The philosophy of punk rock


Jason Read at the newly redecorated University of Southern Maine food court. (photo/The Fuge)
Jason Read at the newly redecorated University of Southern Maine food court. (photo/The Fuge)


A talk with Jason Read

By Alex Steed

Jason Read is an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Southern Maine, and the author of The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Pre-history of the Present. Once an organizer of punk rock shows, Read, 36, and Space Gallery co-founder and films director Jon Courtney have organized USM’s Philosophy Symposium Film Series this winter at Space. The second film of the festival, Amongst White Clouds, will be shown on Mon., Feb. 12. 

I recently sat down with Jason at USM’s newly renovated cafeteria/food court in the Woodbury Campus Center in Portland, a place he lampooned as having “all the excitement of the Lower East Side, in a non-threatening mini-mall atmosphere.”


The Bollard: How did a young punk rocker like you become a professor of philosophy? 
Read: That’s a good question. I had experiences with philosophy academically, and I had a history of it, but it came to be very disconnected to me. It seemed to be very interesting, but I couldn’t really make the connection to what was going on in the world around me. 

The way that I ended up getting into it was through this anarchist study group that I got involved in. We started reading about the Situationist [International, a revolutionary intellectual group] and [SI leader Guy Debord’s] The Society of the Spectacle, and so on, which a lot of the old anarchists hated. They really just wanted to read Emma Goldman. But I got really interested. It was much later until I realized there was a connection between that and philosophy. 

I had read Plato, Locke and so on, in philosophy, and then had the Situationists over here and Marx, Hegel and the whole 20th century philosophy, and only later did I connect the dots and I saw the picture. It’s sort of like I came through the intellectual debates through punk rock itself. 

[Punk is] about actual philosophical topics. You know, the ‘selling out’ debate is a version of the question of authenticity, or the question of alienation, and all of these other questions. It was, in some ways, a training for various intellectual communities – for debate, writing, and thinking through ideas. It was instrumental, and that’s how I would connect back to the broader history. 

What is the status of Portland’s punk/DIY/philosophizing scene?
I don’t know. That’s sort of my interest in being involved in doing this [festival], and seeing what’s out there – to see what comes from that. 

Just from speaking at the Negri film the other night [Antonio Negri – A Revolt That Never Ends screened Jan. 24], last night I get a three-page e-mail from a guy who is working as an electrician in South Portland who is very interested in workers politics, the left in the United States. He’s responding to things I said and so on, and I would have never known that this person existed. 

It goes back to my own experience in making a connection to what I was doing in the punk rock world and in philosophy, when I recognized that you can have these things on parallel tracks, at the same time, never connect. That’s a lot of our modern social existence…. Especially now: It’s harder to know what’s going on right over in South Portland. 

I mean, I can ramble off a long list of names of blogs, Australia through Europe, that are thinking about philosophy and politics in a particular way, and it is easier for me to find them than to find the person over there in South Portland. So that’s the paradox of our connected world. Something like this, the film series, allows people to come together. 

Sometimes I think that students at USM don’t know enough about Space, and don’t know enough about the things that are happening. There are people in the Portland community who aren’t necessarily students and aren’t necessarily faculty who are interested in getting into debates and having these discussions, and there’s really not much opportunity for those connections.

It’s absolutely fascinating how the USM dormitory is…
Right next door.

Yeah. It’s right next door to Geno’s and a block from Space, and no one from there shows up to these venues. This isn’t necessarily the case at least as far as South Portland electricians go. 
After the film, one of the conversations that came up was about student apathy at USM, and I think that just the spatial disconnection has a lot to do with that…. There are a lot of students who live closer to Space than to here, and that’s a reason to not want to hold that sort of thing [on USM’s Portland campus]. Out in Gorham, it might make sense for a lot of people, but not for a whole bunch dispersed throughout the community. 

So Space is as good a place as any to show it. Also because Jon is amazing as far as working with the film distribution company. I mean, we somehow scored – I’m not sure, it’s either us or MoMA who’s first to show The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema [screening Tues., March 13], and even then, it’s only by a matter of days. That has everything to do with Jon’s diligence. They quoted us a price initially that was just absurd, and then he explained to them the size, what was going on and so on, and he made it work. 

Why do you think [philosopher Slavoj] Zizek [the focus of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema] is considered the Elvis of contemporary philosophy? 
Um, I don’t know what it means to be called this. He has a certain pop sensibility that plays off well. He is incredibly animated.

I’m not really sure…. I think for a lot of people, he’s a point of entry into philosophy. He’s not taken incredibly seriously in some circles, because when he gives a talk or a lecture, the performative aspect is so turned up that there’s this whole question of, ‘Where’s the content in it?’ 

There’s this idea that every year, Zizek’s next book he writes is really going to be the one that systematically spells out the whole philosophy, and then every year that comes out and it has some interesting ideas, and then some digressions about cinema, opera, whatever. So, the mode of philosophy that he is doing lends itself well to this sort of thing that maybe paves the way for an engagement with something beyond.

I guess he’s Elvis if you think that Elvis got white teenagers to start listening to rhythm-and-blues, or so-called ‘race records’ at the time. Then he’s the Elvis of philosophy in that he eventually gets you into the back room of Borders. 

For more about USM’s Philosophy Symposium Film Series, visit

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