Counter-cultures: thick and wide

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The extraordinary accomplishment of the two countercultures of the 1960s-80s was to create new, serious, distinctive, positive approaches to all aspects of life.

Countercultural culture was wide, in addressing every imaginable topic, and in appealing to a broad audience—ideally, everyone. It was thick, in that its treatment of any given topic was substantial, dense, a significant innovation, and woven into one of the two great countercultural themes (monism or dualism) via its structure of justifications.

This contrasts with subcultures, which were narrow: able to address only a few aspects of life, and intended only for a small specific segment of society. As the subcultures progressively fragmented, they also became increasingly thin: they lost the critical mass of creativity needed to develop innovative, deep meanings.

Countercultural culture also contrasts with imploding systematic culture that preceded it. That suffered from a profound loss of confidence, and from a split between “high” culture and “popular” culture. “High” culture had been property of the social elite, but turned against its masters, as the anti-bourgeois artistic avant garde. By the 1960s, that had degenerated into knee-jerk negativity and empty simulations of creation, “a series of increasingly desperate gimmicks by which artists sought to give their work an immediately recognizable individual trademark, a succession of manifestos of despair.”1 Meanwhile, “popular” culture was mainly trivial; and so neither could provide thick meanings. Nihilism seemed a plausible consequence of the loss of the meaning-defining classical high culture of the systematic mode at its zenith.

The countercultures deliberately addressed that nihilism by creating new cultures as serious, positive mass alternatives. This is perhaps the most valuable legacy of the countercultural era.

The countercultures obliterated the obsolete high/pop distinction. Their new art started from popular forms, but also borrowed from the avant garde. Overall, it had greater depth, heft, sophistication, and broad appeal than either.

Some miscellaneous points I will cover

I defined the countercultures as “new, alternative, universalist, eternalist, anti-rational systems.” I noted that rejecting rationality was the central conceptual move of both. Anti-rationality was the key to their contribution to the arts.

Hallucinogenic drugs, whose effects are anti-rational, inspired the monist counterculture’s psychedelic art movement.

This theme goes back to the Romantics, though. They too deployed art as an antidote to the dehumanizing effects of modern employment. The monist counterculture drew heavily on Romantic precedents.

The monist counterculture, particularly, harnessed the creative energy of an entire generation into a thematically coherent culture. The Boomer gonzo attitude of throwing oneself totally into a scene, take-no-prisoners, contributed to its enormous power output. This had good and bad effects. It resulted in unprecedented cultural progress, but also a lot of harmful idiocy, and lasting bitter conflict.

I don’t need to go into any detail on the content, because it’s still omnipresent and familiar. Teenagers today still listen to ’60s bands, half a century later—just as they have in every intervening decade. I won’t be surprised if they still do in another half century. Teenagers have not listened to pop music from the 1940s since the 1940s, and never will again.

One legacy: you can buy almost any product—whether a physical good or a service—in monist or dualist branding. As a random example: holistic dentistry and Christian dentistry. Also, heavy metal.

Everyone in the monist counterculture listened to every genre of popular music. This was consistent with monism, and universalism: music was no longer divided by race, class, ethnicity, or religion. Most subcultures, by contrast, organized around single musical genres. The atomized mode abandoned that again; and now everyone listens to anything. Like this atomized masterpiece, probably the most sublime achievement of Western Civilization: