PRINT November 1989


Greil Marcus' European Dream

Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, by Greil Marcus. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989, 496 pp., illustrated, $29.95.

GREIL MARCUS’ LIPSTICK TRACES is a story of radical European dissent, and a story of the possibilities of negation as a cultural force. The book sometimes reads inspirationally—as an American mirror image of the European enthusiasm for and, often, overvaluation of dissidence in the United States, especially that of the tight-lipped, insane variety. Marcus’ approach to such European dissident groups as the Anabaptists and the Sex Pistols is lovingly analytic, but the book’s overall impression is of a romantic image formed at a distance—rather as European film critics writing about Hollywood, reversing the direction of Marcus’ gaze, romanticized the trends and subtrends of auteurship in the cinema of the ’50s and ’60s.

Marcus has his story to tell because he was so moved by a Sex Pistols number that he had to explain to himself everything concealed in the song. In his explication of text and context, he voluntarily narrows his horizon to the partisanship of the fan. He trekked to Europe, to Zurich, Paris, and London, for research and interviews. Thus Gil Wolman, Michèle Bernstein, and Alexander Trocchi, veterans of the revolutionary/philosophical Lettrist and Situationist groups of the ’50s and ’60s, make their appearances, tell their stories, to complement narratives about popular songs and about the heretics of the German Reformation. Parallels are liberally drawn, for instance, between the 14th-century mystic Heinrich Suso, who had conversations with God, and the Sex Pistols’ 1978 farewell concert at the Winter-land Ballroom in San Francisco. But these tales and parallels do not function in Marcus’ book as the elements of a scholarly argument, for Marcus makes texts speak not by interpretation but by cutting from one to the other.

If Karl Marx could write, in 1843, “Our motto therefore must be: Reform of consciousness, not through dogmas but through analysis of the mystical consciousness which is unclear to itself, regardless whether it is religious or political. It will then be shown that the world has long possessed the dream of a thing,” Marcus puts Marx on his feet (or on his head, depending on the reader’s perspective) by taking a consciousness that is clear to itself—the consciousness of the most radical dissidence, of the most peremptory negation, and hence, logically, of the most acute clarity conceivable—and helping that consciousness give birth to a dream: the dream of negativity. In its mysticism, its radicality or hermeticism, its offensive aggressiveness, its simultaneous eloquence and unintelligibility, this “European dream” has always been concealed even when obvious, unarticulated even when outspoken. A more comprehensive account of it than Lipstick Traces has never been written. (The discussion of Situationism, for example, has never gotten beyond name-dropping, the phony feather on Malcolm McLaren’s hat, and the inflation of old treatises and randomly floating theories.) There is another, unabsorbed history: a series of more or less heroic, more or less criminal attempts to get outside the fatality of the social, outside the system, whose protagonists are occasionally allowed to become known as individuals but never to gain power. Despite changes of venue, despite totally different frames of reference, we are presented with ideas and problems of dissidence so strangely similar as to assume an almost mathematical symmetry, from medieval Christianity to rock ’n’ roll, from Dada to the negation of youth rebellion (the permitted and thus incapacitated kind) in such punk utterances as “I am a cliché.”

That this history has not yet been told is due partly to the fact that the focus on dissidence in Western historiography has always turned into a narrative of failure and of the victories of power and the system. In Marcus’ citations of the documents of dissidence, however, and despite the pessimism in the tone of his book (which was written during the Reagan and Thatcher years, the period of the great restoration of the material world), an optimistic positivity of negativity ultimately comes into its own. “Don’t Talk to Sociologists,” sang Red Crayola with Art & Language on their 1976 album Corrected Slogans. And Marcus heeds this essential of a variant historiography of subculture and dissidence. He resists becoming an informer to the out-of-uniform police sciences, compelled willynilly by a conventional methodology to describe negation or dissidence as a symptom of disease in the social body. He is not interested in a teleology of linear progression (discourse on liberation, revolution, the setting up and pulling down of barricades and borders implicitly suggests a linear progress toward a goal). Hence the dreamlike quality of the book: the leaps in time, the analogies among radically different places and eras.

Just what goes on in a Sex Pistols song? When Europeans ask, Just what is there in a song by the Band, the Grateful Dead, or the Gun Club, we often have been sup-plied the answer, All of America. A Sex Pistols song does not contain all of Europe, just as a Band song does not really contain all of America—does not contain, for example, what is expressed in a Public Enemy album, which itself does not contain all of America, but black American culture (and only part of that). Marcus’ ultimate motivation is always the “unbelievable din” that he encountered in the final third of “Holiday in the Sun.” Some of its content partakes of the European radicalism and dissidence that he sees extending in a kind of continuity from Suso to the Lettrists, and on from them to British punk bands, and he sets up the documents of this culture in such a way that a clear profile of it emerges. Most important to note, it does not come into being merely as a countervailing, self-protective reaction to oppression; such a reaction would ultimately dissolve, like sugar in tea, into some form of proposal for improving the organization of capitalist democracy without fundamentally changing it. Instead, negation is a primary device of uncommodified, self-sufficient human conditions like being different from others, being black among whites, being young, being criminal, and so on. To demonstrate this is one of the main achievements of Lipstick Traces.

Using arguments from Marx, Theodor Adorno, and Guy Debord, Marcus follows the borderlines of different subcultures as they are revealed by such artifacts as rock ’n’ roll records—in other words, by commodities. He does so without slipping into the usual pessimistic attitude that this boundary of consumer goods is undialectically both absolute and absolutely deadly for the “correct ideas of humanity, which bleed to death along its fences.” It’s true that the commodity, and the market system in which it exists, set the limits of an idea’s availability, definition, and freedom of movement, but also, it can carry unforeseen meanings, unperceived by the power that Public Enemy invites us to struggle against on its latest single. Similarly, Marcus liberates words, or at least names, from their police function. Thus he moves from Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten’s real name, John Lydon, to the Dutch heretic John of Leyden, who, for about a year in the early 16th century, ruled the German city of Münster as king of the “New Jerusalem,” and enacted such laws as the abolition of private property. Likewise, the author feels free to jump from Norman Cohn, the historian of heresy, to his son Nik, the historian of rock ’n’ roll, who, according to Marcus, put a heretical curse on anyone who hears something more complex than “I want” or “I don’t want” in rock ’n’ roll. Marcus simply pays homage to those musicians whose “I want” and “I don’t want” (especially the latter) is strong enough to be placed in a series with corresponding symbolic configurations in history.

In the terms of Marcus’ narrative, the “European” “I don’t want” and the “American” “I want” seem crucially different. Ultimately, however, they prove to be two forms of the same subversive self-confidence, unforeseen by authority and alienated by the system. In America, this self-confidence is conceived as affirmation (of individual happiness, community, nature, solitude, whatever), whereas in Europe it seems to pass through a relationship with church and state, whether by imitating them or by struggling against them. These problematics materialize on album jackets, in images, in music, in speech. Marcus’ tale does not pretend to bring them to any summary end; to understand them, we must always start from scratch.

Diedrich Diederichsen is an editor of SPEX, a German journal of music and culture, and the author of several books on music.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.