I was surprised by the heady intellectualism of Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, (I wouldn’t have thought someone so enamored of the Band would have so much sense) which interprets punk rock as the last gasp of a situationist counterculture whose roots Marcus traces back to the surrealists. I was only seven at the time punk rock hit, so I can’t judge whether Marcus overrates the antisocial, confrontational aspects of punk. Perhaps in twenty years someone will reveal that crunk, the most antisocial, confrontational music I’ve ever heard, is really Maoist insurrectionalism or something. Marcus highlights, though, all the potential that was there in punk — the celebration of amateurism, the rejection of culture-industry programming, the resistance to commercialism and the commodification that depletes the meanings of all things — and depressingly relates how these ideas collapsed under their own revolutionary weight. The lesson seems to be the old vulgar-Marxist saw: You can’t change society only by overturning culture, no matter how thoroughly you reject all of its constraints. You can’t change the base by manipulating the superstructure. Capitalism eventually catches up and adapts to the new cultural rules, finds ways to derive profit from them. And then revolutionary cultural innovations are reduced to Coke or Pepsi.
Punk and its antecedents posited life lived as spontaneous art, as a utopian realization of pure freedom, with no moment continuous from the previous one, a commitment to perpetual reinvention at every instant — who wants this as a permanent state, even as an ideal? Isn’t this better experienced convulsively, in carnivalesque fits that surprise us, or are even planned — it may be that this is all we can tolerate, that to live like that is insane.
Now, ads routinely conjure a desire for this kind of unknowable spontaneous freedom, this kind of eternal retransformation at every instant in the name of maximum happiness, and diverts it to commodities, urging us to take solace in goods when we realize that that freedom can’t be realized, that we can’t live up to the daring of our own dreams (planted by the ads, of course, but we don’t recognize it). So we blame ourselves and not the ads for the impossible desires we come to posess, and consume the ads even more eagerly as wish-fulfillment dramas for those dreams of metamorphosis.
This desire for rampant, unbounded freedom is related to Bataille’s notion that humanity wants to act with no end in mind, to commit free acts of “destruction” not linked to civilized utility. Man, instinctively wanting to act destructive, is made by a civilized society to feel alone in his destructive impulses. But others share this repressed urge, which expresses itself in society’s dark vices: gambling, incest, prostitution, drug addiction, wasted potential of all kinds. The bourgeoisie have forfeited this kind of open pleasure (which once formed the potlatch, the humiliation that can’t be returned). Marcus sees punk as a kind of potlatch, an eagerness to destroy for no reason, and assert a primal sense of being alive as opposed to dead, rationalized bourgeois culture. I suspect that ads took over punks role as spur to this kind of spontaneity, because such impulsiveness is a prime shopping state of mind.
Marcus quotes Hannah Arendt on the price paid for following the rules and being thwarted by the dismal dollops of dignity society doles out (wow, that’s almost Spiro Agnbew-worthy phrase-making) for its managerial class: “The transformation of the family man from a respectable member of society, interested in all public affairs to a ‘bourgeois’ concerned only with his private existence and knowing no civic virtue, is an international modern phenomenon. . . . Each time society, through unemployment, frustrates the small man in his normal functioning and normal self-respect, it trains him for that last stage in which he will willingly undertake any function, even that of a hangman.” That’s powerful stuff.