By Aidan Fitzsimmons
Philosophically, the concept of counterculture is more interesting and fundamental to human life than may originally be considered. Counterculture is defined as a subculture created in opposition to mass culture, middle class values, consumerism, mainstream media, the mores of a previous generation, the cultural hegemony of a dominant group, and other elements of “mainstream” culture. However, what is “mainstream” culture has always been contingent, and so has counterculture. Culture evolves over time in a process driven by the concept of counterculture.
Human freedom is a game of yes. Culture— in the form of language, concepts, social roles, recreation, art, and possible performances— is passed down from generation to generation. Culture is the given material humans have to work with: society, the law, the father, the gods, the possible pathways through which individuals can act. Crucially, individuals can only react to their given environment of culture, and use the tools it gives in order to react. If your mom tells you to clean your room, the mainstream answer is yes. But if you don’t want to clean your room, your possible negations are limited to what is possible, what paths exist to say yes to instead: you can say “No, I have to do my homework,” “No, I’m going to the mall with Kyle,” “Yes, but I will do it after my laundry,” “No, I will just stand here and not move ever.” The act of negation opens up immense freedom within given possibilities as the actor searches for an alternative path from the main one offered. There are only yesses; if you say no to a given power, you must say yes to an alternative power, and there are many alternatives.
The progress of human culture has been an exponential expansion of power, of possible yesses. The more words, cultural creations, and material functions we accumulate as a civilization, the more possible ways an individual can negate any given. Not only can we negate directly down an alternative path, but we can synthesize various possible powers into a new possibility which is other than the sum of its parts. There is no creation ex nihilo; only syntheses of previously existing elements can create any “new” cultural expression. T.S. Eliot makes this argument about poetry in his famous essay The Tradition and the Individual Talent, but it applies to all human cultural action. Culture evolves by an evolutionary process of reproduction, negation, and synthesis, and this evolution moves bottom-up using only the existing materials in new, ever-expanding ways. This is why “counterculture” is an essential driving force behind all culture, just as adversity between evolved organisms is essential to the progress of evolution itself. If there was only reproduction, we would still be making cave paintings. But through negation— through, for example, inventing free-verse, or calling a urinal fountain art— enormous new worlds of possibilities are opened up for people to extend, react to, or combine with something else. These “countercultural” developments are typically just called “culture.”
Take the Beat Generation, for example. The Beats were a famous early counterculture group in 1950s America whose ideas of freedom, adventure, sex, drugs, music, and rejection of settled consumerism helped to lay the seeds of what eventually sprouted into the famous 60s counterculture. But the Beats came from somewhere, too. The Beats felt something was wrong with existing mass culture and postwar conformity, and they reacted to it in their own individual ways, but these individual reactions were, like all negations of culture, yesses and syntheses of alternative cultural influences. The Beats synthesized what they learned from other countercultures in their classes at Columbia and in their cross-country travels; they learned about William Blake, Romanticism, Bohemianism, Walt Whitman, Dostoevsky, Eastern Mysticism, and Existentialism; they combined that with their exposure to drugs, African-American Jazz, the gay underground, crime culture in the West, and more. Perhaps most crucially, they had the material base ability to pursue countercultural activities, since the massive prosperity in postwar America meant they could get by with very little work for necessities, especially since they could eat the leftovers of their white middle class families. These influences, coupled with their deeper antipathy towards mainstream cultural values, gave them the cultural pathways they needed to craft an alternative path. Counterculture comes out of culture.
The modern world complicates this process, however. The problem is capital. Capitalist culture is the “ur-culture” of the West, and capital inheres itself in every cultural production, ensuring cultural reproduction in the service of capital creation. The reifying, commodifying, homogenizing effects of capital were more strongly than ever tied to what was called “mainstream” culture in the postwar period. Although counterculture as a concept has driven all cultural evolution, the actual term “counterculture” was invented in 1960 by John Milton Yinger. This is due to capital. Firstly, since consumerism was so successfully able to inhere itself to all culture, any anti-consumerist culture was not simply a normal aberration and evolution within culture, but a flat-out rejection of what, to everyone within capital, felt like the totality of culture. Thus, the hippies were literally counter-culture. Secondly, since capital had become so all-powerful by that time, and had effectively colonized all culture and all consciousness through the consumer behemoth supplemented by the culture industry (per Adorno), even this new “counterculture” had to be labelled as something marketable, something commodifiable. Every “hippie” Halloween costume attests to this helplessness. The relationship between counterculture and capital is always complicated, since many countercultures attempt to resist capital, but almost none can fully succeed— they must make concessions. These compromises aren’t all bad; I, for one, have an enormous soft spot for 2000s pop-punk, even though each band tended to get poppier with age.
One negative consequence for counterculture resulting from this interaction with capital is the urge towards reifying “counterculture” as an identity rather than a performance. When you adopt any countercultural pose, when you negate some dominant cultural ideology, you are making an existential statement that anyone else in your position with your possibilities ought to do the same, that the cultural expression you have chosen is preferable to the flawed one you rejected. There is a missionary aspect to this choice. But many who choose to live counterculturally end up isolating themselves in this choice. They make an identity out of being countercultural, enjoying the identity of “alternative” for its own sake, in a general sense, rather than for the sake of a specific cultural negation that they believe in and want to promote. It becomes an ego thing, an in-group thing, rather than a missionary endeavor to change culture itself. Thus, counterculture becomes content to remain as counterculture, and never completes the dialectic of cultural evolution, never is subsumed back into the set of possibilities for general human culture. In a twisted way, the invidious definition given to the major midcentury counterculture movements by consumerism, the identity of “counterculture,” is embraced and perpetuated by the very people who once sought to change general culture for the better. The rebellion becomes a segregated, sterile, commodified, and controlled subculture within the system of capital. If you feel countercultural in any way, that is a beautiful and powerful thing; make it your mission, not your badge. If possible (and in our world, maybe it isn’t), it should be something produced through individual recombination, rather than consumed wholesale.
Aidan ’20 (email@example.com) continues to ponder the true meaning of counterculture and how it impacts our lives today.