Phoenix Collective
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Phoenix Collective

Notes on Counterculture

Then and Now. 1960s, 2020s.

“Counterculture: a subculture whose values and norms of behavior differ substantially from those of mainstream society, often in opposition to mainstream cultural mores. A countercultural movement expresses the ethos and aspirations of a specific population during a well-defined era. When oppositional forces reach critical mass, countercultures can trigger dramatic cultural changes.” (From the Wiki entry on counterculture).

Then

Notes on the 1960’s counterculture.

First, a selection of quotes from those who have studied the phenomenon of 1960’s counterculture.

From High Weirdness by Erik Davis:

The 60’s counterculture was “an essentially generational culture of rebellion, nonconformity, and creative experimentation with both individual and social possibility”

Countercultural creativity can be seen as a massive and decentralised construction project to replace or outpace a corrupt order of technocracy”

“People designed and constructed new formats for collective community, new liquid architectures, new media environments, new social sculptures”

“The freaks embraced the idea that reality is a social construction”

Consciousness culture: a pragmatic orientation towards intense, enchanting and liberating altered states”

“Freaking out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress and social etiquette in order to express creatively his/her relationship to his/her immediate environment and the social structure as a whole. (Frank Zappa)”

“These subcultures were united in their desire to effect a “complete discontinuity” with the conventional reality”

Terence McKenna’s psychedelic stress was less about the “hippie ideals of peace love and harmony, but rather the radical subversion of reality itself’”

A tactic employed by the youth was “weirdness, self-consciously directed at the disorientation and destruction of the mainstream culture”.

The Yippies! employed “anti-disciplinary politics”… this style of protest rejected hierarchy and leadership, offering instead a colourful psychedelic politics of satire that was “distinguished from the new left by its ridiculing of political commitment, sacrifice, seriousness and coherence.”. They were not just mockers but practictioners of “psychedelic militancy”. Inspired by the Dadaists and Surrealists, they “orchestrated media hoaxes, street-theatre, and bold demonstrations of love that were designed to effect a permanent change of heart in their opponents. Instead of conquering their foes, the Yippies! Aimed to convert them by ‘blowing their minds’ into a higher order of awareness.”

Classic protest spectacles of the era: the attempted levitation of the Pentagon [attended by 50,000 people], the campaign to elect a pig for president, and Abbie Hoffmans release of cash at the New York Stock Exchange.

Ken Kesey’s classic tactic: “get them into your movie before they get you into theirs”.

“Metaphysical radicals… aesthetic world-building, psychedelic mysticism”

The mindfuck: a tactic wielded against opponents, and more: a mode of subjective experience that, following the model of orgasm or the psychedelic “grok”, abruptly catalysed a different order of reality and possibility”. “Culture jamming”.

The Discordian Society became an “open source” artistic-esoteric current, a non-zero sum game that invited anyone who tuned in to play. The Discordians “ceased to conceive of liberation in terms of material gains won from the oppressor class but rather “in the freedom to (re-)create reality”

Alan Watts:

“Liberation of the mind from conventional perception is not the same as rebellion against convention”

Alan Piper:

Psychedelics became a “technology of resistance” in service of a pre-existing oppositional consciousness.

Psychedelics were co-opted by a pre-existing culture of resistance to Modernity and a youth counterculture.

Please remember that in the Sixties virtually all political activism was connected, directly or indirectly, to the ingestion of psychedelic drugs and therefore was shaped by, if not centered in, ecstatic states of being. — Tom Robbins

Pivotal countercultural events of the 1960s (from Wikipedia):

Prepare to be astounded. And jealous.

January 21–23 1966: Chet Helms’ Family Dog “Trips Festival” is attended by 10,000 in San Francisco; half are under the influence of LSD.

October 6 1966: Love Pageant Rally: A gathering of hippies including many notable Haight-Ashbury luminaries is held in San Francisco, marking the LSD ban. The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin perform for free.

December 23 & 30 1966: UFO Club, London’s first psychedelic nightclub opens.

January 14 1967: Human Be-In: “The joyful, face-to-face beginning of the new epoch” is held in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. 20,000 attend. “A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In”. The counterculture that surfaced at the “Human Be-In” encouraged people to “question authority” with regard to civil rights, women’s rights, and consumer rights.

January 29 1967: The Mantra-Rock Dance is held at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. Hare Krishna is promoted, and the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Moby Grape perform. Ginsberg, Leary and Owsley attend.

March 26 1967: 10,000 attend the New York City “Be-In” in Central Park.

