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In sociology, counterculture is a term used to describe the values and norms of behavior of a cultural group that run counter to those of the social mainstream of the day, the cultural equivalent of political opposition. This was a neologism from 1969 attributed to Theodore Roszak. Although distinct countercultural undercurrents exist in all societies, here the term counterculture refers to a more significant, visible phenomenon that reaches critical mass and persists for a period of time. A counterculture movement thus expresses the ethos, aspirations and dreams of a specific population during a certain period of time — a social manifestation of zeitgeist.
Countercultural milieux in 19th century Europe included the traditions of Romanticism, Bohemianism and of the Dandy. Another movement existed in a more fragmentary form in the 1950s, both in Europe and the US, in the form of the Beat generation/Beatniks.
The term 'counterculture' came to prominence in the news media as it was used to refer to the youth rebellion that swept North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand during the 1960s and early 1970s.
Sixties and seventies counterculture[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Counterculture of the 1960s
Some suggest that white middle class youth had time in their lives to raise concerns about Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and the American War in Vietnam. The far-reaching changes that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s affected many aspects of society. The effects of the 1960s and 1970s also significantly affected voters and institutions, especially in the U.S. Every Western capital experienced significant protests.
During the 1960s tensions developed along generational lines regarding experimentation with drugs, race relations, sexual morals and women's rights. New cultural norms emerged. The Hippies became the largest countercultural movement in the United States fighting for more openness within main stream culture in civil rights especially drugs and the escalating involvement and conflict in Vietnam. The Hippies mostly expressed their views through the new psychedelic rock genre of music. Bands and artists such as Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Janis Joplin expressed their views about drugs and Vietnam through the genre. Most of the social movements in the United States shared the common philosophy of experimentation on drugs especially hallucinogens such as LSD. The pop-art culture led by figures such as Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick also played a prominent part in the social change in the United States. Warhol and Sedgwick expressed views of glamour, art, and drugs very prominently through Warhol's paintings, films, and music (through his sponsored bands such as The Velvet Underground and Nico). The counterculture in the United States lasted from about 1965 till about 1978. The counterculture eventually died out for several different reasons like the deaths of notable counterculture figures and the end of the Civil Rights and Vietnam conflicts. Since then, large social groups such as the hippies have diminished, or are virtually non-existent. Recent social trends in the 2000's have signaled the possible rise in a new counterculture rebelling against the conservative social norms of the 1980's. Though most of the 1960's countercultural groups have died out, they have left their mark on society, such as more openness to civil rights, and other subjects. The groups also caused drugs to become able to be a central part of countercultural movements, though not required to be considered truly countercultural..
Media counterculture[edit | edit source]
While Phil Donahue pioneered the tabloid talk show genre in the 1970s, the warmth, intimacy and personal confession Oprah Winfrey brought to the format in 1986 both popularized and revolutionized it. In the scholarly text Freaks Talk Back, Yale sociology professor Joshua Gamson credits the tabloid talk show genre with providing much needed high impact media visibility for gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transgender people and doing more to make gays socially acceptable than any other development of the 20th century. In the book's editorial review Michael Bronski wrote "In the recent past, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered people had almost no presence on television. With the invention and propagation of tabloid talk shows such as Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Oprah, and Geraldo, people outside the sexual mainstream now appear in living rooms across America almost every day of the week.". While Bronski meant this as praise, the trend has also had its critics. Sociologist Vicki Abt feared that tabloid talk shows were redefining social norms. In her book Coming After Oprah: Cultural Fallout in the Age of the TV talk show, Abt warned that the media revolution that followed Oprah's success was blurring the lines between normal and deviant behavior.
One of Winfrey's most taboo-breaking shows occurred in the 1980s where for the entire hour, members of the studio audience stood up one by one, gave their names and announced that they were gay. Also in the 1980s Winfrey took her show to West Virginia to confront a town gripped by AIDS paranoia because a gay man living in the town had HIV. Winfrey interviewed the man, who had become a social outcast, and the town's mayor, who had drained a public pool where the man had gone swimming, and debated the town's hostile residents. "But I hear this is a God-fearing town," Winfrey scolded the studio audience, "where's all that Christian love and understanding?" During a show on gay marriage in the 1990s, a woman in Winfrey's audience stood up to complain that gays were constantly flaunting their sex lives and that she was tired of it. "You know what I'm tired of?" replied Winfrey, "Heterosexual males raping and sodomizing young girls. That's what I'm tired of." Her rebuttal inspired a standing ovation from that shows mostly gay studio audience.
By the end of the 1990s, most tabloid talk shows had gone off the air or, as in the case of Winfrey, had dramatically reinvented themselves to adapt to the changing market.
