Friday, January 15, 2010

1968: Can Revolutions Be Funny?

Sid Vicious And Mum

It’s been more than a decade since I read Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, a work that—as far as I can recall after so long a time—tracks the history of Punk music, especially in London. Marcus is a cultural historian, so he explains Punk music with reference to the aborted revolutions of 1968, in France and Czechoslovakia in particular.

Student Riot

Shamefully, I’ve said nothing at all about 1968 in this blog, but 1968 led to a radical reappraisal within the European Left about what could or could not be accomplished by trying to replace a dominant storyline, namely that of capitalism, with a subversive storyline, without being defeated outright or, worse still, creating something almost equally bad, or perhaps much worse. 1968 marked the end of unity within the European Left, which had of course already been divided between Liberal Democrats and Communists, to say nothing of Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, Trotskyites, and Anarchists. But many European radicals now decided that the effort to implement global revolution (and meta-narratives in general) was inappropriate, misguided, and potentially dangerous. After all, the movement was defeated in France, and the strongest revolutionary power in the world had actually invaded Czechoslovakia to overthrow a popularly inspired movement toward greater freedom.

The Ramones

The revolutions of 1968 stand squarely in the middle of a dozen or so new academic and intellectual movements who stated goal was to subvert traditional authority at the local level. Michel Foucault’s idea that all power is local and contested seemed to embody the overthrow of the socialist paradigm related to the international solidarity of the working class. Now academics, intellectuals and activists strove to engage the enemy at the level of race, class, gender, ethnicity, culture, music, and indeed linguistic practice.

The strange thing about the year 1968, and something that was picked up upon by the Punk Movement which emerged in its wake, was how far you could get with humor. Picking up where the Dadaists left off, radical sects tried to undermine authority with outrageous humor and ridiculous art. It’s been too long to recall many of the stranger revolutionary slogans that Greil Marcus incorporates into his history of Punk, but I recall one self-consciously absurd demand of 1968 for “helicopters on demand.”

Special Note: While Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces makes you want to buy more Ramones albums, his Elvis Presley will make you regret you ever made the trip to Graceland…

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