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The Dustbin of Theory

Greil Marcus's hipster historicism

Every age produces its own characteristic interpretation of history, and it seems entirely appropriate that in the America of the late twentieth century, ours should be the brainchild of a rock critic. England had its Macauley, France its Michelet—now America, a nation whose relationship to the past has never been the most stable thing in the world, has, standing expertly athwart the sensibilities of the sixties insurgents and the postmodern cultural elite, its Greil Marcus.

Not that Marcus is actually essaying much in the way of American history, mind you. Keeping a sense of history steeped in the fashionable maxims of the present makes for a difficult tension, so Marcus is something of a temporal and geographic bricoleur, assembling pertinent bits of culture and context where it suits him to find them. But that, too, seems entirely fitting—aren’t we by now officially in the era of the new global economy, in which place and time have all the permanence and cultural specificity of an MTV jump cut? And aren’t the old histories, as Marcus himself argues in his recently published collection of essays, The Dustbin of History, awfully shopworn, tainted by their own cabal of “interested” compositors? “The legend we use for history,” he argues in a postmodern shibboleth as tired as it is vague, “is a master-narrative, a narrative that cannot be easily interrupted, revised, or seized, but can only, in certain moments, be replaced…. Any society’s master-narrative is by definition an untruth. It is an interested construction rather than a literal, all-seeing account of what really happened.”

Marcus’s recent forays into history, in any event, are extremely revealing cultural documents in their own right. The most ostentatiously learned of rock critics, Marcus long ago won a spot on most hip American Studies syllabi with his 1975 book, Mystery Train, which likened, among other things, the career of Elvis Presley—a great white wonder indeed—to that of Herman Melville. For many years Rolling Stone’s book critic, Marcus cultivated an air of eclectic sophistication in the interpretation of popular culture. In later years, as he published in such estimable culture organs as Artforum and The Threepenny Review, his subject and audience grew more esoteric and highbrow. Everywhere he published he showed a growing eagerness to link up his aesthetic judgments with full-blown theories of historical change.

This impulse found abundant expression in Marcus’s mammoth, reputation-making study of the avant-garde aesthetic and political roots of punk rock, Lipstick Traces. Published in 1989 by Harvard University Press, Lipstick Traces was no standard fan’s history. Rather, it interpreted the punk movement—or, more precisely, the career of the Sex Pistols, upon whom Marcus is strangely fixated—as the latest eruption in what he calls the “gnostic myth of the twentieth century.”

This, needless to say, required a good deal of explaining, and it is in the course of this explaining that Marcus reveals how completely his idiosyncratic theories of history and culture reflect the pernicious fin-de-(vingtième) siècle American impulse to privatize both the past and political present. To understand the appeal of this singularly ponderous and unpersuasive book, though, requires a brief look back far beyond the twentieth century. The philosophical hero of Marcus’s book, gnosticism, reached its peak influence as a rival creed to Christianity when the Roman empire was inching toward oblivion in the second century A.D., and has long exerted appeal for heretics both religious and cultural—the sort of people Marcus admiringly describes as “cranks.” It’s a bewilderingly complex body of belief, easily distorted and conscripted in the service of the crank-of-the-moment, and periodically rearing its head in new forms as a heretical tendency within the Christian Church.

For all that, however, it was, in its day, an entirely coherent theological system, based chiefly on the profoundly depressing notion that humanity resided in a colossal cosmic error, desperately alienated from its proper spiritual place. Gnostics held creation to be the handiwork of a diabolical (if clumsy) semi-divine agent known as the demiurge—and all that flowed from it, from the grain of the field to the human body, was irredeemably corrupt and doomed. The true home of the suffering spirit, gnostics believed, was a realm of unconditioned Being called the pleroma, where a tiny minority of adepts schooled in gnosis (the Greek word for knowledge) would find repose and communion with the true God.

The Gulf War never actually occurred, but was, like most choreographed media spectacles, a mere “simulacrum” of a real event.

