Intellectual History “Even When Wah-Wah Pedals Are Involved”


casey blake reviews the republic of rock in modern intellectual history: a response.

In catching the ways The Republic of Rock is not so much a history of rock music as a history of “rock as experience,” Casey Blake’s review (paywall) of the book grasps how it is different from standard-issue histories of rock music and the counterculture of the 1960s. He also wishes that I distinguished more strongly between citizenship itself in contrast to what he calls “the fellow feeling among strangers that makes citizenship imaginable.”

For Blake, “hippie humanism,” as he playfully characterizes it, was not in itself the procedural politics for a flourishing democratic mode of self governance; instead, it constituted a kind of “pre-political” sociality or, as John McMillian tried to describe it in another review, merely a sense of “community.” Within both of their reviews is an urge to put the counterculture’s civic dimensions in their place, which is to say to deny them political value while endowing them with cultural value, and most of all to try to keep neat the separation between politics and culture.

In these kind of efforts at categorization, citizenship is voting, while rock is dancing. Citizenship is passing policy together; rock is just passing a joint together. Citizenship would be, ideally, politics without political theater; rock is just theater, but with no real politics. Citizenship means belonging to a party; rock is merely partying. Citizenship is serious; rock is just frivolous, or at best only serious fun. Blake and McMillian imagine that a more organized procedural democratic politics could perhaps arise out of musically inflected energies of solidarity, but that rock as experience did not itself constitute the practice of an actually existing civics.

I do not think I quite make the argument that rock of the 1960s offered a fully functional civics. There is, I believe, a difference between the dance floor and the convention floor, even though in the 1960s as now those two might in fact be in the very same meeting hall or arena. However, I also think it rings false to reify culture and politics as totally separate, if connected, areas of activity. To make culture “pre-politics” and community as compared to the practices of deliberation and decision-making that we associate with democratic political activity is to blind our eyes to the more integrated aspects of culture and politics. This is particularly the case within the swirl of the psychedelic context of the sixties counterculture.

In The Republic of Rock, I wanted to push at the cultural dimensions of citizenship, which meant underplaying its more typical political understanding. Or better said, I argued that the cultural dimensions of citizenship within the context of the sixties counterculture ask us to rethink the very way we define the political. Countercultural participants who responded to rock music themselves were certainly trying to do so. This was, in part, because in the 1960s, the more narrow and conventional political channels for citizenship seemed increasingly bankrupt. Countercultural moves took place against the backdrop of an existing definition and practice of citizenship marked most of all by the frustratingly slow pace of achieving full social justice for all, the war in Vietnam raging overseas, and the threat of nuclear annihilation always looming. As Blake smartly points out, hovering over efforts to rethink and remake citizenship in the 1960s was “the rhetoric of 1950s civics textbooks, with their heavy-handed emphasis on civic responsibility (not participation), national service (especially in the military), and respect for authority.”

Many in the counterculture and the New Left (and in the US and the larger world for that matter!) hungered for a far broader notion of civic action, participation, and belonging. With great curiosity, they sought to discover or experiment with new modes of modulating between individual rights and collective obligations. They asked what kinds of unconventional ways of convening civically might be possible. From the Port Huron Statement to the Fillmore, these sorts of explorations of participation in democracy were rampant in the 1960s.

In The Republic of Rock, I wished neither to celebrate them uncritically, nor to dismiss them incredulously. Instead, I wanted to catch, in the archives, all the evidence that these were vibrant spaces of debate, discussion, argument, distinction, and efforts at togetherness that blurred the boundaries between fellow feeling and procedural politics, or at least were curious at attempting to do so. The failures in that blurring are just as fascinating as the momentary successes, the problems just as crucial as the possibilities.

What they were not was stable. Blake sums up the counterculture’s ideology, carried forward in aesthetic forms such as rock, as a “romantic anticapitalism, stressing mutuality, community, spirituality, and love against the claims of commerce and the wartime state.” I am just not so sure that this ideology was ever as cogent as Blake makes it sound. Rock was capitalist, indeed “hip capitalist,” as I argue in The Republic of Rock. Sometimes it was even hiply militaristic, as  when the US Army in Vietnam appropriated rock, importing the music to the theater of war in Southeast Asia in an effort to raise flagging morale among young troops. Rock continually raised the paradoxes of consumer capitalism to the surface of people’s everyday lives: the music was product, and everyone knew it, but they also sensed how the product contained—or perhaps the better word is unleashed, or maybe most accurately transmitted—powerful anticapitalist energies and feelings. Ideology is just not, so far as I can tell, the ground it occupied.

If anything rock music, well, it rocked ideology as a solid foundation for anything. Which is to say that, in ideological terms at least, rock was not coherent. And historians struggle mightily with the screaming presence of incoherency’s power in the past. Rock could emphasize mutuality, but just as often selfishness. It could call forth community, but just as often a radical individualism. It could evoke spirituality, but just as often an earthy sensuality and hedonism. Yes, there is much love in the music, but also plenty of commercial ripoff and savage violence.

What the music did, most of all, was to sustain, sometimes to demand, a broadening of what citizenship was and could be as an affective state of being as well as an ideological position. This is what is so hard to grasp in “rock as experience.” It is also, as Blake rightly notes, what links the music in a strange way to Dewey’s ideas of “art as experience” or Kenneth Burke’s interest in art as the “framing of…revelation in ritual.” To be sure, there were those who wanted to wield rock’s capacities within the historical context of the 1960s counterculture for ideological ends, but their efforts were contorted fictions placed atop the antifoundational civic spaces of countercultural rock, not the thing itself.

