Dec 16, 2015

Counter-Cultural Ruminations, Part 1

via Majority Rights

All revolutionary movements seek ownership of the future.  They are, therefore, interested in the young, who are the demographic which is easiest to enlist and the natural constituency to rebel against and, just possibly, overturn the world of their parents.  Serious revolutionary movements have invariably established youth wings, even movements.  But there is something killing in the prescriptive nature of the exercise.  Not even the völkische movement of 19th century Germany reached the lofty estate of an organically rooted, freely arising, creative culture.  In its contest with modernity it, too, stooped to prescription, forcing a romantic nationalist mask on the face of the German national character because, of course, romantic nationalism was all it knew.

Spontaneous (ie, authentic) counter-cultures are great rarities.  But in my late teens and early twenties I saw and experienced one of those ... a genuine attempt by a great number of genuinely intelligent young people all across the West and, to a degree, in the satellite states of the Soviet Bloc, to live true to themselves and free of the “system”.

Why genuine?  Because it wasn’t artificially generated.  Why a culture?  Because it wasn’t just a pre-adulthood right of passage, like every earlier or later youth rebellion and fashion.  Why “counter”?  Because its concern ... its sorge ... was for existence, for the life that is lived in an age when that life ceased to have human meaning and value for the rulers of America (and those of the white world beyond).  It was an attempt to make a revolution in that life in such a way that its human worth was reclaimed and re-stated in every living, breathing moment.  It had, if not a formal philosophical critique, then certainly a question and, in answer to that, a generalised opinion and a settled will.  It had a definite, positive vision, morally and sexually, aesthetically, spiritually.  It had, if not a plan of how to go about things, at least a confident expectation that it would, by its actions, change the world and do it in one generation.

That was the task my strange, wilfull, achingly sincere generation set itself.  And why not?  My father’s father had bound up men’s wounds in the slaughterhouse which was Gallipoli.  My father had piloted six boys and 13,000 lbs of explosive to the Ruhr, and to occupied France.  Although I was never a hippie in the strict meaning of the word – I only turned 17 at the end of the Summer of Love and, anyway, I could not conform to the lock-step unconformity and was much more interested in speed the road hazard than speed the amphetamine - still I wanted my life and the lives of my friends to be long and free and filled with the normal, beautiful things.  For all of us, I think, the terrible, wall-eyed mechanicity of a process which could lay claim to whole generations of young men not once or even twice, but quite possibly a third time in succession was simply too great an affront to the youthful, and wholly righteous, will to live.

“Fuck off! Fuck off my fucking stage!”

This is not to say that we were all dedicated anti-war activists or even political at all.  Marxist revolutionary politics would have been seen by the great majority as something quite separate from and superfluous to our lives and interests.  Why would we need the shallow, noisy, boorish, violent left?  Certainly in my case, any old school pal home from uni in the Woodstock summer of 1969, and unwise enough to solicit on behalf of the inevitable, newly acquired progressive worldview, would be met with a firm “Don’t bring that crap to me.”

Of course, at this time the New Left was already in full command of the humanities on both sides of the Atlantic.  In the States its campus proxy Students for a Democratic Society was leading the anti-war struggle.  That plus anti-Establishment politics (including anti-Americanism in France and, to some extent, in Britain) plus the losing war on capitalism were the big political plays.  But the Jewish virus of Critical Theory and its weapons of race politics, feminism, and “gay” rights were also making an awful lot of noise, and post-structuralism might just have begun influencing events also.  In Birmingham (West Midlands, not Alabama) the university’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies had been taken over by Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, and was morphing into the infamous Birmingham School, churning out graduates for employment in ideologically key posts.  But, as yet, few outside the radical left had any understanding that literary studies was nothing to do with literature.  Few had even heard of Antonio Gramsci, let alone read a (still rare) English translation of his Prison Notebooks; and so had little comprehension that this, too, was a revolution.

None of this, though, was sufficiently anti-political or systemically revolutionary to engage fully with, and give impetus to, the counter-culture.  There were, of course, no politics of being alive and free and having a good time, and not much philosophy either, unless you count screwing à la Ginsberg and tripping à la Leary as philosophy (and it was much more a case of these gentlemen attaching themselves to the culture than the culture attaching itself to them).

“I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace”

In any event, this thing was the only popular, bottom-up revolution I have ever seen (though not the only one I hope to see) ... and it failed abjectly.  Why?  Well, not because it lacked energy or numbers or even method – or some terrific background music.  It had those things in spades, and it had as much desire for freedom as could be bundled up and carried in a denim bag.  That intoxicating sense that the life we live was being invented afresh, right there in the moment, lent the air of a naïve experiment to it all and, overall, a wistful, pure fragile beauty (to go along with the self-indulgence and head lice).  But such a bold immersion in the new was just too singular and simplistic, while the needs of human beings are manifold and demand a compromise which youthful idealism abhors.

