“If one can stop looking at the past and start listening to it , one might hear echoes of a new conversation; then the task of the critic would be to lead speakers and listeners unaware of each other’s existence to talk to one another. The job of the critic would be to maintain the ability to be surprised at how the conversation goes, and to communicate that sense of surprise to other people, because a life infused with surprise is better than a life that is not.”
The above passage, from the introduction of Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, is possibly the most succinct distillation of the excitement, the thrill of writing that I’ve discovered. The legitimacy of cultural criticism of any kind is something that’s crossed my mind a good deal in the past few months, to the point where I’ve seriously questioned what I’m doing, whether anyone will be listening and whether there’s really a point if they are. The process of reading Lipstick Traces, something I’ve been meaning to do for some time, has been a timely explosion, a strategic negation and a reminder of why I wanted to write in the first place. Reading it is an undulating temporal experience, an at times dazzling and perhaps confusing array of different reference points woven into a patchwork, a series of disconnected threads that seem to echo one another without touching, phasing inexplicably into one another. It’s also, dare I say it, a fun experience? Ok time to put some qualifiers on this, as I’m not of the opinion that “fun” is in and of itself a marker of anything, let alone quality. What I mean by this is that there is at least the fizz and crackle of enthusiasm in Marcus’s writing here, a sense that through these links between radical Situationist politics, Michael Jackson, medieval heretics and John Lydon, a kind of detournement itself is being conducted, that in this synthetic history there is not only a recounting or a construction, but a toolbox, perhaps more aptly an armoury to be deployed in an act of intellectual desecration…
Potentially all this and more runs the serious risk of a common accusation, perhaps an accurate one, of pseudo-intellectualism. I’m not about to mount a defence of every pseud and poseur on the planet or pull off some kind of reversal here, but the way this accusation is levelled all too often amounts to little more than a crude, general anti-intellectualism. It’s the kind of attitude that insists you don’t use too many complicated ideas or terms lest the poor audience are left in the dark, that you must, above all, communicate with the utmost simplicity and clarity, spell it out in terms a child could understand, assume your audience might as well be children in fact. It harks back to a kind of notion of “appealing to the common man” that practically infantilizes the public, and thereby assumes that the priority, rather than perhaps surprising challenging, educating or confronting the mythical reader, is to offer them something familiar, if not comforting then firmly within known coordinates of discomfort. The anti-intellectualism contained often within the criticism for instance of “over-intellectualising” a subject like music flags us down and demands that we cease our attempts to surprise and confront; those who will not lay down arms become the pseuds of popular imagination, the feared disseminators of complexity, those who won’t respect the traditional boundary between “normal people” and worlds beyond their ken.
If a fear of this had risen in my mind of late, Lipstick Traces has banished it. Or at least it has rendered it obsolete in the way that the most timely interventions can. I can’t speak for the rest of Marcus’s work, but an accusation that this book is lesser due to its supposed ahistoricity, wordiness or tendency towards tangential links [John Lydon and John of Leydon anyone?] seems only to measure it as a work to be submitted to a dusty old board somewhere, and speaks to a certain inability of academized thought to entertain anything that seems to flout its predetermined boundaries. The notion that the links between completely unconnected figures, indeed between punk and situationism itself might be constructed, rather than a matter of strict historical record, is something Marcus states within the text itself, indeed lies centrally to its structure. To note that they are perhaps fantastical or unbelievable from the standpoint of an academic recounting of events seems to sidestep everything the text itself claims for itself, simply assuming that anyone talking about history, relaying elements of cultural and political events, must be writing around a standard, centralised, literal thesis, and that Marcus is simply arguing that there is a direct, verifiable link between Thomas Müntzer and the Sex Pistols.
This said, Lipstick traces is a desecration of sorts, or rather, a signpost towards a desecration. The fact that it plays fast and loose with history is to its benefit largely because it reads as something from very much the same vein as the upheaval and heresy within it. A heresy that, as it scrambles historical narrative and cultural forms, seems primarily at this moment in time to find a particular resonance in my quarantine addled mind. The resistance to boredom and work, the slogans of reversal and subversion found throughout in the words of the situationists as much as the punks, mystics and dubious figures of all stripes that join them remind me primarily of the heresy that drove me here, the drive to subvert, dissolve, destroy and negate the misery of the present. Perhaps it’s the constant threat of boredom in the immediate situation, the enforced isolation, or perhaps the opposite sense of immense upheaval, but the kind of cultural politics we find in this kind of negation has taken on some kind of added significance.
