Counterculture

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Counterculture is a term used in psychology and sociology to describe a set of views that are not of the mainstream. It is a neologism attributed to American historian Theodore Roszak. Although distinct countercultural undercurrents have existed in many societies, here the term refers to a more significant, visible phenomenon that reaches critical mass and persists for a period of time.

A countercultural movement expresses the ethos, aspirations, and dreams of a specific population during an era—a social manifestation of zeitgeist. The term came to prominence in the news media, as it was used to refer to the social revolution that swept North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Countercultural milieux in 19th-century Europe included Romanticism, Bohemianism, and the Dandy. Another, more fragmentary movement existed in the 1950s, both in Europe and the United States, in the form of the Beat generation; followed in the 1960s by the hippies and anti-Vietnam War protesters.

In the United States, the counterculture of the 1960s became identified with the rejection of conventional social norms of the 1950s. Counterculture youth rejected the cultural standards of their parents, especially with respect to racial segregation and initial widespread support for the Vietnam War.

In the United Kingdom, the counterculture of the 1960s was mainly a reaction against the social norms of the 1940s and 1950s, although ‘Ban the Bomb’ protests centered around opposition to nuclear weaponry.

As the 1960s progressed, widespread tensions developed in American society that tended to flow along generational lines regarding the war in Vietnam, race relations, sexual mores, women’s rights, traditional modes of authority, and a materialist interpretation of the American Dream. White, middle-class youth — who made up the bulk of the counterculture — had sufficient leisure time to turn their attention to social issues. Hippies became the largest countercultural group in the United States. The counterculture also had access to a media eager to present their concerns to a wider public. Demonstrations for social justice created far-reaching changes affecting many aspects of society.

Rejection of mainstream culture was best embodied in the new genres of psychedelic rock music, pop-art and new explorations in spirituality. Musicians who exemplified this era include The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Cream, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Janis Joplin.

Sentiments were expressed in song lyrics and popular sayings of the period, such as ‘do your own thing,’ ‘turn on, tune in, drop out,’ ‘whatever turns you on,’ ‘Eight miles high,’ and ‘light my fire.’ Spiritually, the counterculture included interest in astrology, the term ‘Age of Aquarius’ and knowing people’s signs. Roszak claimed an  ‘eclectic taste for mystic, occult, and magical phenomena has been a marked characteristic of our postwar youth culture since the days of the beatniks.’

The counterculture in the United States reached its peak between 1966 and the early 1970s. It eventually waned for several reasons: mainstream America’s disdain for unrepentant hedonism and conspicuous drug use, and the troubles caused by these excesses; the death of many notable countercultural figures; the end of the Vietnam War; and the end of Civil Rights protests following passage of remedial legislation.

The counterculture continues to influence social movements, art and society in general. Unconventional appearance, music, drugs, communitarian experiments, and sexual liberation were hallmarks of the sixties counterculture. To some Americans, these attributes reflected American ideals of free speech, equality, and pursuit of happiness. Other people saw the counterculture as self-indulgent, pointlessly rebellious, unpatriotic, and destructive of America’s moral order.

Authorities banned the psychedelic drug LSD, restricted political gatherings, and tried to enforce bans on what they considered obscenity in books, music, theater, and other media. Parents argued with their children and worried about their safety. Some adults accepted elements of the counterculture, while others became estranged from sons and daughters.

In 1967 thousands of young people flocked to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The counterculture lifestyle integrated many of the ideals and indulgences of the time: peace, love, harmony, music, and mysticism. Meditation, yoga, and psychedelic drugs were embraced as routes to expanding one’s consciousness. In Toronto, the Yorkville district served as a kind of Haight-Ashbury North, serving as another major hippie and musical crossroads.

The counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s generated its own unique brand of notable literature, including comics and cartoons, and sometimes referred to as the underground press. This includes the work of Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, and includes ‘Mr. Natural’; ‘Fritz the Cat’; and ‘Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.’ During the late 1960s and early 1970s, these comics and magazines were available for purchase in head shops along with items like beads, incense, cigarette papers, tie-dye clothing, DayGlo posters, books, etc.

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender community (LGBT) 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.’ At the outset of the 20th century, homosexual acts were punishable offenses in most 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.’

Even then, there were dissenting views. Sigmund Freud publicly expressed his opinion that homosexuality was a perfectly normal condition for some people. There were already semi-public gay-themed gatherings by the mid-1930s in the United States (such as the annual drag balls held during the Harlem Renaissance). There were also bars and bathhouses 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. Eventually, a genuine gay culture began to take root, albeit very discreetly, with its own styles, attitudes and behaviors and industries began catering to this growing demographic group. For example, publishing houses cranked out pulp novels like ‘The Velvet Underground’ that were targeted directly at gay people.

The watershed event in the American gay rights movement was the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. Following this event, gays and lesbians began adopting the militant protest tactics used by anti-war and black power radicals to confront anti-gay ideology. Another major turning point was the 1973 decision by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the official list of mental disorders.

The AIDS epidemic was initially an unexpected blow to the movement, especially in North America. There was speculation that the disease would permanently drive gay life underground. Ironically, the tables were turned. Many of the early victims of the disease had been openly gay only within the confines of insular ‘gay ghettos’ such as New York City’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Castro District); they remained closeted in their professional lives and to their families.

Many heterosexuals who thought they didn’t know any gay people were confronted by friends and loved ones dying of ‘the gay plague.’ The LGBT community 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. AIDS invigorated the community politically to fight not only for a medical response to the disease, but also for wider acceptance of homosexuality in mainstream America. Ultimately, coming out became an important step for many LGBT people.

Although not exactly equivalent to the English definition, the term ‘counterculture’ found a constant use in Russian to define a 1990s cultural movement that promotes acting outside usual conventions of Russian culture: use of explicit language, graphical description of sex, violence and illicit activities.

During the early ’70s, Russian culture was forced into 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 websites appeared that posted user-written short stories that dealt with sex, drugs and violence.

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