Culture | Rebelling with a cause

Tiana Reid explores the past, present, and future of counterculture

What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Whaddya got?”

Those are the famous words of Marlon Brando and Peggy Maley in the 1953 film, The Wild One. It was shortly thereafter, in the 1960s, that counterculture as a sociological term rose to prominence.

The meaning of “counterculture” is seemingly explained in the word itself. To be countercultural is to be against mainstream culture. In the most general sense, a counterculture is a collection of attitudes, behaviours, and an overall way of life that is opposed to dominant social norms.

According to cultural studies professor Derek Nystrom, of McGill’s English department, it is first important to make the distinction between subcultures and countercultures – an idea that originated in Resistance through Rituals, a collection of essays edited by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson. “Both subcultures and counter cultures resist ‘dominant’ culture, but in different ways: subcultures are marked more by a partial dissent from dominant institutions and practices, and their resistance is often subterranean, rather than explicitly articulated,” Nystrom wrote in an email. Furthermore, both subcultures and countercultures are perceived to be threatening to the dominant social order. Subcultures, like countercultures, may emerge from rebellion and an opposition to the dominant social norms, but there’s less of a precise and detailed goal. Nystrom drew from cultural theorist Paul Willis to explain that subcultures “rarely do what they say, or say what they mean, but they mean what they do.”

On the other hand, countercultures have an explicit goal. It’s not simply about being against something, but rather talking about what you’re fighting for. Countercultures “articulate themselves explicitly in opposition to dominant beliefs and practices, and often seek to build counter-institutions for the securing and transmission of its alternative sets of beliefs and practices,” wrote Nystrom. Some of those “alternative sets of beliefs and practices” include looking at institutions such as family and work in an unorthodox way.

For John Clarke, Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson, and Brian Roberts in Resistance through Rituals, counter cultural practices in the 1960s involved extensive populations of middle-class youth. They argue that “middle-class countercultures are diffuse, less group-centered, more individualized” than what they call “working-class subcultures” – fixed collectives with a group identity, like gangs.

For the most part, the 1960s have been considered the hotbed of countercultures. “The 1960s in the U.S. offers, of course, a host of these kinds of countercultural institutions – from the various New Left groups and their organizational structures to the wide range of communes and other alternative living organizations, as well as the identity-politics based institutions created by the black, gay, and women’s liberation movements,” wrote Nystrom. The Vietnam War, North America’s first televised war, bombarded people with more graphic images than ever before, which had an obvious impact on how U.S. citizens perceived their own state.

Nystrom insisted that Vietnam was simply one part of this increase in cultural opposition. “It’s also important to note that countercultural youth movements sprung up all over the globe during the 1960s, and those other places weren’t fighting in Vietnam, which suggests that the causes for them may have been more demographic (the post WWII baby booms) and/or structural (as part of the shift from monopoly capitalism to late or multinational capitalism),” he explained.
Like most social movements, countercultures eventually lose their fire and enter the mainstream. Even the cultural legacies of those moments don’t have the same poignancy in our generation’s eyes as they did to the fresh eyes of their era. Easy Rider, for instance, is considered an iconic countercultural text, but today, its message pales in comparison to the impact it had when it was released in 1969.

Speaking broadly, Nystrom wrote that countercultures are mainstreamed “when the explicit political challenge of the counterculture fails, and some of their beliefs and practices prove to be assimilable into dominant practices.” Nystrom noted that author and journalist Thomas Frank argued that many of the principles of the countercultures in the 1960s were focused heavily on pleasure, easily translatable to consumer capitalism. Although this seems like an oxymoron, Frank wrote in The Conquest of Cool that “faith in the revolutionary potential of ‘authentic’ counterculture combine[s] with the notion that business mimics and mass-produces fake counterculture in order to cash in on a particular demographic and to subvert the great threat that “real” counterculture represents” – something he calls the “co-optation theory.”  For every genuine counterculture, corporate response is to integrate the counterculture into consumer products, commercializing its original values.

While we may be nostalgic for the sixties conception of counterculture, the idea of a contemporary counter-culture is more difficult to assess. Do counter cultures even exist today? When asked what constitutes counter culture today, Nystrom expressed the opinion that it, in the context of the U.S., counter culture is located on the Christian right. He argued that the Christian right has a distinct worldview relying on a network of institutions, including universities and churches, that are against mainstream culture – such as scientific method in schools, political secularism, and to some extent, consumer capitalism.

This argument at first appears striking, because what we usually think of as counterculture – queer movements, civil rights, anti-war movements, the “summer of love” – are more commonly rooted in leftist ideologies.  But Nystrom wrote that “someone who has been home-schooled by born-again Christian parents, attends Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia, and goes on to work as a lawyer for the Pat Robertson affiliated American Center for Law and Justice lives a fully saturated countercultural existence as profound as someone who resisted the draft and lived in a commune in Vermont in the 1960s and ’70s.”

If contemporary counterculture is defined by groups such as Christian right, does this mean the end of the radical activism that defined movements of the sixties and seventies?  Or can it be reinvented? Counterculture gave birth to cyber culture, argues Fred Turner in the 2006 book From Counterculture to Cyberculture.  The two are inseparable, and this has revolutionized the way cultures interact and develop. Communications technologies – especially social media like YouTube, blogging, Twitter, and Facebook – are routinely lauded for their effects on social change, and more importantly, for human possibility. Nystrom thinks that social media can influence the creation of countercultures because they “allow people to have access to and participate in alternative beliefs and practices without being geographically linked to each other.”

With communication technologies as a resource for change, cultural critic Greil Marcus has argued that the very notion of a counter-culture may be unnecessary. In a 2003 New York Times article, he wrote, “It doesn’t matter that there is no counterculture, because counterculture of the past gives people a sense that their own difference matters.” While the idea of counter-culture today is embedded with romantic and nostalgic implications of past rebellion, to be in defense of the possibility of counter cultural change is to be in defense of freedom.


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