April 29 1967: The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream: Pink Floyd featuring Syd Barrett headlines for 7,000 attending a groundbreaking televised psychedelic rave to promote love and peace at Alexandra Palace, London.

June–September 1967: The “Summer of Love” in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco and recognition of the Hippie movement.

June 10–11 1967: Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival: The Summer of Love kicks off at Mount Tamalpais, Marin County, California. Over 30,000 see the Byrds, Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish, and dozens of other acts perform in the first rock festival gathering of its kind.

October 21 1967: 50,000 people set off from an anti-war protest to attempt to levitate the Pentagon. Among the crowd were “witches, warlocks, holy men, seers, prophets, mystics, saints, sorcerers, troubadours, minstrels, bards, roadmen and madmen”. Spiritual practitioners, out in force, were practicing an “illuminated politics”; a “politics of display”. The event became an icon for a politics of consciousness that was at once oppositional, playful and enchanted. (Erik Davis again).

August 15–18 1968: Woodstock: An estimated 300,000–500,000 people gather in upstate New York for “3 Days of Peace & Music” at the watershed event in counterculture history.

(Noting the US- and UK-centricity of this list, I would be very interested in sources that refer to 60’s counterculture in other countries)

The Diggers

Excerpts from article The Theatre of Revolution Transforms Spectators into Political Actors: Performance as Political Engagement in the Transnational Counterculture

The English Diggers (1649–50) promulgated a vision of society free from buying, selling, and private property. The historical English Diggers appealed in America because of the shared heritage of English and American history.

Those Diggers were pastoral communalists in the period of the English Revolution. They were known for spontaneously collectivizing gentry lands back to common uses through digging. They seized the lands of the aristocracy as “a common treasury for all” and farmed it for mutual aid.

The Diggers of Haight-Ashbury (San Francisco) in the 1960s took their anarchist philosophy of a post-scarcity world and combined it with the theatrical training of the group’s most famous members — Emmett Grogan, Peter Coyote, and radical playwright Peter Berg — to act as if the revolution was already over and they had won. Reflecting powerful new modes of political engagement based in resistance to hegemonic power on the level of individual performance, yet also connecting to the preoccupations of their namesakes, the Diggers provided free food to the daily onslaught of incoming hippies in the Panhandle section of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, set up free stores with supplies of the repurposed waste of consumerism, and built free crash pads and clinics. While the Diggers are less well known today than their splinter group the Yippies (founded by Abbie Hoffman and originally known as the New York Diggers), their major actions, including the Free Stores and Free Clinics and their mock-funeral marches for the “Death of ‘Hippie’” and “Death of Money” received significant press attention within the moment.

They were “community anarchists” who blended a desire for freedom with a consciousness of the community in which they lived.[1] The Diggers’ central tenet was to be “authentic,” seeking to actually create a mini-society free from the dictates of money and capitalism.[2]

They started with small printed leaflets eventually called the Digger Papers, and soon morphed into small pamphlets with poetry, psychedelic art, and essays.

They threw free parties with music provided by the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and other bands. They also staged street theater events such as driving a truck of semi-naked belly dancers through the Financial District, inviting brokers to climb on board and forget their work. On December 17, 1966, the Diggers held a happening called “The Death of Money” in which they dressed in animal masks and carried a large coffin full of fake money down Haight Street, singing “Get out my life, why don’t you babe?” to the tune of Chopin’s “Death March.”[7] This was a precursor to the happening “The Death of Hippie,” staged in October 1967. In “The Death of Hippie,” also staged in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, masked participants carried a coffin with the words “Hippie — Son of Media” on the side. This event was meant to mark the end of the hippie era of Haight-Ashbury. The event was staged so as to make any media outlet that simply described the happening to unintentionally transmit the Diggers’ message that Hippies were a media invention. This was called “creating the condition you describe”.

The Hyde Park Diggers organized squats and crash pads, free food and free stores, and political and cultural forums.33 They fought against the recuperation of hippie culture through asserting a specific militant radical identity in these actions at the same moment where hippie couture was being sold on the high street. Most importantly, they maintained a counter-movement against the co-option and commodification of their alternative and occasionally insurgent subculture. In this, they echoed their namesakes’ fight against enclosure. They understood themselves as digging in to fight against the enclosure by consumerism of a cultural commons of rebellion. They insisted that, like the commons of the seventeenth century, their culture was a common treasury for all, and that its co-option was the contemporary equivalent of the enclosure movement.

We find these cultural workers (founders of OZ magazine) radicalized by the state response to their art, so much so that they embraced anarchist avant-garde politics. We see in them how culture strikes back against hegemony and pacification. It contains the tools for mobilization, for counter-movements.