It might also be that I’m reading this in the aftermath of reading through Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, a text that during my time at art school seemed to hang around the peripheries but never penetrate. A little like Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, Society of the Spectacle sometimes seemed to become one of these standard reference points, an idiom that meant nothing beside a vague appeal to images and media. A passage in Lipstick Traces addresses this trend as something preceding my time at university by a good few decades, the use of “spectacle” as a critical term that really meant little beside a complaint that image was more important than object. Debord himself counters these appropriations early on in SoS, saying:
“The Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”
As Marcus adds, “This was the theatre, but Debord had insisted on the church. The spectacle was not merely advertising, or television, it was a world.” The spectacle is nothing less than the stage of modern capitalism, the disjuncture of everything with its own representation. The spectacle, for Debord, is a symptom of accumulation so immense that it has become an image. It cannot be reduced to mass media, rather it encapsulates the widespread move of capital into the realm of exchange, the wasteland of empty accumulation we might today be overwhelmingly familiar with today as the financial markets. The spectacle is an extension of the commodity, with all the metaphysical tricks and niceties Marx found within it, an immense reification and hence a removal, a break between the object and it’s representation commensurate with the alienated self.
I began to suspect during my reading of SoS that Debord’s analysis might have more purchase today than the time in which he wrote it. This doesn’t mean that what he observed wasn’t there yet, but that the spectacle may yet to have come into its own as a phenomenon. The rogues gallery of insurrectionists, hellraisers and nihilists presented in Lipstick Traces only made me consider this point further. While it is reductive in the extreme to use the Spectacle as shorthand for mass media, the ubiquity of not just images but images of images of images to fuel social relations today has surpassed anything Debord might have imagined at the time, and at a point during which the possibility of such relation has to be maintained through digital channels, free of touch or proximity, all that remains, in some sense, is the spectacle. Post web 2.0 social relations are those detached from the necessity of direct communication. At a point where phrases like “fake news” or “post-truth” have been floating around like pointed accusations rather than social conditions, in which we continue to bemoan consistently the move away from “genuine relationships” and “real activities” under the assumption that this is a unique feature of the contemporary moment [I recently read Adorno’s Minima Moralia and such observations spill out of its pages] or, even worse, simply a feature of personal failing, the spectacle almost seems quaint in its limited pronouncements. For all his failings, this may be what lends Baudrillard his continued relevance, even as he entirely detaches himself from the kind of material causes and relations that ostensibly seem a requirement for any kind of rupture or disturbance of the status quo…
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Baudrillard can be explicitly linked, beyond philosophy or theory, to the very same fractured semi-fictional lineage of heretics addressed by Greil Marcus. He delighted often in baffling his audiences and trying to get under the skin of the art world that had embraced him, notably in his infamous text the conspiracy of art where he addresses in the strongest terms its emptiness and failure. An often little addressed element of Baudrillard’s work is his debt to Alfred Jarry’s Pataphysics, the strange realm of imaginary solutions to imaginary problems. Especially in his later work, this is potentially what often lends Baudrillard’s writing this air of speculative fiction as much as theory, as well as that of a fortune teller or a mystic, expounding a series of exaggerations and hyperboles to an audience. This isn’t to lessen the work itself as much as it is to explain to some degree the sense of unreality of each text itself, that notion that Baudrillard is addressing situations and phenomena that have yet to occur, that may never occur.
Much has been said about the prescience, perhaps even the pessimism, of J G Ballard’s fiction. The characters within works like Crash, Atrocity Exhibition and High Rise, whether strange lurid reconstructions of celebrity or television operators, share a particular trait in their relation with crisis, horror and rupture. They are within it, rather than outside it. Whereas a more conventional, moral position in fiction has been to introduce people into the horror and crisis of the world with a stance of elevation or removal, Ballard allows them to seep into it, or it to seep into them. Richard Wilder, from High Rise, for instance, embraces the collapse of the building into violence and chaos in gradual steps, as observer, then participant, then instigator. Ballard’s characters fall prey to something, but they often do so willingly, surrendering their will to the tide. What changes of course from a certain point is that increasingly his books deal with people who instigate and encourage this collapse rather than surrender to something outside their control, but the general tendency is towards an embrace of rupture.
