Visual Vitriol: The Street Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generati: By David A. Ensminger, 334 pgs. By Aphid Peewit

Apr 27, 2012

Like a dog’s teeth sharpened from years of gnawing on sour old bones, my radar-like sensibilities of what punk is and what it sure-the-hell isn’t, were honed from many years of dutifully lapping up the wisdom offered up in the pages of Maximum Rocknroll. That magazine is, as everyone knows, the manual on Punk Rock Do’s and Don’ts. It was, in fact, a MRR column by Mr. Felix Von Havoc that taught me how to dress properly, and I am now known for cutting an imposing figure that is natty and punk-as-all-fuck, even on a tight budget.

So I know damned well that a coffee table book is about as punk as Pippa Middleton, “Toddlers & Tiaras” beauty pageants, or Sum 41. And a coffee table book that purports to be about punk—even if it contains reproductions of actual show flyers—is nothing but a heinous, retched thing plunger-ed out of the plugged pipes of Lucifer’s most vile toilet and it is surely an apocalyptic sign of the Martha-Stewart-ization of a once unvarnished and primal subculture.

But equally un-punk, I think, would be a scholarly work that approaches the tribal artifacts of punk with the grim, poking, and peeling autopsy tools of critical and cultural theory, while leaving behind a fusty, footnote-choked pile of academic pontification. That would surely signal the Habermas-ification of punk. (Slavoj Zizek twitchily explicating on punk, though, would probably be pretty damn entertaining.)

Author David Engsminger would probably be quick to point out that Visual Vitriol is neither a punk rock coffee table book nor a strictly analytical study intended for academicians. He states in the introduction: “this book does not attempt to capture all the fuss and fury and spend its cultural capital on socio-anthropological methodology or literary theory. The book is a way to trace the social discourse of punk: it examines the ways punks talk about themselves.” He then goes on to suggest the V.V. is to be thought of as a self-reflective ethnography, attempting to capture the still-unfolding history of punk, as reflected by its street-level art forms like show flyers and graffiti. That’s a fair enough assessment, but I wonder if this book would be considered more of an example of a “collaborative ethnography,” since Ensminger is from the “punk subculture” himself and the fact that he very much lets his legion of subjects—people like Jack Grisham, Ian MacKaye, Dave Dictor, etc.—speak for themselves throughout the book. Or better still, and more in tune with the “folk” aspect of punk, maybe Visual Vitriol can be considered something like a “family bible”—in the old-timey sense of a homemade clan history compiled by family members, and not in the sense of that turgid tome of hellfire and gravitas so beloved by Judeo-Christians worldwide.

But categorizing this book is problematic. Engsminger refers to himself as a “former punk” and he is currently earning a living as a professional academic, teaching English and humanities at LeeCollege in Baytown, Texas. Visual Vitriol also happens to be published by University Press of Mississippi. But he also references his punk background with stints as a music journalist (including MRR), a zine editor (Left of the Dial), and playing with the Big Boys’ Randy Turner in a band called the Texas Biscuit Bombs. So for those keeping score, V.V. appears, from various angles, to be a coffee table book version of an academic appraisal of vintage punk rock flyers and the subcultures that belched them forth, as seen through the eyes of a former-punk/current-punk professor of humanities. As jumbled as that might sound, I think it’s a big part of the book’s charm, along with the dozens of flyers pictured throughout the pages. And though the word “charm” doesn’t have much utility in the punk rock lexicon, it does seem somehow appropriate when considering the likely unintended nostalgia factor that will inevitably arise for many readers as they look back on an era before punks talked about themselves through something called “tweeting”—a digital means of communication also wildly popular with decidedly non-punk subcultures such as teenage girl fans of Justin Bieber and the Kardashians.

But in showing how punks “talk about themselves,” it is simultaneously seen—because of the interdependent relationship between self/other, foreground/background—how they talk about the world around them. And in that light, the flyers that can be seen as mere cheap, slapped-together advertisements for punk shows, can also be seen, like the music itself, as angry ripostes, lashing out at a sleepwalking world.

Whether Visual Vitriol is ultimately perused by punks with a cultural theorist nerd streak, or nostalgic punks wanting a taste of the glory days before the era of the Xeroxed flyer was blown into the trash bin by the homogenized din of the social media plague, this book should adequately scratch both itches. It strikes a nice balance between insightful academic commentary and gritty visceral angst. But more importantly, I would say, is that this collection of angry, impassioned slashes in the cultural fabric, will hopefully not be merely viewed as a museum of relics from an era long gone, but seen instead in the light of something along the lines of Frank Discussion’s Antistasiology, where the energy behind these images spreads out like a contagion, inspiring incitements and insurrections and pumping out great stinging globules of vitriol for generations to come. (University Press of Mississippi, 3825 Ridgewood Road, Jackson, MS 39211-6492)