On the Poverty of Hip Life
The values which formerly braced the organization of appearances have lost their power; morality, family, patriotism and all the rest fall away like so much dead weight. No longer can the old roles and mystifications compensate for the sacrifice of authentic experience which they demand. Businessman, professor, honest worker, playboy, housewife who can take them seriously anymore? The dominant heroes and idols become laughable. All falsification is in crisis.
This disintegration of values opens up a positive void in which free experimentation is possible. But if experimentation does not consciously oppose itself to all the mechanisms of power, then at the critical moment, when all values are sucked into the vortex, new illusions fill the void; power abhors a vacuum.
The hippies dissatisfaction, his dissociation from the old stereotypes, has resulted in his fabrication and adoption of new ones. Hip life creates and consumes new roles guru, craftsman, rock star; new abstract values universal love, naturalness, openness; and new mystifications for consolation pacifism, Buddhism, astrology, the cultural debris of the past put back on the counter for consumption. The fragmentary innovations that the hippie did make and lived as if they were total have only given new life to the spectacle. Instead of fighting for a real life, the hippie takes on an abstract representation, an image of life, and advertises his change of appearance as real change. The moral seriousness which he attaches to his lifestyle measures his dependence on the new image. Since the proliferation of lifestyles develops parallel to the decay of values, valuation in turn decomposes in the direction of choosing an entire pseudolife from among the styles on the market.
Records, posters, bellbottoms: a few commodities make you hip. When hip capitalism is blamed for ripping off our culture it is forgotten that the early cultural heroes (Leary, Ginsberg, Watts, etc.) promoted the new lifestyle in the emporium of cultural consumption. These advertising men for a new style, by combining their own cultural fetishism with the false promise of an authentic life, engendered a quasi-messianic attachment to the cause. They turned on youth simultaneously to a new family of values and a corresponding family of goods. Turning on meant at the same time consuming drugs and also uncritically buying a whole Weltanschauung. The difference between the real and the plastic hippie is that the former has deeper illusions; he acquired his mystifications in their pure, organic form, while the latter buys them packaged: astrology in a poster, natural freedom in his bellbottoms, Taoism from the Beatles. While the real hippie may have read and helped develop hip ideology, the plastic hippie buys commodities that embody that ideology. Identified with objects in the upside-down reality of the spectacle, human qualities (spontaneity, self-realization, community) become ideals for consumption precisely because they are what is lacking in reality; and because the illusion of authenticity becomes necessary for inauthentic life. Just as the religious horizon was the outlived framework which the millenarians failed to supersede in creating their lifestyle, so the hip lifestyle reproduces the consumerism it imagines it opposes.
The so-called revolution in the recording industry from the 1950s to the 1960s was precisely the victory of that industry over a discontented segment of the population through autochthonous celebrities and symbols, a sort of national liberation of youth which left it, like Third World countries, with indigenous masters and illusions of freedom. The rock festivals were nothing but the celebration of the triumph of a neo-imperialist assault on the cultural consumption of youth trying desperately to appear as the success of the revolt of youth. Rock music that central reference point for the nation of youth expresses in its lyrics the ideologies of the revolt of youth. Transcending class and national boundaries, it binds a global brigade of young consumer militants in fervent service to their star commodities. At the rock festivals sexual passion is transformed into contemplative ecstasy; children of pure spectacle sway in orgiastic yearning before the totalitarian presence of the rock celebrity. It is fundamentally the magnetism of the commodity which ensures the cohesion of this reified community. Those who make Woodstock and Altamont into a false dichotomy conceal their intrinsic identity. At each pseudo-festival band follows band, and the audience displays its willingness to endure discomfort for days in order to realize its wildest dreams of consumption. But the cohesion of the audience can at any time disintegrate and reveal its basic truth spectacular separation in its disintegration.
