Tuesday, August 31, 2010

vectors ii

The girls started a new school this Fall. Among the delights of which are a newfound emphasis on daily homework. It's been a hard adjustment all round. Tonight, for instance. Bathed, pajama'd, toothbrushed, & with her story read to her, Daphne (1st grade) is ready to hit the sack; I ask: Did you have any homework?

D: Oops. I forgot. It's downstairs.

Me: Well, let's go do it. (thinking it's the same old shit – you know, unscramble the sentence, copy the letter "G" 10 times in upper- & lowercase)

D: You have to help me. It's an interview.

So we do an interview about my "job," with the big words getting spelled out – "p-r-o-f-e- etc."

D: Do you wear special clothes to your job?

Me: You mean like socks? Just write "no."

D: Do you like your job?

Me: Sure, why not? No, no – write "yes."

D: What other job would you like to do?

Me: R-O-C-K S-T-A-R...
Thinking about those EP Thompsonian "vectors" of influence. It's a tall order to trace antinomianism from the mid-17th-century to Blake – a large historical stretch. What makes Thompson so satisfying as a historian is the scrupulousness with which he lays out the problem of tracing such vectors of influence, & then the thoroughness with which he pursues available evidence.

Which made me think of Greil Marcus's now 21-year-old Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, which tries to do something more or less similar with a rather ill-defined antinomian millennialism – a kind of spirit of rebellion at the state of things that opens up holes of possibility, that ruptures the continuum of the oppressive everyday. He finds it in the 16th & 17th centuries (and in earlier times), then goes out to trace it from Dada thru the Lettrists & the Situationists to the Sex Pistols, by way of Malcolm McLaren. When Johnny Rotten sings "Anarchy in the UK," he isn't just voicing a particular note of youthful rebellion ca. 1976, he's channelling an entire history of civilization-stopping anarchy, from the Ranters thru May 1968.

It's a beguiling thesis, woven with all of Marcus's all-too-often over-the-top, "lyrical" prose. Of course it's the vectors that bother me, & that seem to have bothered many of Marcus's reviewers over the years. The book trots out endless, mesmerizing accounts of Zurich Dada & Paris Lettrism & International Situationism, but it's hard to see this succession of ruptures as a clearly related progression (a "history"); when one looks for the connecting links (the "vectors"), one sees a series of isomorphisms, rather than causal relationships.

It's arguable, I know – McLaren himself was happy in retrospect to hitch his wagon to the SI star (tho Lydon thought it was all piffle). What I'm pursuing is a rather more concrete vector of influence: the SI & the Leeds scene of the late 1970s – you know, Gang of Four, the Mekons, Delta 5, (ulp) Scritti Politti. The Mekons especially: key members were art students at Leeds University when TJ Clark, a member of the English branch of the SI, came to head the art department there. Various critics – among them Greil Marcus, of course – have made much of this, even reading the band's whole output as a kind of Situationist statement.

But what do the musicians themselves have to say about it? Jon Langford, in an interview:
The first tutors I had in my first year – it's interesting. Leeds University is very interesting because I got there the same time that this guy TJ Clark arrived. Pretty famous kind of art historian. He was the only British member of the Situationist International in Paris in 1968. He looked like Che Guevera when he arrived. (PSF laughs) We arrived kind of like invisible, and he arrived in this big puff of smoke. The rebel inside the department. But basically, he had all these kind of idiots working there that he had to kind of shift sideways and get rid of. But, they were the people who were teaching me in my first year. And they were just these kind of Modernist, Pop Arty kind of loser guys, you know. They just had a formula for what they thought they should be crushing the life out of all the students. So, basically, they did me in. (Interviewer laughs) But he was more on the art history side.

When I went back – I dropped out when the Mekons signed with Virgin, and he actually really supported me through doin' that – Clark. And by the time I got back, you know, he'd filled the department with all these really interesting people like Terry Atkinson and Griselda Pollock. And they all thought we were great. ‘Cause we'd been off fightin' the Punk Rock Wars, you know. And they understood what we were doin' and that that was what was where it was going on at that moment. That I shouldn't be, like, sittin' in my painting studio doing gestural painting or whatever. We were actually more in tune with what was going on than the teachers, so... We got a lot of support from them. So, I actually went back in 1980. Was it 1980? Yeah. I actually went back and finished my degree. And I did some painting to get my degree, basically. But then as soon as I left, I formed another band.
Tom Greenhaigh, being asked specifically about Clark's influence:
The Leeds art school scene in the late 70's was a weird blip of highly radicalised activity with a lot of marxist and feminist teachers who certainly upset the institutions they worked in as well as some of the students. It's hard to imagine this happening nowadays.For me personally at the time I wasn't bothered and took it for granted and only a lot later began to read T.J Clarke for myself. I think we were influenced a lot by Terry Atkinson who had been involved with Art & Language, who was also at Leeds, who dealt with issues of cultural practice and the implications of
trying to operate within capitalist modes of production and distribution.[this is quite a big subject... just to say... my final show was all pictures of T.J.Clarke as the paradigm of the radical academic... but I have a great deal of respect for the man and his work... it's interesting that since he fled the UK and gone to Berkeley he has become good mates with Greil Marcus...]
(So it all comes back to GM...) But does this make the lads (& lasses, for it wouldn't be the Mekons without Sally Timms & Susie Honeyman) Situationists? Stay tuned.


E. M. Selinger said...

You know, I never really cared whether those vectors could be established. For me, that Marcus book (one of my favorites) was all about the brio of its author--his ability to make connections, hear echoes, etc. More Pound (pbuh) than Thompson in impulse and reward.

Hence part of the pleasure for me in your Anarchy poems: watching the prose version of what could have been poems get distilled to the verse it could have been all along.

tyrone said...

When the Gang of Four became their American tour their first stop was Clutch Cargo's in Detroit and I was assigned to review the show (college newspaper music critic). The show was mesmerizing and afterward Andy Gill made much of their socialist-cum-anarchist bent while disparaging the Sex Pistols...I was duly impressed...Never got Greil Marcus--I preferred Robert Christgau (a bad sign, I know) and, earlier, Lester Bangs...