Gnosticism, in other words, is a deeply world-denying faith, one that affords obvious parallels to the sensibility of our own age. The most able summary of the movement, Hans Jonas’s 1958 book, The Gnostic Religion, found many affinities between gnosticism and existentialism—an overlap to which Jonas, a former student of Heidegger, was keenly attuned. Subsequent commentators, notably the conservative philosopher Erich Voegelin, have claimed to locate in gnosticism the ur-heresy that engendered the elaborate crypto-totalitarian philosophical systems of Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx. Contemporary gnostic revivalists, such as literary critic Harold Bloom, meanwhile, see the gnostic anxiety to repudiate creation and achieve rarefied spiritual repose off the world-historical stage as a deeply American impulse.

They can’t all be right, and yet there is a sense in which they are. The gnostic flight from worldly being—and perhaps especially from all the sordid tales of human error and delusion that history tirelessly inventories—has become a signal, if little-remarked, motif in modern intellectual life. Consider, for example, the severe judgments on history pronounced by Hegel (“a slaughtering bench”) and Marx (“a nightmare” and “an Alp” weighing on the backs of succeeding exploited generations).

And gnosticism occupies, if anything, a still more privileged place in postmodern philosophy and criticism. Thinkers as diverse as Jean-François Lyotard, Richard Rorty, and Jean Baudrillard routinely announce the ultimate unreality of any sustained sense of historical continuity. Baudrillard, in particular, has gone Marx and Hegel one better by denouncing the reality of the present—most notoriously in his apparently earnest proclamation that the Gulf War never actually occurred, but was, like most choreographed media spectacles, a mere “simulacrum” of a real event.

Baudrillard’s delusional pseudopolitics is but one limit of the gnostic tendency to view the cosmos as a terrifying, uninterrupted nightmare, opaque to any effort to force it to disclose meaning. Likewise, a spiritual and absolutist notion of “negation”—the principled refusal to accept conventially ordered daily life—unifies the successive avant-garde movements of dada, situationism and punk rock that Marcus threads together in Lipstick Traces. But Marcus’s understanding of gnosticism is a curious one: when speaking of dada, for example, Marcus identifies “the gnostic myth” as “the conviction that there was something in the twentieth century that could never be controlled or understood.” By denying the “ubiquity of sin,” Marcus continues, the historical gnostics asserted “there was no necessary separation of human beings from God … because even as God created human beings, human beings created God and whoever achieved this knowledge became ‘not a Christian but Christ.’”

That this is a preposterous reading of gnosticism is not so much the point—though it does bear noting. The gnostic outlook is profoundly dualistic, wedded at its core to the dramatic separation of God and humanity. This austere ethos of absolute, metaphysical separation is what makes gnosticism resonate so strongly with the nihilistic temper of our own time. It also explains why the efforts of critics like Voegelin and acolytes like Marcus to depict gnosticism as a primitive communist sect break down. Indeed, gnosticism resembles nothing so much as the hermetic isolation of the contemporary consumer—mediated, to be sure, by glimpses of carefully choreographed psuedocommunities (daytime tabloid TV, talk radio, the Internet). But Marcus believes exactly the contrary, that the gnosticism of his feverish imaginings acts as a sort of universal philosophical solvent, cutting through every form of human separation—to be precise, those of “patriarchy, authority, hierarchy, the division of humanity into rulers and ruled, owners and workers, the separation of every individual from everyone else, and oneself from oneself.”

Here is where Marcus’s gnostic speculation accelerates from misguided antiquarianism into full-fledged liberation theology. Lipstick Traces, a sort of Women Who Run with the Wolves of hipster culture, beholds the buried gnostic tradition in every avant-gardist impulse, beginning with the Reformation and the French Revolution and culminating (for now) with the snarling heresies of the Sex Pistols.

It’s a disheveled tale, to put it mildly, with overlapping ephemera standing in for historical argument. For instance, Johnny Rotten’s real name, John Lydon, resembles that of John of Leyden, leader of an Anabaptist insurgency in sixteenth-century Münster. Mere coincidence, you ask? Why, yes. But Marcus, liberated from the flat-footed empiricism of mere historical analysis, elevates such coincidences into grand gestures of resistance to the coercive master-narratives of the past.

The leaders of dadaism and situationism only further cleared the ground for the triumph of consumerism.

