Saturday March 28, 2020

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.

Friday January 4, 2019

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.”