unfurling theodore roszak’s countercultural social criticism: expanded edition of talk delivered @ society of us intellectual history conference, washington, dc, saturday, 17 october 2015.
to zap them with holiness
to levitate them with joy
to open them with love vessels
to clothe the wretched with linen and light
to put music and truth in our underwear
So declared the radical anarchist Living Theatre actor and director Julian Beck in a poem printed in a 1968 issue of the underground newspaper International Times. It was the kind of outlandish countercultural statement that many dismiss as ridiculous hyperbole, but which the social critic Theodore Roszak—trained as a historian, a medievalist in fact—took quite seriously.
Roszak’s bestselling 1968 book The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition sought to explain this emerging social phenomenon, the counterculture, by treating it as an intellectual movement, though one that, as we shall see, called into question the boundaries, definition, and practice of the intellect itself. Roszak quoted Beck’s poem approvingly (The Making of a Counter Culture, 151-152, hereafter cited just by page numbers). He was all for putting music and truth in our underwear.
But Roszak was not exactly a counterculturalist himself, certainly not generationally. Born in 1933, he was a parent by the 1960s. Based in London, he edited a weekly radical pacifist magazine, Peace News, with his wife Betty while on leave from a position in the History Department at Cal State-Hayward. Supportive of the surge of disaffiliation with mainstream society he noticed among younger people in both England and the United States, he began to write a series of essays about what he thought they were thinking, and why. These essays became The Making of a Counter Culture. The book was perhaps most responsible for popularizing “counterculture” (counter culture at first; only after Roszak did the two worlds collapse into one) as the term to describe the surge of alienation and rebellion against mainstream Western society primarily among young people. Yet while it is superficially grouped with other works that uncritically celebrated the sixties counterculture (one thinks of Charles Reich’s The Greening of America), Roszak’s work proves far more nuanced upon closer examination.
To revisit The Making of a Counter Culture asks us to reconsider, at the very least, three dimensions of the history of the 1960s. First, a close reading of this best-selling book suggests that it might be worth understanding the counterculture as an intellectual rather than a social movement, which is how many typically portray it. Roszak’s book presents the counterculture not as an identifiable demographic, but instead as an ideational space of inquiry, hope, desire— more an attitude, sensibility, or atmosphere than a stable, fully structured identity group. It was an intellectual movement that did not demand firm membership so much as a kind of spirit of engagement. Second, the counterculture was shaped as much by commentary on it in books such as Roszak’s as autonomously or prior to works of criticism such as his study. The widespread circulation of The Making of a Counter Culture within the very movement it analyzed reminds us that the counterculture as an intellectual atmosphere emerged in part out of a complicated dialectic between insiders and outsiders, participants and commentators. Sometimes these two roles even were held by the same person, as in Roszak himself. As a sympathetic social critic, he moved between perspectives of appreciation on the one hand and hesitation on the other. The particularities and subtleties of an inquiry such as his have often been overshadowed by the urge to either commend or condemn—but in both cases distort—the history of the counterculture. Finally, Roszak’s career after The Making of a Counter Culture asks us to consider the presence of a “long counterculture” in American life; but rather than imagine its long presence as a cycle of authentic rebellion and mainstream cooptation on endless repeat, or think of it as an entirely manufactured “lifestyle” that continues to sucker Americans into a marketed sense of faux- revolution, Roszak’s work presents the counterculture as an ongoing intellectual inquiry into the meaning and nature of personal liberation and collective justice—as an energy of asking questions and searching for possible answers to the deepest problems of democracy in modern industrial and post-industrial societies.
To the first and second of these reconsiderations then. Roszak’s book reminds us that the counterculture was a movement born as much from intellectual quarters as anywhere else—and unlikely mainstream intellectual quarters at that. The counterculture’s very name first appeared not among the Beats or other bohemians and rebels of American society, but rather in the scholarly functionalist sociology of Talcott Parsons and Milton Yinger. Shaped in part by the effort to understand it, the counterculture was never an anti-intellectual fetishization of experience—it was not some pure rebel yell or barbaric yawp that later resounded in an echo chamber of analysis. From the start, it was an external imposition, an intellectual characterization made from the outside, looking in.
