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Letter

Open Letter to Stewart Home

by Bill Brown


In his widely-circulated "Introduction to the Polish edition of The Assault on Culture," Stewart Home writes, "While I am very pleased to see the work translated into Polish, I would write something completely different if I were to sit down again and compose a treatise on the movements that are described in the following pages." Why is that? According to Home, "the text has its faults"; however, "if I began to correct them there'd be no end to the process and I'd find myself writing a different work." In other words, The Assault on Culture is a piece of shit -- twice in his introduction Home describes it as a "bluff your way guide," and as "a fairly painless means of getting an overview" of utopian currents since the late 1940s. He knows that the only reason his book was ever taken seriously is that it was "published in the summer of 1988, at a time when it was difficult for English readers to obtain information on groups such as the Situationists and Fluxus." Unfortunately for Home and the other bluff-your-way-through-it-all "intellectuals" for whom he writes, "there have been [since then] major retrospective exhibitions devoted to both these movements and the publication of numerous catalogues," as well as "[t]wo further monographs" that are neither bluffs nor "painless" books to read. And so, only one year after its publication, The Assault on Culture stood revealed as a hollow shell, a bluff that had been called. It should either be rewritten in the light of the books published in 1989 or quite simply flushed down the toilet.

Home has found a third alternative: instead of defending his book against claims that it is a bluff with nothing to back it up, he is attacking those who have written the books that called his bluff in the first place. In particular, Home has targeted his alienated anger at Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Harvard, 1989), the book that goes over much of the same ground -- in particular, the idea that the punk bands of the late 1970s took up the most radical positions staked out in the 1960s -- that is covered in The Assault on Culture. In 1990, Home published no less than four negative reviews of Lipstick Traces; these reviews appeared in Here and Now, the New Art Examiner, City Lights and Home's own pro-situationist fanzine Smile. According to Home's quite obviously less-than-impartial judgments, "With the concept of the 'voice,' a hidden authority which (dis)organizes the world, Marcus abandons any need for a rational explanation of the events he describes." Home alleges that "such a discourse has more in common with the simple faith of a priest than the considered reflections of a critic or historian."

One would think a person such as Stewart Home would be content with hurling these insults and then moving on to other things, confident in the knowledge that people cry when he puts them down. But no. Home remains so bent upon assassinating both Greil Marcus's personal character and the intellectual character of Lipstick Traces that the majority of his "Introduction to the Polish edition" of The Assault on Culture (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Hotel Sztuki, 1993) is devoted to these twisted aims. We admit that there might well be another motive for devoting so much space to attacks on Greil Marcus: it is clear that Home knows next to nothing about revolutionary movements in Poland, the citizens of which he is supposed to be addressing. All he knows comes from bluff-your-way-through-it guides: "It was reported that during a December demonstration," he writes, "members of the [Polish group] Orange Alternative dressed up as Father Christmas -- and that this caused a great deal of confusion among representatives of the Polish authorities." It is, in Home's words, "likely" (some would say "obvious" or even "unsurprising") that "at least some Orange Alternative activists were familiar with both Debordist theory and the sixties counterculture of the West." But just in case his Polish readers misunderstand and take offense at what he will go on to say about Debord and the other situationists, Home is there to say -- wearing his best poker face, one assumes -- that the Polish pro-situationists "clearly developed a praxis that reflected their unique social situation."

The beginning of Home's assault on Greil Marcus seems innocuous enough. "Much of what has been written about the SI [Situationist International] simply consists of anecdotes from a mythologized history," Home writes in his introduction.

"Even the American journalist who tried to break out of this vicious circle by adopting a technique of free association, demonstrates little more than the failure of his own imagination by endlessly falling back on the key episodes of Strasbourg, May '68 etc. In Lipstick Traces (Secker & Warburg, London, 1989) Greil Marcus moves effortlessly from John of Leyden (religious heresies of the Middle Ages) to Johnny Lydon (who under the pseudonym Rotten sang for the Sex Pistols), not simply due to the names sounding similar but because they make up what the author perceives as a hip and radical alternative history. The result is a sanitised Situationist family tree, the more unpleasant findings that ought to turn up given Marcus's technique of free association [sic] simply don't feature in the book. For example, the Council for the Liberation of Daily Life, who went on to become the American section of the SI, operated out of Box 666, Stuyvesant Station, New York -- 666 is, of course, the number of the Beast or Satan. Likewise, Sid Vicious (bass player with the Sex Pistols) murdered his girlfriend in New York's Chelsea Hotel, which many years earlier had hosted Ku Klux Klan meetings."

Let's give Home the benefit of the doubt and assume for a moment that he knows that Marcus's ironic juxtaposition -- it is not a "free association" -- of John of Leyden with John Lydon -- has an intentionally comic, playful dimension. It would then appear that Home simply doesn't think this kind of poetic license has a place in a truly useful history of the radical movements in question. Ironic or poetic juxtaposition ("free association") is as irrelevant to radical historical inquiry as the Beast or Satan is to the American section of the SI. This might be a mistaken notion, but it is at least a rational notion, presumably offered in the spirit of constructive criticism.

But one should never give the benefit of the doubt to a person who makes a career out of profiting from people naive or stupid enough to believe him when he is obviously bluffing. As if more proof were needed, there's the authoritative-sounding implication (Home's specialty) that the American section of the SI must also have "operated out of" Box 666, Stuyvesant Station. As a matter of easily checkable fact, when the Council became the American section of the SI, it rented Box 491, Cooper Station, and not Box 666, Stuyvesant Station. So who knows if Home realizes that Greil Marcus has a sense of humor as well as a penetrating mind? We don't. But we do know that Home's bluffery extends to at least two levels: he will pretend to know facts that he doesn't in fact know; and he will pretend to hold opinions that he actually doesn't hold.