Following the success of tabloid talk shows, early 21st-century gays were coming out of the closet younger and younger, gay suicide rates had dropped, and gays were embraced on mainstream shows such as Queer as Folk, Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and films such as Brokeback Mountain.
Winfrey's intimate, therapeutic hosting style and the tabloid talk show genre she popularized has been credited or blamed for leading the media counterculture of the 1980s and 1990s, which broke 20th century taboos, led to America's self-help obsession, and created a confession culture. The Wall Street Journal coined the term Oprahfication, which means public confession as a form of therapy.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender counterculture[edit | edit source]
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender community (commonly abbreviated as the “LGBT” community), mostly evident in the US, Canada, Northern / Western Europe, Australasia and South Africa, fits the definition of a countercultural movement as "a cultural group whose values and norms of behavior run counter to those of the social mainstream of the day". Aside from breaking away from the traditional accepted sexual mores of American / western culture, it has weathered continual opposition from some more conservative elements of society.
At the outset of the 20th century, homosexual acts were punishable offenses in these countries. The prevailing public attitude was that homosexuality was a moral failing that should be punished, as exemplified by Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial and imprisonment for "gross indecency." But even then, there were dissenting views. Sigmund Freud publicly expressed his opinion that homosexuality was a perfectly normal condition for some people.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
According to Charles Kaiser’s The Gay Metropolis, there were already semi-public gay-themed gatherings by the mid-1930s US (such as the annual drag balls held during the Harlem Renaissance). There were also many bars & bath-houses that catered to gay clientele and adopted warning procedures (similar to those used by prohibition-era speakeasies) to warn customers of police raids. But homosexuality was typically subsumed into bohemian culture, and was not a significant movement in itself.
During World War II, millions of American men & women were uprooted from their homes, and relocated to large port cities, such as New York City and San Francisco, either en route to tours of duty in Europe or to the Pacific, or to serve in the home-front war effort. Being somewhat anonymous in the large urban areas, and separated from 'shaming' societal figures, many gay men and lesbians who otherwise would have spent their lives closeted were exposed to nascent gay culture. When the war ended, many of these people chose to permanently settle in New York and San Francisco and live more openly gay lives[How to reference and link to summary or text].
A genuine gay culture began to take root, albeit very discreetly, with its own styles, attitudes and behaviors. And numerous industries began catering to this growing demographic group. For example, publishing houses cranked out pulp novels like The Well of Loneliness or The Velvet Underground that were targeted directly at gay people. By the early 1960s, openly gay political organizations such as the Mattachine Society were formally protesting abusive treatment toward gay people, challenging the entrenched idea that homosexuality was an aberrant condition, and calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Despite very limited sympathy, American society began at least to acknowledge the existence of a sizable population of gays. The film The Boys in the Band, for example, featured negative portrayals of gay men, but at least recognized that they did in fact fraternize with each other (as opposed to being isolated, solitary predators who ‘victimized’ straight men).
A watershed event was the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. Following this event, gays and lesbians began adopting the militant street protest tactics used by anti-war and black power radicals to confront anti-gay ideology. Perhaps the zenith of this period was the 1973 decision by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the official list of mental disorders. Although gay radicals did use pressure tactics to force the decision, Kaiser notes that this had been an issue of some debate for many years in the psychiatric community, and that one of the chief obstacles to normalizing homosexuality was that therapists were getting rich offering dubious, unproven "cures".
The AIDS epidemic was a massive, unexpected blow to the movement, especially in North America. Many gays feared (and many fundamentalists hoped) that the disease would permanently drive gay life underground. But even AIDS had ironic, positive consequences. Many of the early victims of the disease had been openly gay only within the confines of insular gay ghettos (like NYC’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Castro); they remained closeted in their professional lives and to their families. Many straights who thought they didn't know any gay people were confronted with friends, siblings and loved ones who were dying of ‘the gay plague.’ Gay people were increasingly seen not only as victims of a disease, but as victims of ostracism and hatred. Most importantly, the disease became a rallying point for a previously complacent gay community. Gay people once again became political and fought not only for a medical response to the plague, but also for wider acceptance of homosexuality in mainstream America. Ultimately, coming out in all aspects of one's life became an important step for many gay people.
The word "queer" had once been used as a derogatory term. During the 1980s gay people reclaimed the word as a defiant, pro-gay term. Its use became a broad declaration that gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people would no longer 'apologize' for themselves, or try to placate homophobic elements.
