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Sex Pistols And The Social Butterfly Effect
 photo Jordan Siouxsie bench.jpg

Given that there was an element of chance in the Sex Pistols' becoming famous,* is there a way to quantify that element?

I assume that the answer is no, since I've no idea how to try; though maybe social psychologists with a strong grasp of statistics have been working on such questions.

This question was inspired by Mark's starting his Adam And The Ants stint at One Week, One Band with the question, "Do people talk about Jordan much these days? Once — for a year or three — she mattered quite a lot." And a couple of posts on, he asks, "So what exactly was I suggesting earlier today: no Jordan (—> no SEX —> no Pistols —> no Jubilee —> no Ants) —> no (UK) punk? Or else maybe, less aggressively counterfactually, I'm dubbing her the Bez of punk, maybe?"

Mark's point isn't about probability but that the story of a band is way more populated than most people realize. But to underline both my question and Mark's point, I'd never heard of Jordan or Bez until reading those names in Mark's piece yesterday.** And I'm not as sure as he is that his contention ("no (UK) punk?") is counterfactual.

I assume that if we start from 50 years ago and ask ourselves, "How likely then was it that the world has this particular configuration now?," the answer would be vanishingly small no matter what configuration we end up with (though of course some overall features of the configuration, e.g., "the world would still have an atmosphere, even after a life-ending nuclear war," are quite predictable). So to make my question comprehensible, you could say, "Given Britain the way it was in 1975, and glam and glitter and pub rock and punk rock as they already existed in scenes and subcultures in New York, London, Cleveland, L.A., Ann Arbor, etc., not to mention the pages of Creem and ______ (some British counterpart?),*** there's nonetheless huge unpredictability as to whether the Sex Pistols are going to become famous, or how famous, not to mention, once they are famous, what gets made of what they're doing, and so forth."

Remember, even here, the chance of any particular outcome, including the one we got, is vanishingly small. And my concern isn't to come up with a number, anyway. What I'm really pondering is this: back in the late '80s in my fanzine I asked and gave what I consider a good answer to the question, "Why was there a punk rock explosion in Britain in '76 but not a glitter explosion in the United States in 1973?" But my answer was entirely causal. The Dolls had these attributes and this potential audience; the Sex Pistols had those attributes and that potential audience. I wouldn't fundamentally change that answer now, even though I know that there is an element of unpredictability in what happened with the Dolls and Pistols. What I don't know is whether or how much I should mention the unpredictability, or how to work it into the story. What is there to say about unpredictability, beyond that it exists? I think that, even if the Dolls had become famous, they wouldn't have produced the explosion the Sex Pistols did. And I don't think the Sex Pistols would have become a sudden big deal**** in the U.S., even if they'd been as big here as KISS or Aerosmith. But even if I'm right about that (it's not as if I could run an experiment), I don't think even in retrospect that it was inevitable or obvious that they or anyone like them would have sparked the fire in Britain that they actually did spark.

To give another example, as I wrote in "T-ara Fighting," if a soothsayer had told me right after the tweets on July 25th that Netizens were going to create a scandal around T-ara, I would have predicted that it would have been about too much being asked of T-ara, and T-ara asking too much of themselves, not about bullying. That the K-pop world went for bullying does tell me that the latter story has an inherent power, that it was and is waiting to erupt. But I don't think this proves that the bullying story is more deeply embedded in the K-pop psyche than the story of idols being overworked is. Maybe the stories are equally embedded, and it just happened (I'm making up these numbers) that of the first ten or so people to comment about the tweets, six called them bullying, one said that T-ara ask too much of themselves, and three said something else. If you'd flipped the numbers, then bullying wouldn't have been the issue that was seized on, as everyone focused on workaholism instead.***** Obviously, I don't know this. The unpredictability does have to be part of my story, so that I don't overinterpret and drift into vast, vacuous sociological overstatement. But again, how big a part, and what part?

The "butterfly effect" refers to the idea that something as insignificant and random as a butterfly flapping its wings in a particular air current off the coast of Brazil can, e.g., set in motion events that cause a hurricane in the Caribbean two weeks later, or can prevent one that might otherwise have formed. I wrote about this back in the Las Vegas Weekly, recounting Duncan J. Watts' work that showed that small differences in various songs' appeal or even purely random fluctuations get locked-in early and lead to very large inequalities over time. The idea that small differences that get locked-in can cause great inequalities is called "cumulative advantage." Further links are here.