People responded to the counterculture because its content was largely a partial critique of the old world and its values (notably, for example, early Ginsberg and Dylan). In late capitalism all art and poetry that isnt just junk on the highbrow cultural market or a sop to so-called popular taste must be critical, if incoherently or nihilistically, of spectacular nonlife. But as culture such a critique only serves to preserve its object. The counterculture, since it fails to negate culture itself, can only substitute a new oppositional culture, a new content for the unchanging commodity-form. Cultural innovation is the reason for the hippies false optimism: See, things are changing. Yes, but only things. What seems to have been rejected and destroyed is recreated in the piecemeal reconstitution of the world of culture. Lyrics, as well as other artistic forms, can become revolutionary weapons, but only if they go beyond the artistic by being part of an agitational praxis which aims explicitly at the destruction of the commodity and of culture as a separate sphere.
The project initiated by the Diggers in the Haight-Ashbury the construction of a free city within the city, sustaining itself off the waste of its host and distributing its own survival freely exposed the fact of material abundance and the possibility of a new world based on the principle of gift. But without directly challenging the social practice of capitalism, it remained merely a gesture, a militant avant-garde welfare program. Despite the Diggers expectations, the state was not about to collapse around this self-management of garbage pickings.
Initially the Diggers practice had been an appropriate response to the needs of the moment in the context of insurrectionary activity. They first organized to distribute food after the San Francisco ghetto riot (1966) and an ensuing curfew made it difficult to obtain. But they continued this project in a nonrevolutionary context, propped it up with an ideology of primitive communism, fetishized the idea of free distribution and became something of an antibureaucratic institution. In the end they were doing the welfare workers job better than the welfare workers could, decompressing the radical critique of the family being lived by the runaways by advising them to go home in the language of the street.
In the Haight there were attempts at directly challenging the urbanism of isolation and the authority which enforces it (it is noteworthy that the local Safeway supermarket had to close down because of shoplifting), and often with a strong sense of play (notably the early attempts to take over the street). But because pacifist and humanist ideology dominated its practice, the Haight became a morality play, a crusade more than a rebellion. Critical acts were lost in the utopian hope that society like a bad child would follow a good example. What is utopian is not the idea of a society based on the principle of gift but the belief that such a dream can be realized without suppressing the reality which contains it. Outside critical activity there are only ideals to be followed; the principle of gift becomes the giving attitude of humanistic psychology. Compare the good vibes of the hippies to the assault made on the commodity economy by the practical dialecticians of the ghetto rebellions, in which which they realized for a short time another principle of the new world: To each according to his desires.
Like the sociologists who thought that the ghetto riots were an unfortunate consequence of the blacks attitude toward existing conditions, the hippie thinks that alienation is merely a matter of perception (its all in your head). He believes that the fetters on social life are ultimately the prevailing ideas and attitudes, that it is consciousness abstracted from social practice that needs to be transformed. Thus, in effect, he reinterprets reality so as to accept it by means of his interpretation. He mellows out, pacifies himself so as to be in tune with the (capitalist-dominated) environment. All negative feelings are a head problem solved by turning on the good vibes. Frustration and misery are attributed to bad karma. Bum trips are a consequence of not flowing with things. Psycho-moralizing about ego trips and power trips, he holds them responsible for the present social poverty and harbors millenarian expectations based on the abstract determination of everybody to love one another. Everything continues as it is factually while, by a dialectical deceit, he supplies a secret interpretation: that existing conditions will go away as soon as everyone acts as if they didnt exist. This quasi-Christian elevation above the world exactly measures how far the hippie is beneath life and destined to be kept there by virtue of this interpretation. He accepts his fate in the spirit of holiness, of confident superiority (dont let things bring you down). Like adolescents at a junior prom, everyone is encouraged to dance and have a good time. Be free! Be natural! A sneak preview of the psycho-humanist police force of the new order.
Emerging from the desperate isolation of advanced capitalism, the hippies reacted by simply grasping on to each other for support. Their rejection of isolation quickly lost itself in illusions of community. All the talk of dancing in the streets and all the pseudo-festivals only kept hidden the real separation and misery. Measuring his own life by the criteria of style, the hippie naturally judges others likewise. Smiling at another long-hair gives the illusion of a mutual recognition; the community of style becomes an ersatz communication. Everywhere from the commune to the street scene, from the switchboards to the free clinics, from the rap centers to the hip businesses the counterculture erects a new network of false bonds. Everyone becomes the chamber of commerce for a so-called hip community based on false oppositions, esoteric commodities and spectacles.
