Everything these days is branded: company logos cover everything. Kids these days rate cool by what brands you're wearing and where you shop. We no longer have a counterculture but an over-the-counter culture, and all the alternatives - hippy festivals, etc - are beginning to look just as branded. Orange sponsored this year's Glastonbury Festival, which used to raise money for CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).

I am an art director and come up with branding for companies, which is increasingly drawn from so-called alternative culture sources. For example: our last three ads used the Propellerheads, the Prodigy and Amon Tobin(a Ninja Tune artist) These guys earn stacks off corporate advertising: music, formerly seen as a tool for rebellion, is now using the semiology of rebellion to sell itself.

I wonder if there is any real rebellion left? And if so, what forms it might take? How do we subvert the subversion of our subversiveness? Is every idea we come up with, in the end, doomed to be sold out?

A counter-culture is a group that has values, beliefs, interests, or etcetera that conflict with the values (etc.) of the larger culture that that group is in.

These can be people who are gay, hippies, punk, goth, members of street gangs, pacifists, KKKers, or any of a hundred-thousand other interacting populations. Counter-culture is often used to imply that something is wrong with these people, but as a sociological term, it just means that there is some (important) aspect of their life-style that the larger culture disapproves of.

All counter-cultures are subcultures, but not all subcultures are countercultures. ('College students' are a subculture, but most would not consider them a counterculture)

Often 'counter-culture' will be used to refer specifically to the movement of youth in the 1960s away from traditional values, characterized by being anti-authoritarian, anti-war, pro-environment, pro-feminism, pro-drugs, the primary movers of the sexual revolution, and big on rock and roll. This is really only one of many counter-cultures.

Yes, all the major counterculture movements of the left in America (hippies, anarchists/pacifists, communists, and hardcore deindustrialization environmentalists are probably the only groups whose values and basic idea for a new social order are unrevocably counter to the institutions of modern society) have been suffering a long decline into irrelevancy over the last half century and while lame, whimpering remains of the truly radical left exist, it is not long before they too will die out. Though there is not one event, one defeat, that pronounced this prognosis and the radical left was in decline then too, the collapse of the Eastern bloc was certainly a crucial nail in the coffin.

What happened, I think, is an example of catastrophic success: the counterculture won so many battles in changing social norms, with regards to women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, etc., that it seems that those subgroups that were concerned with these issues lost the incentive to associate themselves with the counterculture of the left. Once they won recognition as legitimate causes and won a place in the social order, they no longer had a reason to encourage the toppling of said order. You see, they didn't want to undo American society, they just wanted a place in that society equal for women, gays, blacks, etc. equal to that of the white hetro men (plus, often their acceptence into the mainstream was secured by "buying into" its institutions; see same-sex marriage). The only movements that didn't retire from the counterculture were those whose proposed social order really stood counter to the current one (actually, only these should be thought really as countercultural in the first place, but the others are attached because of their sometime alliance with the counterculture). What remained was too narrow to survive for long.

Therefore, it seems to many people today that American culture is in a way monolithic. Certainly, it is a diverse monolith, with lots of internal friction, but it is one big "Yes". There is no voice of "no" that rejects the basic assumptions of modern society and replaces its own set, a Thoreau, if you will, that takes himself out of society and goes to live on Walden pond, or a Kerouac that goes On the Road, or a Guthrie-like troubadour. Indeed, it looks worse than the mere disappearance of the counterculture itself, it looks like the defeat of a certain kind of romantic artistic soul.

And this is my thesis, which I base on Turner's famous thesis: According to Turner, the western frontier, between the wilderness and established society, was a constant source of freedom, essential in "breaking the bonds of custom (and) offering new experiences", and with its closing, though some anti-state traditions remained, most of the living frontier spirit ossified. The same is true for the counterculture (which if we do take Thoreau to be a precursor of can be seen to grow, as a spiritual frontier, out of the closing of the western frontier). The existence of counterculture allowed a very visible alternative to escape to for those who have been oppressed by the bonds of custom. And in that alternative space new, fairer, freer traditions and institutions could be formed to eventually be accepted into established society. Sadly, it seems, this alternative is by and large gone now. But just as Thoreau, for whom the frontier closed, went out in the forest and made his own frontier of one, hopefully those of us with pioneering spirits can go out and make our own countercultures of one.

