John Locke, Original Hipster

The Enlightenment roots of counterculture.


In a country where one of the most popular genres of music is called "alternative," the great refusenik Henry David Thoreau is a national icon, and acknowledged pot smokers have served as president (Bill Clinton) and speaker of the House (Newt Gingrich), would the last unabashedly mainstream American please turn off The Lawrence Welk Show? When the subversive has gone mainstream, does it make sense to talk about a "counterculture" anymore?

That's one of the questions raised by Ken Goffman and Dan Joy's enjoyably antic if slightly cracked Counterculture Through the Ages: From Abraham to Acid House (Villard). The book's short and provocative answer is this: In a post-9/11 world, one in which religious and neo-Luddite fundamentalists at home and abroad seek to stymie individualism and technological advances, it's more important than ever to understand and appreciate what might be called the countercultural imperative, whose chief characteristics are personal freedom and constant change.

Better known by his techno-hipster nom de revolution, R.U. Sirius, Goffman is in a particularly strong position to plumb the issue. As a co-founder of Mondo 2000, a magazine that, along with Wired, helped to define and mythologize digital culture in the 1990s, and as a collaborator with LSD guru Timothy Leary, Goffman is steeped in the history and practice of the individuals and groups that have long delighted in turning on, tuning in, dropping out, skewering the bourgeoisie, and otherwise monkeying around with convention. (Joy originated the book project and contributed at various stages, but the volume is primarily Goffman's, which is how I will refer to it.)

As the title suggests, Goffman wants to give us a long view of "transgressive, avant-garde movements" that "challenge authoritarianism in both its obvious and its subtle forms" and embrace continuous individual and social change.

The result is a madcap trip across time and myth, a sort of Ken and Dan's excellent adventure that stresses the Promethean impulse to steal fire and give it to the common man. When it comes to the countercultural, Goffman notes in a representative passage, "We think of Goethe's immortality-seeking bad boy Faust. We think of Robin Hood and his merry band of Weathermen. We think of Alfred E. Neuman."

The book's cast of characters includes the familiar, with chapters on the likes of Socrates, the transcendentalists, the bohos of Paris' Cabaret Voltaire, the Beats, and Students for a Democratic Society. To his credit–and in keeping with the trickster quality he says defines counterculture–Goffman consistently complicates received narratives that hinge on glib distinctions between East and West, ancient and modern, hip and square.

Discussing postwar drug culture, for instance, he asks, "what should peace idealists make of Al Hubbard, a former OSS agent with powerful right-wing establishment connections" who became known as the "Johnny Appleseed of LSD"? Goffman's sections on Jewish, Taoist, Zen, and Sufi traditions bring welcome global and historical perspectives to the topic. Sufism, he notes, offers up a compelling counterpoint within Islam to the practices of the Taliban and the Iranian republic, one that seeks intoxication and ecstasy as a means of bypassing such mind-numbingly repressive regimes.

Despite Goffman's apparent sympathies for left-leaning, anti-technological movements ranging from Mexican Zapatistas to Northern Californian eco-terrorists, at the core of Counterculture Through the Ages is an unabashed defense of Enlightenment ideas about individualism, science, and material progress. Enumerating the many moral, political, and cultural failings of dead white men such as Locke, Voltaire, and Jefferson, Goffman nonetheless argues that these figures helped create a framework that underwrote an ongoing social and scientific revolution that gives people more freedom to choose how to pursue happiness on something like their own terms. The original liberal values of limited government, secularized society, free inquiry, and tolerance, he argues convincingly, underwrote "an explosion of novelty, individual autonomy, and anti-authoritarian revolution that has not yet been successfully surpassed."

In Goffman's telling, the Enlightenment institutionalized counterculture, placing it, ironically, at the very center of the good society. Though he ends his narrative in mid-2003, his defense of what John Stuart Mill famously hailed as "experiments in living" seems more relevant than ever in a country in which things such as gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana, and stem cell research are increasingly under attack.?