From “getting loose” to “letting it all hang out,” the 1970s were filled with exhortations to free oneself from artificial restraints and to discover oneself in a more authentic and creative life. In the wake of the counterculture of the 1960s, anything that could be made to yield to a more impulsive vitality was reinvented in a looser way. Food became purer, clothing more revealing, sex more orgiastic, and home decor more rustic and authentic.
Through a sociological analysis of the countercultural print culture of the 1970s, Sam Binkley investigates the dissemination of these self-loosening narratives and their widespread appeal to America’s middle class. He describes the rise of a genre of lifestyle publishing that emerged from a network of small offbeat presses, mostly located on the West Coast. Amateurish and rough in production quality, these popular books and magazines blended Eastern mysticism, Freudian psychology, environmental ecology, and romantic American pastoralism as they offered “expert” advice—about how to be more in touch with the natural world, how to release oneself into trusting relationships with others, and how to delve deeper into the body’s rhythms and natural sensuality. Binkley examines dozens of these publications, including the Whole Earth Catalog, Rainbook, the Catalog of Sexual Consciousness, Celery Wine, Domebook, and Getting Clear.
Drawing on the thought of Pierre Bourdieu, Zygmunt Bauman, and others, Binkley explains how self-loosening narratives helped the middle class confront the modernity of the 1970s. As rapid social change and political upheaval eroded middle-class cultural authority, the looser life provided opportunities for self-reinvention through everyday lifestyle choice. He traces this ethos of self-realization through the “yuppie” 1980s to the 1990s and today, demonstrating that what originated as an emancipatory call to loosen up soon evolved into a culture of highly commercialized consumption and lifestyle branding.
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About the Author
Sam Binkley is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Emerson College.
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Getting LooseLifestyle Consumption in the 1970s
By SAM BINKLEY
Duke University PressCopyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOf Swingers and Organization Men Loose Modernities
The moral culture of the American middle class was profoundly shaken by the social conflicts of the 1960s and by the years of economic slowdown that followed. The 1970s is a decade recalled for its dubious legacy of soured hopes and sagging ideals-a mood of "malaise" resulting from the unraveling of cultural and economic structures whose disintegration had long been churning at the heart of American society, now showing itself on the surface of everyday life in forms that ranged from the mundane to the extraordinary. With the decline of manufacture and the emergence of a new service sector, the production of symbolic and informational goods continued a slow eclipse of the old industrial base as the lynchpin of capitalist development, displacing the managerial and manufacturing jobs that composed the core of middle- and working-class economic life. Belief in the ability of the state to act as the custodian of the collective interest was eroded under the scandals of Watergate and the festering of the welfare state, and the idyllic picture of the nuclear family as a respite from social turbulence was shaken by a revolution in values and outlooks, expressed in soaring divorce rates and a devastating generation gap. The crises of the 1970s witnessed a striking erosion in the power of public institutions to command popular faiths and a waning belief in collective solutions to public ills-a sentiment conjured by the New York Daily News's famous headline announcing the federal government's forfeit on the goal of urban renewal: "Ford to City: Drop Dead."
But if these crises signaled the impoverishment of shared public goals, they also hailed a vast and radical expansion of private ones. Recalled as the "Me decade," the 1970s inspired a culture of narcissism, as Christopher Lasch so famously christened it, in which a new emphasis on personal inwardness offered a compensatory safe haven, offsetting the stress of overpowering social and cultural insecurity. The new introspectiveness announced the demise of an established set of traditional faiths centered on work and the postponement of gratification, and the emergence of a consumption-oriented lifestyle ethic centered on lived experience and the immediacy of daily lifestyle choices. Where work discipline, national duty, group affiliation, and professional merit served the "organization man" of the 1950s as the measure of attainment and self-worth, the 1970s produced a morality of self-realization through consumption, leisure, experiential learning, and therapeutic release-a looser morality whose exemplar was undoubtedly the dashing, fun-loving, and flirtatious "swinger." But the slide from organization man to swinger was for many one of atavistic decline: "In the hedonistic life," sociologist Daniel Bell complained, "there is a loss of will and fortitude," and a slackening of conviction and self-control-a sentiment that has occasioned decades of cultural crusades (captured famously in Robert Bork's Slouching toward Gomorrah) aimed at expurgating once and for all what neoconservatives consider the self-indulgent residue of the 1960s counterculture.