And wrapped around these gestures are serious, and rather extravagant, claims about the nature of history. Chief among them is the typically gnostic conviction that the past does not exist, in any real sense, at all. In one utterly representative outburst, dadaist Tristan Tzara—one of the dramatis personae Marcus dotes on in Lipstick Traces—announced, “I’m not even interested in knowing whether anyone existed before me.” With a great deal more theoretical sophistication, Marcus’s beloved situationists—who furnish the (for him) critical link to the Sex Pistols via secondhand situationist slogans and literature filtering down to punk impresario Malcolm McLaren—express the same deep distrust of history. Situationist leader Guy Debord made this plain in an address (ostentatiously delivered in tape-recorded form) to a class of Parisian sociology students in 1961—even as he invoked “the historical” as a category of change. “The revolution in everyday life, breaking its present resistance to the historical (and to every other kind of change),” he proclaimed, “will create the condition in which the present dominates the past and the creative aspects of life always dominate over the repetitive. (Italics in original.)

Many of the situationists’ political and critical impulses were quite sound, but the avant-gardist affirmation of pastlessness is, ultimately, profoundly reactionary. The erosion of any sense of historical continuity is one of the signal triumphs of consumer capitalism, not a weapon to be turned against it. Pastlessness not only creates an abiding ignorance of the past as such—of genuine (as opposed to elite aesthetic) movements of resistance and opposition; it also suffuses the perpetually weak and decentered self of the consumer. The purchase of new commodities, after all, is rarely predicated on anything more than their novelty, the illusion of which can only be maintained by continually destabilizing the forces of personal and collective memory. Inverting Freud, advertisers have adopted the creed, “where there was ego, let id be.” By announcing their intention to overthrow history, the leaders of dadaism and situationism only further cleared the ground for the triumph of consumerism.

But then, both movements were also deliberate and self-conscious collaborations with the leisure society to begin with, denying the need for work and celebrating both the leisure “revolution” of youth culture and the economy of consumer abundance. In the mock-subversive “détournements” of situationism, for example—in which figures from ads and comic strips are incongruously outfitted with ideological slogans or dry political criticism—one beholds the forbear of the contemporary advertising motif in which traditional pitches are undercut with a self-serving irony that flatters the viewers hip sensibilities while creating the meaningless perception that the advertiser is somehow coolly subversive. In this respect, the situationists were avant-gardists indeed.

In seizing on these models of hipster ahistoricism, Marcus supplies an invaluable case study in what misapplied aestheticism does to the interpretation of actual history. For example, the campaigns of state-sponsored mass extermination that have characterized the past hundred years provoke in Marcus, as they have in avant-gardists everywhere, a posture of studied deadened response. “The history of the twentieth century,” Marcus announces glibly,

was to be the account of the creation of reality through its erasure: through killing people, through the extermination of subjective objects, of realized or potential individuals as forests to be cleared. The triumph of this work can be found in the fact that we have neither art nor language to translate it—that when we try to think about those who were exterminated in Europe in the 1910s and 1940s (Hitler, 1939: “Who remembers the Armenians?”) or in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s, in China in the 1950s, Indonesia in the 1960s, Cambodia in the 1970s (out of the ashes, the New Man), we can’t think of these people as such…. When Hugo Ball wrote of the need to erase everything that had been written, when Tzara said he didn’t care if anyone existed before him, when [dadaist Richard] Huelsenbeck chanted “The End of the World,” the dadaists fed on this impulse, even as their disgust over its wastes brought them to life.

In this remarkable passage, one can discern virtually everything about Lipstick Traces—and the scores of kindred critical theory and cultural studies works that enthusiastically adopt the same rhetorical stance—that cries out to be repudiated. First, there is the instant resort to to abstract paradox (“the creation of reality through its erasure”) that invites the reader to read the ensuing litany of atrocity as aesthetic irony. Then there is the measured descent from the threat of vivid detail (“the killing of people”), to more leaden, rhetorical paradox (“the extermination of subjective objects”), to strategically self-distancing metaphor, compounded by the cadence of abstraction (“of realized or potential individuals as forests to be cleared”).