Now, two of the above write ups have been written no later than 2000, when the Millennials (a.k.a. Generation Y) were just coming of age. While they decry the disappearance of "real rebellion" in pretty strong terms, I daresay they didn't know the half of what was coming. Generation X was the last American generation with its mind set on open rebellion. Eventually, as noded above, most of their "alternative" (goth, grunge, death metal et al.) culture got "sold out" and turned into a "consumerist sham", but the real underlying problem with Generation X wasn't that they "sold out" but that their philosophy was dreck to begin with: despair, lack of ambition, downward social mobility, and most importantly the pursuit of counterculture for the sake of counterculture. Namely, their inexplicable obsession with not "selling out", unabashedly denouncing a cause or cultural creation of their own when it becomes popular. It was perhaps a symptom of the dying counterculture.

But where Generation X embraced the notion of a counterculture, nuttily as they did, the Millennials who followed would have none of it. We have become a monolothic "Yes". We don't even have the corrupted rebellion to complain about like in 2000. It's not that Millennials don't have idealism, they have a ton of it and are excited about a lot of causes (as witnessed in the 2008 US presidential elections). It's just that a counterculture does not figure into their plan for achieveing their ideals. They especially don't want it to play the role it did for Generation X: an entrenched, stubborn, and counterproductive opposition for the sake opposition. What they want is productive work and a buy-in in the mainstream to further their goals. Maybe that's a more reasonable strategy, but if it did spell the end of the counterculture, and if you buy my thesis, then that's a sad development.


P.S. I just wanted to note that there is a very alive and prosperous counterculture still today, but it is not continuation of the counterculture of the left. I am talking of the sphere of religious fundamentalism around the world. It is truly the strongest counterculture movement right now, and it is on the rise. It is also truly a countercultural phenomenon, with people retiring wholly from normal society in order to live in a new (or rather old) kind of society. Even though I believe it does offer an alternative to oppressed groups and people, I think it's not one that works against the bonds of custom and its trend is not toward freer, fairer institutions.

The counterculture movement was by the mid 1970s co-opted into the mainstream. This is evident enough in Hollywood films adopting a radical and experimental style, taken from the avant-garde, within their otherwise standard narratives. A good film to look at is Easy Rider to see this in action. Another interesting film is the Exorcist. There is a scene in the Exorcist where there is a protest being filmed within the movie itself--a film in a film. The metaphor is clear, that of the protest movement being fully enveloped within the master narrative of Hollywood itself. You have on the other hand film makers like Kenneth Anger, who were making underground short films up into the 1960s. There is and always will be an underground, it is just that the counterculture was mobilized. An entire generation, the baby boomers, appeared to be resonating the same desires for change.

The counterculture was a large-scale mobilized force that generated much of its energy and enthusiasm from the underground cultures in the 1960s. It lasted only a short time as a real movement. The mainstream culture picked up the ideas that it was advertising, and then re-packaged and sold them. I'm not going to judge whether or not the product that came out the other end of this transaction was good or bad, of value or vapid. Certainly something changed, and that is the nature of society, to change and not be static. That said, the underground continues to exist, unfettered by coercive commercialism, but in a state of fragmentation. And this fragmentation is commonly seen as symptomatic of the postmodern era.

The mainstream media caters to a class in society that can be referred to as bourgeois--the middle class and richer. It seems like the thing about the US is that it tends to consider itself a classless society. The myth of the American dream is a romantic tale of rags to riches. Anybody can be anyone. But mainstream culture is packaged and produced to be consumed by bourgeois tastes. These tastes are based on the representation of a certain kind of lifestyle, and the media sells this lifestyle to the people who have the money to buy the products. You don't see sitcoms about hobos on network prime time. The main concern is to question whether what is taken from the underground, co-opted into mainstream culture as such, retains its original cultural currency or not. A cultural entity has sold out when it loses its currency, agency, or autonomy, through being diluted and subsumed within a hegemonic system. This happens quite frequently, however it is not the rule.

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