This is, for the reader, a heresy. For those used to fiction firmly rooted in a moralist tradition, where there was always a certain struggle against the horror, Ballards cool, detached account of simply going with it, embracing the violence, finding some perverse glee in the descent to untapped bestial insanity, is itself a horror. It’s a detachment that seems wholly commensurate with the British suburbia Ballard captured so well, and there is a sense much of the time that the characters seek precisely an escape from the kind of boredom of their meek, all-too-untroubled lives. This destruction is the natural counterpart to the suburbs, not its other, it emerges out of it, birthed by its perpetually polite squabbles and painfully regimented social relations.
The figure of heretic steps forward from this fog of regimented factory rows and promises maybe an insurrection, maybe a thunderstorm, perhaps just an unchecked orgy of violence, as long as it steps in to relieve us of duty; the temptation of heresy is a singular negation, a dismantling of intuition, a suburban relapse. The heretic is often the figure for whom the worst tendency becomes an opening to exploit.
The pop star has in the 20th century become the exemplary figurehead of such heretical imaginaries, a construct formed of a thousand channels through which our fears and desires are projected and created. The most remarkable section of Lipstick Traces has to remain the searing exposition on “Jacksonism”, the name he gives to the confluence of social political economic and theoretical focus points around the popularity of Michael Jackson, the flurry of intensification around the billowing demands made of the pop star, indeed how the “star” recedes into the background of the global phenomenon they front. Jacksonism was nothing less than a shift in the cultural imaginary, a lurid display of contradictions, images, icons, catatonic displays of devotion in which everyone was involved, and the pop star became more than a simple figurehead for a cultural object, but a semiotic intersection of an entire world.
“The commodity was the agent of reification: Jackson’s built its own heaven, and everyone reached for it. It was wonderful, in that year of Michael Jackson, just to get up in the morning, open the paper, and follow the dance: to discover that a clandestine Michael Jackson cult had formed within the Jehovah’s Witnesses (which, as everyone knew, counted Jackson as a devotee, and which, one was informed, was based on a belief in the return of the Archangel Michael)”
The passage proceeds into one of the most heady demonstrations of pop culture analysis in the book; Jacksonism takes its place in the annals of the spectacle, the glaring centre of the commodity, a monumental construct of triumph and tragedy and a tsunami of religious fervour that shifted and warped its visage. Jacksonism was the edifice of pop given not so much flesh or form, as much as an entire reality of artifice, more real than real, yet eternally signalling its own unreality. Notable in Marcus’s progression in the book from Lydon to Jackson is the magnitude of the event, in many of ways the tidal wave of Jacksonism outstrips that of the sex pistols, reaches much further into social life. While the link between the situationists and punk has long been known and discussed to some degree, the perhaps uncomfortable implication that emerges here is that the most prominent realisations of their proposals lay at the heaving centres of popular culture, the spectacle intensified. In Jackson, we see a force in which political, economic, social and cultural issues converge in a whirlwind of ostentation, a time in which people clamoured for the tiniest piece of the phenomenon and tore their hair out if they could only gain a tiny glimpse of its glory. Pop was an earthquake.
Pop has always been the domain of heretics. It makes sense that it is in the heart of the commodity that the destructive negation of punk took hold. Adorno was wrong, it is precisely in the deterritorialised form of pop itself that we see the strongest negation. Of course while we rail against Adorno’s anti-pop absolutism, it would be amiss to ignore the heresy contained in his own work. The very intransigence of his hatred is a shock to the system; his refusal to acknowledge that any kind of mass commodified culture can be remotely modernist jettisons the positive, relegates resistance of any kind to the very fringes. Adorno’s singular, strictly regulated modernism is a kind which refuses pop at a fundamental level and trades it for the spontaneous act of creation.
Heresy is not a position, but a negation, the very threat that the acceptance of the present might not hold, or that the peace of the moment is a lie. The presence of heresy is not a promise but an insult, a demand hurled into the faces of anyone who cares to listen, a challenge, can you face up to my truth?