Here's an interview with RU Sirius about his new book, Counterculture Through the Ages: From Abraham to Acid House
RU has a blog about the book, too.
Cool book. It offers a fresh historical perspective that covers a lot of ground, but at the same time it's a pretty easy read.
RU: Yeah, I think it does the job of establishing that there is this stream; a spirit really, that runs through history. Several spirits perhaps. This non-authoritarian, non-conformist, antic, changeable character, or community of characters, keeps coming up throughout human history. Sometimes they show up as artists or anti-artists, sometimes as religions or spiritual path; sometimes as a political revolution or change, sometimes as a scientific movement, sometimes as nihilism. Some seem to contradict others; representing opposite political sides. Or they represent opposite attitudes towards civilization and technological development – that comes up quite a bit. And yet, I think the book shows various memetic lines of transmission that sometimes seem to run in parallel and sometimes seem to criss-cross.
I hope it's an easy read. It's my (you'll pardon the word) most serious book, but I tried to have some fun with it. People are telling me they laughed quite a bit. History books aren't usually funny, although Jacques Barzun has a pretty good sense of humor. Barzun hugely influenced me in the writing of this book. He's kind of a conservative guy, a historian, who thinks we've gone to far in the pursuit of "emancipation." But he's pretty permissive with himself as a writer. He writes with a sort of puckish style that belies his conservatism. I took that as permission to do a bit of what comes natural to me anyway.
How did you come up with the idea?
RU: It was a gift. Really, this came from my coauthor Dan Joy in concert with Timothy Leary. They provided the entire map, Dan particularly. I had to fill most of it in. This was a great process of discovery for me personally.
So it's got kind of a Learyesque spin on the notion of counterculture. I actually tried to mitigate that somewhat, because I wanted to be sure that it was very inclusive. (It should include people who would never dream of freezing their heads!) But that basic dna – Think For Yourself and Question Åuthority (Leary's slogan through the '80s and '90s) – is already pretty inclusive, so it wasn't difficult.
I think constantly about how it could have been approached differently, and I can think of lots of approaches that would also be valid. I'm sure the most shit that Dan and I will take will be from counterculture types who feel we missed some major point, or didn't include their pet epoch, or didn't mention or say enough about this counter-subculture or that one. But I *want* that kind of shit, if it's intelligent. I expect some passionate objections particularly to my coverage of the late 20th Century. I will be disappointed if there isn't passionate objection. No authentic counterculture person should be completely satisfied with my take – no ditto-heads. But all ought to be flexible enough to find value in the book, I think, once they get over the fact that I didn't mention the Radical Faeries or the Zippies or DJ Scrotum or whatever. There was just no way to do justice to every interesting mutant breed in that densely populated century. Maybe we'll follow up with something more encycleopedic. I'm up for doing that at some point.
You're pretty critical also of some countercultures. You don't hold back.
RU: Well, I held back a little, but I didn't want to just do a cheerleading book. That would have been boring for me. In turn, it would have been boring for the reader. So yeah, I was pretty rough on a few movements — the ultraleft of the late 1960s for instance. I was part of it. You always hurt the ones you love. But I was honestly appalled when I went back and read the rhetoric of "The Revolution" circa '69 or '70. The problem wasn't with their radicalness but their absurd level of self-importance. This sort-of "We came together as righteous dope-smoking motherfuckers stomping the plastic pig nation under the heels of our wild acid-drenched beatle boots ready to smash Amerikkka with our guns and bombs and rock and roll." That sort of thing. Well, we were the boomers, you know. Self-impressed.
The book does strike a somewhat more conciliatory, careful, considered tone than most of your other work.
RU: Yeah. I suppose it's true that some of my stuff doesn't read too differently from the righteous acid-drenched beatle-booted fascist insect stompers. "Considered" is a good word for it. I was really aware that my assignment wasn't to rant, but to see deeper into these things, and think a little bit harder about these things, and write a legitimate history… even if it does get whimsical in spots.
I think this is a really great book for straight people. (Not in the gay sense, but in the people who aren't hip sense.) I want to emphasize this. I feel that I addressed this book to an educated, moderate, middle-class American; "Here's something that's worth thinking about Soccer mom"… at least the one's that like to read and think a bit. At the risk of sounding like too much of a salesman, buy this book for your parents or kids who don't get it. I just really happen to think that's true. I can't wait for my own relatives to insert it into their brains.
I'm frightened that it's not going to ever reach that audience. I just hope it penetrates somehow.
Earlier you said that you think about different potential approaches. Like what?
RU: I could have harkened back to matrilineal societies much discussed by anthropologists and various feminists, neo-pagans, modern primitives, etcetera. These presumed pre-authoritarian origins as opposed to non-or-anti-authoritarianism within the context of what we call history. Our take is sort of Western, sort of post-enlightenment, although it also slices and dices and scrambles a lot of that basic software. Right now I'm reading a transgender history by Leslie Feinberg that casts back to matriarchy and shamanism and various other "primitive" cultures. I would call that a history of counterculture, of a particular sort. I admire it.
In defense of our approach, I would say only that ours can include the modern primitives, and also include Zen, Sufism, The Troubadours, western anarchism, cyberpunk, punk rock, cubism, Voltaire, ad infinitum. Whereas a modern primitive approach would be just that. And I think it's been written in different ways by Terence McKenna, by Riane Eisler, and by Feinberg. It's all good. Let a thousand histories of counterculture bloom!