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The Seventies Now
Culture as Surveillance
By Stephen Paul Miller
Duke University Press Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The uncanny feeling that one gets ... is that we all define ourselves, constantly, as if we were Warhol's cultural symbols.— Henry M. Sayre, The Object of Performance: The American Avant-Garde Since 1970
Something like living occurs, a movement
Out of the dream into its codification.
—John Ashbery, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror"
Self-definition is a kind of prison.—Margaret Atwood
1 The Post-Sixties
American culture as a whole has yet to experience another transition like the one the sixties put into play. I say "put into play" because we are still undergoing this transition. Since the sixties, periods lap together without the same discernible change that the sixties marked. While many important events have occurred since the sixties—from the 1973 oil embargo to the 1996 ending of federally assured welfare—no other post-World War II period so effectively divided what came after from what came before. It is almost as if mind-boggling world events like the endings of the Cold War, a political state of war in the Middle East, and South African apartheid; the technical advances of the so-called information age; and American political milestones like the 1980 election of Reagan and the 1994 election of a Republican majority in both houses of Congress occurred in an ever-broadening "post-sixties." No subsequent era has rivaled the sixties as a surprising cultural break that challenged previously embedded social conventions and, indeed, the premises of how reality, as a kind of validating mechanism in itself, was used.
"The sixties" conveys a sense of total cultural rupture that most Americans perceived at the time or have later come to sense. Although most Americans were not "cultural players" in the sixties, the notion of reality that was posited in the sixties—that reality needs to be justified and is only truly authenticated and accommodated by intimations of a visceral super-reality—touched nearly everyone to some degree, if only as a notion that needed to be denounced, repressed, or simply put out of mind. Traditional scales of measurement were not enough. Perceptively, Andy Warhol devised the hyperbole "superstar," and it was used widely without irony. Similarly, in 1967, the sports public insisted upon calling the first National Football League-American Football League Championship Game the Super Bowl, despite professional football's more functionally descriptive name.
More significantly, in the sixties, seemingly essential economic and social power relations of "reality" were called on to account for themselves. What the sixties was had so much to do with new possibilities that at times it verged on the rejection of recognizable reality. For instance, the central motif of a memorable anti-Vietnam protest was an attempt to levitate the Pentagon. Of course, this aspiration was one of absurdist political protest theater. Nonetheless, it bespoke an urge to transform America completely by mysterious means. After all, it seemed as if this had already happened. In Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer's contemporaneous account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon, Mailer is most swayed by the mystical possibilities of the younger, less overtly political marchers. An endorsement of the "real" powers of imaginative living leads Mailer to substitute forms of the fictional novel and historical writing for one another.
Underlying sixties protest was a notion that Cold War ideology, which could be seen as informing most of the American economy, was more fictitious than even the possibility of raising the Pentagon. Justifications for the Vietnam War did not seem credible or real. Perhaps more than anything else, the Vietnam War injected the surreal into sixties America. The war seemed outside reality. It appeared unjustifiable, since it was waged in the service of an intrinsically unstable South Vietnamese government. Certainly it was not worth the loss of so many lives. Official, government-sanctioned reality seemed a bad dream, an undesired unreality.
A small minority's questioning of established modes of thought was, of course, not the only thing that occurred during the sixties. However, this questioning and suspension of seeming realities provided the central spectacle (sometimes literally as demonstrations, happenings, be-ins, and teach-ins) that elicited severe animosity from many in the working class and the government, who were invested (often literally in terms of their capital and jobs within the military-industrial complex) in Cold War reality. Conflicting views of what happened and who was to blame for the violence at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and the fatal shootings of students at Kent State and at Jackson State in 1970 testify to this division. The war in Southeast Asia and protest against it hinged upon a difference concerning what constituted authenticity. Many in the counterculture assumed that reality more reasonably resided in a new collective, psychological fashioning of American abundance than in war. Escalation seemed more plausibly descriptive of a culture experiencing its growing abundance than of the necessities of war.
Other historical moments in the Western world, such as in pre-World War I Europe and revolutionary Russia, brought widespread expectations of an imminent utopic future that seemed just around the corner. Since the Russian Revolution, however, the sixties is unique in its vision. Pre-World War II Americans did not live through futuristic visions such as those of the 1939 New York World Fair's "World of Tomorrow" in the same way that many young people of the sixties lived through sixties music. In the sixties, the sense of a reality suspended was lived more than it was viewed.
