A couple of weeks ago I did a paper at EMP, the experience of which was a drag -- tepid reaction and a tiny audience, which got a bit smaller when Robert Christgau, who walked in late, walked out again a few minutes later. But he saw enough, I guess, to style it the worst paper presentation he saw. Now, I dunno, maybe it really did suck. I have no objectivity about my own stuff. But the reason Christgau gives for his rough grading gives me something to think about, though not what he presumably would want me to think about.
His [i.e. my] problem: indicated no knowledge of any difference in historical importance or political acuity between the Weathermen (dead wrong but smart and momentous), Timothy Leary (never a political figure even when he claimed to be), and the Manhattan pseudo-anarchists who briefly gathered under the rubric Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers (marginal publicity seekers without even minimal follow-through).
I actually don't disagree with what he's saying about these figures. Well, most of it. Christgau seems pretty confident in saying what is and isn't political when the boundary was never clear at the time and hasn't gotten a whole lot clearer since -- blurring that boundary was, after all, the point. But the basics seem sound enough: the Weatherman had more detailed critiques and a more intellectual style, grounded in canons of Marxist thought, than the others; Leary was either a fraud or a trickster (maybe both?) who became "political" when it suited him; and the UATWM talked big but didn't really do much more than throw some trash into the Lincoln Center fountain.
But this doesn't change my argument. Not that Christgau would have known what that was, since he left long before I was done.* Though to be charitable, I suspect that Christgau and I are after different things. On this point, he's a splitter, and I'm a lumper. What Christgau seems to want is to understand the revolutionary imagination of each groupuscule separately: if each one proceeded from a slightly different notion of "revolution," and if each differed in the effectiveness and authenticity of its political commitment, then it doesn't make sense to lump them together. On the other hand, I think that you learn something from tracing the strands of revolutionary thought and (more to the point) sentiment that bind different groups and different ideologies -- hard-political and countercultural, in various mixtures -- into a single (albeit loose) historical entity.
Now, I guess I could say "let's agree to disagree" and leave it at that, but it seems to me that there's something else going on here that has less to do with historiography in the abstract and more to do with personal investment in history. The terms by which Christgau wants to separate these groups from one another (being "smart and momentous" versus being "marginal publicity seekers," etc.) show nothing so much as an unreflective acceptance of the same stale categories by which veterans of the 1960s have always tried (and usually failed)** to write a convincing analysis of their fondly-remembered youth. Christgau wants to say that some radicals were realer than others—but what does it mean to be real when the ruling notion that underwrites all these different groups, the idea of sudden, total, and irrevocable Revolution, is itself a kind of fiction? The assertion that Weatherman was "momentous" and others were just poseurs hides the familiar metaphysics of authenticity, or doesn't hide it at all, actually, it's right there on the surface. But as I've said a couple of times, we're all at a point where we all know that "authenticity" is just an ideological mystification and yet lack any way of understanding ourselves and our music without it.
And Christgau's difficulty in answering Joshua Clover's question after his own paper was a symptom of that. Christgau had spoken knowingly of the pop-crit habit of finding transgression in the music we happen to like, but Clover afterward suggested that Christgau was doing the same sort of thing, finding a voter instead of a revolutionary at the end of every song. (Can't quite remember how Clover put it, it was better than that.) For a while Christgau affected not to understand what Clover was talking about, but after an uncomfortable silence he offered that what he really meant was that he "misses the monoculture." Now, that's a whole separate issue that I won't get into, except to say that I sure don't miss it, and when I hear Christgau saying he does, I'm guessing that part of what he misses is the power that comes of being its arbiter.
But what the exchange showed is that while Christgau reviews a million new records each year—he keeps busy, say that for him—the basic shape of his thought, the way he views things, hasn't changed much since the 1970s. And it's a way of thinking that, for all the bourgeois meliorism it's picked up in the years since, still sentimentalizes the "ideals of the sixties," as they're always called, honoring the knucklehead Maoist-Debrayist adventurism of Weatherman as a real pushback against a real oppressor and defending the purity of their revolt against usurpers -- much the way rock critics of the old monoculture days, back when rock was hegemon, would praise some bands as unco-opted agents of cultural resistance and damn others as sellouts to the Man, or (for those who picked up a little Adorno), the "culture industry."
The problem with presenting conference papers is that, in order to stay within the 20-minute time limit, you can talk about what you think about, say, Weatherman and Timothy Leary, but you can't really say much about why you think that way. The warrant of my interpretations is a notion that the various manifestations of political protest in the late 1960s/early 1970s share a certain sensibility that grows from a belief in a cultural hegemony that must be resisted by aesthetic creation, either of art or the self. (This goes even for the most political types, like Weatherman, which veered towards a cultural-hegemony critique shortly after going underground.) But from my point of view, there's no oppressive cultural dominant, no "Man," just a shared belief in there being one, and a range of aesthetic self-stylings available to those who do believe. And this warrant is necessarily going to remain in the background for a 20-minute paper, but it was still obvious from the tenor of the talk, which I think explains Christgau's indignation. You can't expect someone like that to enjoy a point of view from which there are no distinctions of authentic and co-opted, radical and poseur -- a point of view from which the distinctions between Weatherman and UATWM and Timothy Leary pale beside their shared investment in a fantasy. (Or, in rather more diplomatic cultural-studies terms, a "political imaginary.")
