Rebels: Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity

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Holden Caulfield, the beat writers, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and James Dean—these and other avatars of youthful rebellion were much more than entertainment. As Leerom Medovoi shows, they were often embraced and hotly debated at the dawn of the Cold War era because they stood for dissent and defiance at a time when the ideological production of the United States as leader of the “free world” required emancipatory figures who could represent America’s geopolitical claims. Medovoi argues that the “bad boy” became a guarantor of the country’s anti-authoritarian, democratic self-image: a kindred spirit to the freedom-seeking nations of the rapidly decolonizing third world and a counterpoint to the repressive conformity attributed to both the Soviet Union abroad and America’s burgeoning suburbs at home.

Alongside the young rebel, the contemporary concept of identity emerged in the 1950s. It was in that decade that “identity” was first used to define collective selves in the politicized manner that is recognizable today: in terms such as “national identity” and “racial identity.” Medovoi traces the rapid absorption of identity themes across many facets of postwar American culture, including beat literature, the young adult novel, the Hollywood teen film, early rock ‘n’ roll, black drama, and “bad girl” narratives. He demonstrates that youth culture especially began to exhibit telltale motifs of teen, racial, sexual, gender, and generational revolt that would burst into political prominence during the ensuing decades, bequeathing to the progressive wing of contemporary American political culture a potent but ambiguous legacy of identity politics.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Rebels is a great book about bad boys and girls, melodrama and rock ‘n’ roll, and the emergence of ‘identity’ as a site of social concern and capitalist fantasy: a focused, engaging revision of white Cold War pop culture aesthetics in the United States.”—Lauren Berlant, author of The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship

“This is a bold and original study of Cold War masculinity, one that will force scholars to reconsider many of their assumptions about the gender and sexual politics of Cold War culture. In showing how the ‘bad boy’ functioned as a sign of democratic possibility, Leerom Medovoi opens up new ways of thinking about the relation between the 1950s and 1960s.”—Robert J. Corber, author of Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822336921
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2005
  • Series: New Americanists Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 1,426,471
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Leerom Medovoi is Associate Professor of English at Portland State University and Director of the Portland Center for Cultural Studies.

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Duke University Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3692-1

Chapter One


The study of identity, then, becomes as strategic in our time as the study of sexuality was in Freud's time. -Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society

This book examines the figure of the young rebel in postwar American culture, including such avatars as Holden Caulfield, the beat writers, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and James Dean. These figures emerged at the dawn of the Cold War era because the ideological production of the United States as leader of the "free world" required figures who could represent America's emancipatory character, whether in relation to the Soviet Union, the new nations of the third world, or even its own suburbs. The personality of the postwar rebel heralded new historical conditions that would soon inaugurate what we now call the "politics of identity." By the 1960s, new social movements and countercultures would begin to articulate themselves as emergent identities, pitted against a status quo cast as parental, repressive, and authoritarian.The motivating argument of this book is that the very concept of "identity" as it is commonly understood today was a new one in the 1950s. The meteoric rise of "identity politics" and the breakneck speed with which it had eclipsed class-based left politics by the 1960s and 1970s demand a historical explanation that both acknowledges how recently this concept came into use and investigates the ideological grounds from which sprang its rapid appeal.

For some time now, leftist thinkers and activists have grown skeptical of identity, whether as a proper basis for political action or, more radically, as an ontologically meaningful paradigm. Identity is frequently judged an essentializing category that articulates a political subject by denying difference and enforcing exclusions. Even worse, identity sometimes stands accused of necessarily reiterating the very terms of the social relations of oppression that gave rise to it. Yet, for all these critiques of identity, the discourse itself has yet to be systematically historicized.

Even so trenchant a philosophical critic of identity as Judith Butler, who persuasively argues that identity is the result of our practices and not their ground or origin, has not attempted a genealogy of identity of the sort that, for instance, Foucault once offered for sexuality. Gender Trouble, her groundbreaking first book, presents itself as a genealogical study that means to force the question, what kind of politics might be possible after the critique of identity? Nonetheless, in offering only a theory of identity rather than a history, it foregoes a philosophically hard-won opportunity to redescribe identity, not as the universal product of human practices, but instead as a bounded one tied to the contingencies of a historical moment. Butler instead limits herself to providing an antirealist and antifoundationalist ontology of identity. She declines to ask, as a genealogist should, when and how did "identity" become the product of our performative practices? What is the history of its emergence? And what, for that matter, might be provoking its discursive subversion at present?

This book, taking the antirealist account of identity at full face value, brackets what might be called the "identity hypothesis" of most contemporary leftist criticism: the notion that there has always been something we call "identity" in human history whose relevance to any given political situation should be theorized, critiqued, or deconstructed. Instead, I attempt to answer the question of when and why "identity" was first produced. Terms such as "nationalism" or "race" are routinely granted generative histories by their critics-explained as the discursive result of print capitalism or the colonial contest, for instance. Yet with a few exceptions, "identity" has remained without such a history. Why, for example, does it not appear in a book such as Raymond Williams's Keywords? The answer surely has something to do with the fact that, unlike the bulk of Williams's entries, "identity" is not a word bearing the mark of social struggles dating back to the sixteenth century, nor even to the nineteenth century. It is in fact so recently coined that Williams did not have the historical perspective to trace its development.