Experiences do not translate intact from one period to another. It is impossible to understand a phenomenon such as drug use, for instance, apart from different periods' contrasting approaches toward reality. An ideologically generated suspension of reality influenced how we think of the use of hallucinogenic drugs in the sixties. Drugs, even the same drugs, were used and thought of in very different ways in the sixties than in the post-sixties because a certain kind of escape from reality had more noble than naive connotations. Historical periods modify the "reality" of drugs. Interestingly, in the late sixties and seventies, law enforcement used drug use to code and survey a counterculture that the Nixon administration wished to destroy while at the same time, one often smelled marijuana in public places, such as parks and movie theaters. Society was full of mixed messages, leading to the bifurcated mind-set of the eighties that I discuss in chapter 3.
Fredric Jameson attempts to "periodize" the sixties, to discuss and analyze that time period as a problematized entity. He conjectures that the sixties can be explained as a break between two capitalist modes. Jameson speculates that during the sixties our economy was stuck in a prolonged transition from industrial to post-industrial, service, and multinational modes. Economic systems lost regulatory power. A sense of economic reality was thus suspended, and all things appeared possible. American culture, which had expanded in the fifties with a "Cold War reality" in the background, expanded in the sixties outside the guidance of that vision. This break produced a sense of unlimited expansion, through a variety of economic, political, cultural, and social means, since economic and other manner of accountable authority were, during the sixties, unclear and indeterminate. Hence, a "referential gold standard" was temporarily lifted, inducing a euphoric sense of freedom. By the mid-seventies, however, reality had irrefutably returned, even if it no longer worked.
Because a sense of reality was so problematic in the sixties, it is not surprising that in many ways the seventies concerned a return to reality. But what reality? Was it possible to forget how political realities had been discredited by the Vietnam War, the string of sixties assassinations, and the electoral system's inability to run an antiwar presidential candidate in 1968? The sixties had succeeded in discrediting official, government-sponsored reality, but it was the sixties itself that most Americans were trying to recover from. As American culture, during the seventies, was incorporating sixties mores, it was also disavowing the subversive content of those mores.
If we have definitely left the sixties, it is sometimes difficult to characterize what has replaced them. Sixties music is still played on a full, codified spectrum of radio stations from hard rock to easy listening (perhaps more sixties and sixties-related post-sixties music, music recorded in the wake of the sixties or by musicians who became prominent then, is played on the radio now than in the sixties), and many young people know sixties songs better than recent ones. We still debate the Vietnam War and how politicians avoided fighting in it. Sixties politicians like the Kennedys and Nixon enamor us, and at times it has seemed that the Kennedy assassination and the Watergate scandal interest us more than contemporary events.
And yet, for all this, no one would dispute that the sixties are over, not even its seemingly ageless proponents. Jerry Garcia is dead (to some it might seem as if he merely died in the post-sixties, just like Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, even if Garcia died twenty-five years later). If the import of the sixties is still debated, we have nonetheless certainly moved into a different cultural mindset, a different historical set of conditions. The sixties' sense of political and social possibility has vanished, and it is difficult to muster very much hope that our class, race, and social problems will be resolved, as many people reasonably hoped at various times throughout the early, middle, and late sixties. By the 1972 presidential election, it became obvious that the baby boomer "youth vote" enlarged by the lowering of the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, would not effect a radical change in the nation's power relations.
And yet chronological, political, and social distance from the sixties oddly increases its value and currency. Many who were not alive during the sixties, or even the seventies, are curious about the sixties and feel as if they missed something necessary for coming to grips with the present. Who is to say that the sixties will not outlive the baby boomers? (Perhaps after we see past the promises of the new millennium, this may be all the more probable.) Apparently more prevalent than any cultural changes brought about by mere technological innovations or surface political changes, the sixties is still hanging, unresolved and unfinished.
