Dialectic of Pop, 391–414


IV. Return of the Negative


Both of these two models—the Peelennium model of charting history via the exploration of archipelagos, and Greil Marcus’s vision of history as epiphany—have their limits when it comes to thinking about how the history of pop itself is produced and transformed.

In the end, both are the reports of listeners, enthusiasts, and historians made only after the fact, without an active engagement in the dynamics and contradictions through which the works were pitted against each other, and not merely placed alongside one other. In truth, there is a certain power lacking in the pacified retrospective gaze, and which the modernist at least has the merit of stubbornly taking into account.

What is lacking is the power of the negative.

Here we understand the negative in the sense of that which works against the given, but always on the basis of the given. We have already said that pop has a certain self-relation, that it consciously—albeit partially, even confusedly—relates to its own works and to its own history. This relation is the key to negativity. Hegel defines consciousness as an experience of inadequacy, of a division that is instantaneously brought about when the relation of consciousness to itself breaks the unity of immediacy. Once pop begins to refer to itself, it produces negativity in the disparity between what it could be and what it knows itself to be. In a certain sense, the modernist paradigm of the avant-garde is the first expression—a fundamental expression—of this negativity. It is the negation of an established aesthetic norm by virtue of a new song’s singular objection to it. But the avant-garde is not just the epiphany of the new; it works against a given heritage and, still more explicitly, against its domination, its imposition; in the kingdom of pop, this given is the mainstream.…