Len Bracken's Confused Criticism of Greil Marcus

American Historian Greil Marcus

In a footnote to his competent but plodding exposition of the ideas concerning time and history set forth in Chapter V of Guy Debord's 1967 book Society of the Spectacle, Len Bracken launches a salvo against Greil Marcus that ends with the contemptuous and apparently definitive dismissal that it is "no wonder, then, that Debord [in This Bad Reputation, published in 1993] would mention Greil Marcus in the same breath as The Times of London, which 'vomited' some baseless agent-baiting claims at Debord." Though it may be putting the proverbial cart before the horse, let's look closely at this concluding dismissal before we examine the salvo itself, for the former puts directly under our noses the type of horseshit Bracken himself is carting around.

In general, the fact that Debord (or anyone else, for that matter) simply mentions someone (like Greil Marcus) in the same breath as something that is presumably detestable is just not the same thing as directly saying something bad or critical about the former. It may be guilt by association, but it is not guilt by deed. But Bracken is attempting to do more here than simply judge Marcus guilty by association (in Debord's mind) with detestable institutions such as The Times of London. Bracken is also attempting to misrepresent the nature of Debord's association of Marcus with the Times, that is to say, to misrepresent what Debord wrote in one of his books. It is only because this particular book (Cette Mauvaise Reputation) has not been translated into English that Bracken thinks no one will catch him up on it.

This is the entirety of the passage in Debord, on the basis of which Bracken wants us to believe that Marcus should be dismissed:

Le hero journalistique qui avait "deterre" un fait si bien cache s'appelait pour cette fois Adrian Dannat. Quelques personnes de Londres qui avaient l'innocence de s'interesser a ce que l'on pourrait lire dans "les documents de la securite americaine," ou a ce que Le Times de Londres peut vomir a mon propos depuis qu'il a ete rachete par Murdoch - et parmis elles on comptait l'historien americain Greil Marcus - ayant bronche, Dannat se borna a les rassurer sur le fait que ce n'etait qu'une fabrication "imaginaire, une blague."
The journalistic hero who has "dug up" such a well-hidden fact was called for this time Adrian Dannat. Some people from London who had the innocence to interest themselves in what could be read in the "Documents of American Security," or in that which The Times of London can vomit about me since it has been bought out by Murdoch -- and among them the American historian Greil Marcus -- having reacted, Dannat just reassured them that it was nothing but an "imaginary fabrication, a tall story."

Though Debord's wording is tortuous, his meaning is plain: Greil Marcus is numbered among those "who had the innocence" to read and react AGAINST what had been written about Debord, which caused this Adrian Dannat character to retract his story. Marcus is quite plainly to be CONTRASTED, and NOT associated with, Murdoch and The Times of London. Note as well that Marcus is referred to as an "historian," and not as a rock music or pop culture critic, and is thereby shown the type of respect he is often denied in his own country.

To move on: Bracken writes that "it surprises me, considering Debord's use of this 'irreversible time' construct [in Society of the Spectacle], that Greil Marcus would attribute what he calls the 'reversible connecting factor' to Debord in his Lipstick Traces." This is a fundamental mistake on Bracken's part: the reversible connecting factor -- another name for what Vaneigem calls "the reversal of perspective" in The Revolution of Everyday Life -- is primarily a dialectical and epistemological movement, NOT a temporal or historical one. The "reversal" takes place in the mind; it connects ideas, concepts and mental states that had previously been kept separate; it consists in the negation of those separations. Therefore, the reversible connecting factor cannot be, as Bracken claims, "actually Marcus' sloppy brand of structuralism that he pegged on Debord's use of historical events such as the Albigensian Crusade and historical figures like Jack the Ripper."

What apparently puts Bracken in mind of structuralism is the fact that Marcus perceives reversible connections between historical events, in particular, between Dada and Nazism. It is significant that Bracken uses this particular reversible connection, as opposed to any other offered in the pages of Lipstick Traces, to illustrate his confused and mistaken point -- for it is in fact this terrifying reversible connection that is at the very center of the twentieth century, and thus at the very center of Marcus's book about it.

Like it or not, "the history of the twentieth century was to be the account of the creation of reality through its erasure," Marcus writes; "through killing people, through the extermination of subjective objects, of realized or potential individuals as forests to be cleared." This was the brutal reality of World War I. The Dadaists didn't just recognize it: they saw that the future might conceivably belong to it. The Dadaists -- like the military generals, capitalists and politicians of the time -- felt the subterranean tug of the creative impulse to destroy. Marcus: "When 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 Huelsenbeck chanted 'The End of the World,' the dadaists fed on this impulse, even as their disgust over its wastes brought them to life." Two-faced Dada was "the bird on the rhinoceros, peeping and chirping, but along for the ride;" it was "a prophecy, but it had no idea what it was prophesying, and its strength was that it didn't care."

We know today that what Dada prophesied was the coming of Nazism, World War II, and the Holocaust. It isn't difficult to see this: after all, the causes of the rise of fascism and the outbreak of World War II lie in the events of the 1910s and 1920s, when Dada was at its shrill peak. But what Greil Marcus sees is that -- just as Dada was a response to the exterminations of masses of people during WWI -- the people who were the exterminators of masses of other human beings, Hitler in particular, responded to Dada. "But it is not difficult to conclude that Hitler, once part of a bohemian milieu, always a painter, an artist, railed so long and hard against dada because it had touched him, because he felt its pull," Marcus writes. It isn't difficult to see that both Dada and Nazism were obsessed with certain archetypes -- with archetypes of nihilism, death and the thrill of total rule.

