August 2003
volume 1, issue 2


Counter Cultural Dialectics

What is to be made of the proliferation of protests? What do all these books, ideas, and actions add up to? Does the totality of practices we are all engaged in mean something other than a collection of memories? This question asks of broader contexts, of a conside-ration of the concept of counter culture movements. To this end I made a diagram “Counter Culture Dialectics”.

In the diagram, I mapped out two distinct meta-forms for the conceptualization of counter culture. Within these two forms I have outlined four distinct historical phases. The fourth phase is rumination on the contemporary moment; a speculation on emerging trends. Although the diagram can be read as a historical progression, it should be realized that the aesthetic forms that it describes are often ongoing and concurrent. That is, an artist today might be working in a very relevant and productive space, but their practice may carry on previous dialectics. An example here would be Michael Moore – whose relationship to mediation ties him to the heroic uses of “mainstream” media developed by Abbie Hoffman.

On the diagram, you can see two distinct halves. One side can be described as the formulation of the Modern conception of a counter culture. The other half would be the Post-modern conception of counter culture. Here it should more accurately be referred to as “Counter Cultures”. Because, as a bridge – and fueling transition between the two – is a singular, “The Counter Culture”. This is best thought of as the distinct movement commonly referred to as the “Sixties” or “Hippy Culture.”

Modern counter culture is one based on the preconception of maintained cultural hierarchies, where there are clear boundaries defining culture that is either “In or Out”, “High or Low”, “Hip or Square”.

These boundaries are maintained not only by economies of scale but by laws in the form of: blue laws, institutionalized racism, market protectionism, institutionalized sexism, red squads, hide bound socio-cultural traditions.

In this diagram, a boundary of conflict between “In” and “Out” is maintained by the psyche’s dialectic of behavior, “the Freaks vs.the Squares.” The other boundary is the one over property which in terms of art is an argument of culture’s marketability vrs culture’s universality; “the Man vs. the Radicals.”

Within the Modernist structure, the oppositional nature of the phrase “counter culture” is very fitting. Because of the in/out structure of law, it is easy and functional to locate transgressive culture. If shouting “motherfucker” on a rock record is illegal, then it is clearly counter cultural to swear, or likewise, to censor. This was the case for the band MC5 and later for artists Ron Athey and Karen Finley, who, much to their surprise, found themselves in a battle with lawmaker Jessie Helms.

The second of the two meta-structures of counter culture is “Post-modernism”. In this structure, there are no laws maintained to define hierarchical culture. Instead there are policies that support market deregulation and the defunding of the arts on one hand, and racial and gender integration on the other. These policies have turned to create an individualized and rhizomatic structure.

This structure is The Bafflers’ world of nothing for cultural actors to rebel against in a world where there are no clearly defined walls to push against. This is the terrain of the sub-culture, of Marcusian heading towards and claiming the margins to create the alternative society, Herland, the gay neighborhood, Ecotopia.

The first of the four phases of counter culture mapped out here would be that of the modernist avant-gardes who fought battles on clearly defined fields of conflict. One example is the Surrealist battle on the front of human consciousness. Another is Dadaist war on the temples of culture.

The second historical phase mapped out here is an American invention, The Counter Culture, dated somewhat randomly in the diagram as 1965-1970. This phase is unique because of its creation by and use of contemporary media. Thus, it later helped to shape the post-modern landscape.

The Counter Culture is defined by its Faustian bargain with “the Man”, which required a no-nothing attitude towards certain repressions. The affluence of the post-war generation led to the politics of “FREE,” a movement conceptua-lizing a “Post-Scarcity” society, where resources (libidinal or material) were in excess.


The “green revolution” in agriculture, the greater dispersal application and affordability oftechnology and the rise of the leisure class in the “first world” led to the belief that a society was being birthed which could overcome any problem through the application of radical thought and innovative cultural action.

The FM radio is a perfect metaphor for The Counter Culture. FM radio, seeping dewy-wet, freely across the American landscape, could cross cultural communities broadcasting sounds of youth through racial and economic lines. What once was black music could now be suburban music and vice-versa. The dependence on this and other capitalist technological innovations made The Counter Culture a factitious scene with space for anti-materialist way out freaks like the Diggers of San Francisco and that city’s hip capitalist promoter, Bill Graham.

There are certain aesthetic tropes to which The Counter Culture was beholden. Since the movement was trend-oriented rather than programmatic, this assertion and the following ones should not be taken as absolutes. However, works produced in The Counter Culture tended to: romanticize revolution, were absorbed with the “new” and “youth” whom represented it, fetishized the other, and emphasized sensuality and sexuality. New forms of electronic reproduction, distribution, and mediation was a phenomena often commented upon, emphasized, naturalized, romanticized, or problematized within works of the movement. The Counter Culture was in some respects itself a Pop Art movement fascinated with the process of its own mediation.

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