“there was music in the cafes at night,” as voice of a generation Bob Dylan reminds us, “and revolution in the air.”

This proto-hippie set of signifiers was, importantly, transnational, providing connection points through music, drugs, and clothing to those of a shared interest. To some, it constituted an irresistible siren song that pulled them away from their unexamined lives. In politics, anarchist artist Ben Morea and anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin understood these bonds as necessary for “affinity groups.”

What if affinity groups were spiritual absurdist psychedelic art collectives? Families built on trust and love, grounded in shared experiences of freedom, play and cocreation, and united by a vision of sharing those experiences with a rigid and oppressive capitalist society?

After all, a counterculture is a culture — a constellation of arts, music, poetry, gatherings and protests, social, existential and relational modes of expression.

Relational aesthetics: Bourriaud claims “the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever scale chosen by the artist.”

So what does a community anarchist art collective do today?

What collective identity and story can we invite people to participate and create and play within?

Now

Exploring 2020s counterculture.

“Go for the checkmate: destroy modern society.” — Hanzi Freinacht

We are in need of immense creativity, innovation, soul, determination, love, openness and willingness to change if we are to navigate this crisis and bring about a (counter)culture of joy and freedom. This culture already exists in multiple embryonic forms but will only become a cultural movement as a result of mass collective efforts to catalyse, organise, and live it.

It is time for mass demonstration that another world (radically more healthy, connected, communal, democratic, free, humane, enjoyable and ecological) is both possible and instantly accessible. Naturally, this will look different to the counterculture of the 1960’s because what we are countering is different (though in a chilling sense, so very similar).

And it’s different because in this critical historical moment, this calm before the storm of climate and ecological breakdown, we need social, cultural and political transformation more than ever.

We can “invent our way out of this [mass extinction] if we can creatively expand our ability to come up with novel solutions.” — Paul Stamets

The 1965 Trips Festival “marked a moment when those anarchic, underground events — [the Acid Tests of the Merry Pranksters] — got organized and went fully public”. It was “an announcement of marginalized energies moving to the center of society, and, when the event was over, it had helped to fragment the center all to the edges.”

So, what’s our equivalent event today?

What would have to happen to rupture the fabric of business as usual for millions of people and draw them into something far more interesting and beautiful?

Please think on this one! Then maybe organise it, and invite us all? That would be great.

Looking to an example. The global movement of burning man events already model a decommodified and co-created culture dedicated to life as art (Tim Leary), self-expression, radical inclusion, communal effort, civic responsibility, and participation. If it can evolve from a handful of festivals, siloed from the rest of society, and only attended by a privileged few, to a decentralised social movement rupturing and evolving our towns and cities, I think it has great potential to become a genuine counterculture, in collaboration with other countercultural currents. Not least because its grounding in decommodication (not a single penny spent at the events) make it overtly counter to a hyper-capitalist culture. (This isn’t to say neoliberalism isn’t doing everything it can to absorb and profit from the original Nevada event!).

A powerful checklist for any counterculture is Joanna Macy’s celebrated model of 3 pillars of social change: a) resist and challenge the old system with everything we’ve got — upgrade, evolve and transform it, b) come together and collaborate in bold and beautiful new ways, actively experimenting to create a new society and system (not just talking about them) and c) “change consciousness”— explore new ways of being, perceiving and relating. We should be trying to cultivate events, organisations and personal lives that embody and harmonise all three of these pillars. They’re each essential and co-interacting.

The real checkmate both destroys modern society and offers millions of people an invitation to live, do, and be in radically better ways than before.

Fumbling in that direction, here’s a hotchpotch list sketching out some existing and emerging aspects (memes) of 2020s counterculture:

