I just picked up a copy of Counterculture Through the Ages by Ken Goffman, but could hardly get through the (three!) introductions without suffering emotional fatigue. I kept wondering, should I cringe in embarrassment, or laugh bitterly in disgust? Jeez. My own derision is so exhausting.

Counterculture itself and especially the scholarship of its various movements suffer from an uncanny resilience to the not quite universal plight of (at least) minor self-awareness. Delusions of grandeur abound, I was subjected to declaration after declaration of the subversive power of countercultural “rebels”.

The argument of the book is pretty weak. Though I haven’t yet finished, it’s evident the basic premise doesn’t deviate from its many predecessors. The table of contents indicates the topics covered range from counterculture figures in Greco-Roman mythology, Socrates and Socratic Counterculture, Troubadours, Enlightenment thinkers, American Transcendentalists, Bohemian Parisians, Berkeley Students etc. In other words: the single most elite group of people throughout history (western, white, male, rich or middle-class) are the true rebels of history.

For all of the gushing circle-jerk of its preface, the postmodern invalidation of “counterculture” as Goffman understands it, makes his assertions passé in the extreme. In his introduction, Dan Joy analogizes counterculture to “the light-shining forth of unfettered individual expression, the radiant effulgence of human creativity unchained from external agendas and controls. The light—the brilliance released when…human beings freely partake of inner and outer resources to shape their world according to the dictates of the authentic self. And the numinous glow of the world itself in the eyes of those who exercise this kind of freedom.”

I have just one word for you Dan: LOL.

“Counterculture” (spare me the future usage of patronizing quotes, I’m sure you pick up my swing here), is a self-aggrandizing figment of The Man’s imagination. The young bourgeois, with the leisure to brood on the boredom of privilege yearns to count himself among the oppressed—the people— and join in with their romantic fight for justice (or, like, listen to Bob Marley and get it). How grand! To be a rebel in a fantasy world where he can still, when it’s all said and done, hoist his ass back up in Big Daddy’s chair, this time with a Bob Dylan poster on the wall and a smug party trick up his sleeve (if I ever hear Ginsberg’s Howl quoted in a social setting again, I’ll have to kill a man). As Leslie Fiedler describes, “Born theoretically white, we are permitted to pass our childhood as imaginary Indians, our adolescence as imaginary Negroes, and only then we are expected to settle down to being what we really are: white once more” (Waiting 134).

Counterculture—unconsciously aware of its own falsity—needs to codify itself through unifying symbols, most effectively embodied in the personae of a cultural representative. Like flags for a nation, counterculture heroes corral a collective fantasy of rebellion by standing for that vague body of people who need to salute something in order to make it all more real.

If some guy really loves John Lennon, then he and John Lennon are kinda alike! He’s a rebel too now. If he reads the Beat poets, and has a Malcolm X poster on the wall, and digs The Doors, he feels in touch with the “radiant effulgence of human creativity” undergirding the faux rebellion in his mind, which he secretly hopes never actually succeeds.

Basically, I’m calling bullshit here and now. Shut up already. No hate on Lennon or Mr. X or the like, but I find the exploitation of these figures’ cultural currency for the purpose of misguided phallic dementia tiresome.

These faux rebels are not just positively defined by latching themselves on to what they believe they are; they must also (perhaps more urgently) define themselves by what they are not. As they fabricate leaders, so too, must they fabricated enemies to be exposed, chastised and found guilty in the court of group-thought of deviance and destroyed. What I’m describing is the witch-hunt. Witch trials have been conducted cross-historically and culturally, typically in political climates of anxiety, where self-definition was especially tenuous for the nation or community. By seeking out and prosecuting the villains, the dominant group rejoices in their shared heroism and is thus defined by the age-old process of “othering” (how unoriginal). It is hardly worth mentioning that the witch-hunt is a gendered phenomenon. The deviant woman must be eliminated so that the dominant male identity can thrive. High-five bro!

Now, in the pop context, this happens symbolically. Enter Kurt and Courtney.

Cobain was the messiah of a starved generation of young white dudes waiting for validation from a rebel-god in the 1990s. Despite claims to the contrary, Nirvana’s Nevermind was never as important to the unification of the 90s counterculture generation as was the personae of its front man. Cobain was utilized as a restaging of the category of subculture, an especially tenuous category in the hyper-pop, uber materialist late 20th century. The counterculture was maintained in grunge theater by dramatizing itself through the person of its reluctant leader. Cobain was cast in the lead role of a show he wanted nothing to do with.

Upon his suicide, theories of Courtney Love’s conspiracy to have him murdered sprouted like daisies in the minds of counterculture vigilantes, eager to mythologize their leader further by making a witch of the real rebel in this scenario: Courtney Love.

Can someone just come out and say this? What the fuck is the risk in being a counterculture hero for the white male? What’s the big deal about being on the Keroacian road? These dudes get to play around with self-imposed marginalization all they want, with little consequence. They still get laid (are more likely to get laid), they still can ultimately get married, get a job, have kids etc, which is, like, the countercultural worst case scenario. Best case scenario, and certainly what these so-called rebels have in mind when they hit the streets in their skinny jeans clutching a J.D. Salinger novel, is that they will be immortalized as heroes—gods– of the countercultural revolution. There’s no risk, therefore there is no courage.

It’s not sexy for a woman to have an existential crisis. If she goes on the road, she is basically putting her life on the line. Her sexual viability may persist, but she’s transformed into a loathed “slut” (no actual sexual behavior necessary to earn the title), her long-term desirability is thus compromised. If she rebels against the confines of mass-cultural beauty (and I don’t mean growing side-bangs and wearing torn jeans), the countercultural male rebel isn’t attracted to her anymore. If she spends all her time reading and writing poetry and making art and being dedicated to a cause, she is compromising the possibility of marriage, family and happiness.

For the man, rebellion is a day job. For the woman, she must give all.

And yet the deviant female is the negated figure in the self-definition of counterculture. She is not only not worshiped; the “rebel” male hates her, especially if she taints the purity of an established hero. Courtney Love continues to be symbolically burned at the stake. Here she’s not pretty enough, there she spoke her mind, again she’s loud; unpleasant. Love continues to abject. She’s still “on the road” and we all hate her for it.

Finally, the reason why Courtney Love cannot be permitted into the great church of counterculture heroes is precisely because she’s a real rebel. You see, it’s all play-acting; pretend. Like I said before, in order to get back in Big Daddy’s chair the counterculture “rebel” can’t have any such rebellion succeed. Should the deviation of women be celebrated, a fundamental comfort of the rebel must be sacrificed. Her subordination, her support of his games will cease to be a comfort to him. If he lets women rebel, he won’t have his mommy, his wife, or is whore to make him happy no more. If Courtney Love is glorified, Cobain’s rebel vision might be actualized, and we can’t have that. This is also why counterculture as it’s understood by pop culture is never an ally of feminism. It presupposes her subordination.

So, here it is: there’s Kurt Cobain the man, and then there’s “Kurt Cobain” the counterculture idea, exploited for this goddamn theatre of rebellion we all have to pretend to celebrate and revere or else we’re condemned for having bad taste or some such ludicrous cultural blackmail. Fuck “Kurt Cobain”. Long live Courtney Love: icon of the new feminist counterculture.

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