PRINT March 2003


1981: Scritti Politti’s “Jacques Derrida”

IN 1982, TWO TENDENCIES, neither exactly a trend, came together in a curious moment: the release of a single by the band Scritti Politti. What was notable though was not the A side, “Asylums in Jerusalem,” but the tune on the flip side, a lite, elegant number called “Jacques Derrida.”

Tendency 1: It is hard to believe just how long a handful of narratives dominated the development of pop music; perhaps the most influential was the vulgarized version of the great countercultural fantasies of the late ’60s in which wave after wave of nonconformist young warriors do battle against the forces of the market. In this conceit, the goal of the market—striving not just for economic gain but for ideological victory—is to keep these rebels from expressing their aggression and instead to “soften” them, as the saying went. Today hardly anyone harbors any delusions that the emblematic aggression, loose cannons, and antisocial behavior of raw rock are not in themselves culture-industry products, and ideologically loaded ones at that. But for some time it was an article of faith that AC/DC was a threat to the system while Julio Iglesias supported it.

Punk seemed to validate the boiling-kettle theory of rock authenticity, raising loudness and anger to new heights while (the story goes) rescuing rock from the market. But something else was emerging from punk: Doubts about received sexual identities now reached every adolescent, and with them the constructed nature of cultural categories became apparent. In fact, according to punk, if we don’t construct ourselves, somebody else will do it for us. After 1980, a movement was born that made virtues of seduction, decadence, longing, and melancholy, that no longer claimed to be original or “natural” but rather affirmed the quoted nature of our “own” feelings, that tried not to shout down or drown out the status quo but to slip through its cracks: I’m thinking of Orange Juice, The Monochrome Set and Josef K, The Teardrop Explodes, Culture Club, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, ABC, and, of course, Scritti Politti. Others have been forgotten (there are probably few Artforum readers who could reminisce with me about Mark Beer’s incomparable single “Pretty”). The aesthetic accomplishments of African-American soul music, sneered at by rock, as well as queer-culture insights into the nature of performativity, contributed to this deeply influential revaluation. A few years later, the Smiths even sold some records with it.

Tendency 2: Once upon a time, young people concerned with the cultivation of their sensibilities came together not just in reading poetry but also through the novels of Camus, Kerouac, Hesse, Sartre, and Genet, depending on the era. And here too an important new early-’80s development became manifest. The romanciers of the moment, those whose books as much portrayed the world as questioned it, whose overheated texts could flatter the youth as well as move the ground under their feet, were now named Derrida, Deleuze, or Lyotard. They were academics, scholars, philosophers by trade, yet their words were memorized with the same impatient rapture—and used and misused for personal life choices and values—as Salinger’s or Goethe’s before them. This reception was often a mark against these authors within academic philosophy: How could deconstruction be taken seriously when, out there, it was spawning all these problems among the pubescent? Today the point is moot, and these texts have long since become academically institutionalized. Many are no longer taken seriously, while others have become classics and entered the canon.

The teenagers who schlepped around bad translations of abridged French editions in their jacket pocket to read on the subway never again invested such emotional intensity in such difficult texts. At the time, it seemed to them as if a text by Derrida contained not only his theory but the whole of the literature that the text dealt with, including its entire range of emotion. Similarly, the postmodern soul music invented at the beginning of the ’80s seemed not only to quote the history of pop music since the ’50s but also to embody deep cultural complexities—from fashion to politics to history. “Theory” and this new, reference-laden pop music were models for a Gesamtkunstwerk-like access to the world, yet at the same time these were short songs and abridged books with a few quickly communicable tenets. Still, in 1982, this unlikely constellation culminated in Green Garthside of Scritti Politti singing: “I’m in love with Jacques Derrida . . .”

Diedrich Diederichsen is a critic based in Berlin and a professor at the Merz-Akademie, Stuttgart.

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.