White roses overgrow a trellis beside the driveway. I admire them from atop my perch on my front stoop as I shelter in place. Look at all the lovely everything, the leafy and flowery manifold Earth, sunlit and glorious, waving in the wind! A softness, a gentleness, enters into one’s manner. A grey tabby that likes to visit now and then sleeps out on my porch. I let it. Dreamboat baby tell all. At some point, though, I plan to grill some hot dogs. In a journal I note down the following: “In an imaginary interview published in his book Revolution for the Hell of It, Abbie Hoffman uses language borrowed from his mentor Abraham Maslow to signal how his own approach and vision differed from those of his contemporaries in the New Left. Movements for change should be built, he says, not on sacrifice, dedication, responsibility, anger, frustration, and guilt, but on fun. ‘When I say fun,’ he tells the interviewer, ‘I mean an experience so intense that you actualize your full potential. You become LIFE. LIFE IS FUN’ (61-62).”
Abbie Hoffman was a countercultural revolutionary, but he was also a comedian, wise and gleeful in his writings and his actions. When the government came after him, he went underground, lived as a fugitive. Perhaps I should teach a course on prison writing: Antonio Gramsci, Martin Luther King Jr., Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson, John Sinclair. But man, that’s a lot of weight to carry. Better to stick with joyous liberatory texts like Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It (written under the alias “FREE”), or direct action Movement manifestos like Jerry Rubin’s DO IT! Rubin, of course, dodged Abbie’s fate — and in a sense, dodged out of the cultural revolution, exploring various West Coast New Age self-help / therapy groups in the 1970s and transforming into a Reagan-era Yuppie by the time of his former comrade’s resurfacing in the 1980s. The two paired up and performed together in a countrywide speaking tour as political sparring partners.
Be that as it may, I remain charmed by Rubin’s 1976 memoir of his time in the human potential movement, Growing (Up) at 37. Point being, LSD was various in its effects, serving at one and the same time as catalyst for, implement of, and impediment to the era’s cultural revolution.
I circle back as in a refrain toward M.C. Richards, her theme “the act of centering” returning again amid radical declarations, revolutionary self-fashionings, “Movement” speeches, street writings, prison writings, books like Abbie Hoffman’s Woodstock Nation and John Sinclair’s Guitar Army. The personal was fused with the political for these authors. They took psychedelic civil disobedience as locally staged stoned action and amplified it via seizure of airwaves, campuses, streets, courts of law. Kesey and the Pranksters did something similar a few years earlier, though without the militant intent. Theirs was more of a traveling roadshow, coast-to-coast trips across America, La Honda to New York and back. Minds changing themselves on the road, and in so doing, changing the minds of others.
She’s growing quickly. She’s active, inquisitive, communicative, discerning. We hang out. We go for walks. We return home to home cooking and mother’s breast. The household looms large around the edges of each day. I come home from walks eyes heavy with pollen. Allergy season. I’m interested to see what students do with this week’s readings: texts by Abbie Hoffman and John Sinclair. I dig in and learn about Abbie’s friendship with Allen Ginsberg. The two writers admired each other’s work. Ginsberg influenced Yippie politics and Hoffman’s brand of revolutionary political theater through a piece he wrote called “Demonstration or Spectacle as Example, As Communication.” (Abbie’s archives are available, by the way, at University of Texas at Austin.)
The life of ’60s counterculture icon Abbie Hoffman ought to be read not just in light of the Marxism of Herbert Marcuse, whom Hoffman studied under while an undergrad at Brandeis, but also in light of the humanistic psychology of another of Abbie’s mentors at Brandeis, the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow. Abbie was a self-actualizer, a seeker of peak experiences, his writing in books like Woodstock Nation spontaneous prose performances of life lived hopefully in pursuit of revolutionary overthrow of the police state he saw and experienced around him, the “PIG NATION.” There’s a lot of Ego in this performance, but it’s an Ego self-identified with a movement in potentia, like the Whitman of “Song of Myself” or the Ginsberg of “America.” A collective voice coaxing participation in revolutionary transformation of being. Hoffman learned to perform revolution as living theater using the techniques of Artaud and the Diggers. Unlike those precursors, however, Abbie staged his happenings as guerilla seizures of the capitalist opponent’s mass media. The latter became the unwitting narrators and documenters — and to some extent, participants — in Abbie’s dramas. The story continues, carries over, into other books of the era: Ed Sanders’s Shards of God, Jerry Rubin’s DO IT! and We Are Everywhere. Time to visit Peter Coyote for criticism of some of this, and for more on the Diggers. Yet what a riveting performance! Studs Terkel described it as “ebullience and despair rolled into one.” Paul Krassner’s tale of taking acid before taking the witness stand at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial adds another level of anarchic psychedelic zaniness to all of this.
