Risk and Equilibrium

The Impact of Greil Marcus

by Robert Loss

4 February 2010


Negation and Nihilism

Negation and Nihilism

Johnny Rotten, Marcus writes, was a “medium” through whom the voices of men like Guy deBord, John of Leydon, and the Brethren of the Free Spirit “began to talk to each other, and the noise they made was what one heard.”

Simplistic as this explanation is, it begins to sketch the distinctions and limitations of Marcus’ subjects around the crucial notions of negation and nihilism, of social change and self-interest. “When the nihilist,” Marcus says early on, “pulls the trigger, turns on the gas, sets the fire, hits the veins, the world ends”, even if it doesn’t for everyone else. Negation, on the other hand, “is always political: it assumes the existence of other people, calls them into being”. The danger is not just that negation can be taken for nihilism—it often is by the consumerist world it threatens—but that negation can slip, transform, stumble into nihilism.

The lesser dangers are failure, regret, sentimentality. This is the secret history of the 20th century; when the numerous groups Marcus explores in depth—the dadaists, lettrists, situationists—created and latched onto “moments in which the world seem[ed] to change”, but were unable to make that change last. Seeking a string of moments, they ended up with snippets. The culprits, he suggests, are not just the overarching villains of Capitalism, Consumerism and Culture, but the solipsism and narcissism which plagued these groups: the individualism that could not balance itself with progressive social action and careened, often quite entertainingly, into futility and despair. Still, their ideas floated on.

Punk, then, is an historical moment when these furtive checks came to be cashed. The difference was in the milieu of the times, the pop culture of rock ‘n’ roll that punk wanted to destroy, like Dada wanted to destroy art. Poised in the moment, Johnny Rotten could have changed the world. If, as Philip Roth says in his novel The Plot Against America, “The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic,” then that science hides the joy, too, the sheer power of What If? What will happen when thousands gather at a wall, and what will happen after they do? The confluence of tradition and the unforeseen explains why the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” was so powerful, so dangerous: Johnny Rotten, Marcus writes, was a “medium” through whom the voices of men like Guy deBord, John of Leydon, and the Brethren of the Free Spirit “began to talk to each other, and the noise they made was what one heard”. He goes on:

An unknown tradition of old pronouncements, poems and events, a secret history of ancient wishes and defeats, came to bear on Johnny Rotten’s voice—and because this tradition lacked both cultural sanction and political legitimacy, because this history was comprised of only unfinished, unsatisfied stories, it carried tremendous force.

But by the time punk opens its beautifully ugly and safety-pinned lips, what situationist guru Guy Debord called the “spectacle” was a tremendous force too, and, as Marcus says, “like a piece of avant-garde performance art, the spectacle dramatized an ideology of freedom”. It was more than capable of absorbing the body blows from punk and transforming it into a freedom-product to be consumed; henceforth, My Chemical Romance’s awful cover of “Desolation Row”. In Marcus’ rather devastating estimation, the tradition of the dadaists through the situationists wanted to run the world off art in order to make it art; by their standards, they failed. The punk tradition was never more than art—glorious, stirring art, but always bound by its own language—and so by dadaist and situationist standards, it, too, failed. As Marcus puts it, referring to the dadaists’ Cabaret Voltaire of Zurich in 1916, “a nightclub act… asked for the world, for a moment got it, then got another nightclub”. Perhaps a House of Blues.

Anyone interested in the dada movement should read this book; the historiographic context Marcus gives to the experiments of, in particular, Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck extend far beyond the typical Art 101 lessons. But it is the situationists and Guy Debord, growing out of the lettrist movement of Isidore Isou and prefiguring the social movements of the ‘60s that receive most of Marcus’ attention, and here he provides an invaluable service. The language of the situationists became so pervasive, appearing again and again in anti-social protests, the hippie movement—essentially, in any underground sub-culture—that it was easy to forget them. They are the epitome of a critical Marcus trope, that of the idea floating downstream while its author drowns. Their detourne technique can be seen in the decidedly political use of clipart in David Rees’ Get Your War On comic strip, and heard in the mashup music trend of the past decade.

Reading of the situationists, however, makes it increasingly more difficult to not gape at their Euro-centrist visions (the dadaists, too); they saw abundance as the coming reality for all, and one has to wonder how their belief that “modern poverty [is] a poverty of passion” might have changed if they’d spent time in South Africa, or Haiti, or the slums of their own countries. The Situationist International’s happy response to the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles seems, even to the ear of an American not yet born then, deliriously off-target and myopic (they saw it as an attack on abundance, claimed that it was the “first rebellion in history to justify itself with the argument that there was no air conditioning during a heatwave”; the 34 dead would disagree).

“Where there was fire, we carried gasoline,” claims Debord, but their gasoline was pamphlets which would have burned just as easily. Their intellectual escapism, dilettantism, and disregard for political body counts is partly what makes punk such an exciting potentiality: though it committed the same sins, unlike most of the Situationist International’s activities until the May 1968 riots in Paris, punk made you sweat and, as Marcus makes it clear, there were times when, onstage, Johnny Rotten looked like he could be devoured by the crowd. Their precursors aimed pop guns; punks carried loaded revolvers.

Like A New Literary History of America, Marcus’ landmark resists easy categorizations of its subjects, possesses levity and wit, and juxtaposes incredibly disparate voices—Michel Mourre in “The Assault on Notre-Dame” and the story of Johannes Baader are particularly fascinating, to say nothing of Marcus’ take on the influence of Gnosticism, the heresy of the Free Spirit, the explosion of the Michael Jackson phenomenon and, some 30 years earlier, the four-man singing group The Orioles. As with the anthology, I can’t help but think of what’s been left out of Lipstick Traces, particularly the questions of otherness raised only tangentially by the book, typified by the qualms I have above with the situationists. The misogyny and racism in punk, the responses to each as typified by afro-punk and the riot grrl movement of the ‘90s, and the lumbering advancements of capitalism and the American spectacle since the book’s publication in 1989—the text is unaltered, and only the Works Cited and Sighted, a boon of any book by Marcus, whose endnotes are meticulous—all but demand a sequel more focused than Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, the 1993 collection of essays that touched on some of these issues.

What’s clear, though, in terms of Marcus’ work, is this: more than Mystery Train, itself a thoroughly engrossing mélange, Lipstick Traces is the book wherein Marcus found his voice and methodology. Describing the Mekons’ “The Building” in the epilogue, he all but spells out the organization behind this book and those to come: “The primitivism of the music dissolves the temporal claims of the story”, he writes, “and simultaneously subsumes its detail, assumes all of its debts”. History, in his hands, is always temporal and simultaneous, whether the subject is primitive, ancient, modern or postmodern. Earlier in the book, he says, “…I wanted to shape the story so that every fragment, every voice would speak in judgment of every other, even if the people behind each voice had never heard of the others, especially if they hadn’t…”.

Ultimately this is a reconciliation of structuralist and post-structuralist claims. Understanding history in its context is crucial, but risks emphasizing only disconnections and telling only the dead tale; sensing the connections in what Alan Moore in From Hell calls the architecture of history is crucial, too, but must beware of crossing the line into false cause-and-effect. Though his imagination may overreach, his sentences may befuddle, his aims may elude his means (but not often), Marcus as a critic, historian and essayist continues to be at the vanguard of his field precisely because of his ability to find the balance between these approaches, between mystery and proposition, between a yarn and an epic, between yearning and compromise—an equilibrium which gives voice to the present moment of our looking back.

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