Earlier this semester, we discussed the process of mainstream culture appropriating aspects of counterculture and what this means in terms of the relationship between the two. One of the books I’m reading for my research paper, Counterculture through the Ages by Ken Goffman (aka R. U. Sirius), eloquently describes this phenomenon and its ramifications:
“…. It’s not surprising, then, that countercultures are usually subjected to some level of persecution. When a counterculture is born, a society finds foreigners in its midst. Breaking taboos, violating norms, challenging sacrosanct ideas: the anti-authoritarian spirit inherent in counterculture potentially threatens any established order. Suppression frequently follows…. When persecution fails to stamp out an active counterculture, the dominant culture tends to assimilate it, subtly weaking, distorting, or sometimes inverting its memes, robbing them of their subversive power. Establishment forces integrate countercultural phraseology into their own propaganda, while economic powers reduce countercultural art and aesthetics to a mass-marketed commodity. Theodore Roszak writes in The Making of a Counter Culture, “it is the cultural experimentation of the young that often runs the worst risks of commercial verminization—and so of having the force of its dissent dissipated.” ….Dropping out is one frequent countercultural response to these difficulties …. countercultures often seek greater freedom to explore and live according to their values by separating themselves from the mainstream” (35-36).
As Goffman comments, since countercultures threaten mainstream society, mainstream society’s first reaction towards countercultures is outright persecution. If this isn’t enough, mainstream society often takes control of memes associated with counterculture in order to weaken and rid them of their original intention. In reaction to this, countercultures often just separate themselves even further from mainstream culture.
What I find really thought-provoking about Goffman’s analysis is the idea that if outright persecution of counterculture fails, mainstream culture attempts to subvert counterculture by appropriating and distorting its memes. And even more interesting is the idea that instead of battling for the right over certain memes, countercultures often just end up reinventing and creating new memes. As Goffman comments, oftentimes, instead of ensuing in a head-to-head battle, countercultural movements move themselves even further away from mainstream society. (He does mention that sometimes countercultures are confrontational, but this usually occurs only in moments). These movements almost seem to be disinterested in confrontation. The battle to control something that has been normalized is almost useless from a countercultural viewpoint as its purpose isn’t to create a new norm; rather, it’s to just not be part of a norm. So, when mainstream society attempts to break and subvert the “otherness” of counterculture, counterculture just moves forward.
A contemporary example of this kind of appropriation is Lady Gaga’s Telephone, which we discussed in class. As we discussed, her video is full of appropriation of countercultural memes (including, but not limited to, her studded leather jacket which showcases the logos of anarchist punk bands). I wonder how the movements this video steals from should react to her appropriation of their memes. I really think the refusal to engage in confrontation is a profound and elegantly backhanded way of refusing subversion. That is, if it is mainstream culture’s desire to absorb what is foreign to it in order to reassert its own power, there’s nothing better for a counterculture to do than to reject or change the aspect of its own culture that is being absorbed.
Even though “dropping out” and moving on seems to be an excellent way to withdraw even further from the mainstream, this process ends up disregarding complete histories of struggle. On the other hand, although appropriation can be extremely frustrating and upsetting, is it eventually more beneficial to just move on? That is, is the best rejection of the appropriation losing interest in the appropriated memes? Also, I wonder when, if ever, it is worthwhile to battle for a re-appropriation of those memes?