The reader then encounters the much-repeated claim, itself now a banality, that no representation of such events is possible in art or language (this despite Marcus’s own clumsy effort to do just that in the preceding, egregious “forest” metaphor). Then the rapid-fire litany of historical terror and genocide, punctuated only by the quotation from Hitler and the coy paraphrase of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes, both intended ironies that fall pathetically flat. (It is revealing, as well, that Marcus, in his posture of overcivilized fatigue, is content to hold forth the authors of genocide as its historical interpreters.) Penultimately, the confession of a failure of moral imagination, rendered in a tone of affected world-weariness: “We can’t think of these people as such,” a sentiment that has, in various forms, served Western policy makers well as they, too, sought to establish a self-serving distance from mass slaughter in the Balkans.

Finally, we have Marcus’s bid to subsume the whole notion of mass extermination to aesthetic gestures, by appealing to the power of self-dramatizing, pseudo-creative amnesia. This, too, is depicted as yet another paradox—as though anyone who has seriously pondered mass extermination could be brought to care that “the dadaists fed on this impulse, even as their disgust over its wastes brought them to life.”

The Marcus view of history, in other words, is aestheticized to the point of claustrophobic narcissism. The artist gazes into the void and asks, “Who’s the fairest of them all?” Nor is this outlook confined to the past. Explicating the random text-and-image détournements of situationist Joseph Wolman’s 1979 tabloid Duhring, Duhring, Marcus enthuses:

It is a shaggy dog story. If one puts down Wolman’s all-purpose gazette and picks up any other, words and faces leap out of their official contexts, current events and settled history now a scrabble of Brezhnevinvasion-UncleScroogeNapoleonstruggle, all referents dissolved into a meaningless whole. The only irony—the tail that wags the dog—is that if this is a picture of public speech, and public speech is babble, that babble rules the world.

Trippy. Note the inversion here, one at the very methodical heart of Lipstick Traces: An aesthetic statement about the news becomes, in Marcus’s hands, interchangeable with the news. History happens to other people; the challenge facing Western avant-gardes is to interpret it in as clever and disorienting a style as they can muster.

You can be both Frederic Jameson and Johnny Rotten.

Here, too, the gnostic label fits Marcus in ways that he never would acknowledge, if he understood what gnosticism was. The corollary of the gnostic repudiation of the world is that deliverance from it is only accessible to a tiny spiritual elite, those vouchsafed the higher truths of gnosis. Likewise, the aesthetic elite to whom Marcus relegates control of history can only regard it as an undifferentiated field of polymorphous perversity, at most supplying the “reversible charge” (as Debord calls it) for the occasional rude situationist or punk gesture of scorn. The rest of the world, gnostics and avant-gardists agree, can remain in hell. This isn’t exactly the vanguard of a democratic social revolution.

This gnostic insularity of vision—“all referents dissolved into a meaningless whole”—also helps explain the tremendous appeal of Marcus’s book among the elite of art journalists and Cultural Studies commissars who reviewed it. Critics hailed it as a dramatic new moment, a clearing of ground in the study of “radical” culture. “In legitimizing the shooting stars of history,” Gail Caldwell wrote in The Boston Globe, “[Marcus] expands the field of vision through which we view the world.” Artforum’s Diedrich Diederichsen described the material of Marcus’s counternarrative as “a series of more or less heroic, more or less criminal attempts to get outside the fatality of the social, outside the system.” Interview (well positioned to appreciate the world-historical elevation of aesthetic elites) marveled that “every few pages ‘a book about movements in culture that raised no monuments, about movements that left barely a trace’ can remind and convince you of Rilke’s line: ‘There is no place here that does not see you. You must change your life.’” Even Elle got into the act. In an outburst of phony radicalism perfectly aligned with the selling of cosmetics, the magazine’s critic Mary Ann Staniszewski intoned that the book was “an examination sensitive to the invisibility of ideology and the issues of power implicit in writing history.”

Clearly Lipstick Traces, for all its prodigious failures as political critique and historical narrative, served a more immediate and (to some) a more useful purpose. What passes for the intellectual left these days has become so thoroughly inured to thinking of itself as a vanguardist elite that it couldn’t help but regard a tale like Marcus’s as beguiling, nay, flattering. The logic went something like this: You can be both Frederic Jameson and Johnny Rotten; you can have tenure and your situationist revolutionary credentials all at once. Such wish-fulfillment fantasies have long been symbolized by the proliferation of faux-daring leather-and-black getups at scholarly conferences; Marcus simply supplied what was universally taken to be evidence that hipness—nothing more than the pose of pop-culture fatalism nominally left theorists had been cultivating all along—is the liberating path out of “the fatality of the social.”

