23 May 2021

Lipstick Traces—Automatic Writing Is Still Monotonous, After All These Years

Greil Marcus
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989)

[My notes say:]

pp. 64-65—on what elsewhere gets placed under the heading The Democratization of Creativity

All of this being as it is vis-a-vis "You don't need nothin'. Just play it", it's worth recalling that the Situationists had quite early in their history realized that "We now know that automatic writing is monotonous." It should not have been difficult to see the analogous aspects of unrefined musical technique, especially not since that was well-known by this time in a couple of contemporaneous musical milieux. With THAT context front and center, the explosion of activity recounted so fondly here is much more lucidly viewed as the negative reflection of these people's prior ignorance rather than any kind of blossoming; and if the activity undoubtedly had value for them as individuals to achieve the feeling, if not the state, of agency/empowerment, one imagines that such individual afterglow was easily and precipitously shattered by the eventual realization that so many other musically unrefined individuals could and did do exactly the same things with their newfound agency. I think it is demonstrable that refinement per se was of less interest to the Situationists than was, say, functionalism (e.g. in architecture), ahistoricism/timelessness, etc. Those issues are not directly addressed by the punk aesthetic, as best I can tell from this account; refinement per se is not necessarily related.

[from a post-it, 2017]


[Now:] The Goodreads reviews of this book are vicious and seem to hit the mark. And so here I come, giving it attention it probably doesn't deserve. Ignoring it might be more appropriate. But indulge me here as you might indulge any unrefined technician searching for a sound.

Rereading these pages now, two stickier webs of intrigue leap off the page. First: "A lot of people...didn't think this was music at all, or even rock 'n' roll; a smaller number of people thought it was the most exciting thing they'd ever heard." (64) Great. Just like literally every other new style of music ever. But sure, let's then quote someone who is (1) part of the "smaller number" rather than the bigger one, and (2) famous; then we'll have them yatter about how great it all was; finally, the coup de grace, to make the implicit explicit, (3) we posit this famous person to be representative of all the little people you'll never meet and need not give a shit about: "what Westerberg said, so said countless other people." Sure. History is necessarily reductive, space is limited, etc. But only a broad and, ultimately, superfluous thesis has been thus reduced; Westerberg's own words, meanwhile, occupy quite a chunk of the page in full granular detail and thereby betray elements of his perspective which cannot possibly qualify him as speaking for "countless" others. Historical reductionism is one thing; but here we have, in tandem, an expansion of the personal, an arbitrary diversion which goes on for way too long, and which from a macro perspective thus works rather directly against the reductionist's conceit to authority. What gives? I think there is a sort of currency trading that art and music critics love to transact, whereby a dollar's worth of fame is thought to buy many shilling's worth of representativeness. I have been collecting examples of this. This one is not the worst of them, but it does exemplify the maneuver quite transparently. I gotta think it ain't very punk! So, for those who do think that "criticism" per se has any reason at all to still exist and to be taken seriously by anyone for any reason, I double dog dare you to do "criticism" without doing this. Just once. Please.

Second, "They made a blind bet that someone might be interested in what they sounded like or what they had to say, that they themselves might be interested." (65) Awesome. Regular readers know that I struggle to find the balance between acknowledging my own privilege and making honest sense of things other people say. This "blind bet" remains a crucial aspect of life. Everyone needs to give it a shot! For their own sake, that is. But let's also keep sight of all that has changed since this book was published. When everyone takes their shot, the effect on culture is now somewhat like the effect on the power grid when everyone turns on their air conditioners at the same time. The options at that point are few and they are not good ones: barricade oneself in some form of artificially constructed isolation or small community; or fight for negligibly small, temporary pieces of recognition on the present "mass" level. It's fun to place the bet, but it almost never hits anymore, and when the bet doesn't hit, it can literally kill people from the inside and/or lead them to hysterically kill other people on the outside. Cruelly, in the "long tail" paradigm of cultural consumption, recognition has been capped at an upper limit even for the high rollers, rather than being truly "democratized" or expanded to include everyone whose "blind bets" deserve, cosmically at least, a modest payout. As creativity has been "democratized," recognition has become scarcer. So, uh...are we sure it was their creativity that punks were reclaiming? Or is recognition per se always already at the table when we place our bets?

Now, in hindsight, it was possible to valorize the "blind bet" only because so few people had been making it, or perhaps because it was much more difficult than it is now to know how many people were making it and to what end. The more people who bet, the less valorous it becomes; to the point that nowadays I feel a twinge of guilt even about making a few extra off-the-cuff posts, like this one, which help me to meet my own needs of self-examination and arrogation-of-voice, but which cannot contribute much more than noise to the overall condition of humanity and certainly are quite unlikely (though I'll cop to holding out the same hope as you do!) to pay out much of anything in the recognition department, material or otherwise.

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