Which Counterculture?

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I’ve been wondering what exactly I meant when I wrote that the current stock of post-ironic art wants to think beyond the “negative critical methods of the counterculture.” I know what I meant to write, but after a conversation I had today with a friend of mine, I’m not quite sure anymore. Specifically, I wonder if I was wrong to use the word “counterculture” to describe the movement and sensibility against which post-ironic artists define themselves.

In their new book, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, Joseph Heath and Andew Potter define “counterculture” as a mode of cultural criticism that tries to reveal chinks in the armor of the (always oppressive) dominant/hegemonic ideology of mainstream culture. “Culture jamming” is one example of this sort of resistance which they make a big deal of in the book (too big a deal in my view). I think the book’s very interesting, and deeply flawed, but in reading the book I kind of uncritically accepted their definition of counterculture, reasoning that irony is definitely one of the key forms of resistance of the anti-hegemony counterculture as definied in the book. So when I used the word “counterculture” in my previous post, I was wondering how post-ironic authors and artists try to go beyond ironic “culture jamming”-type modes of criticism (the idea that one can resist the oppressive dominant culture by making fun of its hypocracy) towards a new sense of the real.

But the problem with this use of the term counterculture is that it erases certain aspects of history. In particular, it conflates the 60’s (which were arguably hugely optimistic, idealistic, and Utopian in outlook) with the 70s and 80s (which had a much darker turn to them), and drops the successes of the feminist/civil rights/antiwar/environmental movements out of the picture. Heath and Potter consciously combine the two epochs, explaining that the basic philosophical position of, say, punk doesn’t differ much from that of the hippies; the only difference is punk’s criticism that the hippies “sold out,” got co-opted by the hegemonic Establishment, in various ways, before punk itself sold out, only to be followed up by grunge, hip-hop, etc., in an endless cycle of resistance and selling out. The point of their criticism is that countercultural people of this bent have a wrong-headed idea about what will cause social change, and incorrect ideas about co-optation, and so far (I’m only 100 pages into the book) they seem to be proposing a kind of return to collective action and economic institutional reform (which I’m all in favor of, but I wonder if they’re just misrepresenting the aims of these earlier activists, turning the historical counterculture into a straw man far too easily easily knocked down).

Now there is a dominant conservative critique of the 1960s which very much wants to erase the postive acheivements of the counterculture with an emphasis on decadence, postmodernism, and cultural deterioration–the 60s becomes all Sex/Drugs/Rock’n’Roll and very little feminist liberation/black rights/antiwar activism (in some instances feminism, environmentalism, etc. end up causing all our current woes). But more of concern to me is the question of whether left-leaning critics, like Heath and Potter, are basically willing to make the same move. But then, maybe it is the straw man that is interesting–straw men, like ghosts and extra-terrestrial abductors, can shape lives in deep ways. Do these distortions of contemporary countercultural historiography really matter for my project? After all, aren’t contemporary writers and artists responding more to the image of the recent past, confusions and all, than they respond to what really happened? Or am I, by focusing on the image, just tacitly buying into efforts to erase the many successes of the 60’s?: feminism, civil rights, early environmentalism, etc.

Will the real counterculture please stand up?

It’s a tricky question; I’d love some feedback on what people think when they use the term “counterculture,” and what they thought I meant. I am not really sure anymore; I probably should have used the (deeply odious) word “postmodernism” in my original post. It seems more accurate, on reflection.

What This Blog is All About

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Me, of course.

But also, more specifically, the work that I’ll be doing over the next two-three years on my dissertation. I think it’ll be a productive exercise to work through my thinking-process on this blog, to put my ideas out on a provisional basis, and to build a community of readers who might even re-shape the direction my work goes in.

So what’s the topic of my dissertation? I haven’t had my colloquium yet (that’s going to be in the fall), but I am narrowing in on “post-irony” as a concept that might be particularly fruitful to explore. Since the early 1990s, and at an accelerated pace since 9/11, there have been a range of artistic efforts–from the Freedom Tower going up on Ground Zero to Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan to Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to Wes Anderson’s various movies to the many many brilliant episodes of This American Life–to reformulate the moral logic of earnestness in an ironic world. The artists engaged in this effort appreciate what irony (as a tool of cultural criticism and as a means of resisting the dominant culture) has let us do since the heyday of the counterculture, but they also desperately want to push beyond irony, and the negative critical methods of the counterculture, towards something else. Towards something postive, affirmative, or (at the very least) real. Put differently, all these artists are struggling to find a way, through art, to express deeply felt, often unbearable, emotions without seeming trite, cliched, or mainstream; yet they all seem somehow forced to use highly ironized and self-conscious means of doing so. The results are often odd but (almost) always interesting.

That’s my idea in a nutshell. I’ll post more on the contours this project soon. Eventually, I’ll post my colloquium paper here.

Save Toby

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I implore you, all of you, to visit this site and do what you can to save this furry little guy. By God, what has this world come to?