As we had pretty much discovered by 1973 or 1974, the revolutionary zeitgeist was no less a product of one particular age of youth than earlier examples of the breed, and that age was swiftly, inexorably passing into another (which would pass even more swiftly into another).  We were no longer “the young”, and we were not free.  We went into our futures not as the wise young gods we had once imagined, but simply as parents ... mortgagees ... voters ... consumers … economic units of production.  We had turned by degree after inevitable degree into what we had so firmly rejected.  The whole blessed movement ... its attitudes, its ideals, its hopes, its language, its music, its dress, its good times ... withdrew into the shadows of memory, to be occasionally looked back upon with a tender affection, even yearning, and not much regret save, perhaps, that the things of youth are so ephemeral.

A real star-map by which the young and free might navigate their way to a new world was simply not there.  We never actually escaped the gravity-field of “the system”.

“I’m hip about time, but I just gotta go.”

That’s how it goes with inchoate counter-cultures – even one as novel, widespread, and electric as that.  Its notion of freedom was at least workable in part, going as it did beyond the positive and negative social formulations of the liberal canon and into the freedom which resides in being.  But it had no model of the human subject that was consistent with that – or, indeed, different to the endemic model of the unfettered will striving to author itself.  It was just a case of “do your own thing, maaan”.  How could it be otherwise with Ginsberg and Leary and a sheet of acid for company?

Had the freedom dichotomy ever been crystal-clear and decided for “existenz”, then the liberal model would have been exposed for its absolute centrality to another, incurably socio-political way of being, which the counter-culture fundamentally opposed.  The liberal model might then have been seen for the fiction it is; and a clear understanding that fiction can never bear witness to the real might have been taken into the philosophy of the movement.

But there were other basic philosophical errors.  From the outset the counter-culture’s fashionable, indiscriminate universalism and its herbivorous, fetishistic veneration of peace as an elective condition of the New Transcendental Man (rather than of the satisfaction of the natural interests of peoples) also condemned it to historical irrelevance and redundancy.  Again, that which is not authentic … that which does not issue from and express our human truth … that which is not in our natural way of being will prove perishable and transient, and whatever comes from or after it will be unintended and, probably, a betrayal.

And, of course, it was.  Max Ehrmann’s advice to “Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth” may not have been entirely heeded.  The head-bands and tie-dies, beaded denim jackets, dashiki skirts, and so forth, were dropped like a hot brick (really no loss).  The faux-brotherhood, too, disappeared like dew in the desert sun.  The music, which was the best of it, took longer to shuffle off-stage.  But progressive rock, which British musicians created out of their own genius, and which was certainly intended to develop into something substantial and lasting, had begun to die of self-indulgence at least a year before the Viet Cong’s tanks crashed through the steel gates of the US Embassy compound in Saigon on 30th April 1975.

The movement produced little literature of its own.  It adopted elements of the Beat Generation.  Kerouac, pardon the pun, was beatified for dying at 47 in 1969.  Otherwise, Tolkien was a counter-culture favourite – perhaps unlikely, given his Eurocentrism.  He just about saw out the movement, dying in 1973.  Heinlein and Mitchener, who were also adopted, lived and wrote on.  Film-wise, in due course Woodstock, Easy Rider, and Two Lane Black-Top were registered by the United States National Film Preservation Board as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.  But all three were written or directed by people born between 1924 and 1942.  Nobody was younger than 27 at the time of Woodstock.

And that was it, basically.  The underground never got overground.  Haight Ashbury was run-down, dangerous, and drug-infested by 1970.  Drop City dropped out of history a year or two later.  Psychedelic art was rapidly deserted for the strictures of minimalism.  The other alternative arts, the street theatre, the pretty girls singing folksy songs for a few dollars in pretty, folksy restaurants … it all wilted away to nothing like cut flowers on the earth.  What could endure when the lifestyle, its language and its sentimentalities, the squats and communes, the hitch-hiker rootlessness, were all passing things?  The culture had been countered by Time and its own inauthenticities.

By 1979 in Britain and 1980 in America, still looking in the wrong place for a freedom revolution, we were voting with Malcolm Bradbury’s Howard Kirk for Hayekian economics and the power of the corporation.  Joni Mitchell’s bare, dead parking lot had become our socio-economic future of choice.

“Make it three yards, motherfucker, and we’ll have an automobile race.”

So it is with some experience and some justice (and notwithstanding the rather small sample base of, erm, one) that I have to conclude that youth counter-cultures are overwhelmingly likely to prove ephemeral and incapable of effecting any historically stable and permanent change.

However, that sorry outcome is not inevitable.  It is not, for example, because of the “youth” element.  It is because they do not arise in a philosophically discriminating and ordered fashion – as one would expect, of course, for a spontaneous, non-prescribed event.  As creatures of such happenstance they have at their core a philosophical confusion that beckons to every passing, parasitic ideologue.  They do not know what good philosophical company is, so they do not keep it.  They are, then, highly unlikely to be built on truth and on ideas that can work.

The opposite of happenstance is design, and design begins with a design philosophy.  In part 2 of this essay I will explore the question of philosophical ideas which might actually work in our sorry age.

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