Brownian Motion

by Bob Black

Extraphile #7, Spring 1998

Bill Brown, Critic, is mulish: obstinate but sterile. As a mule is the barren spawn of an ass and a horse, the Critic is the misbegotten cross between performer and fan, but less than either. The performer, the star, commodifies creativity (and all that) - but at least he [sic] pays his own way. The Critic neither pays nor plays, he [sic] just gets on the guest-list. He is less than artist, even a bad artist, because he isn't one. He is less than a fan because he consumes out of ulterior motives. A fan watches the show. A Critic watches himself watch the show. Invariably the fan has a better time. The Critic bitterly resents.

A Critic is like the house-niggers of yore who looked down [on] the field hands because, as household servants, they got to dress up and bask in the presence of quality folks. The Critic is Culture's liveried footman. But just beneath the surface (there isn't much room down there) he seethes with impotent envy like a eunuch in a seraglio. All this might seem to have nothing to do with Bill Brown in particular. That's precisely my point. The Critic is nothing in particular. Brown, for instance, is only an nth generation photocopy of Greil Marcus, who in turn might be best characterized as what Jean Baudrillard calls a "simulacrum": a copy without an original.

It is no accident that Bill Brown draws upon Post-Modernism, the class ideology of Critics if Critics were a class, or had any. For the PoMo's, text is pretext, the map is the territory. And the map is the cartographer. The ostensible object of critique is only, like pornography, an aid to masturbation. For a Situationist like Guy Debord, everything once directly lived has been displaced by its representation. What Debord intended as an indictment, the Po-Mo's celebrate as an opportunity. The spectacle is their Promised Land. The Critic is not only a creator, ultimately he's the only creator. To be, is to be critiqued. Just as for Marxists, nature lies fallow, awaiting the transforming touch of labor, for Po-Mo's art is only raw material until the Critic realizes it, just as Michaelangelo saw specific sculptures in particular blocks of marble. If a tree falls in a forest, far from human ears, did it really make a sound? If a book is unreviewed, does it really exist? (Murray Bookchin is hoping the answer is no.) But you see where this logic leads. If criticism is only about itself, why should it even pretend to be about anything else? In fact, why suppose there even is anything else? Go ahead and take a hermeneutic turn, but not onto the narcissism off-ramp. Rarely is the Critic as interesting as even the worst of what he criticizes. Nothing is more boring than somebody else's solipicism.

Critic Bill Brown has found his natural habitat on the Internet, nowadays the first refuge of a scoundrel. There he has posted a review of Len Bracken's Guy Debord - Revolutionary. The review, otherwise valueless, is useful as symptomatic [sic]. I do not purpose, except incidentally, to defend Bracken's book: he is fully capable of addressing what little substance there is to Brown's carping. Rather, I review the reviewer. The Critic counts on the fact that his criticism will escape criticism. Few readers, even if publishers give them a chance, care to follow a cold trail further. So the Critics tend to get away with a lot. But it is salutary to make an occasional example of Critics unimportant in themselves -- they all are -- but reprehensibly representative of their kind. Anyone of them (I want them to fear) might be next.

The Critic at his most stereotypical criticizes the author for not doing enough, or as well, what the Critic is incapable of doing at all. The Critic would not be a Critic if he could be anything else. Thus Brown, desperate for something to complain about, asserts that the biography "tells us nothing new about" Debord - "nothing, that is, that attentive readers of Debord's published works don't already know." Who might this suppositious attentive reader be? I daresay he is Bill Brown.

Bracken (complains Brown), unlike Brown's idol Greil Marcus, neglected to interview such crucial informants [emphasis added] as Henri Lefebvre, Alexander Trocchi, and Gil Wolman. A sentence later, Brown hints at a possible explanation: Like Debord, these guys are now dead. This is a difficulty experienced by many biographers. It is just not possible at this late date to interview Washington, Lincoln, Marx, Bakunin, or Janis Joplin. Brown has this addled idea that the oral interview is a privileged historical source. Historians are now making a lot of use of oral history -- the only way they can, like the social scientists, they generate evidence [emphasis added], not just find it -- but they also appreciate its limitations. Oral informants [emphasis added] may be forgetful, their memories may be influenced by later experiences, and they may be lying. When historians cross-check oral history with written records, they find that oral histories are very uneven in their reliability. Not only do (often elderly) informants [emphasis added] forget things that did not happen, they sometimes remember things that didn't happen, but that they heard about later. History is yet another of the practices that Brown doesn't know how to do.

Even if all Bracken's book did was to synthesize the published evidence [emphasis added] of Guy Debord's career, this is no criticism of it. Very few people have read all this material, including Brown, who mentions that the book incorporates newly translated Debord texts he was previously unaware of. Apparently, Marcus missed some material. Unlike pro-situs like Ken Knabb and Michel Prigent, Bracken does not affect a proprietary claim to Debord or the Situationist International. No Post-Modernist, Bracken is (as Isidore Isou might say) "amplic," not anal-retentive. Not only by preachment but in practice he incites the reader to move on to Debord himself. Maybe we'll never know much more about Debord's personal life than we now do. He seems to have wanted it that way. He was a very private person who presented a public face, which Brown might criticize as inconsistent, but he doesn't, because Brown hasn't got the balls to take on Debord directly -- if he trashed Debord, he'd pull the rug out from under his own feet. So he bothers Bracken instead.

Bill Brown is forever looking for revolution in all the wrong places. He thinks Nietzsche was a feminist. He thinks Processed World is anti-authoritarian. He thinks Dennis Rodman is a cultural revolutionary. He thinks Greil Marcus thinks. Bill Brown and Baboon Dooley, separated at birth. His mind is quotation marks with nothing inside them. Many years ago, with characteristic originality, Bill Brown spray-painted situationist slogans in Ann Arbor. Rev. Crowbar then went around signing Brown's name to them. Comes the revolution he will clamor in vain for a back-stage pass. And on his tombstone, Bill Brown's epitaph: "I knew that."

[Bill Brown -- who, like the old man in Monty Python's movie The Holy Grail, is not quite dead yet -- responded to Bob Black on 4 June 1998 in the following fashion.]



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