Of relevance to "cumulative advantage," this passage from "A Sid Vicious Story: A Tale Of Two Patsies," by Lester Bangs, Village Voice, October 23, 1978:

The only reason anybody much is interested in this homicide in the first place is that he's famous, and is supposed to stand for something. But since almost no one really cares about whatever it is he stands for — these little nerds yelping "please kill me" were gonna threaten this society? — we're left with celebrity: Sid Vicious isn't famous because of the Sex Pistols (the American public cared about their music, much less what their lyrics were saying?), or even because he's accused of killing somebody — Sid Vicious is famous now because he was semi-famous before.
*And in Einstein becoming famous, even in his field; and in anyone becoming famous.

**Or I'd seen the names and forgotten. I'd certainly read the term "Bromley contingent" in Caroline Coon's book on New Wave back in '78 or so, and for all I know I read interviews with Jordan when stopping by my friend Bob Galipeau's loft and reading copies of Melody Maker.

***My list being hugely U.S.centric, of course.

****They were a long-run big deal, in being one of the impetuses for and progenitors of hardcore, and even before that for reshaping the landscape, creating a before-and-after-Pistols divide and a punk-versus-nonpunk divide in rock, American as well as British.

*****Either way, if Kim Kwang Soo doesn't fire Hwayoung, this doesn't blow up. I wonder what happens if Queen doesn't cancel its appearance on Today, the Sex Pistols don't get booked as a last-minute substitute, and Grundy doesn't start goading them.

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Links regarding Social Butterfly Effect here:


[EDIT: Er, I already linked these links in the post itself. Well, read them again!]

Edited at 2012-10-31 09:40 pm (UTC)

To pick up on the least important point, I don't think a speculative alternative history is any less a counterfactual if you consider the if-this-then-that highly likely. "Aggressively" reads like I'm introducing a gradation, true -- this situation is aggressively more counterfactual than that -- but what I mean was that *I* was being aggressive by demanding people speculate along with me!

Ah, "counterfactual" seems to be a term of art that I hadn't previously understood. So what you're saying is that the following three statements are equally counterfactual, even though the first is entirely true and the next two entirely false:

(1) If my mom hadn't met my dad, I'd never have been born.

(2) If a meteor had demolished Pluto ten days ago, I'd never have been born.

(3) If my mom hadn't met my dad, then squares are circles.

Whereas, "My dad met my mom, and therefore a meteor crashed into Pluto ten days ago" isn't a counterfactual, it's merely statement that runs counter to fact.

Am I understanding the term correctly? Merriam Webster's def'n isn't a help here ("contrary to fact <counterfactual assumptions>"), but its comment thread is.

I think what's happened is that "counterfactual" has tended to become a shorthand for "counterfactual argument" (or sometimes for "counterfactual history"*): so that it means an argument -- or an exploration of imagined history -- from a premise known (in the world) to be false. So instead of (as per Merriam-Webster) describing the premise, it describes a type of reasoning that posits a premise counter to known fact, to explore (precisely as you do in your post) how multiple causes combine to make something happened. Or what count as causes in history

*eg What would America be like if the South had won the Civil War? <-- this type of counterfactual question generates counterfactual history, either in the form of examination forces and causes (what would be the same and what different?), or in the form of novels. I guess fiction is always counterfactual in both senses!

Not particularly relevant to our fundamentally irrelevant tangent, but the only Rowland I possess is this early single (here's the B-side, which I prefer):

The race against cuttism

I thought Wylie's fatwa was also directed at the dreary word "cut." Of course, my source for that would have been you, since I've still not seen the original interview.

Re: The race against cuttism

No, cut was the word we* decided to use instead of track. (I imagine because it seemed pleasantly dated?) (Or archly mannered...)

*Where "we" = some people I chose to copy. I too forget if this particular example was in the original interview -- Matt Cohn borrowed that copy of NME to read the review of A Certain Ratio and threw it away instead of giving it back -- or was added to the list by someone else.

There's a story about mob violence in Nigeria linked on metafilter today, I thought about Korean netizens. Obviously it's not the same thing at all; but at the same time, the lines about how mobbing is "a compression of time" that happens when official justice takes too long (or doesn't happen), and how societies in transition/that are experiencing a "crisis of modernity" are more prone to mob justice, did stand out a bit as having a wider relevance maybe.

Although then again it's an article in the Atlantic, and I kinda don't trust them to get their facts straight anymore!

Edited at 2012-10-30 09:22 pm (UTC)

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