In All This Shit, There Must Be a CountercultureCory Panshin on January 20, 2010
I truly thought I’d be almost done with the 1960’s by now and ready to move on — but in the course of writing the last several entries, I realized I didn’t know nearly as much about how countercultures get started as I thought I did. That’s something I need to sort out.
I’ve believed for years that the 60’s counterculture emerged directly out of earlier, more tentative expressions of the chaos vision and differed from them mainly in being energized by the decline of the science-and-democracy partnership. That image of energization was what I had in mind when I suggested (in “Moral Agents“) that each vision generates the seeds of its successor during its countercultural peak, because it grows over-confident then and starts to run up again its own limitations and moral weaknesses.
But as I worked on the succeeding entry (“The True Voice of Chaos“), I found myself saying something very different — that the first hints of discontent with the reason vision had been based not on morality but on boredom and that they had appeared as early as the 1730’s, prior to the peak of the reason-based counterculture.
As I thought about that, it occurred to me that perhaps each counterculture begins not as a mere amplification of what has come before but in an attempt to reinvigorate a vision that has already begun losing intensity and mystery as it gains mainstream acceptance.
Was there any suggestion of that happening prior to the rise of the 60’s counterculture? Indeed there was. Around 1962-63, the year that I was finishing high school and preparing to head off to college, the chaos vision appeared to have gone distinctly flat. Rock ‘n’ roll was dead, Hollywood hipsters like Frank Sinatra seemed outdated and irrelevant, and even the beatniks were past their glory days of the late 50’s.
Instead of looking to chaos, young people of my generation were singing protest songs about nuclear disarmament and civil rights — two aspects of the ongoing failure of the science-and-democracy partnership — and were dreaming of radical social change.
It was only after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 that the chaos vision started showing up again in forms that ranged from the absurdist antics of the early Beatles to the proto-psychedelic folk music of the Holy Modal Rounders. And over the next couple of years, a chaos-based counterculture would develop that was so wild and strange and dangerous that large segments of American society are still freaking out over it even to this day.
But where in the world did that incredible burst of energy come from? When and how did the chaos vision mutate from its laid-back hipster mode to its gonzo hippie mode? And what brought this mutant version of chaos to center stage just when the culture needed it most?
Much of what happened in the early 60’s is still a mystery to me, but there may be clues in the present moment, which in many ways stands at the same crossroads.
In recent years, the holism vision has become as stale and over-familiar as the chaos vision was in 1963. We know all the standard moves and we’re more than a bit tired of them. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) garnered both an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize. Even the blockbuster hit Avatar (2009), for all its dazzling special effects, is in many ways merely a spiffed-up version of the forty-year-old “save Chester Cricket’s meadow from the bulldozers” plotline.
Though we continue to fret conscientiously over climate change and resource depletion, the real focus since 2008 has been on how to extricate ourselves from the wreckage of the democracy-and-chaos partnership, which has ended its period of dominance by getting us into far more trouble than science-and-democracy ever did.
Under those circumstances, is it possible that over the next year or two a holism-based counterculture could come zooming out of nowhere and turn society on its ear? Could a significant number of the people who’ve been laboring in the toils of the ongoing social crisis get fed up enough to throw it all over and run off to join the circus instead?
But if there really is a counterculture on its way — a movement which is holism-based but radically different from the shopworn images of holism based on ecology — where is it now and what has it been up to?
I can’t claim to know the answer for sure — but speaking personally, my money is on the steampunks.
Steampunk, for those who haven’t yet encountered it, can be loosely defined as a subculture that asks the question, What if the late 19th century technology of wheels and gears and steam power could have actually accomplished the marvels that were attributed to it in scientific romances of the time? What if it was as potent in its own way as present-day technology, but based on an entirely different set of scientific and aesthetic principles? And what if the masters of that technology were not stuffy middle class Victorians but mad scientists and airship pirates and other outlaws?
Steampunk began in the 1980’s as a literary form, a sub-genre of science fiction, but over the last few years — and most notably since 2006 — it has become a lifestyle as well. And though steampunk super-science may not be real, steampunk aesthetics and ethics most certainly are.
Steampunks are not just fans of a particular literary or artistic style. They have strong philosophical beliefs, which they strive to live by, even if that puts them at odds with the dominant culture. These beliefs emphasize making rather than consuming, working for love rather than profit, and dealing with the real rather than with the artificial.
Steampunk artists produce breathtaking reconfigurations of computers, iPods, and even motorbikes using materials like brass and mahogany — substances which display life and depth and warmth — to replace the chrome and plastic of most present-day gadgets, which are all surface sheen with no inner truth.
Reflecting their determination to explore the inwardness of things, steampunks are mad about clockwork-style gears. They wear them as necklaces, attach them to pendants, shoes, and top hats, and even feature them on wedding cakes.
Steampunk already has many of the hallmarks of a full-fledged counterculture — which include a determination to both think and act differently and to utilize nonconformity in behavior and appearance to prod the dominant culture in new directions. That’s what the hippies did, and it’s what the steampunks are gearing up to do.
Like the hippies, they have their own distinctive style of dress, which might loosely be described as Neo-Victorian with swashbuckling embellishments. This is still largely reserved for special events, but they are constantly debating how far they can bring it into everyday life. The more they manage to do this, the more it will both set them off from conventional society and serve as a challenge to others.
The steampunks additionally offer not just the makings of a counterculture but of a specifically holism-based counterculture. They are passionate about the material universe in a way that hasn’t been in fashion since the 1920’s. They are sincere lovers of science — and the grittier and more dirt-under-the-fingernails the better.
Because they are not based in the chaos vision, the steampunks have no interest in acting wacky or outraging the bourgeoisie. They have something very different in mind, and they display it in both their clothing and their manners.
The chaos vision was associated from the start with a deliberate casualness in dress and behavior — going back to the 1730’s, when French noblemen began setting aside their velvets and laces in favor of English-style riding coats. By the 1980’s and 90’s, it seemed as though the entire planet was decked out in identical blue jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies.
But not the steampunks. Not only do they aim at a revival of elegance and style, but they are dedicated to the renewal of courtesy and manners. This is an attitude that would have marked you as hopelessly uncool in the era of chaos, but the steampunk insistence on politeness is not only one of their central values but perhaps their ultimate weapon.
One of the secret strengths of any counterculture is that its members are able to defy the entrenched power of the dominant culture because they have their own set of moral standards which are more demanding than those of the mainstream. This enables them to think and act in radically unexpected ways which the larger society cannot foresee or forestall.
Finally, the steampunks have been displaying a tremendous amount of energy and are rapidly taking on new converts, often to their own dismay. They’ve started sweeping into science fiction conventions — which had become decrepit to the point of near-narcolepsy — and shaking them up. They’ve been showing anime fans that there are better things to do than dressing up as your favorite Final Fantasy character for the seventeenth time. The steampunk spirit is so appealing that it’s even been seeping into the pseudo-medievalism of Renaissance Faires and traditional fantasy
I could be wrong about the steampunks, of course, and perhaps there are even better games going on in other hidden pockets of the culture. But it’s nearly showtime, and I certainly don’t see signs of any other contenders.
And if I’m right, steampunk is likely to become both more widespread and more revolutionary in the near future. So if you suddenly start seeing tidy little doodles of gears showing up on your neighborhood walls, like a more ziz-zag version of 60’s peace signs, that’s what it’s all about.
(Or maybe gears cross-bred with 60’s peace signs? That could be interesting…)
A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.
A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.
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