An inquiry into the emergence of the looser self requires that we evaluate more carefully this slouching trope. It asks that we consider the anxieties and imaginary investments that beset the cultural authority of the middle class and examine the dynamic that set loose swingers and tight organization men in their respective camps. Indeed, this crisis was not unique to the 1970s at all but was expressive of a dynamic of fear and hope, of disintegration and renewal, that characterizes the experience of modern social and cultural change in general. In the pages that follow, the explosive predicament of the crisis decade will be read for the unique modernity it expressed-the modernity of the 1970s-wherein a crisis in public authorities and a passionate loosening of the self related a dynamic of innovation, rupture, and imaginary flight, woven together with a panic at the prospect of a world without moral foundations.
Whitey on the Moon: The Modernity of the 1970s
Modernities are never experienced in a total sense, as the zeitgeist of an age, an epoch, or a civilization, but neither are they merely localized phenomena, scattered across a social surface in disconnected groups. The experience of modernity is felt at the intersection of changing social configurations and in the specific trajectories followed by individuals and groups across preexisting social and cultural boundaries. Such experiences are of the rumbling that accompanies seismic shifts in the ordering of a society, the movement of tectonic plates in the underlying social structure. Modernities must be considered as they develop in their conjunctural specificity, at the interstices opened up by emerging and receding patterns of life, by the concomitant fragmentation and demise of old social groups and the constitution of new ones. Modernities are never the property of one group, much less the unconditioned spirit of an age, but the articulation of moments and temporal trajectories at the reconfigured boundaries between groups. Modernities are, in this sense, "without guarantees" in the meaning given the phrase by Stuart Hall: they express the efforts of individuals to bring their experiences into alignment with structural changes, to articulate everydayness together with changing regimes of power, changing distributions of capital and economy, and changing boundaries between competing clusters of people. Indeed, the reconfiguration of social proximities and spaces is inextricably linked to the way people experience novelty and anticipate its consequences: the experience of the new is often one of disaffiliation and rupture within previously consolidated groups, but also a regrouping, an investment, emulation (or even fetishization) of identity across the boundaries dividing previously competing groups.
What I am calling the modernity of the 1970s was a modernity experienced by a portion of the American middle class that was predominantly white and Anglo-Saxon. This group was traditional in its thinking on sexuality and gender roles, and its regard for other social groups was restrained and suspicious, as evidenced by the xenophobia of American postwar suburban development and the deep-rooted racism and sexism that underscored much middle-class life at that time. The loosening trope that emerged as middle-class youth of the 1960s questioned and ultimately abandoned the narrowness of their parents' world-views gave narrative form to their own trajectory across social space, from the citadels of middle-class life to the riskier, grittier, and more sensual worlds of hippie hangouts, crash pads, rock concerts, mod neighborhoods, and the like. To drop out was to cross a border, but also to establish a new border where none had previously been: it was to betray one's class and take up with dangerous strangers, to hang out in the neighborhoods one's parents had worked hard to move out of, with the people one's parents had tried hard to protect one from. Among the hip middle class (a group far larger than the hippies themselves), to loosen was to disavow the repressive strictures of the old middle class and to immerse oneself in the expressiveness and sensuality presumed to belong to groups on the margins, from Sufis and jazz musicians to street peddlers and Vietnamese children. Loosening up, as a way of becoming modern, was to participate in a hegemonic modernity practiced by a group that saw itself in very universalistic terms as a vanguard, steering social change from the helm of society's most powerful institutions and from the seat of its economic, social, and cultural engines. Such an insider's viewpoint gave the loosening story an urgency it could not otherwise have possessed: at stake was not just the emancipation of a group, but the fate of an entire world, of all humanity. And the innovations it developed were not discoveries unique to its members, they were breakthroughs on the most fundamental frontiers of human destiny, self-knowledge, and self-authenticity.
For outsiders, however, all of this carried a very different resonance. To the excluded, the modernities of the middle class have seemed quixotic and naive, if not threatening and despotic, particularly where they are premised on a wish to impose reform on others, whether by truncheon or welfare check. During the 1960s,skepticism of the official modernities of the middle class spread to its offspring, disaffected youth who shaped their own insurrectionary visions of social change as students imagined alternative programs for world peace and new, less technologically oriented visions of domestic life. Eagerly comparing themselves to "niggers," middle-class youth drew new lines between their forward-looking social imaginaries and those of their parents, choosing to throw their lot in with a range of oppressed groups as common victims of their parents' twisted and ultimately destructive view of progress. The modernity of the 1970s was in this respect a disordered cluster of narratives and visions of progressive social change, some emerging and insurrectionary, others coping with the loss of their exclusive hold on the future.