As I will show, our contemporary politicized conception of identity first emerged a mere fifty years ago, as a lynchpin to the ideological contradictions in the Cold War order. Even as anticommunist ideology authorized the suppression of an Old Left rooted in radical class politics, the rise of a New Left, animated by identity politics, was actually abetted by a different face of the Cold War imaginary that envisioned the young American rebel as guarantor of the nation's antiauthoritarian democratic character.

After the 1960s, the narrative of youth, which subtends "identity politics," receded from view as identity became principally attached to race, gender, and sexuality. Nevertheless, its continued presence can be perceived in the youthful face through which the new social movements' insurrectional spirits were figured. The liberation movements of the late sixties (black, Chicano, women's, or gay) articulated as their political subject an emergent identity, a young self establishing its sovereignty against the forces of a racist, patriarchal, or homophobic "parent culture." While race, gender, and sexuality have come to represent the manifest content of modern identity activism, age has remained latently present, a structuring element in the post-New Left political unconscious. If we wish to understand why the identity paradigm seems less potent today than it did in previous decades, the answers therefore will likely be found in a historicotheoretical consideration of the end of the Cold War and its attendant identitarian ideology of age. This hidden history of identity is important not only for what it tells us about the recent past but also for how it might frame the political upheavals of the present. How are the political configurations of globalization reworking or engaging the identitarian rhetoric that saturated political culture in the Cold War years? What place might identity continue to have within an emerging new New Left associated with antiglobalization struggles? These are questions to which I will return in the conclusion.

The Postwar Emergence of Identity

Prior to the 1950s, the word "identity" did not apply to a collective sense of self, let alone to a notion of self understood as embattled or emergent. It was not modified by the terms of peoplehood as it now is in such locutions as "national identity," "racial identity," or "cultural identity." Nor, with a single exception, did it function adjectivally, as it would in such later locutions as "identity issues," "identity crisis," or "identity politics." In philosophy and mathematics, the word "identity" named a quality or condition of sameness or equivalence between several objects. One might, for instance, argue that the Phoenicians were originally Canaanites by observing the "identity" of their languages, or one might suggest that there is no identity of interest between capital and labor. Near the end of the nineteenth century, "identity" became an adjective, used only to designate objects manufactured so as to "identify the holder or wearer," such as identity cards, bracelets, or certificates. In this usage, "identity" indicated a person's entry in an informational system of reference. One could assume, for instance, a "false identity"-a counterfeit name or social position. Nevertheless, identity did not yet capture a psychological sense of personhood.

Until 1957, the Reader's Guide to Periodic Literature listed only one form of the word "identity": a subject heading entitled the "Identification of Criminals." In that year, however, a new entry appears in the periodical: "Identity, Personal. See Personality." Under "Personality," one finds a variety of articles listed, including such revealing titles as "What It Means to Find Yourself," "Traps of Identity," "Person in a Machine Age," and "Teenagers in Search of Themselves." Both the New Left and the counterculture of the 1960s seem to have made a decisive impact on the establishing of identity as a periodical topic. By 1971, the Guide no longer refers its readers to "Personality." Instead, it begins to log an independent subject heading entitled "Identity (psychology)" that lists such articles as "Identity Crisis in Black Americans Visiting West Africa" and "Masculinity and Racism: Breaking out of the Illusion: The White Middle-Class American Identity Role." By 1973, the first subcategory appears: "Negroes-Race Identity." Over the next few decades, other ethnic identities are gradually added to the Guide, while the politicization grows more explicit in such article titles as "American Identity Movements: A Cross-Cultural Confrontation" and "Liberated Woman: Identity Crisis."

These articles, of course, were merely publicizing a lexicon of identity already in use by post-New Left movements to describe the motives and goals of their activism. Although "identity politics" are today typically traced back no further than the mid-1970s, often to the rise of black feminism, its origins are in fact explicitly earlier and more disparate. Already by 1966, for example, "Black Identity" would appear as the subtitle to a key section of a SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) manifesto meant to justify the organization's famous decision to reconstitute itself as an all-black youth organization: "Any re-evaluation that we must make will, for the most part, deal with identification. Who are black people, what are black people, what is their relationship to America and the world?" (SNCC, 158)

This political usage of identity was an early one, but by no means unusual. Nor was it restricted to activists of color. In 1969, for instance, Tom Hayden explained the irreconcilable differences between Judge Hoffman's generation and his own during the Chicago 7 trial with the simple assertion, "Our crime was our identity" (Hayden, 440), arguing that the court had indicted them for living in a "liberated zone" that threatened adult America, not merely with its political opinions, but "even more around 'cultural' and 'psychological' issues" (442). In that same year, the Gay Liberation Front Women stated in their manifesto: "We denounce the fact that society's rewards and privileges are only given to us when we hide and split our identity. We encourage self-determination and will work for changes in the lesbian self-image, as well as in society, to permit the 'coming out' of each gay woman into society as a lesbian" (Gay Liberation Front Women, 606).

