PRINT September 1986



“I AM HOLDING IN MY hand a document which transcends and seals all the shame of this age and would in itself suffice to assign the currency stew that calls itself mankind a place of honor in a cosmic carrion pit,” wrote the Vienna critic Karl Kraus, in 1921, about an ad for a package tour to the battlefields of Verdun. Lately I think I know how he felt. There are some objects of criticism that are immune to criticism, before which criticism can only fall back in wonder and awe, disarmed and stupid, and such objects seem to come in packs. See one, and soon enough you’re seeing them everywhere. It’s the spirit of the times, the taste of the currency stew; you can’t get it out of your mouth.

I was buying a paper in a hotel gift shop early in the year when I noticed a new title in the paperback carousel: America 2040, by Evan Innes, “Volume 1 in an Exciting New Series from the Creators of Wagons West.” Nothing special about the cover: red, white, and blue, three indomitable types standing in front of the flag. For some reason I turned the book over, and read:

AMERICA’S NEW FRONTIER. It stretches out beyond the planets to the vastness of infinite space. The time has come for America’s best and brightest men and women to again become pioneers, to carry freedom’s precious message to a new wilderness. . .

Okay I thought, I’ve read this before. I ran my eyes down to the next block of promo type:

THE MISSION. It will determine America’s destiny. Locked in a final deadly struggle with the Soviets, the free world trembles on the brink of nuclear holocaust. But whatever the Earth’s fate, the spirit of America must not be allowed to die. The dauntless courage of those

Wait a minute, I said out loud (the woman at the counter looked up, alarmed; we were the only people in the shop): you mean that “the spirit of America” is more important than the EARTH ITSELF, that the . . . uh huh, that’s what it said. I was dumbstruck. What would God think of that, I wondered; Why d’ya think they call it God’s country, buddy?, something answered. Feeling unclean, I bought the book, never meaning to read it, and I never have; I knew it was a talisman.

Through the events of the months that followed, the book stayed with me—through the orchestration of grief over the space-shuttle disaster, an orchestration that didn’t at all seem cynical, hierarchical, but like a natural, self-orchestration, whatever that means, an orchestration that by the end of the first few days had turned into a kind of celebration; through the continuing apotheosis of Ronald Reagan as the test of all working ideas of the good,and the buildup to the Statue of Liberty centennial (as with Michael Jackson’s “Victory” tour, the event was all in the buildup). I took America 2040 out again and again, reread the message, and I still had no answer to it, no reply. Of course, that back-cover copy wasn’t serious, wasn’t sincere: it was a simple commercial calculation (Given the mood of the country and the shit market we’re aiming at, this ought to sell), just a stir of the currency stew, but it also opened up the carrion pit. As a crude commercial calculation, those few words made a real social fact.

I think I held onto this $3.95 Bantam paperback as proof that this was as far as it could go—as far as the spirit of our time and place could celebrate itself, shame itself, parody itself, fuck itself to death. As Kraus wrote of the Verdun vacation, the book seemed to prove that the age had “nothing left but the naked truth of its condition, so that it has almost reached the point where it is no longer capable of lying” But then, a few weeks ago, in a local drugstore, I saw a $2.50 Warner Publisher Services magazine. U.S.A. Combat Heroes, read the title: “Killing Machines. RAMBO III its here. CHUCK. Commando. America’s Greatest Heroes. RAMBO strikes as COBRA.”

I picked it up the way I would have picked up a porn magazine. I opened it: “Rambo fights for every American who suffers from Commie tyranny. He is America’s force for freedom.” Big deal, I thought. Then I turned to the section on Chuck Norris, star of Invasion U.S.A. Caption to a two-gun Norris pose: “Chuck Has Killed More Commies and Terrorists Than Any Other American Hero.” Text:

The Great American Hero has always been a loner. Whether he was a cowboy, a soldier, or a private eye, he walked alone down his mean streets—or across his war-torn battlefield, or beneath the wide, blue Western sky.

A slew of defense mechanisms went into action. “He walked alone down his mean streets” was a rip-off of Raymond Chandler’s paean to Philip Marlowe: “Down these mean streets a man must go.” Chandler said (“who is not himself mean,” he added). But those were probably the worst words Chandler ever wrote—the most pretentious, the most sentimental. Who’s to say they haven’t found their rightful place in U.S.A. Combat Heroes? But so what, so what, I was evading the real action, which was in the caption. I read it again; it still said the same thing. “Chuck Has Killed More Commies and Terrorists Than Any Other American Hera” No, I said to the magazine, “Chuck Norris” is a fiction, he/it never killed a single “Commie” or “Terrorist”—it was all I could do to stop myself from running into the parking lot and buttonholing other shoppers, like the people hawking petitions to Save the Waterfront, Fight the Insurance-Crisis Fraud, Preserve Rent Control: Look! Look at this! You won’t believe it! This is all—

I dropped the magazine and went home, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Whenever I went back to the drugstore I found myself peering at it, surreptitiously, as if I were afraid it would notice, talk back. One day I read a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle: the writer was railing at the hypocrisy of Sylvester Stallone’s refusal to attend the Cannes Film Festival. According to the writer, and the gossip columns, the muscle-bound coward was afraid of Libyan terrorists. (“So the KHADAFYS and other terrorists around the world better watch their step, because every American is a RAMBO,” read the first page of U.S.A. Combat Heroes.) John Wayne would have gone, the letter-writer said. Yeah, right, RamboRockyCobraStalloneSlywhateveryoumameis, I thought, but I still felt shadowed—and somehow a letter appearing a few days later, noting that John Wayne too was a phony, that he sat out the Second World War pretending to fight on screen while other actors did the same thing in, uh, what’s it called, “real life,” didn’t bring the world back into balance either Anything I had to say doubled back into nothing.

Criticism is the bringing of the terms of x to bear on y: it is an analytical juxtaposition that forces a certain tension, a certain friction, and the result is up for grabs. But what if the object of criticism is at once a shark and a jellyfish, transparent and opaque, an object that for all its obvious falsity, contrivance, and insincerity is still the emblem of an age, simultaneously empowered by the age and empowering the age itself? “Writing is always somehow an expression of powerlessness, or the fruit of frayed nerves,” the Czech novelist Ludvík Vaculík once wrote: “it betrays complexes, or a bad conscience.”

It took me weeks to work up the nerve to buy U.S.A. Combat Heroes. Finally I paid my money and took it home; now I run my hands over it. I wonder what it means. I wonder how it talks, why I can’t talk back to it. I wonder what it has to do with pop music, the ostensible subject of this column, and if the answer isn’t in The Edge of the World, the latest album by the Mekons, which I can’t quite hear, and can’t stop playing. It’s an odd record: it seems to be set sometime after a war, in an England that has been turned into an American army base. It seems to have taken the critical immunity of objects like America 2040 and U.S.A. Combat Heroes for granted, to be suffering it, to be living it out. The Mekons are playing with the speech that has left me mute; I’m working on translating what they’re saying, betting that, translating, I can figure out how to keep talking.

(To be continued.)

Greil Marcus contributes to The Threepenny Review, Berkeley. His music column appears monthly in Artforum.