In 2003, the United States Supreme Court officially decriminalized all sodomy laws. Virtually every large city and community in America has its own network of bars, gay-oriented businesses and community centers[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Annual gay pride events take place throughout the US and the world. Many of the current debates concerning gay people (such as same-sex marriage and parenting) would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago[How to reference and link to summary or text]. As of 2007, the gay community is focusing on marital rights, although sufficient numbers of Americans oppose gay marriage to the point that 27 state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage have been passed by comfortable popular margins of 60-80%. This indicates that despite the wider acceptance and tolerance of gay life, it is still viewed by mainstream American society as an aberration, making it in every sense one of several contemporary 'countercultures'.
Russian/Soviet counterculture[edit | edit source]
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Although not exactly equivalent to the English definition, the term "Контркультура" (Kontrkul'tura, "Counterculture") found a constant use in Russian to define a cultural movement that promotes acting outside usual conventions of Russian culture - use of explicit language, graphical description of sex, violence and illicit activities and uncopyrighted use of "safe" characters involved in everything mentioned.
During the early 70's, Russian culture was forced into quite a rigid framework of constant optimistic approach to everything. Even mild topics, such as breaking marriage and alcohol abuse, tended to be viewed as taboo by the media. In response, Russian society grew weary of the gap between real life and the creative world. Thus, the folklore and underground culture tended to be considered forbidden fruit. On the other hand, the general satisfaction with the quality of the existing works promoted parody, often within existing settings. For example, the Russian anecdotal joke tradition turned the settings of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy into a grotesque world of sexual excess. Another well-known example is black humor (mostly in the form of short poems) that dealt exclusively with funny deaths and/or other mishaps of small innocent children.
In the mid-80s, the Glasnost policy allowed the production of not-so-optimistic creative works. As a consequence, Russian cinema during the late 80s to the early 90s was dominated by crime-packed action movies with explicit (but not necessarily graphic) scenes of ruthless violence and social dramas on drug abuse, prostitution and failing relations. Although Russian movies of the time would be rated R in the USA due to violence, the use of explicit language was much milder than in American cinema.
Russian counterculture as we know it emerged in the late 90s with the increased popularity of the internet. Several web sites appeared that posted user-written short stories that dealt with sex, drugs and violence. Since stories were actually posted by editors, it's pretty clear what the characteristics of Russian counterculture were. The following features are considered most popular topics for the works:
- Wide use of explicit language
- Deliberately bad spelling
- Drug theme - descriptions of drug use and consequences of substance abuse - at times quite gruesome
- Alcohol use - positive
- Sex and violence - nothing is a taboo. In general, violence is rarely advocated, while sex is considered to be a good thing.
- Parody - media advertising, classic movies, pop culture and children's books are considered to be fair game.
- Non conform to daily routine and set nature of things
- Politically incorrect topics - mostly racism, xenophobia and homophobia
As with pornography, Russian counterculture has blurred borders and is hard to define. Generally, any content posted on a number of counterculture sites, like Udaff, Litprom or Fuck.ru(No longer available) is considered counterculture, although some of the stories there have nothing to do with all of the above apart from being counterculture-inspired. Although seen as outcasts by conventional media, some of the countercultural authors have become extremely popular in modern Russia. People like Sergei Minayev (aka Amiga), Andrei Orlov (aka orlusha), Rustem Samigullin (aka Shchikotilllo) and Yekaterina Temirgaliyeva (aka Кошки 2 шт.) are widely considered as icons of popular culture, art and literature, are frequently interviewed by press, radio and television, being recognised on the street and asked for autographs like movie or rock stars. The impact of Litprom on off-line Russian media has become a real shock for the closed and snobbish official Russian ;culture'. Having hit the shelves midsummer of 2006, Minayev's premiere book Духless has become the national mega-bestseller with the current print run of over 500 000 copies, while a sharp and ironic obscene poem ЗА-Е-БА-ЛО! by orlusha has topped the list of downloaded ring-tones, leaving the most popular pop- and rock tunes far behind. Much to a surprise of the Moscow authorities, graffiti like ЛИТПРОМ ФОРЕВА (Litprom forever) and УДАВ СОСЁТ (udaff sucks) have outnumbered such previous hits like ЦОЙ ЖИВ (Tsoi is alive) and ОТСОСИ У КРАСНО-СИНИХ (suck the red-blue army dick) in the Moscow public toilets and elevators. It is also really hard to overestimate the influence of Dr. Samigullin's (Щикатиллло) extreme promiscuity and outrageous sexual practices on everyday life of both married and single house-wives over 42 y.o. The ROFL-esque works of Renson (preved renad) & Raider (voffka the crazy drummer), the core and hard-standing members of the Russian countercultural movement, have also become quite some benchmarks for many a reader of aforementioned counterculture sites.
