*I* own the sixties, dammit.

Phil Ford

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?" 

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Historiography. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to *I* own the sixties, dammit.

  1. Jonathan says:

    Bravissimo. The most entertaining thing I’ve read in weeks. I’ll add that Christgau’s “abstract” is perhaps the most narcissistic, self-congratulatory, walk-the-line-between-pissing-on-academics-and-dressing-up-in-a-robe-and-mortarboard thing I’ve ever read in my life. And THAT precious lefty-outsider anti/wannabe academism, friends, is part and parcel of the same faux-populist dress-up we see every night on the news: ostentatious public drinking (?!), changing your accent, pandering to the “common people” (who you’d betray in a second once you have their vote), etc.

  2. Quelle coinkidink, just this morning I was daydreaming (in the shower) on what it might be like to gather together all my party buds from the late sixties (long dispersed, over thirty-five years) for one last blow-out and remembrance fest. This was immediately followed by the obvious point that we would probably all remember it differently (or that is always my experience). So what was Christgau? Just one blind man who once touched an elephant. A huge grain of salt, a lightening up needs to be applied to any and all historical speculation. The only true record is within art itself, and even there as only some kind of barely conscious, empathetic transference (but then, I’m not applying for a grant :-p, when I might disagree with myself whole heartedly). I always find it refreshing to hear the opinions of the sixties by those too young to have been there, for I take to heart the old saw, “if you can remember the sixties, you probably weren’t there”. Perhaps the practice of historical analysis is important for reasons other then accuracy?

  3. I’m thrilled that people still find that article useful.

  4. Phil Ford says:

    Rick Perlstein! It’s like Elvis just left a comment on my blog. I . . . I’m a big fan. I just bought my copy of Nixonland this very morning!
    Hey Peter . . . nice comment. Makes me realize how much I miss your blog. 😦
    (Not trying to make you feel guilty or anything.)
    Jonathan — anti/wannabe academism: this is a concept that needs further investigation. There’s plenty of it floating around.

  5. Phil Ford says:

    I committed Facebook suicide the other day. (Those of you who wonder why you now have one less friend, that’s why.) But are you doing a book tour that takes you through Bloomington IN? I’m guessing not, since there’s basically nobody here in the summer. (Which is awesome.)

  6. Glen says:

    I guess this is why you really can’t trust anyone over 30.
    To make a linkup with a previous post, I’d like to point to what McLuhan said of professionals – “…the professional is the man [sic] who stays put.”
    It always amazes me to learn of how many people, especially academics, go to their graves clinging to positions they, and everyone else, know to be dead wrong. But it happens all the time, it’s apparently a professor’s worst nightmare to be confronted with a differing, yet equally valid viewpoint. That said, the intellectual framework that says there is only one truth, only one “correct” answer to an inquiry, is still hanging around! These codgers have to get over it, “for he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled,” said Bobby.
    About the Weathermen though, they had some good ideas about inflicting a true “cost” on the government for its actions. To me it’s a clear reaction to the loss of the public’s ability to influence its government, a loss that has still not been reconciled. Just in case any of Horowitz’s drones are combing through your blog though, I will say that blowing things up is wrong and terrorism is bad.
    At the very least they found a way to have an impact (however small or large you deem it to be) that was not by approved means, such as voting for a pre-screened candidate or taking out a permit and holding a rally where the police can assure it will not disturb anything. Working within a system only serves to strengthen that system, and when its primary concern is marginalizing the people’s influence, it’s no wonder we can barely muster a 30% turnout at the polls.
    To go back to your anarcho-primitivist post, the group did fail to provide leadership in any real meaningful way. After all, if they did manage a successful revolution, they didn’t have the political plan for a better society. They weren’t very friendly folks either, from what I gather. The group was, by its nature, extremely exclusive and elitist as far as who could be a functional member – I’d imagine a society ruled by that cadre to be pretty heavy on the oppression and stifling of dissent. And though state-mandated orgies sounds appealing, I don’t think their rigid worldview could have sustained itself for very long.

  7. PMG says:

    At EMP a few years ago, Christgau was on a panel with a Very Eminent Black Scholar in our profession. VEBS was giving a paper more or less on generations and lineages in black music. At one point, he spoke of the pleasure he took from watching his own son rummage around in his dad’s record collection to look for possible samples. As VEBS was speaking, he suddenly became teary-eyed, and it was one of those rare moments at a conference where the whole room was quiet and listening. Lovely moment.
    The lovely moment was broken by Christgau clearing his throat loudly, rolling his eyes, and saying, “Anyways…”

  8. Sara says:

    Phil, thanks for this post. I’m having my research permit laminated right now.
    I have a different bone to pick with Christgau in particular, and the EMP POP conference in general with the big disclaimer that I have never attended. I have, however, read the conference schedule and abstracts each year. My issue: as Gabriel Solis put it–I’m paraphrasing–it’s such a dude environment. While there are a number of women presenting and moderating, the topics are overwhelmingly male.
    Christgau wrote in his assessment of the conference under the bullet point “*What I learned at the panel I moderated”:
    ‘Tis better for a young academic to deliver her postgraduatese as if it’s a punk song than to humanize her language and be mild about it.
    Is he calling this presenter out for “Manning Up” (as Charles Aaron put it)? Isn’t this what the elder scholars of rock have demanded, in content if not in tone?