That's what happening when Home -- apparently quite serious, again wearing his best poker face -- writes in his "Introduction" that, "There are numerous parallels to be drawn between the SI and the far-Right."

Many reactionaries not only write in a manner similar to the specto-Situationist house style [Home goes on to say], they're also drawn towards the same themes. Taken out of context, suitable censored chunks of ultra-rightist propaganda could be passed off as Debordist texts. Home goes on to quote "a piece of writing by the notorious anti-Semite Douglas Reed" and to claim that a quotation from "the economic crank" C.H. Douglas "sounds even more trenchantly Debordist" than the quote from Reed does. But for Home, even when the writings of the situationists are taken in context, there are "parallels" that "run far deeper" and "can't be reduced to a single issue without grossly distorting our understanding of the subject."

Bluntly stated, as always, "the SI plagiarised a number of slogans that had previously been popular among Christian heretics of the Middle Ages"; "the religious ideologies from which these epigrams sprang were virulently anti-Semitic"; therefore (?!) we have "another angle from which we can look at the Situationists' relationship to the racist right." We don't have (proof of) an actual connection between the SI and the far-right, but that isn't what is needed. What is needed is "an angle," a bluff that sounds good enough to pass, some really sticky mud to be slung at Greil Marcus. "It's extraordinary that Marcus fails to mention this," Home insists, "since he cites a work -- Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium (revised edition, Oxford, New York, 1970) -- which deals very explicitly with the anti-Semitic content of feudal heresies."

There is a point to be made here: as a matter of fact, several -- but not all -- of the "heretics" of the Middle Ages who inspired the situationists were in fact as openly hostile to Judaism as they were to the Catholic Church. This fact certainly merits further study. But it isn't "extraordinary" that Marcus doesn't mention it: his is a book about the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K.," not a treatise on feudal heresies nor a monograph on the re-appearance of these heresies in the ideas of the situationists and other twentieth century radicals. (Even if Marcus's book were such a monograph or treatise, it would certainly reach the conclusion that neither the SI nor the individual situationists were anti-Semitic, despite the pronouncements of some of their conceptual antecedents.) But Home isn't trying to make a point here: he's clearly trying to insinuate that Greil Marcus is an anti-Semite or that Marcus's book amounts to a cover-up of the SI's anti-Semitism (take your pick, they are equally ridiculous ideas).

Does Stewart Home know -- what would his twisted mind make of the fact -- that Greil Marcus is Jewish? We have no idea. But, as reasonably well-informed people, we do know that Poland is governed by and filled with virulently anti-Semitic people, though it has been many years since the Nazis exterminated the vast majority of the Jews who'd been living and thriving in Poland. More to the point, as Polish Jews who have traveled in Europe, we know that it is all too likely that Polish anti-Semites will have no trouble reconciling the apparent self-contradiction in Home's insinuation that Greil Marcus, who is Jewish, is either an anti-Semite or an apologist for anti-Semites. It is all too likely that they -- just like our own Reverend Louis Farrakhan -- will say that rich Jewish anti-Semites (such as Greil Marcus) are the worst kind of Jews, for they will sell out everyone, including their poor brethren, just as the ancient Jews once and forever sold out Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to the Romans. It is all too likely that, for Stewart Home (and many other "radicals"), anti-Semitism can be "played" like a wild card and the world at large is a gigantic game of poker in which the stakes are incalculable.

It is quite certain that Home is aware of the risks he is taking -- or, rather, the risks to which he's exposing the reputation of the SI and the person of Greil Marcus -- by "playing the anti-Semitism card" in a book to be published in Poland. For as soon as he's done with Marcus's presumably suspicious "failure" to reiterate Norman Cohn's examination of the anti-Semitic tendencies of the feudal heresies, Home decides that this is the appropriate time "to return again to the technique of free association." As if his cynically intentional misuse of the technique of ironic juxtaposition were capable of nothing more than producing a few "interesting results," Home goes on to "freely" associate the situationists with such murky goings-on as Masonic lodges, the "Illuminati," esoteric traditions, shamanism, mysticism, occultism, secret societies and -- in the passage that really nails it down -- strong interest in "ancient cultures, the Egyptian, the Sumerian, the Central American and Jewish cultures, cultures that left traces in our memories, from magic to religion to fanaticism." (Home attributes this passage to Ettore Sottsass, Jr., "who was an integral part of the milieu that formed itself into the Situationist International" and whose "attitudes are typical of those who belonged to the SI.") Once again, the apparent self-contradiction in the claim that the anti-Semites in the Situationist International were strongly interested in and respected ancient Judaism can all too easily be papered over with the tautological prejudices that 1) occultists of any type -- be they anti-Semitic occultists or Judaic occultists -- keep secrets and are, therefore, probably up to no damned good, and/or 2). the worst Jews are the ones who either pretend to be anti-Semites when they are really super-secret Jewish conspirators or pretend to be Jews when they are really the children of the Beast or Satan.

We call upon Stewart Home to clarify his positions on the insinuated anti-Semitism of both Greil Marcus and the Situationist International. Furthermore, we call upon him to unequivocally denounce anti-Semitism itself, so that both the people of Poland and the people of the English-speaking "world" will have no cause to continue to doubt his honesty, integrity and good faith.

Not Bored!
1 May 1996

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