For Roszak, the term named a loose, nascent spirit, an ideational and affective state of mind and body that was just coming into view out of a profound alienation with mainstream values and ideas of normality. “And our alienated young,” he asked near the start of his book, “how shall we characterize the counter culture they are in the way of haphazardly assembling?” The answer to this question was, for Roszak, to think of the counterculture as an ambiguous collection of ideas and activities in motion. His was a subtle and agile description of an amorphous atmosphere of uncertainty, dissatisfaction, disaffiliation, rebellion, and questioning. There was, for Roszak, no “manifesto” that would be “unanimously endorsed by the malcontented younger generation” for “the counterculture is scarcely so disciplined a movement.” Instead, he pictured the counterculture as “something in the nature of a medieval crusade: a variegated procession constantly in flux, acquiring and losing members all along the route of march” (48).
For Roszak, while the younger people and the thinkers influencing them were polyglot, they were brought together by a shared project: they sought to map out a future territory on intellectual and cultural grounds rather than social or political ones. “At their best,” he wrote, “these young bohemians are the would-be utopian pioneers of the world that lies beyond intellectual rejection of the Great Society. They seek to invent a cultural base for New Left politics, to discover new types of community, new family patterns, new sexual mores, new kinds of livelihood, new esthetic forms, new personal identities on the far side of power politics, the bourgeois home, and the consumer society” (66). This new formation embraced a broader sense of what reasoning could involve: not just intellectual thinking conventionally understood, but also what Roszak called “non-intellective” experiences. For not “the level of class, party, or institution,” but what Roszak called “the non-intellective level of the personality from which these political and social forms issue” was where the counterculture not so much took its stand but danced its dance (49). To Roszak, “What makes the youthful disaffiliation of our time a cultural phenomenon, rather than merely a political movement, is the fact that it strikes beyond ideology to the level of consciousness, seeking to transform our deepest sense of the self, the other, the environment” (49).
Drawing upon a Romantic anarchist socialist tradition that ran from Blake and Wordsworth to William Morris, John Ruskin, and Patrick Geddes to thinkers directly shaping the counterculture such as Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, Paul Goodman, as well as poets such as Allen Ginsberg and educators such as Alan Watts, Roszak crystallized a key aspect of the counterculture: the revolution they sought would have to be personal, and it would need to expand the repertoire of rebellion to a more robust mode of reason that included sensation and experience, the wonders of dance, Gnosticism, and shamanism. Nonetheless it was ultimately an intellectual endeavor, one broadened in scope and and reach, deepened in its transformative potential, by an enlarged sense of what the intellectual encompassed.
As a social critic at once outside and inside the counterculture, observing and analyzing it yet also recognizing his own deep allegiances to and hopes for it, Roszak offers an example of what Michael Walzer has famously called the “connected critic.”1 Because his book not only studied, but also was then influential in shaping the ideational world of what became the counterculture, Roszak modeled a way to participate in this movement by moving back and forth across the line between internal and external perspectives. The entire counterculture might be said to be marked by interior-exterior dynamics of various sorts. As Nick Bromell points out, psychedelic drugs lent themselves to this orientation—or better said disorientation— between outside and inside, world and self.2 Roszak’s work itself, as well as its success as a mass market paperback, proposes a twist to this: it is a reminder that the counterculture can also be understood as emerging from and shaped by a dialogue between sympathetic elders on the outside and young participants on the inside.
Emerging is a key concept here. Historians often assume that Roszak’s book pictured the counterculture as a fully developed and mature movement, but it does not. We forget the first part of the title. This is a book about something in process, a movement in motion, being made. Roszak himself hoped to contribute to the making of the counterculture through his social criticism. “The young,” he wrote, “miserably educated as they are, bring with them almost nothing but healthy instincts.” For Roszak, “The project of building a sophisticated framework of thought atop those instincts is rather like trying to graft an oak tree upon a wildflower. How to sustain the oak tree? More important, how to avoid crushing the wildflower? …such is the project that confronts those of us who are concerned with radical social change” (41). Roszak did not merely look down upon the counterculture from on high, he dug into its dilemmas and possibilities in relationship to the dominant technocratic social order. In doing so, Roszak not only studied the counterculture, he also proposed a way to be a counterculturalist. After all, his bestselling book took its place alongside Beatles’s records, roach clips, love beads, and other paraphernalia of the movement. This author of a book about the counterculture wound up part of the mix. Outside and inside, elder and youth, “objective” analysis and subjective experience— they all flowed together through Roszak as a social critic in situ, an author who exercised a kind of nuanced and careful (and care-full) authority within a movement questioning authority of all sorts.
