a small kid holding this enormous instrument. It is a comical image.

And because (I tell them) I’m such a nice guy, I offer to play them one of the worst bassoon pieces ever recorded. It’s a kid practicing. It’s awful, and I know it; but I don’t let on that I’m anything but absolutely serious.

The bassoon piece is so long and awful that someone always pipes up and asks me to turn it off.

I agree, but I tell my students that “You have no musical taste. That’s why you can’t recognize how much cooler I am than you.”

After another long (and uncomfortable) pause, I give in.

“I’ll just have to show how cool I am,” I say, as if I am giving in to demonstrating what I have been maintaining should be obvious to everyone without further comment. And I play them this video:

“See?” I tell my students, as if it is now clear how much cooler I am than they are.

And yet, they resist me. So I change my strategy. I tell them that’s I may not be cooler they are, but I’m cooler than they originally thought.

This simple admission changes an almost universal rejection of myproposition into a universal acceptance of my proposition. And all I had to do was change my absolute position (“I’m cooler than you”) into a relative position (“I’m cooler than you thought”).

The Lesson for My Students

My point in playing this for my students is so that they can quickly recognize how different the world can be than the way they thought it was. It’s not enough to rest on your assumptions about how the world is. The fact is that by pointing out something so different from their expectations I can almost instantly transform their sense of the (admittedly small) portion of the world having to do with banjo music. The greater the difference between my audience’s expectation of what they’re about to see and what I show them, the greater effect what I show them will have on them. And this is why I spend so much time challenging them.

I don’t need any metaphysical grounding to do this; all I need is find a difference in knowledge between two otherwise equal partners.

I don’t have to have my students follow me in my love for banjo music to have their world expanded in this way. I need my students to be looking outwards, rather than inward-looking to their own assumptions about the nature of the world. I want my students to grow in the knowledge of the world, not in the (often mistaken) world created in their own minds.

The Lesson for Teachers

The people who were showing the Sex Pistols video were not looking to expand everyone’s mind. They were culling their students looking for new adherents to their initial position. They would reward writing based on their belief that it was only after their students had accepted their initial premise that anyone could write correctly. In this environment, some people would gravitate towards the anarchic philosophy; others would resist. The people who gravitated towards anarchy were granted admission to the intellectual class. The people who would resist were treated like blind men who did not even know the absolute truth was even out there. They were coerced until they submitted or they gave up their academic dreams.

Because my system relies on an environment where all knowledge is relative, even mine, I can accede power to my students in areas where my students have much more knowledge than I have. In fact, I encourage them to master areas where I don’t have sufficient knowledge. I learn in this process, as well as developing my students’ minds.

The problem with having one premise that everyone must buy into before they will be allowed to learn is the fact  that there is no metaphysically secure position in the universe. Not even the position taken by academics who leave the world of money and economics and go into their idealistically-created ivory tower. I don’t believe that the walls of the tower are real.

That was the basis of my objection. People are fooling themselves if they truly believe that it is only there Platonic position outside the universe that gives them power over others who are working inside the universe. There are no metaphysically secure positions.

Moreover, I do not believe that this is a morally neutral issue. Having going into teaching as a profession, when they fool themselves and seal themselves off thus, they are robbing some of their students of the opportunity to learn, not on any secure metaphysical foundation, but simply on their arbitrary decision about who deserves to be educated and who doesn’t.

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