Jerome McGann

  • Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century by Greil Marcus
    Secker, 496 pp, £14.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 436 27338 1

Around 529 BC the armies of the Persian Empire tried to conquer a mysterious and reclusive people who lived somewhere to the east of the Caspian Sea – to this day we do not know exactly where. The Persians acted simply because of Cyrus the Great’s overweening ambition. As it turned out, Cyrus’s armies were defeated and he was killed in the battle. The Massagetae, left once again to themselves, slipped back out of monumental history: back to their unusual customs of sex and death, to the horses for which they were famous, to their sun worship.

Practically all we know of the Massagetae – which is precious little – comes from a few pages in the first of our Western monumental histories, Herodotus. Later historians do not spend much time on a people who lived so resolutely, not to say religiously, at the margin, and who would soon be swallowed up in the quick abyss of time. We know the Massagetae must have had a rich culture from their brief and undesired appearance in one of our imperial histories. Nevertheless, the true history of the Massagetae has escaped us. It remains a closed book, a secret history.

Greil Marcus’s ‘secret history of the 20th century’ does not mention the Massagetae. His principal subjects – the Sex Pistols, Dada, the Situationist International – send him plunging back into earlier epochs for proleptic and analogous movements and events: the Catharists, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Lollards, the Ranters, John of Leyden and the French Commune. Marcus draws these and others into his secret history of the 20th century because he is interested in revolution and apocalypse: the kind of secret history which moves not in a world elsewhere, beyond the periphery of our dominant apparitions, but inside those apparitions, the ghosts within the ghostly machines of the social worlds we know.

Revolution and apocalypse are hardly secret or non-monumental topics. Indeed, the modern world – let us say the past four hundred years – has been fairly dominated by the revolutionary impulse and event. But monumental revolution is not much to Marcus’s taste either. We hear little or nothing about the English Revolution, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, nothing about the Soviet or the Chinese Revolutions. These are all out of court because Marcus is after something at once more catastrophic and more insignificant: the Sex Pistols, Dada, the Situationist International.

What these three phenomena embody for Marcus is a peculiarly 20th-century preoccupation: ‘art and revolution playing [themselves] out in a realm of amusements and commodities’. From the vantage of (any) realpolitik, Johnny Rotten, Guy Debord and the Cabaret Voltaire represent brief epiphenomenal waves on the powerful surge of human events – at most minor indices of greater and more important human struggles. Indeed, they customarily do not figure very largely in those monumental sub-histories which might otherwise have paid them homage: the history of music, art, poetry.

Dada or Surrealism; the Sex Pistols or Michael Jackson; the Situationist International or – well, if nothing bears comparison with it, few would have any trouble establishing the scale on which to measure the importance of Guy Debord and his band of angels. The comparisons themselves are eloquent enough, for in none of these cases are we dealing with ‘serious’ art or culture. Perhaps Surrealism has at last gotten a ticket to ride. In Marcus’s book, however, Surrealism emerges as the debased product of Dada just as Michael Jackson is the farcical return of the (repressed) Sex Pistols.

Lipstick Traces is an attempt to explain the significance of the Sex Pistols. It is a highly personal book, a kind of quest by America’s most acute citizen of pop culture to elucidate ‘the secret the Sex Pistols didn’t tell’ – ‘which they only acted out’. Toward the end of his book Marcus explains that the ‘secret’ is in fact a certain kind of (hi)story: ‘I found a tale composed of incomplete sentences, voices cut off or falling silent ... a tale of recapitulations staged again and again in different theatres – a map made altogether of dead ends ... And so, pursuing this story, when I finally came across Debord’s homily on the ephemeral ... I was drawn to it as far as I was drawn to the noise of punk: to his frank and determined embrace of moments in which the world seems to change, moments that leave nothing behind but dissatisfaction, disappointment, rage, sorrow, isolation and vanity.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in