Hey Man, Loosen Up
One of French thinker Michel Foucault’s frequently quoted remarks is that his work comprised “a history of the present.” He investigated key moments when change took place that set the stage for the way things are now—the transformation of the penal system from corporal punishment to incarceration in Discipline and Punish, the development of physical and mental hygiene regimens in The Birth of the Clinic, and the emergence of the abstracting gaze of scientific classification in The Order of Things, all of which laid the foundations of what Foucault termed “governmentality,” the set of self-regulating routines we internalize in becoming “good citizens” and therefore willing subjects of power in modern society. Sam Binkley, assistant professor of sociology at Emerson College in Massachusetts, follows in Foucault’s footsteps with Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s.
With nearly 600 bibliographic entries, Getting Loose is among the most thorough studies of its kind. The book surveys the period in American society when 1960s counterculture developed into the consumer lifestyles we know today. But Binkley does more than simply mark the transition from Yippy to yuppie. He shows how the emancipatory impulses of rebellion helped usher in the new world order of unrestrained global capital. By connecting the everyday practices of individuals with broader social, cultural, political, and economic currents, Getting Loose goes beyond similar examinations of the era, such as Thomas Frank’s Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism and John Heath and Andrew Potter’s Nation of Rebels: How Counterculture Became Consumer Culture.
The history of postwar American culture is often told as a dialectic of the square and the hip, the uptight organization man trussed up in white collar and gray flannel suit vs. the easy-going swinger kicking back with shirt unbuttoned and jeans faded and frayed. Binkley follows this storyline but adds the grander narrative of the abiding Romanticism deep within the American ethos, especially the Transcendentalist calls for self-reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the back-to-nature musings of Henry David Thoreau. Others have asserted that the lifestyle innovations of the 1970s responded to the perceived failure of 1960s social movements to affect change, substituting culture for politics. (The classic examples are punk in lieu of class mobility and hip-hop instead of civil rights.) Binkley augments this explanation by introducing the larger import again of Romanticism but this time in the whole of Western culture as the font of modern consumerism, the ur-figure of which is the Noble Savage of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who didn’t work a lick but simply lived off the land.
Binkley’s crucial insight is how the loosening of American culture opened the door to economic flexibility—showing the interrelationship between free minds and free bodies and free trade and capital mobility—just at the moment when the modern world-system was in dire need of repair. (The net profit rate of the industrialized nations fell precipitously during the 1970s from their peak in the years after the Second World War, Office of Economic Cooperation and Development statistics show.) Perhaps it’s Binkley’s position as a sociologist concerned with long-term cultural patterns and social forms that enables him to see what others seem to miss. (Frank was trained as a historian, for example, and Heath and Potter are philosophers, though one wonders how capable given their book’s facile reasoning.)
The square world, as has often been declared, is the world of the expert, the four-eyed technician (whether conducting laboratory experiments or pushing paper in a bureaucracy) who’s presumed to have all the answers and who dispassionately administers the rules. The apparent breakdown of the modern welfare state in the 1970s brought with it profound skepticism toward the square expert. Hip culture soon filled the gap with a new form of authority, Binkley observes, someone whose credentials weren’t institutionally certified but who claimed his or her status by virtue of innate capacity, a combination of inner spirit and personal experience.
The sociologist’s toolkit again serves Binkley as this new hip authority is essentially the charismatic leader described by Max Weber in the early 20th century. (In Weber’s formulation, the charismatic individual is a usurper of power, one who says: “It is written but I say unto you ...”) And as Weber sets forth, charismatic leaders need disciples to validate their authority. Besides the members of communes and participants in various encounter groups, in the 1970s the disciples of looseness included readers of alternative media—the newspapers, periodicals, and books that helped people imagine themselves as part of the hip community. Binkley searched out and read much of this archive to glean the data that’s the basis of his book.
As with the critique of the square expert, alternative-media looseness rejected the technocratic practices of mass-managerial society. Alternative media flourished mostly on the West Coast, far beyond the reach of the eastern-based publishing industry. Production values were virtually nonexistent, often using typewriter fonts and hand-drawn illustrations collaged together and printed on inexpensive papers. Authors typically wrote in the first-person instead of the anonymous voice of square authority. All of this signified “authenticity,” a primary value of loose culture.
Binkley discerns three major categories within what he terms the “caring texts” of 1970s alternative print culture. The first are those that reiterate the Transcendentalist back-to-nature call in the form of burgeoning ecological consciousness. The second are those that recast community into various kinds of tribalism. The third are concerned with unlocking the physical and mental potential of the renewed self-reliant individual. As these categories attracted larger audiences, they commanded the attention of more established social and economic power, redirecting liberationist desire into more conventional modes, most insidiously consumption. Thus “back-to-nature” morphed into a demand for organic food, diverse tribes clustered into demographic and psychographic market segments, and self-reliance became the pursuit of self-interest.
Getting Loose is a superb piece of historical sociology, but if I were reviewing it for a sociological journal I might kvetch some about the media analysis. Sociologists Jurgen Habermas and more recently Paul Starr have shown the importance of media in creating various publics and hence their critical role in political and social processes. Neither are cited in Getting Loose. In particular, Habermas charts what he terms “the structural transformation of the public sphere,” whereby the rise of electronic media in the second and third quarters of the 20th century effectively sidelined what was once an active body politic, turning them into docile consumers of news and entertainment, something alternative media similarly achieved, if by different means, in the 1970s. What’s more, Habermas’s notions of “system” and “lifeworld,” the tendencies of rational thought and individual expression to be pitted against one another in modern society, seem like handy concepts for explaining the tensions of square and hip culture from a sociological point of view.
The omission is a little puzzling as Binkely got his PhD from the New School for Social Research in New York City, where they jam Habermas down your throat in almost every class. It’s also where Nancy Fraser teaches, and her feminist retoolings of Habermas’s public-sphere theory and also Foucault’s concept of governmentality offer avenues for thinking about the more recent history of the present, especially in light of globalization. If, as Binkley convincingly shows, counterculture is all too easily co-opted by market forces where does that leave the global justice movement and so-called ethical consumerism? What of the Internet as a channel for mustering alternative forms of power in the age of MySpace? That Binkley’s book raises these questions and more may be the best measure of its achievement.