"Certainly Carl Jung," Marcus writes, "would not have found it difficult [to make these observations and conclusions]; he knew the pull went in two directions." The creative urge to destroy -- when extended from the individual to the societal level -- leads eventually to either social revolution, affirmative negation, and life in death, or totalitarianism, negative negation, and death in life. As Marcus points out, "it is no matter that . . . Ball [and the other Dadaists] would have been horrified by Nazism." Individual opinions or moralizing judgements do not matter here as much as the fact that something important has been discovered: a common thread, something that unifies us all, no matter who we are, revolutionary or secret agent. Marcus quotes Jung, who writes:

There are as many archetypes as there are typical situations [sic] in life. Endless repetition has engraved these experiences into our psychic constitution, not in the form of images filled with content, but at first only as forms without content, representing merely the possibility of a certain type of perception and action. When a situation [sic] occurs which corresponds to a given archetype, that archetype becomes activated and a compulsiveness appears, which, like an instinctual drive, gains its way against all reason and will.

Social revolutionaries might therefore strive to construct situations that "rewrite" or "re-inscribe" the "engravings" made in our archetypal minds by the poverty of everyday life, so that the trajectory of the archetypes, once they are activated, will be different, that is, toward the pole of affirmative negation and away from that of negative negation. In Greil Marcus's words:

This was Jung's account of Nazism. In it was the power principle Debord would grasp: the reversible connecting factor, the idea that the empty repetitions of modern life, of work and spectacle, could be detourned into the creation of situations, into abstract forms that could be infused with unlimited content. But the situationist idea was also at bottom a dada idea, and Jung's account of Nazism needs only an excision of its specific examples to serve as an account of what the dadaists sought in the Cabaret Voltaire.

In other words, Jung's account of Nazism can be read as an account of Dada because both Nazism and Dada were attempts to detourn capitalist work and spectacle. It's just that Nazism detourned work and spectacle in the direction of totalitarianism, while Dada -- like the situationists after them -- detourned these capitalist institutions in the direction of social revolution. This is what Marcus means when he refers to the effect produced by the "excision" of the "specific examples" from Jung's account of Nazism, and the application of that excised account to Dada.

Back to Bracken, who, after quoting Marcus's remarks on the power principle grasped by such diverse personages as Hugo Ball, Adolph Hitler and Guy Debord, writes:

My interpretation of this passage is that Marcus seems to transfer his attitudes onto Debord and Dada. The partisans of Dada may have acted blindly from moment to moment, but they were perfectly aware that they were annihilating bourgeois art and burning their boats behind themselves. As discussed in previous chapters, situations are irrepeatable; they exist in a unique time and place, and hence have nothing to do with "abstract forms" -- specific examples simply can't be excised from their historical context as the author of Lipstick Traces wishes because each one of Marcus' oxymoronic archetypes of iconoclasm are creations of specific historical conditions.

As we have seen, it isn't a question of excising specific examples from their historical context, but of excising them from Jung's account of Nazism. Nevermind. Bracken goes on to protest:

To say that Debord found a "power principle" akin to one exploited by the Nazis is a smear, and nowhere does Debord use the phrase "reversible connecting factor" as Marcus claims. What emerges from the above passage from Marcus is that he misapplied an objectionable archetype category to connect Dada, Nazis and Debord.

As a matter of fact, Bracken's own book lends support to the "smear" -- it is actually an uncomfortably accurate insight -- that Debord found and used a power principle akin to one exploited by the Nazis. Over and over, Bracken likens Debord to Lenin, who founded a spectacular power every bit as concentrated and anti-worker as that founded by Adolph Hitler.

When Debord writes on a Lettrist International flyer from 1955 that "Nothing is of even momentary interest to us except for its utility in revolutionary provocation: what's in play is the seizing of power," Bracken justifiably finds that the upshot -- quite unfamiliar to readers accustomed to the anarchist, anti-Jacobian drift of most situationist works, but especially Debord's own Society of the Spectacle, -- is "fairly Leninist." In documents that Bracken himself has sometimes poorly translated into English for the first time, Debord writes of "terror" (possibly a reference to the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution) as if it is a viable option for him. From the second issue of Internationale Lettrist: "human relations should either be based on passion or terror" [Bracken's translation slightly modified]. And this, from an issue of Potlatch from 1954 that Bracken doesn't identify (it is the first issue): "Thus, fear of real questions and tolerance towards worn-out intellectual fashions unite the professionals of writing, whether it's improving writing or writing in revolt like that of Camus. What all these gentlemen lack is The Terror" [Bracken's translation greatly modified; Phil Edwards has pointed out that this last line is a detournement of a sentence written by Andre Breton: "What all these gentlemen need is the dialectic"]. Finally this, from Greil's interview with Alexander Trocchi, from which Bracken quotes at great length:

[Debord] was like Lenin; he was an absolutist, constantly kicking people out [of both the LI and the SI] -- until he was the only one left. And exclusions were total. It meant ostracism, cutting people. Ultimately, it leads to shooting people -- that's where it would have led if Guy had ever "taken over."

Guy Debord was an extraordinarily complicated man: an anarchist and yet a Marxist and a Leninist as well; a heavy drinker and a libertine and yet an autocrat and control freak. Unfortunately for readers of Guy Debord: Revolutionary, Len Bracken is not a skilled or insightful enough writer to capture the spirit of such a complicated man in words. Rather than abandon his futile project of writing a biography of Debord or rise to the occasion, Bracken has attempted to relieve his sense of frustration by attacking Greil Marcus for stating so clearly and honestly what Bracken cannot. As a result, he has temporarily diverted the discussion in a most unfortunate direction. This has been an attempt to get the discussion back on track.



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