Punk Music Circuit-Bending And DIY Cultures: DIY Or Die!

Paula Guerra

Paula Guerra

By opening their electronic devices and changing the flow of electricity, benders create new uses and possibilities for the devices in their hands, thus establishing a strong connection between circuit-bending and the DIY culture. Ghazala Javed explicitly states this relationship in the following quotation: “My aim, more than a decade ago when I began to write about the DIY of circuit-bending, was to launch new, unique instruments by means of explaining only the general discovery process of circuit-bending instead of using the more standard ‘this wire goes here’ dialogue — a dialogue that usually results in exact duplications of a target instrument.”

The DIY phenomenon is clearly nothing new. Eric Paulos and Stacey Kuznetsov, in ‘Rise of the Expert Amateur: DIY Projects, Communities, and Cultures’ pose a concise and pertinent definition for DIY: “any creation, modification or repair of objects without the aid of paid professionals. We use the term ‘amateur’ not as a reflection on a hobbyists’ skills, which are often quite advanced, but rather, to emphasise that most of the DIY culture is not motivated by commercial purposes.”

DIY is a practice directly related to the rise of the Industrial Revolution, generally taken as a reaction to its massive mode of production. It is noteworthy how this movement manifests itself during the modern era. The end of the nineteenth-century and the beginning of the twentieth-century (with its flourishing appeal of science and technology) presented a first glimpse of rebellion against the mass production appeal and led to a boom of inventors and hobbyist activities (together with the avant-garde movements, like futurism, cubism, dadaism, and so on).

Model building, photography, high-fidelity audio, all created a vast multitude of technical hobbyists who gathered around specific interests. The fragmentation of the production chain and the alienation of the individual brought about by mass production sparked new interest in manual and craft activities. Hobbyists’ activities played an important social role as they allowed laymen to tackle complex science and technological topics which were shaping the very idea of modernity.

Such activities were organised through magazines, books, clubs, and suppliers. They also entailed connecting hobbyists to a specific social network that helped define their identification with an increasingly homogenised, massive social condition. A remarkable case in which audio technology attracted the attention of hobbyists was the radio that was sold in kits for home assembly in the 1920s and 1930s.

However, the Second World War and the globalised consumerist model, weakened this hobbyist and amateurish movement for a period of time, imposing a mass consumption mentality throughout most of the western world. This gradual valorization and establishment of mass-production led to the consumerist, hyper-industrial society in which we currently find ourselves. In hyper-industrial society, professionals and specialists can be hired to build, create, decorate, or repair anything, according to market demand. Its logic implies that any product or service might be available at a nearby megastore, leaving us time to work on our specialized, professional careers and earn money to buy any kind of goods or solutions to our demands.

In music, an initial reaction to such standardising appears in the Free Jazz movement of the 1960s, with its focus on unrestrained improvisation and the production of records outside the industrial chain, by such associations as AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and Candid Records. In the 1970s, the Punk movement also emerged as a rebellion against this hegemonic order, bringing DIY to the scene. For these punk artists, ineptitude was seen as a virtue: “the creativity that comes from a lack of preconceptions and willingness to try out anything, even if badly.” Similar to Free Jazz, punk artists such as Crass, for example, also joined forces to release their records, bypassing the record industry, and criticizing the musical marketplace from a DIY perspective.

In the 1990s, the DIY movement became stronger due to the rave culture and the beginning of the netlabel movement, both focusing on independent production (of venues and records). And, in the twenty-first-century, with the Internet becoming a vast network of information exchange, the DIY movement expanded, increasing the number of adherents in several fields: from growing herbs indoors to producing textiles, knitting and crocheting, to working on different kinds of electronic projects.

Juan Ignácio Gallego Perez, in the article, ‘DO IT YOURSELF: Cultura y Tecnologia,’ argues that this form of production allows “any person to create, distribute, and promote a product, encroaching upon the basic rules of capitalist society.” He shows that the DIY culture implies three states: an ideological versus political one, rebelling against the hegemonic marketing order; an industrial one, searching for new ways of production, outside of mass culture; and an aesthetic one, pursuing singular forms of expression. According to Juan Ignácio Gallego Perez, one of DIY’s main goals is to abolish specialisation, and one of its characteristics is the breakdown of the lines that separated worker and creator, “along with the possibility that anyone could be a creator, regardless of origin or background.” A thinking based on the subversion of the age-old idea of “look before you leap,” rather than an attitude based on the action — “first act, then think” — which he compares to movements like Situationism. He follows by arguing that the DIY movement “changes social relations, creating a community feeling, independent from industry, which seeks to change ordinary mercantile relationships.” Hence, the social order we have just pointed out merits further inquiry.

One key aspect of this social context is what French philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls General Proletarianisation, where “human knowledge is short-circuited as a result of its technological reproduction and implementation.” Such movement is amplified by the globalisation of the consumerist model, in which not only the know-how (“Savoir Faire”) of workers becomes obsolete, but mainly their knowledge of how to live (“Savoir Vivre”). That way, citizens “become as such mere consumers: a good consumer is both utterly passive and irresponsible.”

Bernard Stiegler uses the word “proletariat” in its original meaning, referring to the loss of knowledge of some kind, such as that suffered by factory workers in Marx’s time as a result of their highly specialized functions (a condition satirised by Charlie Chaplin in his masterpiece ‘Modern Times’). The question of the proletariat, though, has very old roots. According to Bernard Stiegler, this process did not start with the Industrial Revolution, but at the beginning of mankind and it was already noted, for example, by the Greek philosopher Plato: “(…) the process of proletarianization marks the beginning of humankind. (…) It is first of all the exteriorization of knowledge in technics. It begins with technics. Now the problem is, what is the gain of the process of exteriorization for humanity? Is it creating heteronomy or autonomy?”

Evoking Immanuel Kant, Bernard Stiegler makes the following reflection: “(…) if you are reading my books in order to avoid thinking for yourself, out of laziness, for instance, you are proletarianizing yourself. (…) Reading books without reflecting upon them and critically engaging with them leads to minority, not maturity.”

He argues that the question of proletarianisation is at the origin of philosophy, being, essentially, a question of autonomy versus heteronomy. It is important to clarify that, for Bernard Stiegler, pure autonomy does not exist: there is no autonomy without some level of heteronomy.

Besides the remote origins of the concept, the process of proletarianisation is gestated in the midst of the nineteenth-century with the creation of modern advertisements and becomes endemic and global after the beginning of the hyper-industrial society. Another key factor in this process occurs at the beginning of the twentieth-century when Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, invented the basics of marketing by organising “the captivation of the consumers’ attention, and thus of the libidinal energy that marketing must seek to redirect from the consumers’ primordial objects towards the commodities.”

The consumerist model, he says, appears as ways of solving an efficiency crisis in the capitalist order, and was an important step towards the hyper-industrial age. The problem is that this model leads to another crisis, that of libidinal energy. To captivate this energy source, people are enticed, by marketing strategies, to consume — in order to create a chain of production and consumption. The side effect is that these marketing strategies end up prevailing, thereby destroying singularity — together with the will to live (the libido). This context obstructs the process of individuation, resulting in a process he calls disindividuation: “a process that destroys the collective and destroys a culture. And this disindividuation is also a kind of proletarianisation.”

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