Roszak’s authority partially arose from the fact that he never settled for idolatry of either the intellectuals shaping the counterculture or the young people forming it. To wit, he read the intellectuals with a critical eye for their flaws, seeking out a path forward from their shortcomings as well as their keen insights. In discussing the critical theory of Herbert Marcuse and the mysticism of Norman O. Brown, for instance, he wrote, “It will be my position here that, in the realm of social criticism, the counterculture begins where Marcuse pulls up short, and where Brown, with no apologies, goes off the deep end” (88). Or, on the young counterculturalists, he appreciated how “it is the young who have in their own amateurish, even grotesque way, gotten dissent off the adult drawing board.” Yet, “when all is said and done,” Roszak continued in a less confident tone, “one cannot help being ambivalent toward this compensatory dynamism of the young” (26). Roszak was a deeply empathetic social critic, but a critic nonetheless. For many, simply celebrating the counterculture’s turn to, as the musical Hair famously put it, “mystic crystal revelations,” was enough: here was revolution made easy, they thought, through bloodless cultural evolution. Others were only too glad to dismiss the counterculture hide, hair, and wholesale, particularly because its young participants came not from the margins of society, but rather, more often then not, from its suddenly ungrateful white, affluent middle classes. In contrast to these positions, Roszak was able to recognize and identify with yet also critique the counterculture as an embryonic, vulnerable, scattershot movement of a surprising nature.
He was able to do so because his book was as much about what the counterculture opposed as it was about the opposition itself. In what might be thought of as an early attempt to name the system of neoliberalism, Roszak described an increasingly administered, hyper-rational order that he called the “technocracy.” This system sat on the cusp between the clunky homogeneity of industrial society and the ever-sleeker order of post-Fordism. Driven by a myth of “objective consciousness,” a positioning of the scientific gaze as de-personalized and all- knowing, the “technocracy” substituted expertise and “crackpot realism” for democratic participation, ecological balance, and enhanced living for all.3 For Roszak, the urge of humans to control the world ironically led to a ruling technocratic logic that demanded individual humans (and certainly the non-human world) subordinate themselves to controlling systems.
Naming systems was all the rage in the 1960s. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) leader Paul Potter, for instance, urged leftwing protesters to “name the system” in a famous 1965 speech.4 For Potter and other political activists, that system was ultimately capitalism US style. For Roszak, however, it was also something else. The technocracy that many in the counterculture were struggling to wrap their minds around and abandon was bigger than just economics alone. He thought the counterculture named something deeper and more difficult to dislodge than just a form of the market. “It is essential to realize that the technocracy is not the exclusive product of that old devil capitalism,” he argued. “Rather, it is the product of a mature and accelerating industrialism. The profiteering could be eliminated; the technocracy would remain in force.” To Roszak, “The key problem we have to deal with is the paternalism of expertise within a socioeconomic system which is so organized that it is inextricably beholden to expertise. And, moreover, to an expertise which has learned a thousand ways to manipulate our acquiescence with an imperceptible subtlety” (19).
