Bringing it All Back Home I: Counterculture, Commodified

10 Apr

This post contains part XI of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Vintage Pepsi ad showing the absorption of countercultural symbols within the mainstream Image from kathykavan.com

Vintage Pepsi ad showing the absorption of countercultural symbols within the mainstream
Image from kathykavan.com


The counterculture of the fifties and sixties was not as revolutionary as it believed itself to be. Though some artists of the counterculture “may wish to imagine themselves exempt from the marketplace,” the success of their literary endeavors is actually the product of market forces (Adams 80). The counterculture had been at least partially commodified all along, operating easily within mainstream capitalist and patriarchal conventions, despite its antiauthoritarian stance. “The international counterculture was [sic] complicit in many of the elements of society it criticized,” claims Suri; despite its revolutionary rhetoric, the essential demands of the counterculture movement dating back to the Beats was “rapid and personal reform within existing social and political structures” (Suri 48, emphasis mine). Because these goals were in some sense achieved as the counterculture entered the mainstream, the counterculture itself “soon became a commodified touchstone of prosperity” (48). While the Beats were “dedicated to the rejection of popular culture,” their movement came to “further [the] development of popular culture” through their mainstream success and influence on sixties youths (Elteren 75, 85).

The success of the counterculture certainly depended on “the very capitalist structures that it often purported to despise,” but it is an oversimplification to blame the degradation of the movement on “corrupting corporations” who fed on “innocent artists” (Gair 2, 6). It is clear that despite the “free love” message of the hippie movement, everyone was in fact trying to sell something—their art, their music, their ideas, their interpretations of authenticity. “Christ, everybody and his brother has a manifesto,” Wolfe writes in Electric Kool-Aid, “Everybody has his own typewriters and mimeograph machines and they’re all cranking away like mad and fuming over each other’s mistranslations of the Message” (Wolfe 377). This image of mass production and consumption of ideas by the counterculture itself runs counter to the rejection of capitalism and consumerism advocated by both the Beats and hippies. While the counterculture was capitalizing on its growing media audience (signing hippie bands to major labels, granting TV interviews, organizing for-profit Acid Tests), major corporations were using psychedelic imagery, language, and music to sell products ranging from blue jeans to soda pop. To quote Herbert Marcuse, “The music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship” (Gair 5).

Yet the movement was successful commercially precisely because it spoke to many people on an individual level. When attempting to criticize the failures of the countercultural movement in post-WWII America, one runs the risk of “[mythologizing] an increasingly sophisticated corporate structure within traditional narratives of individualism” (2). That is to say, as America became a mass media country, it is easy to argue that the individual spirit (as represented by the counterculture) was overpowered by market forces and corporate greed. This is, again, an oversimplification. The formation of a largely middle-class countercultural movement came at a time of unprecedented material prosperity and economic promise; yet many were unhappy for reasons they could not name. Despite the material reality of most Americans during this period, there were a great many who subscribed to the fictional writings of Kerouac and Kesey and the journalistic work of Wolfe and Thompson because of an absence they felt spiritually.  They deeply identified with countercultural depictions of American capitalist society as fundamentally problematic, or at least creatively stifling.

But when examining the Beat roots of this countercultural movement, it comes as no surprise that an emphasis on spontaneity and authenticity could breed social groups who exist in constant flux, forever fracturing themselves in an attempt to achieve authenticity in relation to their inauthentic surroundings. This drive for authenticity created a culture of extremity that pushed itself into the fringes of American society until it could exist no more—leaving a tide of music, literature, and drug-addled self-loathers in its wake.

We must not, however, downplay the implications of the counterculture’s absorption into the mainstream; with its assimilation came incremental and lasting social change. As Suri claims, “People started to dress differently, they began to talk differently, and, yes, they had sex differently during the 1960’s” and “the old ways never returned” (Suri 48). So while the utopian ideals of peace and justice—in defiance of the Vietnam War and unequal civil rights—were not fully achieved, the movement was successful in enacting change in America, though this was made possible by the mass absorption of certain social trends and not by any of the counterculture’s revolutionary acts.

Conservative critic Roger Kimball characterizes this process as a “spiritual colonization” of American culture from which we have not recovered (Kimball 5). However, gradual absorption of countercultural beliefs into the mainstream represents a natural evolution of American culture in a modern, mass-media era—this process can in fact lead to real social progress. Therefore, the mainstream assimilation of the counterculture should not be seen as a pure evil, nor as the sole reason for the movement’s demise; as historians Whalen and Flacks observe, “The commodification and absorption of countercultural symbols and styles and practices represented, for many, a kind of relief; instead of waging war on the young, the society and culture were integrating them” (Morgan 213). In addition to a gradual acceptance of youth culture, countercultural influence in American politics (in conjunction with the Civil Rights movement and the New Left) resulted in concrete social change represented by the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the foundations of second-wave feminism.

It is important to remember that neither Kerouac and the Beats nor Kesey and the Merry Pranksters represent the average American youth during the fifties or sixties;[19] Lytle asserts that “the majority of those in the counterculture were part-timers who either passed though a hippie phase on their way between school and the real world or those in the 9 to 5 rat race who dropped out on weekends” (Lytle 200). The contributions that everyday, progressive-leaning Americans made to create a freer, more expressive social climate in America must not be lost in criticisms of the movement at large. Nonetheless, those who gave in to extremity and excess became what Thompson referred to as “ugly refugee[s] from the Love Generation,” the “pathetically eager freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit” (Thompson 63, 178). Salvation, it seems, was not that easy. The study of countercultural literature is a study of social change that occurs at a pace that is painfully slow for those who envision it, but steady nonetheless.


[19] Neither, certainly, does Thompson—though this may go without saying.


Final Post: Bringing it All Back Home II: Mapping Cultural Waves

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