Blake wants to limit the “commitment to citizenship” to a standard of “participation in decisions about matters of public concern with people who in many cases don’t live how we live.” While the milieu of the rock counterculture did not congeal into some normatively secure, fully developed theory of democratic civic engagement, events such as the Acid Tests, the KMPX radio strike, and the Wild West Festival protests did generate richly contested spaces and energies of dialogue and debate: words, ideas, positions circulated and were exchanged actively, and among a wider range of participants than many assume. Fierce disagreement flourished. Public concern surfaced and efforts were made to develop new channels (dancing, partying, wired rooms of intensely confusing electronic and technological mediation) for addressing them. Old modes, such as newspapers and town hall meetings, were taken up with a passion and dedication too.

But the civics here took place through experience, albeit experience shot through with self-reflective and self-reflexive awareness (in of itself an important quality of experience, which does not necessarily require a total departure from self-consciousness but rather can include immersion and critical distance all at the same time). The experiences of rock and the subsequent experiences of discussing, debating, and arguing about the music mingled agonism with harmony, chaos with moments of temporary order, radical individualism with moments of heartfelt alliance, difference and solidarity. This is a counterpublic more along the lines described by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau (Hegemony And Socialist Strategy: Towards A Radical Democratic Politics) than the normative models of Habermas. It was grounded, or better said, ungrounded, in what Nick Bromell, borrowing from William James, describes as a realization of radical pluralism. This radical pluralism, rooted in phenomenological experience, often fostered a kind of antifoundational foundation for countercultural civic engagement. It opened up a way of deeply grasping for a heightened sense of dynamic difference in the world—among people, even within oneself—that also called forth the need for solidarity and togetherness (that oh-so-popular term during the countercultural years).

Not that the counterculture was some utopia, despite its keen interest in utopianism. It was rather something more pragmatic in its way, Its participants found themselves facing the question: can we create a civics in flux? Is there a mode of citizenship suitable for an ever-moving, active, shape-shifting civic body? This was the democratic experiment that the counterculture found itself pursuing, that we might try to recover from the detritus of its faded, tattered tie dyes, old, broken roach clips and bad, noodling, endless guitar solos.

After all, the counterculture of the Bay Area sustained both reckless leaders and those who criticized them. To be sure, there were people like Ken Kesey, agent provocateur  but ultimately, I think, a believer in an ethic of moral love and care. There were also far, far darker, creepier characters such as Charles Manson, who made their way through the Haight alongside all the teenybopper hippies and hopeful innocents in search of the summer of love. And yet, the counterculture also had space for sensible critics such as Joan Holden, whose sharp observations about the Wild West Festival and its protesters Blake approvingly quotes in his review: “You could probably start a revolution with rock music—if you could find someone to outlaw it,” she wrote in Ramparts, a publication we might think of as part of the countercultural mix even as it mostly took anti-countercultural stances.

It’s the wild, very real mix that matters: love and hate, care and violence, salvations and abandonments. The counterculture was no normative space; if anything, it embraced non-normativity. It was dangerous, but then again so was the broader world of America in the 1960s. Many in the countercultural milieu found themselves trying to make sense of this context. They experimented with new ways of grappling with it. They tried to do something about it, on the ground as well as in their own hearts and minds. It’s this history, embedded in a counterculture that was not outside and against mainstream American life so much as flowing like a counter-current within it, that is worth attending to, not just as history, but also as an unlikely resource for how we confront the difficulties of democracy, citizenship, politics today.

Blake is absolutely right: The Republic of Rock could do a much better job analyzing the different strains of civic thinking and action within the countercultural milieu. Democratic as compared to prophetic modes of leadership, normative assertions of civic engagement as compared to experimentations in experiential civic interactions, romantic anticapitalism as it circulated paradoxically through the very circuits of American consumer and military empire itself: these all demand more and finer scrutiny, distinction-making, and precision of explanation.

What the book does try to do is map out how the 60s counterculture might be understood, historically, as a social space, fostered by or revolving around rock music, that extended from the music into everyday lives, discussions, protests, meetings, organizational efforts at many levels, political and social activities, and festive rituals of artistic and sensorial exploration in which normative claims for civic engagement loosened without ever quite totally breaking loose. Counterculturists encountered a kind of citizenship without guarantees (to steal and adopt Stuart Hall’s “Maxism without guarantees” concept). Without either committing themselves wholesale to alternative systems other than the empire of postwar American consumer and military power or embracing total and complete anarchy, most counterculturists attempted to make sense of citizenship as they experienced it—and then to use those experiences as resources for how to live and think about citizenship in turn. Perhaps this is what Blake means when he writes of The Republic of Rock as, “an investigation of rock-as-experience in San Francisco and South Vietnam that raises important questions about the cultural foundations of civic democracy.”

Blake thankfully takes seriously rock culture as a space for thinking and feeling paired together. He roots his analysis in the ideas of figures such as John Dewey and Kenneth Burke, who as he notes may not have wanted to travel to the Fillmore, but who would have paid attention to those who did. It’s a privilege to have him review the book and do so alongside other works I respect quite a bit: Devon Powers’ Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism and Phil Ford’s Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture.

And finally, my favorite part of the review, and not just for the approval of The Republic of Rock it voices (though I’ll take it, I’ll take it!):

Then there was the rock beat pounding in Vietnam itself, a story Kramer tells in the stunning second section of his book. Much as war has inspired powerful critiques from generations of romantic–radical intellectuals in the US—think of Thoreau, Bourne, and Macdonald—the slaughter in Indochina made the “anti-politics” of the rock counterculture in Vietnam both tougher and more inclusive than its San Francisco counterpart. War is the health of romantic antistatism, even when wah-wah pedals are involved.

The review is behind a paywall: Casey Blake, “Rock As Experience,” Modern Intellectual History (April 2016),

Revised 20 April 2016.

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