Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Another Dreamer |
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Another Dreamer

Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture should have been the first contemplative study of the counter culture, or alternative society, to matter; so it’s a pity that the book is not very good. Things we can forgive Richard Neville can’t really be forgiven Theodore Roszak. He can draw upon sufficient intellectual resources to know a problem when he sees it. Having seen it, he raises it; and having raised it, skates around it. So The Making of a Counter Culture is shallow without being naïve, which is a lot worse than Neville’s Play Power, which was shallow because it was naïve.

In the first and best two chapters of the book Roszak describes the counter culture at the same time as describing the technocratic culture from which it is supposedly trying to break free. His description of the counter culture is comprehensive: it ranges from the dropped-out to the wanting-in. He proposes here a common factor, but since the common factor is only a common attitude to the prevailing technocracy, it’s hard to see how the common factor would stay common if a fluid revolutionary situation actually developed.

His description of the technocratic culture, though very wide-ranging, is really only a glorified characterization, at once too exclusive and too inclusive. It excludes institutions and hence removes the obligation to analyse them. It includes phenomena which should properly be isolated, and thus abets the bad intellectual practice (universal in the underground) of anathematizing the ‘system’ without defining it.

Throughout this twin-track description of the two cultures there are enough get-out clauses and implied qualifications to safeguard the author’s claim to an objective view, but not nearly enough instances of close argument to justify his pretension to a capacity for analysis.

‘And yet ... there are manifestations around the fringe of the counter culture that one cannot but regard as worrisomely unhealthy.’ There is enough in Roszak’s own account of emotion replacing intellect to give one confidence in asserting that some of these worrisomely unhealthy manifestations are not just around the fringe but bang in the centre. Roszak is well aware that irrationalism has a fly-blown history in this century. He is very eager to show that the counter culture is not Nazi. He attempts to show this by characterizing Nazism: predictably, in accordance with his whole intellectual style, he focuses on ideology and pays little attention to organization or institutions. But with the Nazis one of the consequences of irrationality was precisely that ideology was extremely flexible: anything could be presented for belief, and be believed.

Roszak says that with the counter culture there are first principles (feelings of compassion, awareness, sensitivity and so on) which place a limit to potential aberrations. Except around the fringe? Orwell once suggested that every revolutionary is forced to lie about the immediate future. With a sympathetic analyst like Roszak, for the movement but not of it, there is no necessity to lie: merely to ignore. He says little about what would have to happen if straight institutions and technologies gave way before the burgeoning counter culture at a rate which would entail an assumption of powers.

But to ignore the problem of the immediate revolutionary future means to skirt the question of the real nature of the relationship between the cultures. Is the counter culture the dependent part of a necessary dualism? If it is not, and is fated to replace the technocracy, can it retain the indispensable benefits conferred by the technocracy without corrupting itself by developing the organizational structures necessary to retain them? And so on.

These, and dozens more like them, are the real issues. Some of them are raised, none is treated. Instead, Roszak ‘develops’ his argument (i.e., depressurizes and diverts it) by setting up a further dialectical expounding-and-balancing, this time of Marcuse and Norman O. Brown. Brown emerges a clear winner. And before going on to examine the questions of how Brown’s insights could be put into action on a large scale, and what would happen to them if they were (questions which might well have given pause to Pareto), Roszak’s off again — this time into the Wisdom of the East. Once again he covers himself (as he covers himself when talking about Brown) by characterizing the counter culture’s derivations from eastern religions as a mish-mash, but also once again he’s wonderfully confident in announcing that the bias of the mish-mash is radiantly towards life-giving mind-expansion and healthily away from the tight-arsed European heritage that’s had a hex on us all these years. Well, it passes for rhetoric but as analysis it’s hopeless. In fact the book itself is a symptom of the American disease whose ravages Roszak is well able to see but whose nature he is incompetent to judge. He doesn’t know what an institution is: he puts his trust in a change of heart.

(New Society, 1970)
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As a semi-regular contributor to New Society’s back end, adventurously edited by Richard Boston, I found myself typecast as a counter-cultural commentator. In this bailiwick nearly all the review copies that came my way needed a lot of putting up with, but none more so than those written by sociologists and other social science academics who had come late to the party. The youngsters, after all, had some kind of case for remaining ignorant. The oldsters, often enjoying tenure even as they preached the virtues of hanging loose, had to achieve ignorance by an act of will. The efforts they put into this were heroic.