In all these cases, it is notable that "identity" is conceived as the product of self-defining and self-affirming acts that confront a punitive, authoritarian Other: "America and the world," Judge Hoffman's generation, or a heteronormative society. The rhetoric of politicized identity hinges on proclaiming the subject's triumphant self-transformation as it detaches itself agonistically from the coerced expectations of "society," "America," or one's "elders." Black politics takes its identitarian turn, for instance, through explicitly asserting the arrival of black power and black pride. To this day, gay identity politics draws on the rhetoric of pride, and not only at annual marches. In the metaphorics deployed above by the Gay Liberation Front, we see an early example of how the collective identity's "coming out" functions as a political debut, a coming into one's own "self-determination" that may be replayed by the gay individual. What I will call the psychopolitics of identity begins then, not with a wounded attachment to one's victimization, but rather with a proud declaration of emergence into power, a rhetorical move that has carried strategic value for many decades. The history taken up by this book begins by asking the question, what conditions spawned this new sense of identity as realized psychopolitical sovereignty? How and from whence did this identitarian discourse become available to help launch the new social movements?

Inventing Identity: Erik Erikson and the Cold War Psychopolitics of Youth

"Identity" as we know it was coined in 1950 with the publication of Erik Erikson's Childhood and Society, a text that would exert a powerful influence on postwar American culture. Erikson's book was the first to define the word "identity" as the normative psychic achievement of selfhood. It was also the first, as Jonathan Arac notes, to attach identity to such elements as individuality, nationality, racial grouping, and even sexual orientation (20). In just a few years time, Erikson's concept of "identity" would become hegemonic across the social sciences, come into use as an exciting new term in the humanities, and win a wide popular following. Many other writers and thinkers would take up the mantra of "identity," but they would refer back endlessly to Erikson's work, and to his first book especially, which became a college textbook bestseller. Robert Bellah is said to have remarked, "If there's one book you can be sure undergraduates have read, it is Erikson's first one. You can't always be sure they've read Shakespeare, but you know they've read Erikson" (Friedman, 335).

Identity discourse rapidly permeated postwar U.S. culture in no small part through its now largely forgotten relation to two key terms: "youth" and the "Cold War." It is rarely remembered that Erikson erected the concept of identity as part of his influential model of the stages of human development, with adolescence playing the pivotal role. Moreover, Erikson relied heavily on the ideological terrain of Second World War and Cold War geopolitics to promote his understanding of the identity concept as part of what would soon become an emergent postwar common sense.

The identity concept began as a key feature in Erik Erikson's account of the human life cycle-the so-called eight ages of man. Erikson schematized individual human development through an ascending series of psychosocial stages, each characterized by a new polarity in the self's possible relationship to the outer world. Despite the title's emphasis on childhood, Erikson's book is actually most concerned with the fifth stage, "puberty and adolescence." Adolescence, according to Erikson, replays all the earlier conflicts of childhood, but now at a level that requires the self to negotiate its way between the poles of identity and role confusion (273). For Erikson, adolescence constitutes the crucial staging ground of identity formation. It names the moment at which a person establishes, not so much a cognitive distinction between self and other (which clearly begins far earlier) but rather what might be considered a psychopolitical one.

In Erikson's account, childhood ends and "youth begins" when young people start to wrestle with the basic issue of "what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are" (261). In one respect, the "search for identity" that comprises the stage of adolescence for Erikson reenacts a classical political metanarrative of the enlightened individual entering into full possession of his/her right to self-determination. Much like the ideals of liberty and independence that it incorporates, therefore, "identity" is a normative term and not just a descriptive one. It names an accomplishment and a positive good. What Erikson adds, however, is a post-Hegelian psychological requirement to the liberal political narrative: the self must be capable of formulating a satisfactory self-image that is determined by neither blind acceptance nor unthinking rejection of the image offered by the other. Identity pivots on what has sometimes been called a "politics of recognition" derived from the Hegelian model of lordship and bondage. However, what specifically distinguishes the politics of identity is that the project of an uncoerced "self-recognition" becomes a prelude and a precondition to achieving recognition by the other. Because youth occupies the transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, it represents, in the context of the liberal theory that Erikson appropriates, a normative passage into self-determination.


Excerpted from REBELS by LEEROM MEDOVOI Copyright © 2005 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

1. Identitarian Thought and the Cold War World 1

2. Cold War Literature and the National Allegory: The Identity Canon of Holden Caulfield 53

3. Transcommodification: Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Suburban Counterimaginary 91

4. Identity Hits the Screen: Teenpics and the Boying of Rebellion 135

5. Oedipus in Suburbia: Bad Boy and the Fordist Family Drama 167

6. Beat Fraternity and the Generation of Identity 215

7. Where the Girls Were: Figuring the Female Rebel 317

Conclusion: The Rise and Fall of Identity 331

Notes 359

Works Cited 377


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