Wednesday, August 31, 2016



"In her 1979 essay 'The Family: Love It or Leave It,' the late music and cultural critic Ellen Willis noted that the counterculture’s desire to replace the family with a system of collective child-rearing would have entailed 'a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude.' It’s very difficult, in our deflated times, to re-create the counterculture’s confidence that such a 'social and psychic revolution' could not only happen, but was already in the process of unfolding. Like many of her generation, Willis’s life was shaped by first being swept up by these hopes, then seeing them gradually wither as the forces of reaction regained control of history. There’s probably no better account of the Sixties counterculture’s retreat from Promethean ambition into self-destruction, resignation, and pragmatism than Willis’s collection of essays Beginning To See The Light. The Sixties counterculture might now have been reduced to a series of 'iconic'—overfamiliar, endlessly circulated, dehistoricized—aesthetic relics, stripped of political content, but Willis’s work stands as a painful reminder of leftist failure. As Willis makes clear in her introduction to Beginning To See The Light, she frequently found herself at odds with what she experienced as the authoritarianism and statism of mainstream socialism. While the music she listened to spoke of freedom, socialism seemed to be about centralization and state control. The story of how the counterculture was co-opted by the neoliberal Right is now a familiar one, but the other side of this narrative is the Left’s incapacity to transform itself in the face of the new forms of desire to which the counterculture gave voice.

"The idea that the 'Sixties led to neoliberalism' is complicated by the emphasis on the challenge to the family. For it then becomes clear that the Right did not absorb countercultural currents and energies without remainder. The conversion of countercultural rebellion into consumer capitalist pleasures necessarily misses the counterculture’s ambition to do away with the institutions of bourgeois society: an ambition which, from the perspective of the new 'realism' that the Right has successfully imposed, looks naive and hopeless.

"The counterculture’s politics were anticapitalist, Willis argues, but this did not entail a straightforward rejection of everything produced in the capitalist field. Certainly, pleasure and individualism were important to what Willis characterizes as her 'quarrel with the left,' yet the desire to do away with the family could not be construed in these terms alone; it was inevitably also a matter of new and unprecedented forms of collective (but non-statist) organization. Willis’s 'polemic against standard leftist notions about advanced capitalism' rejected as at best only half-true the ideas 'that the consumer economy makes us slave to commodities, that the function of the mass media is to manipulate our fantasies, so we will equate fulfilment with buying the system’s commodities.' Popular culture—and music culture in particular—was a terrain of struggle rather than a dominion of capital. The relationship between aesthetic forms and politics was unstable and inchoate—culture didn’t just 'express' already existing political positions, it also anticipated a politics-to-come (which was also, too often, a politics that never actually arrived).

"Music culture’s role as one of the engines of cultural acceleration from the late ‘50s through to 2000 had to do with its capacity to synthesize diverse cultural energies, tropes, and forms, as much as any specific feature of music itself. From the late ‘50s onward, music culture became the zone where drugs, new technologies, (science) fictions, and social movements could combine to produce dreamings—suggestive glimmers of worlds radically different from the actually existing social order. (The rise of the Right’s 'realism' entailed not only the destruction of particular kinds of dreaming, but the very suppression of the dreaming function of popular culture itself.) For a moment, a space of autonomy opened up, right in the heart of commercial music, for musicians to explore and experiment. In this period, popular music culture was defined by a tension between the (usually) incompatible desires and imperatives of artists, audiences, and capital. Commodification was not the point at which this tension would always and inevitably be resolved in favour of capital; rather, commodities could themselves be the means by which rebellious currents could propagate: 'The mass media helped to spread rebellion, and the system obligingly marketed products that encouraged it, for the simple reason that there was money to be made from rebels who were also consumers. On one level the sixties revolt was an impressive illustration of Lenin’s remark that the capitalist will sell you the rope to hang him with.' This now looks rather quaintly optimistic, since, as we all know, it wasn’t the capitalist who ended up hanged. The marketing of rebellion became more about the triumph of marketing than of rebellion. The neoliberal Right’s coup consisted in individualizing the desires that the counterculture had opened up, then laying claim to the new libidinal terrain. The rise of the new Right was premised on the repudiation of the idea that life, work, and reproduction could be collectively transformed—now, capital would be the only agent of transformation. But the retreat of any serious challenge to the family is a reminder that the mood of reaction that has grown since the 1980s was not only about the restoration of some narrowly defined economic power: it was also about the return—at the level of ideology, if not necessarily of empirical fact—of social and cultural institutions that it had seemed possible to eliminate in the 1960s." - Mark Fisher, "'A social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude': Popular Culture's Interrupted Accelerationist Dreams"

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