The revolution grows micro, happens everywhere. Except everybody knows that everywhere is as good as nowhere. As we float in our plastic domes. Is neoliberalism birthed in the summer of ’69? What did Woodstock and the Moon Walk do to us? Did they remake us all as cybernetic astronauts, tethered as if by umbilical cord to an AI similar to the one that awakens and talks to us at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? What accounts for the recurrence of “space” in so many of the texts of Hippie Modernism? Why, too, is this the moment of LSD and “Spacewar”? Did neoliberalism shoot us all into space? Where does acid figure in relation to this transformation? What effect did it have on the collective imaginary? Abbie Hoffman had his helmet smashed, he says, (and by “helmet,” he meant his “subjective experience”), during a bad acid trip at Woodstock. (The book to consult for an account of Abbie’s trip is Ellen Sander’s Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties.) Even as he imagines the festival as a prefiguration of a new WOODSTOCK NATION, he also describes it as the first time in history that we successfully landed a man on the Earth. “Calling Planet Earth,” echoes June Tyson at the end of “Space is the Place.” Perhaps what we saw is that we’re all one thing, one brain, the General Intellect, a new infant floating out in space. What do we do with ourselves? Stewart Brand assumes that this condition makes us as gods, and that we might as well get good at it. But he does so while involved in a counterculturally-conducted investigation of communal living. The neoliberal cognitive map clicked into place in multiple minds at once there in the late 60s and early 70s. We’re all right there in that “Earthrise” photograph, our collective self-portrait. My hunch, however, is that this map is the veil that we need to pierce if we’re ever to get free.
Harried with work, days and days of grading midterms, I stumble free mid-afternoon into observation and contemplative reading of the Afros of the White Panther Party, dining on a side of green lettuce. How compartmentalized the days become under capitalist wage-slavery, I think with a sigh. Oscillations, electronic evocations of reality. Abbie Hoffman and John Sinclair in the midst of the last civil war represented themselves on the stage of history as revolutionary superheroes. But department stores are weird trips, man. Compartmentalized to the nth degree. Objects hung from racks in one thinly-populated zone, dense diverse clusters of people and sound elsewhere. How might we reconnect? I pick up a faceted wood vase and tap at it, questioningly. A voice in a nearby aisle proclaims, “it feels so real!” Materials when touched, not what they seem. And these motherfuckers no longer carry my Heinz Jalapeño Ketchup. Reality becomes ever more standardized, with me too jittery and anxious to connect, strike up conversation with others. As in the song, I become “lost in the supermarket.” It’s at least in part a fear of race and sexuality. But mainly it’s a fear that to others I might seem a weirdo, a creep, a stoner. I wish we could somehow become heads together. How do we re-establish communication across the plastic dome?
I wish there was time to fit radical media theorist Gene Youngblood’s book Expanded Cinema into my course on Hippie Modernism. Youngblood’s work shares in the cosmic consciousness whipped up by the two big events of the Summer of ’69, Woodstock and the moon launch. For Abbie Hoffman, remember, Woodstock served as a mind-blowing demonstration of “Functional anarchy, primitive tribalism, gathering of the tribes.” Youngblood’s book examined the role participatory media events and media revolution might play in this project. The main prerequisites to demonstrate the human capacity for psychedelic beloved community were all present at Woodstock: willingness to live side by side in harmony, feeding and caring for one another, with no expectation of profit. Another version of the utopian hippie modernist Woodstock Nation of the future can be glimpsed in Ant Farm’s Cowboy Nomad manifesto from 1969. One can imagine dozens of Woodstocks scaling up into Ant Farm’s Truckstop Network, tribes traveling in caravans of camper vans and VW buses.
I have long been a fan of the American independent filmmaker Jem Cohen, so it was a source of some pleasure to watch his recent film “in fifteen chapters,” Counting.
Early on, the viewer is made to wonder, Why is Cohen’s relationship to the city (like it is for so many of us) that of a silent, alienated, spectating/observing bird-watcher? What conditions have stripped life of joy in common? Why do the citizens of the twenty-first century global metropolis live as burdened, isolated monads? Is it, perhaps, because of the way we’ve organized our relations with others? Cohen intervenes in this reality about ten minutes in with the emotional intensity of Dirty Three’s “Furnace Skies.”
The film’s second chapter, titled “A Day Is Long,” takes us to a drab, lonely post-Soviet Moscow where statues of dead labor rot amid cars, ads, litter, lonely pedestrians on cellphones. Bring back the culture war, the cultural revolution, styles of radical will exercised in speech, hair, and fashion. It will be my duty this semester to recall for students the shapes and horizons of political action during what Michael Denning called “culture in the age of three worlds.” I’ll present Abbie Hoffman’s “talk-rock album” Woodstock Nation as the hippie modernist equivalent of a blog. Topical writing, filled with a sense of immediacy. Nowadays it’s tear gas and pepper spray for protesting in a park, as it was then. A dog stares up at the sky, sad and confused, in a city in Turkey. There is at least a dense, lively quality to Istanbul’s streets, a bustle, at least in the shots Cohen includes in Counting. Cats, birds, people eating outdoors, street markets. Of the film’s cities, the ones in the US and Russia are the most miserable. Like The Evens song featured on its soundtrack, the film asks us to stop repeating defeated being. Thus afterwards, to welcome a new dawn, I listen to Jefferson Airplane performing “Volunteers” at Woodstock. As Sly Stone says on the track that follows, “Time to get down.”