  9. Phil Ford says:

    Glen — good point about Weatherman’s philosophy of exacting a cost on the government. Their problem was that the cost they exacted on themselves was even higher. The documentary Weather Underground and the memoirs of several former WU members have pathetic stories of life in internal exile . . . cut off from friends and family and slowly realizing that their sacrifices were mostly in vain. Considering that Weatherman never killed anyone but their own (accidentally) — unless you count Kathy Boudin’s later participation in the BLA heist in Nyack — I feel a lot of sorrow and compassion for them. It’s actually a sad, sad story.
    Sara — I’d be interested in hearing if any of the women who have participated in the EMP Pop Conference feel the same thing. My problem with it is its chumminess. All scholarly meetings (and yes, I’m counting EMP as a scholarly group) have an in-group that sets the tone for the whole, but it’s especially noticeable at EMP. It’s a pop journalist convention first and foremost, and there’s definitely a sense that academics constitute a kind of foreign body that is to be embraced or held at bay, depending. Interestingly, this year’s conference seems to have occasioned an especially overt conversation on the general usefulness of academics, for example here:
    http://humanvacuum.blogspot.com/2008/04/im-back.html
    But it’s never academics pondering the usefulness of critics, you know? It’s like we’re there on sufferance. I’ve been bullish on EMP because I think that the blend still works: you do see some amazing stuff there, and Eric Weisbard, the guy who runs the whole thing, is a mensch. But still, I find it as clubby, as permeated by a tone of genteel condescension, as the critics would no doubt find an AMS meeting.

  10. Peter Alexander says:

    What an asshole. (Oh — can I say this on your blog? Sorry.) Does Christgau not realize how well he conforms to the pretentious jerk stereotype, or does he not care? Does he really think he’s that superior to everyone else? That kind of behavior is SO predictable and ultimately meaningless.
    The problem I have is that snobs like this damage the people they should care about — particularly younger scholars. It’s how they enhance their prestige, by hurting others. I know a Renaissance scholar who was unfortunate enough to give her very first professional paper in the presence of Edward Lowkinsy and was so traumatized by the experience that she vowed never to give another paper so long as he was alive. She didn’t, but it sadly limited her career.

  11. Mark says:

    This was my first EMP pop conference, and for me the experience was a good one. I think the journalist/academic contrast or meshing is both a cause of tension, as well as one of the things that makes the conference unique. I talked briefly with Christgau at the reception; I think after a minute he was so bored with that he bolted away without so much as a see you later. OK, I often find his writing impenetrable, for insiders only. Maybe I should have told him that, that I used to read his shit in the Village Voice, couldn’t make heads or tails of it most of the time. But it would have only confirmed his suspicion that I was an imbecile.
    20 minute papers are little tastes of big ideas, and while academics sometimes commit sins of terminology, their underlying ideas can be quite nuanced and highly perceptive. Non-academics, on the other hand, are often able to present in a more accessible way, but commit other sins. For example, one of the worst papers I heard in Seattle was nothing more than a manifesto, with hardly a grain of analytical insight. The hope (I like to accentuate the positive) is that conferences like this can be mutually beneficial: academics can learn style from journalists, and journalists can hone their critical thinking skills through their interactions with academics. Phil, I liked your paper; but I wasn’t there to pass judgement on it, but rather to learn from it. It’s sad when our vanity and need for ownership muddies the clarity of our thought. Baboons literally kick one another’s asses to maintain their place in the hierarchy or to move up. We scribblers have to sublimate our violence. Fortunately, there are mensches among us.

  12. squashed says:

    I have serious question:
    how come we see so little counterculture online against Dubya? If we read the sixties, one would thought all the intellectuals are radicals. But now?
    everybody is so sedate, as if waiting in airport line waiting for anal probe. What’s going on here?
    Do we need to see 20K body bag to make people protest the bad policies and so on?

  13. cpo says:

    Sara (and others): there is an informal group of women writers and students that meet at EMP, present papers, run panels, and go for dinner. It’s a great resource, since it combines academics and music critics, and very much supported by Eric Weisbard and others.
    You can check it out here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/girlgroup/
    It is “run” by a graduate student at Columbia.

  14. Sara says:

    cpo– thanks for the link. I will check out the group. The presence of such a group at EMP supports my point. The American Musicological Society has a GLBT group, but not a “girl group.” Nor does the Society for American Music.

  15. Kip W says:

    The 60s were my decade — I turned 12 in 1968, see. I remember it, and I read about it to see what was happening while I was happily oblivious to anything farther away than my 6-transistor radio. (Incidentally, the 60s last until about 1973-4, in my reckoning, FWIW.)
    I’m at the age now where I realize that some of the people I see walking around looking like regular adults were born in some inconceivably recent year, and it makes me want to protect my lawn.
    I’m just flattered as all hell that anybody signifcantly younger than me actually gives a damn about the whole thing. The last thing I want to see is some snooty bastard deciding that’s his academic turf and snarling at anybody else who gets too close.
    Keep doing what you’re doing. If you figure the thing out, please fill me in. Former youth wants to know.

  16. Robert Christgau says:

    Just ran into this old thread looking for something else. Without going into much detail about most of it except to note that for decades my journalistic detractors have accused me of being too academic while my academic detractors have looked askance at my lack of ye olde rigor, I would like to make clear that I always hated the Weathermen. Among my friends on the left in the ’60s (though later I met a few nice people who felt differently), they were the enemy. To say they were “momentous” is not to say anything nice about them, only to acknowledge what seems to me to be a clear fact: they made a difference. Their acts had political consequences–negative ones. They misled, they polarized, they hurt many people and killed a few, and at this very moment they are playing a small but destructive role in a very momentous presidential election.

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