  • Universal solidarity and compassion
  • Committed to psychological and sociological development
  • Vulnerability and radical honesty
  • Unknowing and ignorance; humility
  • Humour and comedy
  • Synthesising extreme irony with utter sincerity (a metamodern attitude)
  • Pragmatic idealism — utopian and visionary.
  • Depth and wisdom
  • Co-creation (of all things, including our selves, society and reality itself)
  • No judging, blaming or shaming
  • Active listening and unhindered self-expression
  • Co-development through group practices and collaboration
  • Self-consciousness, self-irony, self-forgiveness, self-love
  • Grassroots political organising
  • Participatory and deliberative democracy
  • Absurdity + weirdness
  • Play — life as infinite game
  • Flow states and the fluid mode / liquid mind
  • Radical solidarity i.e. with everyone everywhere
  • Rebelliousness and nonconformity
  • Decommodification; proactively postcapitalist; volunteer economy
  • Emancipatory — actively working to root out and heal systemic oppressions and prejudices
  • Holding metanarratives
  • Youth liberation
  • Spontaneity
  • Nomadic life
  • Embodiment
  • Liberation of emotionality
  • Magical realism; fact=fiction.
  • Potentiality-aware
  • Emptiness and soulmaking
  • Non-dogmatic reconnection with divinity
  • Authenticity, individuation and soveriegnty (vs. conformity)
  • Pluralistic (“many truths”)
  • Embracing complexity / the edge of chaos
  • Existential (the ontological turn)
  • Respect for and openness to psychedelic experiences and altered/ecstatic states
  • Meditation and contemplation
  • Collective joy and ecstasy, Dionysian revelry and Epicurean hedonism
  • Mortality mature
  • Conscious of (and not paralysed by) the possibility of near-term societal collapse.
  • Joyous cynicism; rejection of the stupidity, banality and mundane nature of everyday life and business as usual
  • Trans-national; operating on a global/planetary reference frame.
  • In tune with the grief, sadness, fear and despair (the tragedy) of these times
  • Ecological — sustaining all life on Earth
  • Dialectical harmony; seeing tension and crisis as opportunity
  • Metamodern: synthesising postmodern critique/deconstruction with modernist rationality and empiricism (science literacy and evidence-based thinking).
  • Digitally networked and equipped with a wealth of apps and gadgets
  • Distributed / decentralised organising / swarming
  • Collective presencing and inquiry practices
  • Information abundance
  • Meta-literacy (ability to handle meta-concepts and arguments)
  • In tune with accelerating exponential technologies
  • Attitude of constant open-ended experimentation and feedback loops
  • Cosmist, futurist, transhumanist
  • Towards sexual liberation and gender freedom
  • Androgynous cosmology; unifying masculine/feminine; gender reconciliation
  • Death of the celebrity and intellectual elite
  • Celebrating individuation: all heroes, all celebrities
  • Networks vs. hierarchies
  • Shadow awareness and integration
  • Mythopoetic/imaginal/divine/cosmic narratives; a playful return to metaphysics
  • An embrace of paradox and mystery
  • Science fiction (and awareness of how science fact is fast blurring with wild fiction)
  • Transgression of repressive social and cultural norms
  • Making the world work for 100% of beings on Earth
  • A wealth more memes (many of which have inspired points in the above list)in the Appendix of The Listening Society: a Metamodern Guide to Politics (see Julyan Davey’s transcript at the bottom of this blog post).
  • What’s missing?

Exploring counterculture in practice — through games, hoaxes, pranks, direct action, glitches in the matrix, invisible theatre, street jams, flashmobs, burns, weird happenings, assemblies, memes, hackathons, conferences, conventions, campaigns, conversations, poetry slams, carnivals, festivals, art events, installations, mindfucks, reality bends, magic — is another matter. Nobody is going to do it for us.

We are the counterculture of the future. Let’s get organised.

To do that in a lasting way means new social, political and economic institutions: collectives, cooperatives, clubs, social movements, digital networks, websites, communication channels, spaces (offices, co-working, community centres, innovation hubs, clubs, cafes, hangouts, communes and co-living spaces), educational offerings (MOOCs, universities, schools, colleges, adult learning centres, libraries), local government policies/funds/campaigns (municipalism), new sustainable means of production (factories, farms (especially hydroponic/verticals), recycling plants), political parties, companies, nonprofits, petitions, policy proposals, volunteer schemes, book clubs, (self-)education programmes, (local) government offices, research projects / research initiatives. Imagine all of these types of collective infused with a vision and lived experience of human freedom.

Some Questions

  • What does individual and collective leadership of a counterculture look like today?
  • What should a new counterculture’s outward facing (media, meme and messaging) and inward facing strategies (organising, group dynamics, leadership) look like?
  • How do countercultures feed into a proactive, ambitious and comprehensive program for changing the state, political system and economy? What role might countercultures play in the transition to a just, ecological and regenerative society/system/politics?
  • What countercultural forces are currently active and prominent? Which are underground, or dormant, and waiting to be unleashed/united?
  • What visions, goals and narratives can unite 2020s countercultures?
  • What is it most essential to counter in this moment? How?
  • Which cultural taboos reveal fertile ground for countercultural creativity?
  • What is the relationship between ecstatic/mystical/divine/profound/weird/psychedelic altered states and existing countercultural currents?
  • Your questions please!

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