The standard older left critique of capitalism did not identify a more deep-seated embrace of technocratic expertise within societies both capitalist and communist. Perceiving the deeper logic of the technocracy was what the counterculture reached for in its oppositionality to the mainstream society of postwar America. “For the technocrat,” regardless of ideology, “more is always better,” Roszak wrote. “Wherever there is more input and more output—it does not matter what is being put in or put out—bombs, students, information, freeways, personnel, publications, goods, services—we have the sure sign of progress” (198). Roszak asked, “How are we to describe thinking of this kind? It is ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’? Is it liberal or reactionary? Is it a vice of capitalism or socialism?” He thought, adopting the position of a counterculturalist, “The answer is: it is none of these. The experts…are simply…the experts. They talk of facts and probabilities and practical solutions. Their politics is the technocracy: the relentless quest for efficiency, for order, for ever more extensive rational control. Parties and governments may come and go, but the experts stay on forever. Because without them, the system does not work. The machine stops. And then where are we?” The problem, Roszak felt, was that the conventional left lacked the imaginative and conceptual resources to address this question effectively. “How do the traditional left-wing ideologies equip us to protest against such well- intentioned use of up-to-date technical expertise for the purpose of making our lives more comfortable and secure?” he wondered. “The answer is: they don’t” (22).
Grasping Herbert Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance,” Roszak not only noticed how the system seemed to trump all that stood in its way, he was also among the first to perceive how good at absorbing rebellion the technocracy could be. It wasn’t in fact a rigid system of control. This is a common misinterpretation of Roszak’s definition of the technocracy. It wasn’t simply a top-down system of homogenous, alienating control—a clunky machine—but rather something much more slippery. The technocratic order could incorporate rebellion, even revolution, into its workings without losing central power. Long before Thomas Frank complicated our understanding of cooptation in the 1960s, Roszak recognized how what he called the “distortive publicity” of Madison Avenue marketing firms, mass media outlets, and even academic researchers such as himself posed tough new problems for the countercultural project.5 “Whatever the young have fashioned for themselves,” Roszak noticed, “has rapidly been rendered grist for the commercial mill and cynically merchandized by assorted hucksters—including the new ethos of dissent, a fact that creates an agonizing disorientation for the dissenting young (and their critics)…” (162).
Roszak even noticed how the forces of capitalism lurked within the counterculture itself, producing countercultural energies within rather than against consumer capitalism without disrupting the larger technocratic structures of domination (presaging an argument Frank would later make in his study of Madison Avenue). This occurred, Roszak noticed, particularly around the keen interest in drugs. Of the new underground weeklies proliferating across countercultural scenes in the United States he wrote that their “advertising betrays the fact that the journals have grown progressively more dependent on a local hip economy,” one that was driven by marketing a need for psychedelics (162). Countercultural participants had to confront the fact that their “journals have grown progressively more dependent on a local hip economy most of whose wares—clothing, light shows, rock music and its clubs, posters, electronic strobes, jewelry, buttons, bells, beads, black-light glasses, dope pipes, and assorted ‘head equipment’—are designed to be perceived through a narcotic haze, or at any rate go a long way toward glamorizing the psychedelics, deepening the fascination or the need” (162).
Worse yet, Roszak noticed, the larger system could easily accommodate these fascinations. “Why should not the technocratic society accept into its arsenal of social controls methods of emotional release as sophisticated as psychedelics?” he asked. “An occasional turn- on, a periodic orgy, a weekend freak-out…what threat do such private kicks pose to the established order—provided always that they do not become associated with disruptive forms of dissent?” (176). A true escape from the technocracy to freedom through countercultural means was not going to be simple. Countercultural activities could be easily brought into the technocracy, which then maintained a system of coordinated order by channeling longings for freedom into consumer pleasures and spectacles. “The counterculture,” Roszak worried, “begins to look like nothing so much as a worldwide publicity stunt. One can easily despair of the possibility that it will survive these twin perils: on the one hand, the weakness of its cultural rapport with the disadvantaged; on the other, its vulnerability to exploitation as an amusing side show of the swinging society” (72).