The interesting aspect is the influence of the contra-cultural developments on the Russian pop culture. In addition to traditional Russian styles of music like songs with jail-related lyrics, new music styles with explicit language were developed
Asian counterculture[edit | edit source]
In the recent past Dr. Sebastian Kappen, an Indian theologian, has tried to redefine counterculture in the Asian context. In March 1990, at a seminar in Bangalore, he presented his countercultural perspectives (Chapter 4 in S. Kappen, Tradition Modernity Counterculture, Visthar, Bangalore, 1994). Dr. Kappen envisages counterculture as a new culture that has to negate the two opposing cultural phenomena in Asian Countries:
(1) invasion by Western capitalist culture, and
(2) the emergence of revivalist movements.
Kappen writes, “Were we to succumb to the first, we should be losing our identity; if to the second, ours would be a false, obsolete identity in a mental universe of dead symbols and delayed myths".
Counterculture in the 2000s[edit | edit source]
Currently there is no definitive counterculture in the United States, perhaps due to an increasingly depoliticized population, however several small cultural movements are gaining popularity across the country, and the world, due in large part to the prominence of online social-networking sites amongst youth, media forums, an overwhelming amount of consumer choices, increased access to information, and the personalization of media producing technology.
In recent years such groups as the Punks and Indies (Bohemians) have expressed discontent at how the United States government conducts the "War on Terror," especially in the Middle East, through music, literature, and art. Because most contemporary counterculture movements celebrate the defiance of "authority", "conformity", and "convention" on an individual level, emphasizing the "individuality", "freedom" and "independence" of each person.
The saturation of society with "entertainment" media, as well as the rising prominence of amateur "folk" content and the means to produce it, is also diminishing the distinction between "art" and "entertainment", "reality" and "representation", and "spectator" and "actor"; suggesting large-scale misinterpretations of reality and misunderstandings of art's traditional role as cultural catalyst. Over-stimulation from images and irrelevant information and the constant bombardment by governmental and corporate propaganda and advertising also serves to paralyze a large segment of the public and encourage conformity; in front of the TV set, in the checkout line, at the polls, or in the pursuit of self-projects.
Although political apathy is very prominent amongst the demographic that typically composes the backbone of any counterculture, i.e. the youth, political and cultural mobilization of the masses could perhaps reach new heights in an era of global communications technology, unparalleled access to information, and the means to distribute art and share ideas.
The Indies and Punks have embraced the ideologies espoused in Communism, Anarchism, Anti-War, and Socialism rebelling against the Anticommunist and Conservative. Some of these groups have, in an effort to resemble the glamorous maverick ideal portrayed in media, adopted a rebellious "look" to either gain attention from stodgy elders or proclaim their independence. In claiming their independence by conforming to a set ideal, their elder boomer mentors believe that they run the risk of doing the exact opposite of what they planned. Young people have become more informed on politics and have in turn questioned their loyalty to their countries. Much of the emerging counterculture's ideas and views is paralleled to that of the 1960s counterculture. Drug use is also present in the new countercultural thinking. Although drug use in general is not new at all to coutercultural movments, these groups have imbraced the very similar philosophy of the 1960's couterculture on drugs such as mind expansion.
Bibliography[edit | edit source]
- Theodor Roszak (1970) The Making of a Counter Culture.
- Elizabeth Nelson (1989) The British Counterculture 1966-73: A Study of the Underground Press. London: Macmillan.
- George McKay (1996) Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London Verso. ISBN 1-85984-028-0.
Further reading[edit | edit source]
- Ken Goffman (2004) Counterculture through the ages Villard Books ISBN 0-375-50758-2
See also[edit | edit source]
Notes[edit | edit source]
- Eric Donald Hirsch.The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-65597-8. (1993) p 419. "Members of a cultural protest that began in the U.S. in the 1960s and affected Europe before fading in the 1970s...fundamentally a cultural rather than a political protest."
- "Rockin' At the Red Dog: The Dawn of Psychedelic Rock," Mary Works Covington, 2005.
- Kaiser, C. (1997). The Gay Metropolis, New York: Harcourt Brace. ISBN-10: 0156006170
- Conger, J.J. (1975) Proceedings of the American Psychological Association, Incorporated, for the year 1974: Minutes of the Annual meeting of the Council of Representatives. American Psychologist, 30, 620-651.
- Kaiser, C. (1997). The Gay Metropolis, New York: Harcourt Brace.
- LAWRENCE ET AL. v. TEXAS, June 26, 2003 http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/02pdf/02-102.pdf
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