Ever wanted to know more about, say, Marxist ideas of alienation or the situationists, but couldn’t face reading actual Marxist or situationist theory? Well now you don’t have to, writes Suzanne Harrington.
A very helpful man called Ian Marchant has done it for you, and put it all in a book, A Hero For High Times, whose subtitle is A Younger Reader’s Guide To The Beats, Hippies, Freaks, Punks, Ravers, New Age Travellers and Dog-On-A-Rope Brew Crew Crusties Of The British Isles, 1956-1994.
Now, as a retired raver, i am definitely not a younger reader — that ship has not so much sailed as circumnavigated the globe — yet decrepitude has not granted me the patience to digest raw theory.
Life is short. I remain, however, curious about what stuff means — like what on earth is situationism, and how it differs from Existentialism and all the other isms. Why the Sex Pistols were presented by Malcolm McLaren as a situationist happening, or why the KLF setting fire to a million quid in 1994 was, suggests Marchant, “the greatest situationist stunt of all.”
According to the situationists, we live in a hyper-capitalist world where we are kept in constant state of distraction by what founder Guy Debord called the Spectacle. These days the Spectacle would be your phone, social media, money, politics, television, adverts, films, pop music. It would be Brexit and Trump and Putin and the Kardashians. All the swirling noise and fanfare that blasts and numbs us daily.
“Keep it spectacular,” writes Marchant. “And truth doesn’t matter anymore, and the ruling classes can retain power.”
So in 1976, amid the blokey sludge of prog rock and the inoffensiveness of disco, Malcolm McLaren hurled the boyband from hell at the world, and the world swivelled slightly. “It’s the task of artists to create situations which confront the Spectacle,” writes Marchant. “And show it for what it merely is, ie a spectacle. Art is only valid if it wakes up the individual to their plight, and helps to destabilise the Spectacle. The revolutionary liberation of the individual leads to the revolutionary liberation of society.”
But where are all the young cultural revolutionaries today? Filtering their Instagram feeds, worrying about student debt, wondering if they will ever be able to move out of home, sick of being patronised about avocado toast and house deposits, focused on gender pronouns, and being ground down by austerity. Punch drunk from a combination of previous generations ransacking everything, and the narcissism that comes with being born digital natives.
You can’t have a cultural underground when the internet makes everything visible all of the time — there’s no place left to ferment. Everything is monetised, sanitised, commodified.
Would punk happen now? Would rave?
This is not to diss Millennials and Generation Z, in whom all hope lies but, as the Spectacle continues to blind us, their task — saving the world — seems about as likely as a pop star torching their fortune to make a statement.
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