To judge by Marcus’s latest book, The Dustbin of History, this pose is now being worked up into an all-purpose interpretation of events and artistic expression. Perhaps the most frightening evidence of Marcus’s newfound historiographic cachet is “Myth and Misquotation,” the text of a commencement address he delivered to the 1988 graduating class of the UC-Berkeley history department. The address, like many voguish postmodern declarations, revolves arround the vacuous claim that “power writes history,” a glib bastardization of the researches of Michel Foucault. And Marcus further elaborates that, yes, “events outside the normal circuits of legitimacy … are resistant to history, because history does not know how to account for them.” Such an event instead gets “swallowed by the imperatives of history, which are partly the imperatives of myth. History is a story: we want a story that makes sense, is poetically whole, that fits what we already think we know.” (Marcus’s chief examples of these distortions are a Berkeley speech by Mario Savio, hero of the mid sixties Free Speech movement and the killing of Meredith Hunter at the 1969 Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway, both of which allow him to trump later chroniclers with the countercultural calling card of authenticity: He reminds his audience, in so many words, that I was there, man.)

The casual elision of history and myth, like the prior avant-garde campaign to assimilate the past to the present, requires a fundamental misunderstanding of historical thinking. Like his dada and situationist forbears, Marcus opts for aesthetic terminology, tacitly appealing to the largely spurious association of the words “history” and “story.” What William Appleman Williams felicitously called “history as a way of learning,” on the other hand, requires a maturity and humility of spirit; the ability to imaginatively forsake the narrow boundaries of one’s own existence to comprehend the unfulfilled struggles of earlier generations to introduce a modicum of sense, and even justice, into a life that was often deeply senseless and unfair. At the height of the dada rebellion, for example, there was an abundance of culturally influential figures, no less attuned to the age’s tragedies, passionately struggling with these questions in public discourse: In this nation alone, Randolph Bourne, Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, W.E.B. DuBois, and John Dewey all come to mind. Not one of these figures would be worth trading for the whole self-dramatizing dada contingent.

Qualities such as humility of spirit are now so conspicuously absent from our common world that one scarcely speaks of them without a sense of embarrassment. The move to aestheticize the past, meanwhile, requires only the monolothic fiction of history as “power”—an especially absurd conflation in the United States, where neither history nor historians have ever exercised a decisive sway on the popular imagination. It is a vision of a past in which human agency is futile by definition, except for the consolations afforded the charmed circle of the liberated artists and theorists who obsessively call attention to that very futility. The opacity of this vision must produce a carefully cultivated narcissism, lest it succumb to full-blown despair.

Why dwell so long on the erring history lessons offered by a rock critic? How influential can he be? A short answer can be provided, of course, by pointing to the imprimatur of Harvard University Press. But the real reason is less obvious, and much more disquieting: Any interpretation of history inevitably colors our understanding of the political present—and Marcus’s is influential far beyond the critical-theory elite it panders to. Marcus’s refined conspiracy-mongering has obvious affinities with other fixations on the hidden forces of government and history that echo across our blighted political culture—from the well-documented ravings of the militia movement to the total resignation masquerading as worldly hipness that Marcus correctly detects but uncritically celebrates in much of our popular art, literature and cinema. (In addition to Marcus’s case studies, the overblown conspiracy cinema of Oliver Stone, the mannered paranoia of TV’s The X-Files, and the smarmy nihilist fiction of Douglas Coupland, Nicholas Baker, Kathy Acker, and Will Self are all obvious cases in point, but other examples could be multiplied at numbing length.) All the while, of course, the most appalling political crimes of our age are the most overt: the sustained assault on the public sector, well into its second decade, whose ideology is trumpeted openly in the daily press and the Congressional Record; the all-too vivid, implacable upward distribution of wealth that critics like Michael Lind have labeled the Brazilianization of the U.S. economy; the rampant privatization of social goods, such as education and the access to information, once deemed central to the democratic experiment in America; the relentless narrowing of political participation in a polity openly governed by the access to money. The chill wind of gnosticism blows unacknowledged through what remains of our public life, offering—just as it did in its original incarnation—spurious, cold comfort to the indifferent citizens of an empire in decline.