On the Poverty of Hip Life



The values that formerly braced the organization of appearances have lost their power. . . . 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 hippie’s 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. . . .

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. . . . 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. . . .

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 isn’t 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. . . .

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, 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. . . .

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 (“it’s all in your head”). . . . 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 didn’t exist. . . .

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. . . .

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. . . .

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 don’t think of themselves as ordinary businessmen because they “believe in their product.” It’s good vibes all the way to the bank.

The hippie’s 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 hippie’s 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. . . .

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 they’re 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. . . . 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 counterspectacle.

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 didn’t 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. . . .

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. . . .

(excerpts from unpublished draft, April 1972)


The above excerpts, reprinted from Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb, comprise about half the complete draft we put together when we abandoned the project.

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[French translation of these excerpts]
[Spanish translation of the complete text]
[Turkish translation of the complete text]