This problem was on two fronts—on one side, how to link affluent alienation to struggles for economic justice and, on the other, how to protect countercultural engagement from hip commodification. This was something that an outsider could notice and articulate best through social criticism. As Roszak admitted, “What can the Beatles’ latest surrealist LP mean to an unemployed miner or a migrant farm laborer?” And yet, conventional political activity focused on mitigating immiseration, inequality, and injustice was not enough. “How often have we heard old-line radicals condemn the bohemian young for the ‘irresponsibility’ of their withdrawal into kooky communities of their own?” Roszak asked. “Instead,” he explained, aping the voice of the old radicals, the young “are advised to ‘grow up’ and ‘be responsible’—by which is meant, usually: ‘Give your energy to political action. Help organize the slums or the agricultural laborers; plan political coalitions; register voters in Mississippi; join the Peace Corps; find a project; agitate; sit-in; come to the demonstration; subscribe to Dissent, Commentary, New Politics….'” For Roszak, these “activities are noble enough. But they are, at best, only episodic commitments. Run them together as one may, they have not the continuity and comprehensiveness demanded by a way of life.” The deeper problem was that young people in modern technocratic societies were searching for just that, a “way of life,” and desperately needed it. “It is a way of life the young need to grow into,” Roszak wrote, “a maturity which may include political activity, but which also embraces more fundamental needs: love, family, subsistence, companionship. Political action and organizing cannot even provide a full-time career for more than a handful of apparatchiks, let alone a pattern of life for an entire generation” (200-201).
At the same time that he was suspicious of the Old Left’s reduction of culture to narrow definitions of political activism, Roszak was also concerned about the ways in which the countercultural focus on ways of life quickly led to commodified lifestyles that diluted political intensity and focus. “It is the cultural experimentation of the young that often runs the worst risk of commercial verminization,” he wrote, “and so of having the force of its dissent dissipated” (70). And still even more terrible, there were troubling signs of antihumanism within the counterculture’s confusing reach toward something more fully human than technocratic structures. Roszak pictured the forces that might give rise, just as his book was being published, to a sinister figure such as Charles Manson. “There are manifestations around the fringe of the counterculture that one cannot but regard as worrisomely unhealthy,” he wrote. “Elements of pornographic grotesquery and bloodcurdling sadomasochism emerge again and again in the art and theater of our youth culture and intrude themselves constantly into the underground press” (74).
The counterculture was nothing pure to Roszak. It was certainly no panacea. It was full of problems, weaknesses, flaws, shortcomings. What then to do? Roszak thought that there might something elders such as himself could contribute, not as paternalistic experts but as participants in dialogue with fellow citizens over collective dilemmas that were at once moral and technical in nature. “We,” he said of both counterculturalists and their sympathetic critics, “should look for major trends that seem to outlast the current fashion.” Roszak thought that he and other critics “should try to find the most articulate public statements of belief and value the young have made or have given ear to; the thoughtful formulations, rather than the off-hand gossip.” For him, “Above all, we must be willing, in a spirit of critical helpfulness, to sort out what seems valuable and promising in this dissenting culture, as if it indeed mattered to us whether the alienated young succeeded in their project.” In the face of what he called a “progressive ‘adolescentization’ of dissenting thought and culture, if not on the part of its creators, then on the part of much of its audience,” older social critics such as himself might aid in clarifying, in solidarity with the young, a more mature countercultural sensibility (39).
For Roszak, the most important aspect of youthful dissent in the 1960s was its turn toward the personal in relation to the public. Within their antics and half-formed efforts at resistance was a lurking value worth bringing out into the open: that “personal commitments, not abstract ideas, are the stuff of politics” (57). To Roszak, “The beauty of the New Left has always lain in its eagerness to give political dignity to the tenderer emotions, in its readiness to talk openly of love, and non-violence, and pity” (61). This was its potential as a more mature movement: to introduce to public life emotions previously considered private. Not merely to make the personal political, although that rallying cry of the New Left and later women’s liberation was crucial, nor to reduce the political to the personal, which is what seems to have emerged in the rancorous, bitterly partisan decades after the 1960s, but, as C. Wright Mills famously put it, to find a way to develop “an understanding of the intimate realities of ourselves in connection with larger social realities.”6 The mature countercultural dissent of the young, Roszak believed, might pursue neither the narcissistic achievement of an impossible “self- actualization,” nor give in to technocratic control and paternalistic expertise, but rather enact a more authentic and organic democratic interplay between self and society.