After all, the sixties was a rip in reality, and once the basis of what a society assumes is severely questioned, how can a society feel comfortable with those assumptions again? A majority of Americans were not willing to "buy" sixties reality, nor could they put it aside. Generated by these two ambivalent currents, the sixties ripples into the present. The post-sixties lives together with seemingly uncontested, international capitalism. Indeed, it is difficult to see the difference. It is almost as if the culture of the sixties/post-sixties continuously expands so as to contain each new incarnation of the new, as if "the sixties" and a kind of postmodern, late-capitalist sieve through which all culture is overwhelmed by the omnipresent feel of capital and disarmed and co-opted, are two sides of the same coin, as if the sixties and late-capitalist fluid capital are part of the same infinitely absorbent cultural sponge, the same unanswerable question. Indeed, as the triumph of capitalism affects virtually everyone in the "developed" world, an increasing number of the world's citizens find themselves negotiating with the sixties.
The sixties metaphorically occupies the inner core of post-World War II reality. The Cold War realities prior to it must now answer to it. For instance, in the Persian Gulf War, George Bush claimed that one of his aims was to overcome the United States' militarily cautious "Vietnam syndrome" (as if Reagan had not already been celebrated for doing that), and then also said that he could not send troops to Baghdad for fear of getting America caught in another Vietnam conflict. In a sense, our entire society now fears being lost in the "unreality" of the sixties, expressing itself in an almost irrational fear of justified domestic expenditures and investments. Perhaps we fear uncovering an unfair distribution of wealth and utilization of public resources that will demand a traumatic readjustment.
The sixties shape our ontological horizons. The decade is the inner space we are unable to escape, within which we wire and survey ourselves, in which we lay out and order our ever-changing present. Since the sixties are the post-World War II epoch's central conflict between reality and non-reality, it engages us in our diurnal sense of things, shifting our sense of household, work, recreation, and gender behaviors. In the words of John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (1974), in the seventies, "something like living occurs, a movement / Out of the dream [of the sixties] into its codification."
The unanswered sense of the sixties is captured as our historical sense of the seventies. Because the sixties is not quite over, and it is difficult to tell what comes after it, the sixties is where contemporary history loses its linearity. However, if the sixties is at the center of our culture, the codifications of the seventies are tantamount to our culture's central wiring. In the seventies the malleable identities and consumer patterns that we use to survey ourselves were put in place.
In the late sixties and seventies, a hegemonic mind-set gained force from an impulse to codify the sixties' breaks in reality and unaccounted for and surplus consumer production. This codification enabled distributors to charge for previously inexpensive services. Cable and pay television made their presence felt throughout the country. Gas stations charged for air. The telephone company charged for information. In 1951, C. Wright Mills's White Collar pointed out the increasing centralization of property in the United States. Mills, however, emphasized the effects of this centralization in the world of work. In the seventies, we saw this trend extended to the consumer life of Americans.
The consumer increasingly replaced the factory as the linchpin of production. It was not until the Great Depression and the New Deal that industrial capitalism unacknowledgedly appropriated Marxist perceptions concerning the veritable production of consumption. By the thirties, in the midst of the Great Depression, it was apparent that capitalism would need to either risk its collapse or facilitate mass means of consumption. Consumption would paradoxically need to be produced. Capitalists accepted the necessities of government work projects, federal business and financial regulations, Social Security, and the place of unions within industrial production.
The Democratic Party coalition from the thirties to the sixties was based on group identities that were codified by production roles, race, religion, region, and ethnicity. However, by the seventies, post-industrial emphases upon consumer conditions fostered a cultural environment in which identity-positions were, so to speak, seen in quotation marks. "We decided [emphasis added] to hold on to separate cultural identities," Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) says of a utopic future that is fashioned in a seventies mirror, "But we broke the bond between genes and culture." In the seventies, for instance, a woman could take on the identity of a feminist, and her consciousness could be raised by a heightened awareness of that identity. A wide array of other "identity prisms" were identified and used to survey the self and its culture. Such revelations were and are obviously invaluable to personal and social development. They indicate the power of the individual to try on and "buy into" identity. "Passing" from one identity to another does not seem to be the veritable, or actual, crime that it might well have been before the sixties. In this regard, the 10 October 1993 New Yorker commented upon the "radicality" of 1969 and 1970 fashions:
It was about then, after all, that women's clothes went from being mostly a register of social propriety to being a public means of self expression and—this is not unrelated—women (re)discovered feminism. Deciding what and how to be would henceforth be all tied in with what to wear and how to look.
The true legacy of 1969-70 ... is the freedom to imagine the part and then to dress for it—the courage, on the part of women, to write the narratives, sartorial and otherwise, of their daily lives.
Excerpted from The Seventies Now by Stephen Paul Miller. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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