Black poet and militant firebrand Gil Scott-Heron captured the hubris and self-involvement of one such middle-class modernity, crystallized in the popular zeal surrounding the early Apollo missions and lunar landings: "The man just upped my rent last night cuz Whitey's on the moon. No hot water, no toilets, no lights but Whitey's on the moon." His verse chides popular enthusiasm for the missions for their blissful failure to focus on the conditions of inner city life: "Y'know I jus' 'bout had my fill of Whitey on the moon, I think I'll sen' these doctor bills, Airmail special, to Whitey on the moon." Whitey's modernity was one of optimism and faith. It prophesized rising standards of living and economic growth, increasing technological wizardry and the expansion of American global power beyond the limits of the globe itself, to new dimensions of colonization and resource exploitation. But for Scott-Heron, Whitey's modernity was clearly not his own, though it was one he understood for having lived all of his life and experiences in its shadow. And it was one against which his own more militant modernity would be composed, albeit his would be tinged with apocalyptic visions of violent transformation coupled with romantic yearning for a recovered precolonial innocence. Indeed, black militants were not the only ones to fashion modern narratives against the backdrop of this official optimism: as the heady days of the Apollo landings receded and the decade of malaise kicked in, Whitey's modernity would itself be eroded by doubts and recriminations as sanctioned versions of the march of progress dissolved into a polyglot of improvised narratives on the authority and direction of change. The modernity of the 1970s summarizes this condition of erosion and doubt, coupled with entrepreneurship and inventiveness in the discourse of modernity.
As such, the modernity of the 1970s was not of the type typically evoked by the term. The 1970s was modern, not in the sense of a unified consensus around a forward looking, optimistic willingness to transgress old taboos in search of new experiences, new forms of life, and new relations to the self and others, or to buck the foundations of tradition with eyes trained expectantly on an emerging horizon. These robust modernities properly belong to other, more heroic decades of America's past, perhaps the 1920s or the 1960s. The modernity of the 1970s expressed the flip side of this gallant modernity: recoiling at the destructive force it had itself unleashed, it was a time of retrenchment and consolidation not through reactionary calls for order and authority (though there were enough of those), but through strained efforts to erect new guidelines and shape new objects of moral devotion to fill the vacuum left by the disintegration of the old. The malaise of the 1970s expressed the hangover phase of the modern adventure: where the rush to change that characterized the 1960s valorized the willingness to overturn cultural and moral authorities handed down from tradition, burning flags and kicking at the edifices of public virtue in a frenzied pursuit of freedom and self-emancipation, the 1970s expressed a desire to retreat from the precipice and withdraw from a freedom that suddenly seemed to overwhelm. The modernity of the 1970s expressed a search for something solid to hold on to in the ether of vaporized foundations.
Particularly for the middle-class youth who had struck out in the 1960s with their own fantastic view of the future, the 1970s brought a new sensibility and a new feeling. In the years between the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 and the election of Ronald Reagan, exhilaration turned to vertigo, and new moral strictures and objects of commitment were hastily fabricated to suppress the uncertainty of a life too immersed in all consuming freedoms. "We believed in 'free' in those days," recalls Raymond Mungo, writer, publisher, and unbridled countercultural scribe.
It was our most common and beautiful word, everything had to be free, but most of all life had to be free. But, for most of us, anyway, the ideology soured as we grew older and learned that nothing is free, we can't even lead our own lives unless we can find the money to support it. You're free only if you're willing to live without personal possessions, without a house of your own or a car or anything but clothing and a few personal effects.
Mungo's experience was not at all unique: as the countercultural adventure reached its zenith, as acid trips went bad, as Woodstocks turned to Altamonts and freedom turned out to be, as Janis Joplin sang, just another word for nothin' left to lose, counterculturals desired a more coherent framework within which to shape their lives. It was the sense of such soured freedom, and of the sometimes desperate need to tether freedom to a firmer base, that defined the modernity of the 1970s.
Marshall Berman has related these two moments of the modern experience to what he terms the "Faustian doublebind" at the heart of modernity: an experience of creative change that releases a destructive gale, carrying us at breakneck speed, always threatening to veer out of control, transfixing us with its novelty while inspiring a panicked effort to hold on for dear life: "To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world-and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.... it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish."
Excerpted from Getting Loose by SAM BINKLEY Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
Introduction / Mediated Immediacy: Living in the Now 1
Part I / Middle Class in the Maelstrom
1. Of Swingers and Organization Men: Loose Modernities 27
2. Experts Unbound: Intimate Professionals and the Value of Lifestyle 77
3. Book as Tool: Lifestyle Print Culture and the West Coast Publishing Boom 101
Part II / Caring Texts
4. Being One: From Knowledge to Consciousness in the Spaceship Society 129
5. Loving Each Other: From Phony to Real in the New Togetherness 165
6. Letting It All Hang Out: From Mind to Muscle in the Relaxed Body 207
Conclusion / Morning in America: Pulling in the Slack 243