No one understands you

Phil Ford

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.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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8 Responses to No one understands you

  1. Jeff says:

    I question this part of your post:
    “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.”
    As a high-school student in LA at precisely this time, I was certainly aware of the radical high school movement. That there were few publications concerning it didn’t mean that the movement didn’t exist. In my own experience, the movement developed as an off-shoot of various “students rights” initiatives, and led (among other things) to demonstrations and protests at LA-area high schools (including my own) and (more particularly) to me writing a paper on the issue for my 12th-grade government class. One of my sources then, as I recall, was an ACLS pamphlet about student rights.
    All this is to say that, in LA at least (and I suspect probably also SF, which may be why the Hoover Institute info exists) the radical high school movement was alive and kicking.

  2. Phil Ford says:

    Very interesting — thanks.

  3. Can you clarify your definition of “self-defeating” here when you say “hipsterism is self-defeating”? Do you simply mean that it’s self-contradictory in the sense of claiming to want to change the world while simultaneously believing (at least functionally) that the world is unchangable, or that it in fact contains the seeds of its own undoing? Or something else?

  4. Peter (the Other) says:

    I was a freshman in high school (1967), and persuaded by the most radical fellow in my school (who supplied me with SDS and PL buttons, and he might have been more effectively persuasive if his personal habits had been a little bit better). We Greyhound bussed from Boston to Chicago as representatives of the GBYMC (Greater Boston Youth Mobilization Committee)to make plans for demonstrations at the coming Democratic convention (68). My fearless leader probably just wanted company, and perhaps to make his numbers look better, whereas I was interested in girls and music (we stayed in Hyde Park, close to the South Side and the blues). We held sit-downs and strikes at my school, although the most motivational subjects seemed to be male hair length and girls being able to wear slacks. Perhaps it was the draft, waiting for us upon graduation like a crocodile, that drove a greater sense of political need in the school body.
    Political history, like music history is da’ bunk. There is only one’s own history that one thinks they know (and too much evidence belies that). Now which way to the bar? 🙂

  5. I agree with your final point, that there must be an interaction between composer and performer, otherwise why the point of the performer? The composer could just find a perfect realization of the piece, record it, and leave it at that. There are certainly examples of this in electronic music, yet even that genre has moved back towards live performance as a component, injecting that act of interpretation. As for hipsterism and the radical 60s, I’m too young and too square to comment on either of those topics.

  6. rootlesscosmo says:

    The critical mechanism you (accurately as I remember the period) describe seems to me to differ from Marx’s in that the New Left and its offshoots were attacking what they saw as hypocrisy; Marx (I would say) thought so too but didn’t care, because it was determined (or overdetermined) by social being, and the proletariat’s social being would make it the first class in history that didn’t need hypocrisy but could become conscious of “man’s real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.” It didn’t work out that way, but I still think that was an important way the New Left departed (making low obeisances as they went) from Marxism.

  7. Phil Ford says:

    rootlesscosmo — Absolutely, great point. The New Left concern with authenticity is a new part of the ideological cocktail, and not the only way in which it departed from older strains of Marxism. (The inventive and ad-hoc ways Marxism was retrofitted to the American collegiate left, and a hip vernacular, is a book waiting to be written.)
    Peter — what’s the link between personal history and capital-H history? Always a vexed question, although I wouldn’t throw in the towel on trying to write history anyway.
    Galen — what I mean is, inasmuch as hipness proposes a way to look at the world and at least sometimes a guide to right action within that world, it always founders on the unresolved tension between its critique of culture and what we’re supposed to do about it. Keep it real, don’t sell out, refuse co-optation, etc. — but then who’s going to hear what you have to say? This is only a problem if you want someone to hear what you have to say, of course, but then if you don’t it takes something away from the urgency of your critique.

  8. Peter (the Other) says:

    “I wouldn’t throw in the towel on trying to write history anyway. ”
    Please don’t, it is one of my favorite art forms, right up there with economics. 🙂
    I enjoy your art!

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