To do so, he thought, drawing from the work of Paul Goodman, required a turn toward conceptualizing and enacting community. “Where is the life-sustaining receptacle that can nourish and protect good citizenship?” he wondered. “The answer is: you make up a community of those you love and respect, where there can be enduring friendships, children, and, by mutual aid, three meals a day scraped together by honorable and enjoyable labor. Nobody knows quite how it is to be done. There are not many reliable models. The old radicals are no help: they talk about socializing whole economies, or launching third parties, or strengthening the unions, but not about building communities” (201). This project would not be easy. It demanded neither a program (how to become a hippie in three easy steps), nor a stable identity (hippie identification papers, please). Rather, it required a messy intellectual and sensorial investigation of personhood itself to come to fruition.
As Roszak put it, after looking away from normative ideas about the self and politics, “the question arises: what is the person?” Addressing this question was where “New Left and beat-hip bohemianism join hands.” Together they sought to render public issues “grounded in an intensive examination of the self, of the buried wealth of personal consciousness” (62). To do so, counterculturalists strove to cut across the false binary between “reason and passion, intellect and feeling, the head and the heart” to access how this link between self and society might arise effectively. “We enter a searching discussion of moral action,” Roszak decided, “only when we press beyond the surface style of conduct in which men express their ethical sensibilities and seek the hidden source from which their action flows” (76). And to get below the surface required more than just conventional reason. “We have no serviceable language,” Roszak thought, “in our culture to talk about the level of the personality at which this underlying vision of reality resides” (80-81). Instead, it is “something we absorb from the spirit of the times or are converted into, or seduced into by unaccountable experiences.” A fuller integration of the intellective and non-intellective would have to be brought together and activated to access and perhaps even shape the “guiding vision that determines what we finally regard as sanity itself” (80). Within the countercultural project, Roszak believed, was the possibility that young and old alike might think better, drawing upon a wider range of approaches that included the non- intellective. Fragile and difficult, to be sure, but this was a possible way to reposition the person in relation to the system outside of technocratic regimes of order and logic.
So it is that Roszak reminds us that the counterculture was an intellectual movement as much as a social one. And he provides an example of how a person, whether young or old, could participate critically but wholeheartedly in this world, which was often keen on transiting across the boundary between inside and outside, interiority and exteriority, the self and the world. Finally, let me end by suggesting that Roszak as social critic asks us to reconsider what we mean by the “long 1960s,” particularly as an intellectual phenomenon. His career had an extended arc. Through both critical essays and science fiction novel, he tracked out many of the concerns he first confronted in The Making of a Counter Culture: the politics of the knowledge, Gnostic mysticism, gender and power, ecopsychology, American foreign policy during the years of George W. Bush, the computer industry’s reduction of knowledge to information, the role of not just the young, but also elders in American life—these all came under his lens of analysis.
The writings of Roszak do not merely demonstrate how countercultural ideas permeated the larger culture, absorbed and weakened in the process. That certainly happened. But the “long 1960s” also saw the deepening of Roszak’s call to merge reason with passion, rational perception with an enhanced spiritual sensitivity. He remained outside and inside the counterculture even after its heyday, never quite joining it, never quite abandoning its ethos of trying to think and feel a way toward alternatives beyond a deadening technocratic system. Long after we thought the tie-dyed insignia of the 1960s had been ripped down, or worse yet, raised merely to adorn lifestyle advertisements, Roszak persisted “in a spirit of critical helpfulness,” as he put it, writing a quietly stylish and thoughtful countercultural social criticism that strove to, as he put it in 1968, “flourish a tiny banner against the inhumanities of the technocracy” (48). That flag still blows in the wind.
1 Michael Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism: The Tanner Lectures on Human Values (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987) and The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century (New York: Basic Books, 1988).
2 Nick Bromell, Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), especially chapter three, “Something’s Happening Here”- The Fusion of Rock and Psychedelics.”
3 On “crackpot realism” see C. Wright Mills, “Thorstein Veblen,” in The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills, ed. John Summers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 65.
4 Paul Potter, “Naming the System Speech,” 17 April 1965, Washington, DC. For a transcript, see http://www.sds-1960s.org/sds_wuo/sds_documents/paul_potter.html.
5 Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
6 C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (1959; reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 15.