by Sarah J Lloyd

Performance artist Emilia Telese hosted a screening of Derek Jarman’s 1978 punk movie Jubilee last week, and afterwards a lively Q and A with Jordan, the film’s iconic punk star, and cultural anthropologist Ted Polhemus. It’s a seminal work from the era, stylish, anarchic, raw and transgressive, but the violence really surprised me.

Released in 1978, right after the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the film was addressing a nation who had just finished celebrating monarchy and its ancient institutions of symbolic authority and power.

Reflecting on symbolic power just days after the Westminster tragedy, and 40 years on, it’s clear that neither violence, symbolic power nor anarchy really get to the heart of this. I hadn’t seen this film before, but it helped me recognise that for me, punk was about music not about violence.

Punk was celebrating the rhythms of a channelled anger that challenged class-based rigidity. Punk was a refreshing take on Empire’s age-old sense of grandiosity and entitlement, on England’s taste for empty manners and polite images, whilst celebrating social structures riddled with inequality, prejudice, cruelty, neurosis and insecurity, all the while tight lipped with desperate and resentful deference.

Punk made this brittleness, with all its gendered role-playing and sycophantic passivity, suddenly visible to me for the first time. Punk inspired me that something else could be imagined than stereotypes, drudgery, duty, tradition and top-down authoritarian control.

So, you might wonder why I disliked the symbolic violence in Jubilee when I resonate strongly with punk’s wider critique. It’s this: that fighting to the death is stupid, anytime, anywhere. It’s going too far.

The symbolic exists because we take part in it and collectively project qualities upon it, it’s a communicative register not a place. We make it up and give power to it, and  humans have always done this throughout history, in all kinds of diverse and eccentric ways. But deciding to kill ourselves or others who won’t agree that our symbolic constructs are the best is utter madness.

Monarchy, anarchy, violent religious posturing, racism, parasitic capitalism, terroristic fundamentalism, these are all, in the end, symbolic systems in which we enact various ideas that humans have invented. We enact ideas about belonging, power, status, control, virtue and success to impress, to explore, to exploit. But at root these enactments are postures, sets of words and attitudes that direct us to create human relationships more this way or that. They can point us towards shareable symbolic values, but when the symbols become more important than valuing each other and life itself, it becomes farcical, vain and tragically destructive.

Emilia Telese, hosting the Q and A after the screening, addressed a similar question to Jordan and Ted, suggesting that watching Jubilee had put her in mind sometimes of the separative violence of Le Pen and the violent extremism in our present time. Sadly, neither Jordan nor Ted really picked up on this question, but her point was very valid.

Destruction and negation is quick and easy, but brings little that is nourishing or generative. Life-affirming social transformation requires more than violence and control. Real social transformation demands deeper processes than rivalry, righteousness, emotionally alienated fetishism and displays of deference, irony, virtue, appropriation, possession or dispossession. It’s beyond the old victim and top-dog positions and requires genuine respect for the living.

And maybe that’s why I wished Jarman hadn’t used such an excess of violence: it felt conventional and gratuitous. Focusing us towards the chaos of lived identity, the necessary symbolic transgressions, the spontaneity and brazen playfulness, and playing the music would have been enough.

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