Disclaimer: First of all, let’s get terms straight. Though I mine texts for answers, I find myself still wondering what, exactly, is counterculture? What, for instance is the difference between subculture and counterculture? Can the Rolling Stones really be counterculture, when they’re like, the most popular band ever? Is every non-mainstream culture counterculture? Why isn’t the feminist movement regarded as part of the counterculture age? Can anything authentically be “counterculture” within a consumer capitalist framework?

I’m offered little more than in-depth case-studies, when I so desperately seek solid definitions and ideologies (hey! Just like feminism!). There is an obvious disconnect from the ideal definition of a counterculture, and what tends to actually count as counterculture in cultural history. My assumptions about counterculture therefore are based on popular mythology shaped by discourse of 20th century common sense, not on any ideological document. My usage of the term “counterculture” will necessarily be vague, and rest (unfortunately) upon ”you know what I mean” logic. So, sorry or whatever. Take it up with Timothy Leary.

As readers of Pop Feminist are by now surely aware, I think/write about so-called counterculture a lot. I do this in part because while counterculture participation and scholarship is seductive to the pop-imagination, it also has a maddening tendency to maintain traditional gender politics and marginalize/tokenize women in its many self-congratulatory retrospectives.

Every feminist scholar ever has pointed out that Dick Hebdige’s pathbreaking and super-fascinating scholarship on sub/counterculture completely ignores the existence of women.

And you know what? Good.

What the hell do women have to do with the abject political ideology of 1970s punk? Youth rebellion is not the domain of young women whose sexual viability bequeaths them with more power than they are ever taught to hope for and therefore have little reason to be angry at “the establishment”. For those women who see through the bullshit (feminists, woot!), I’m extremely skeptical that their rebellion would look anything like punk or other male-dominated subcultures. They are present, to be sure, but maintain a secondary status. Someone’s got to provide the “sex” in a “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle after all…

Youth rebellion is the domain of young men, who tend to become progressively less radical as they age and assume the comforts of patriarchy (the power-structure isn’t so bad after all!). Women, on the other hand, lose sexual viability as they age and for those brave enough to confront the fact that the joke was on them, become rebels. This is where we get the stereotype of the “crazy old lady”—a revolutionary if ever there was one.

Let me suggest a basic foundation for counterculture:
Counterculture: Elective marginalization

Women and other disenfranchised groups, on the other hand, constitute a counterpublic:
Counterpublic: Forced marginalization

This tension between elective and forced marginalization largely forecloses the possibility for counterculture participation to be authentically open to the counterpublic (though tokenization, as ever, takes place).

For example, black counterpublics throughout American cultural history fail to be regarded by the mainstream as “counterculture”. The emergence of new forms of popular music, vernaculars, literature and revolutionary texts in the black community do not bear the official badge of counterculture because the “undergroundness” of their movements is not a luxury but a necessity—perhaps it’s a cultural rebellion, but it’s also an act of cultural survival (blech, how unromantic). This might be compared to the de-eroticization of the toned body when it is shaped by wage-labor as opposed to the attractive physique shaped by gym membership; the ugly tan from the fields, the sexy tan from the beach and so on.

Consider counterculture hero Norman Mailer’s famous essay from Dissent Magazine entitled “The White Negro” (this article was taken off the Dissent website for some reason). Mailer posits that the beat “hipster” is the white youth who borrows his affectations and culture of the “negro psychopath”. Psychopathology, Mailer argues, is the condition of the futureless black man whose necessary “carpe diem” lifestyle ensures such psychology will take hold. White kids, finding this disposition cool or something, mimic him in order to become hipsters. The essay, which ignores women altogether, is a load of racist junk but useful in thinking about how the counterpublic cannot be coutnerculture. Insofar as the black man can’t help his “psychopathic tendencies” he is unable to be a hipster. He may only provide the material by which exhaled hipsterism takes form. This, in essence, justifies the pre-integration position of black Americans who are made to bear the burden of systematic oppression so that we might reap from them a “folk culture”.

Dear Norman Mailer,

As Lauren Berlant observes, the counterpublic differs from counterculture in that it “focuses on scenes of ordinary survival, not transgression, on disappointment, not refusal.”

Survival and disappointment are certainly motivations for political organization and reform, but not exactly ideal subject matter for Jefferson Airplane.

It goes without saying that counterculture has been no friend to women. Lest we forget, second wave feminism of the 1970s is thought by many to have been mobilized by the false premise of women’s involvement within the SDS (see Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties) and the marginalization of women’s participation/concerns in the Civil Rights Movement not to mention the escalating one-sidedness of the free-love movement propagated by hippies.

Despite my clear distaste for the excessive celebration of counterculture, I’m not suggesting counterpublics can’t derive empowerment or pleasure from counterculture. Let me be clear: I do not wish to dismiss the artistic, literary and ideological contributions of counterculture in the name of spite.

Women can use counterculture even if women can’t be counterculture.

The ideology behind the poetry, novels, politics, art, fashion and music of counterculture is a step in the right direction.

We are well served to groove out to the ill-defined mission of counterculture, masquerade as participants, and cheer on the sentiment of righteous dissent. We can do this, and still poach the best of it to further our cause as a counterpublic seeking the day when we can be free of the term.

You dig, daddy-o?