It was the promise of authentic community which attracted so many people to the hip milieu. For a while, in fact, in the Haight-Ashbury the boundaries between isolated individuals, living quarters and home and street began to give way. But what was to be a new life devolved into a glorified survival. The common desire to live outside the dominant society, since it could only be realized partially by living on the margins of that society, economically and otherwise, resulted in the reintroduction of survival as the basis for collective cohesion. All the domestic banalities are fetishized and social relations are marked by mutual toleration and active dissimulation of real separations. A motto of one commune is Ill tolerate you if you tolerate me.
In the rural communes, a false community of neoprimitives who share only the mutuality of their retreat assembles over the false crisis of a self-imposed natural alienation. This natural reserve is for them the sacred space in which they will return to the erotic bond of primitive communism and mystical union with nature. But in fact these zones for communitarian experimentation, which serve as shock-absorbers for the society at large, only reproduce the hierarchical patterns of former societies, from a rediscovered natural division of labor and shamanism to modified forms of frontier patriarchy. While the magic and ritual which the communalist practices, first playfully, then seriously, had a material basis when technology was primitive, and constituted, on a primitive level, a game with nature, his application of them is only a ludicrous substitute for what is now materially possible: a real game with nature without the religious mediation.
The hippies romanticization of nature and the primitive is not a unique response to a disintegrating social order. At the collapse of feudal society primitivism appeared as a surrogate for seizing the social possibilities exposed by such decay. But now it returns thoroughly spectacularized. In answering his alienation from nature with an ideology of naturalness, the hippie transforms, if not his reality at least his appearance; he gets as close to nature as long hair, bare feet, no bra and plenty of camping trips can take him. Once constructed, this image returns in an endless photographic and filmic display of flower-children dancing nude and their dearest recording stars romping through the woods in slow motion.
The counterculture ideologues justified their religious and mystical eclecticism as research in the methods of spiritual liberation, which some of them claimed was a necessary prerequisite for social revolution. In their hands revolution became, not the chance for subjectivity to transform reality, but the technical problem of changing your head, turning on. The hippie became an avid and full-time consumer of the oldest and latest techniques of induced passivity: meditation, light shows, multi-media, drugs, psychedelic posters. Using every technical means to simulate excitement to convince himself that he is still alive the hippie creates stimulating totalitarian environments and manipulates himself into euphoric passivity. His sensualism is merely a matter of heightened consciousness, a pseudo-enrichment of any content no matter how impoverished. Leaving one titillation, he is soon enough lost in another. It is the spontaneity of the commodity: you smoke a joint, put on the strobe light, listen to quadraphonic sound, and let things happen.
The hippies fascination with drugs and the occult, despite its liberatory pretensions, is really a fascination with a more internalized enslavement. Compulsively trying to feel good within and in spite of the dominant conditions, he ends up defending himself from feelings of alienation by trying to make them go away, or at least diminishing them so as to make them tolerable. Like the bored retiree who takes up hobbies, the hippie deals with his malaise by getting his head into something. He rejects both the work and the leisure of his parents, but only to return to both in his own way. He works in meaningful jobs, for hip companies in which the employees constitute a family, and does subsistence farming and temporary work. Imagining himself a primitive craftsman, he develops this role, idealizing the Craft. The ideology he attaches to his pseudoprimitive (or pseudofeudal) occupation dissimulates its petit-bourgeois character. His interests, such as organic food, spawn thriving businesses. But the owners dont think of themselves as ordinary businessmen because they believe in their product. Its good vibes all the way to the bank.
