Following up on my last post:
When I was at Stanford, doing research at the Hoover Institution archive (a bottomless well of ephemera related to exotic and untenable political opinions), I was looking into the late-1960s/early 1970s historical moment in which countercultural notions of revolution seemed kinda-sorta plausible. On of the things I found in the New Left collection was a digest of the “underground press” called Source Catalogue Communications. It listed publications (some of them profoundly obscure) in order of affinity group — black liberationist, women’s liberationist, gay, Chicano, etc. One of the categories was “high school movement.” Did you know there was a radical high school student movement analogous to the collegiate SDS? No? That’s because there wasn’t one. Not really, anyway — at least nothing much beyond a few wildly self-dramatizing high-school publications that lasted one or two issues before disappearing (presumably after a stern lecture from Dad in the family den). But a “radical high school movement” could be posited in advance of any such movement actually materializing because it made sense to imagine that very young people would form an autonomous and radical political consciousness. This was the logical extension of an already well-entrenched habit of New Left thought.
One thing the New Left borrowed from Marxism was a particular mechanism of radical critique. George Orwell somewhere writes of how the animals in Animal Farm develop a Marxist-style critique of human power: from the point of view of the animals, the class lines that divided men were really only illusions, symptomatic of transient and shallow eddies in the world current. Men might fight among themselves, but when faced with revolutionary animals they would unite against a common enemy. Thus it could be proven, in proper dialectical fashion, that the mechanics of class struggle are secondary to the true engine of world oppression, the domination of animals by humans. This is a parody of Marx’s critique of the bourgeoisie: they only seemed to favor universal rights in opposition to the hereditary power of the landed classes, but when faced with proletarian revolution they would show their true colors and band together with their erstwhile enemies. Marxist critique then could argue that it got at a more fundamental truth than any of its competitors — than, for example, the ideas associated with liberal politics. It was a style of critique that knocked the legs out from under its competitors by asserting a kind of radical consciousness that sees things at a deeper level.
This critique played out in the New Left, but in an increasingly fractured way. At the beginning of the sixties it is a critique leveled against liberals in a civil-rights context: northern liberals appear to oppose southern reactionaries, but in reality both are united in their opposition to black people. African Americans, then, had a consciousness of their own condition that liberals and reactionaries alike did not have — a privileged consciousness of oppression. At about the same time, though, the young — meaning the collegiate youth who made up the SDS — started to think of youth as a category similarly left out of the consensus and with a similarly unique consciousness. And from here any number of groups could posit their own radical consciousness, each marginalized by all the others: Native Americans, women, gay people, Chicano/as, poor whites, etc. But no-one could agree any more on which radical consciousness was more foundational than any other — or, to put it more crudely, who was the most oppressed. And as a result the New Left split into mutually uncomprehending groupuscles, and the vision of a grand unified movement of the Left faded in the early 1970s.
One little line from Source Catalogue Communications underscores this point. It is a quote from Our Time Is Now, a publication of the “high school movement” that “explains that high school students are forming their own consciousness, and shouldn’t be treated (by SDS organizers or anybody else) as embryonic college students.” This was in 1970: whoever wrote was simply rehearsing a well-worn trope. By then, any New Left groupuscule could claim its own radical awareness, whose particularity and un-co-optedness would be jealously guarded. The thinking goes, We’re young, but we’re not college students. We are oppressed in ways that college students can’t even begin to understand. As the more-oppressed we claim the right to have our own institutions, our own underground papers, our own movement, uncontaminated by college students. The pocket-sized radical consciousnesses claimed by the “high school student movement” foreshadows the similar factionalization of identity politics circa 1992.
And it was as self-defeating in the 1970s as it would be in the 1990s, because once one claimed unique perspective as a warrant for one’s own group one had made an epistemological end-run. One had staked a claim to radical consciousness and said (in effect) shut up and listen, now, to this new voice of conscience; we have been silenced by you for too long. But while this rhetoric is powerful — it gets people to shut up, at least — it removes the theoretical possibility of real communication. If you assert the consciousness of oppression that privileges your voice as uniquely yours, on what basis could anyone understand you? And how then would anyone care about your oppression? Francis Davis once wrote about the free-jazz/poetry/political rantfests he remembers from the early 1970s, “the confusing gist of which was likely to be that only blacks were culturally equipped to understand jazz and white people ought to be ashamed of themselves for not supporting it in greater numbers.” And this is the same habit of mind one finds among hipsters of all stripes, who resent uncool outsiders and at the same time resent the cultural “mainstream” that doesn’t understand their music. This is why hipsterism is ultimately self-defeating.
All of this is to illustrate what I wrote about more abstractly in the previous post: we understand people when we assume that they share enough of our experience and way of thinking — that their minds are something like ours. This isn’t the same thing as saying that people are exactly like us, or that people will always be as rational as we ourselves are. It is just to say that when you set yourself up on a hermeneutic pedestal, placing yourself above your interlocutors, you won’t have a conversation. Classical performers are constantly enjoined to do this, but for the opposite reason: we’re supposed to act as if we are puny vermin unworthy of lacing Beethoven’s boots and put him on the pedestal. But the effect is the same — no conversation, no interpretation.