But people like Christgau won't go away any time soon, and they always have one advantage: I was there, and you weren't. Of course, one could as easily reply that the people who were there are the worst authorities for their own experience, because the issues of the 1960s refuse to die***, and those with an investment in those times, something from the past they have to defend in the present, are not going to proceed in the spirit of disinterested inquiry. But we've been having this historiographic argument for a long time, and we'll keep having it until the boomers are gone. And maybe even still after that. Now this is why I want to write about this kind of stuff: it's fascinating in itself, and it's so obviously relevant to things that matter now. And yet for young American scholars, writing about the 1960s is always going to be a minefield, for the same reason that French scholars are always going to have problems dealing with their own signal moment of modernity, the French Revolution. (Revolutions, again.) Francois Furet, a revisionist French historian whose work on the French Revolution stirred up the same sorts of passions as revisionist work on the 1960s does now, wrote about this phenomenon:
Historians engaged in the study of the Merovingian Kings or the Hundred Years War are not asked at every turn to present their research permits. . . .
The historian of the French Revolution, on the other hand, must produce more than proof of competence. He must show his colors. He must state from the outset where he comes from, what he thinks and what he is looking for; what he writes about the French Revolution is assigned a meaning and label even before he starts working: the writing is taken as his opinion, a form of judgment that is not required when dealing with the Merovingians but indispensable when it comes to treating 1789 or 1793. As soon as the historian states that opinion, the matter is settled; he is labeled a royalist, a liberal or a Jacobin. Once he has given the password his history has a specific meaning, a determined place and a claim to legitimacy.” (François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, trans. Elborg Forster, p. 1)
Those scholars my age or younger who find themselves working on America in the first three decades after WW II: get ready. Have your research permit handy. You will be asked for it. In many ways nothing has changed in the 12 years since Rick Perlstein wrote his Lingua Franca essay Who Owns the Sixties?, which dealt with the "possessive memory" of sixties veterans and the resulting turf wars between Gitlin's generation of scholars and younger writers like David Farber and Doug Rossinow. The excellent 2002 Routledge essay anthology Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s includes a weary note in the acknowledgments section:
The gestation of this project witnessed a whole set of obstacles, setbacks, and quirky or menacing characters that would not have been out of place in your average sixties flashback. Over the past four years we were confronted by faux Hopi curses; the "possessive memory" of certain veterans of the era who took umbrage at anyone outside their ranks writing "their" history; photographers who sold us vintage photos for the volume, but insisted we meet them at 11 p.m. in Washington Square Park and bring cash; and peer-reviewers who treated us like a neo-Stalinist cell that had fatally deviated from the party line. (p. v)
I've had to deal with a certain amount of that, and so have other friends of mine -- especially the "possessive memory" part. (Not as much the Hopi curses.) Eric Drott (one of the most brilliant scholars working on the postwar avant-garde) ran the 1968 evening panel at the AMS national meeting in Los Angeles a couple of years ago and encountered a number of people pulling the old what-the-hell-do-you-know-sonny routine as well. It can't be helped; it can only be borne. But we're not going away either.****
*And with the ostentatious rudeness of someone who sticks around at a concert until the Boulez and then leaves moments after the piece starts: the thing had an air of Making A Point, that Some Things Are Not To Be Tolerated.
**All exceptions duly noted, of course -- for ex., they don't come more archetypally 1960s-veteranish than Todd Gitlin, whose Years of Hope, Days of Rage is, for all its unavoidable biases, an astonishing, wonderful book.
***As we've seen again and again in the present Obama-Clinton campaign -- the Weatherman even put in an appearance! -- with Clinton doggedly dragging us back into the cultural-war issues that got seeded in the 1960s and 1970s and Obama trying to get past them. There is, with Clinton and her supporters, the same habit of thinking of everybody in terms of demography, as if the only thing that matters is that she would be a woman president, or as if the choice between her and Obama is really only a choice between a woman and a black guy. Obama's not free of this kind of thinking either, and as Carl Wilson has pointed out, it's an ideological inheritance that no-one, left or right, seems able to shake. The relevance to this particular blog post is probably pretty obvious: I don't think that the social position of various actors in the 1960s radical left determines their cultural position, but it's hard for people to imagine there's any other way to see it.
****Of course, if I live long enough, there's a special hell waiting for me in like 2050: some young jerk is going to come up with boldly revisionist reading of the current decade, and I will find myself asking "how can someone who wasn't even born then talk about the Bush years?"