He Who Tastes, Knows

on June 7, 2010

Of course, it’s more complicated than that.

It’s always more complicated than that — which is why I’ve been trying my best to say only what is absolutely necessary and not get lost in the details.

But there are important things I’ve left unsaid about the 1970’s — so let’s rewind a bit and consider what was going on during that painfully fragmented decade, during which everything seemed to be flying off in all directions.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the 70’s is by comparing them to the very similar period from the late 1910’s to the early 1930’s, when democracy and science were reshaped under the influence of chaos in a way that ultimately enabled them to come together as a new dominant partnership.

In much the same way, first chaos and then democracy were reconfigured in the 60’s and 70’s under the influence of holism, which acted as a catalyst in the process without being noticeably altered itself. This period of extreme fluidity began with the failure of the science vision around 1964-65 and concluded with the formation of the democracy-and-chaos partnership in 1976-77.

The first significant change was when the chaos vision broke away from the science-based assumption that there must be a single fixed standard of objective truth.

Doubts as to the reality of objective knowledge had been implicit in the chaos vision at least as far back as Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, where they were associated with the first intimations of holism. Similar doubts had resurfaced whenever the science vision faltered, as it did in the years immediately following both world wars. But with those rare exceptions, the concept of objective knowledge remained a central article of faith for as long as science was dominant, from the 1860’s right up to the 1960’s.

As a result, when the science vision finally failed, one obvious reaction was to conclude that all knowledge is subjective, each person’s feelings are as valid as the next’s, and any claims to special expertise are a fraud.

This attitude was widespread in the 60’s and has remained a commonplace of our society ever since. But for those who were prepared to follow up on the clues offered by holism, there was a more sophisticated alternative.

Since the 19th century, it had been taken for granted that objective knowledge was the special province of detached outside observers. The scientist, the explorer, the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the newspaper reporter were all seen as capable of understanding and interpreting events in a way that was impossible for the people who were actually involved in them.

But that belief began to falter around 1965. Bob Dylan’s line, “Something’s happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones,” which mocked the pretensions of a Time magazine intern, was one sign of the new attitude. The same shift was already well underway in science fiction, as signaled by the willingness of Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) to acquire the wisdom of an exotic culture by being absorbed into it.

Within a few more years, this new faith in participatory knowledge was being put into practice. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) represented an attempt to report on the psychedelic counterculture from within, employing its own attitudes and vocabulary. And the term “Gonzo journalism” was coined in 1970 to describe Hunter Thompson’s use of an even more flamboyant and participatory style.

By then, it was a truism among the counterculture that reporters invariably missed or mangled the real story and that the only way to understand anything important — psychedelic drugs, the anti-war movement, or the experiences of blacks and other minorities — was as a participant.

These changes in the chaos vision were subtle, complex, and slow to reveal their meaning. In contrast, the alterations which took place in democracy were simpler and unfolded much more quickly — essentially during the Watergate years of 1972-74, when there was an abrupt shift from perceiving democracy as a structure of formal laws and institutions to viewing it as a system of relationships.

When Nixon resigned, the universal reaction was that “the system worked.” But what exactly was the “system” that had worked? Clearly not the government, since the institution of the presidency had been thoroughly undermined and corrupted. And not the laws, since Nixon had gotten off without being held responsible for any crime.

Instead, it seems that “the system” was understood as consisting of the loose network of crusading reporters, Congressional investigators, and conscience-stricken whistleblowers who had gradually peeled away the cover-up of the Watergate burglary.

This revised perception of democracy exactly paralleled the ongoing shift from seeing reality in terms of the physical laws of the science vision to interpreting it in light of the systems theory of holism. In the years that followed, trust in “the system” would only grow stronger as faith in government continued to decline.

By 1974, then, democracy and chaos had both been reformulated along more holistic lines and were almost ready to join together in a new dominant partnership — but not quite. Chaos was still associated in the public mind with the disruptive effects of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the violence of groups like the Weather Underground and was not yet ready to be offered a leadership role in society.

The collapse of 60’s style radicalism which followed the fall of Hanoi in April 1975 would significantly alter the national mood by 1976-77. That final moment of hesitation, however, provided a window of opportunity during which it was possible to explore the more subversive implications of the reconfiguration of chaos and democracy. And the major vehicle for that exploration was Saturday Night Live, which premiered on NBC in October 1975.

SNL quickly became known for its irreverent post-Watergate political satire, in which even presidents might be held up for mockery. But an even greater distinction was its devotion to what might be described as gonzo comedy — a style of over-the-top absurdism typified by John Belushi’s Samurai Delicatessen or almost any routine by frequent SNL guest Andy Kaufman.

The chaos vision had been associated from the start with humor and nonsense, but there had never been anything quite like this new form of comedy. It was radically different from the slapstick of silent films, the screwball comedies of the 1930’s, or the hipster comics of the late 50’s. It might be described as participatory to the max — no clown makeup that can be wiped off, no ironic asides or winks to the audience, just total identification with a bizarre alternate reality.

But even as SNL and its friends and associates were redefining the outer limits of humor, the country as a whole was taking a sharp turn to the right — and that put a decisive stamp on the final form of the democracy-and-chaos partnership.

In 1976, the Democrats passed over a variety of more conventional candidates to nominate a peanut farmer from Georgia. Jimmy Carter was the first president from the Deep South since before the Civil War, and his election both coincided with and further intensified a frenzy of appreciation for all things country — from country music and citizen’s-band radio to Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and The Dukes of Hazzard (1979).

The anti-authority postures and rowdy personas of this material clearly mark it as a core manifestation of the new synthesis of democracy and chaos. But by focusing on a nostalgic image of rural America, while airbrushing out the problems of urban workers and minorities, it imparted a distinct conservative flavor to the emerging partnership, one which only grew stronger with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan.

This conservative bias may have been in part a result of the extreme polarization that was a legacy of the 1960’s. The initial challenge for any dominant partnership is to stabilize and unify society, and that means establishing a consensus on which everyone can agree. If the only universally acceptable expression of the democracy vision was based on a romanticized image of a small-town past, and the only acceptable image of chaos was built around cowboys and outlaws, then that was what would necessarily prevail.

But there was also a second factor at work. Just as the influence of the chaos vision was minimized in the mid-1930’s, once its work of catalyzing the emergence of the science-and-democracy partnership was over, so the holism vision was pushed to the margins in the late 70’s. At the same time, the most holistic aspects of the reconfigured democracy and chaos visions were excluded from the new partnership as well.

It appears to be a fixed rule that every dominant partnership will attempt to wipe out all philosophical assumptions that are not compatible with its own intellectual premises. These more radical interpretations are never lost, however, but fall into that cultural netherworld where emerging visions slowly incubate their arguments until the dominant partnership weakens and the time is ripe for a new counterculture to be born.

During the last 35 years, for example, while American society has been dominated by a final nostalgic re-imagining of the democracy vision, the radical notions of participatory democracy spawned in the 70’s have joined forces with the multicultural vision.

And even as the dominant version of the chaos vision has been characterized by extreme subjectivity, ruthless hyper-individualism, and a surly kind of vigilantism, the new ideal of participatory knowledge has moved into alignment with the creative imagination vision.

For Alexei and me, this period of marginalization has often been deeply frustrating. In 1975, a new world had seemed so close we could almost taste it — and then it all slipped away. But that is the nature of the cycle whereby each dominant partnership engenders the next counterculture — and each counterculture in turn engenders the next dominant partnership.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

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.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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