The hippies domestic leisure is just as pedestrian. Imagining he is rejecting the student role, he becomes a lifelong student. The free universities are smorgasbords where the most metaphysical as well as the most banal dishes are served up. Within its ideological boundaries the hippies appetite is limitless. He reads the I Ching. He learns to meditate. He gardens. He picks up a new instrument. He paints, makes candles, bakes. His energy is insatiable, but it is all dissipated. Each thing he does is in itself irreproachable because trivial; what is ludicrous is the illusions he builds up around his activities. For him, the more banal the activity, the more it is divine. In reality, what he busies himself with, whether in the city or the country, adds up to an immense diversion of creativity, a busy passivity which begins to solve for the advanced spectacle the problem of colonizing the free time it makes available.
Abstractly breaking with his past, the hippie lives a shallow version of an eternal present. Dissociated from both past and future, the succession of moments in his life is a disconnected series of diversions (trips). Travel is his mode of change, a drifting consumption of false adventures. He crosses the country continually in search of that beautiful scene which always evades him. His is a boredom always on the move. He hungrily devours every experience on sale in order to keep his head in the same good place. Wherever the hippie gathers with his fellows it is a space of unresolved tensions, of uncharged particles meandering around some spectacular nucleus or other. Hip urbanism always trying to carve out a homey space where its false community could flourish never failed to create for itself one more reservation where the natives stare blankly at each other because theyre also the tourists. The Haight-Ashbury, the rock festival, the hip pad were supposed to be free spaces where separations broke down; but hip space became the space of passivity, of leisure consumption of separations at another level. The rock concert in Oregon organized by the state to divert people from a demonstration where the state gave out free grass and inspected the psychedelics before they were dispensed is only the limiting case of the general tendency: space organized benevolently for tourists of dead time.
Hip life did have a more active content at its origins. The spectacular term hippie denotes far from homogenous phenomena and the subculture, and the individuals involved, passed through various stages. Some of the earliest of the subculture did have a conception of the new world as something to be built consciously, not as something that would just happen by turning on and coming together. But the spectacular culture which is the legacy of their activity, their success, is really the sign of their failure. When, in 1967, some staged a symbolic funeral of the hippie for the press, they only showed by their theatrical expression of failure that they never left the spectacle which produced them and never understood the spectacle they produced. The hip movement was the sign of growing discontent with a daily life colonized more and more by the spectacle. But in failing to oppose itself radically to the dominant system, it constructed merely a counter-spectacle.
Not that such opposition should have been political in the ordinary sense. If the hippie knew anything, he knew that the revolutionary vision of the politicos didnt go far enough. Although the hip lifestyle was really only a reform movement of daily life, from his own vantage point the hippie could see that the politico had no practical critique of daily life (that he was straight). If the early hippie rejected political activity partly for the wrong reasons (his positivity, utopianism, etc.), he also had a partial critique of it, of its boredom, its ideological nature and its rigidity. Ken Kesey was correct in perceiving that the politicos were only engaging the old world on its own terms. But by failing to offer anything besides this, except LSD, he and others like him abdicated, in effect, to the politicos. Their pure and simple apoliticality left them open in the end, first to partial support for, and then to absorption into the political movement. Even those who had a somewhat critical political perspective had a similar fate. For example, Gary Snyder, who had Gandhiist-anarchist sympathies, blames, in an early essay, the failure of the classical proletarian movement on a state of mind and Western Tradition, but winds up later supporting, if vaguely, the Panthers.
If the pre-political hippies fell for all the illusions and utopian solutions, if their critique of everyday life never recognized its historical basis and the material forces which could make it socially effective, still the emergence of the hippie revealed the extent of dissatisfaction, the impossibility for so many of continuing along the straight and narrow paths of social integration. Yet at the same time that the counterculture announced, if incoherently, the possibility of a new world, it constructed some of the most advanced paths of reintegration into the old one. The despair of dropping out gave way to the constructiveness of the counterculture; its positivity substituted utopian anticipation for critical activity. On all fronts the counterculture was an avant-garde of recuperation; it canalized real discontent with the generalized isolation into false alternatives; it served power with the necessary experimental research for the encirclement of potential opposition.
(unpublished draft, April 1972)
Excerpts from this draft were reprinted in Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb.