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Counterculture (also written counter-culture) is a sociological term used to describe the values and norms of behavior of a cultural group, or subculture, that run counter to those of the social mainstream of the day,[1] the cultural equivalent of political opposition. A general example would be a competing, dissenting culture that wishes to change the nature of, or at least the dominance of, a predominant culture in a particular society. It is a neologism attributed to Theodore Roszak.[2][3][4]

Although distinct countercultural undercurrents have existed in many societies from time to time, here the term "counterculture" refers to a more significant, visible phenomenon that reaches critical mass, flowers 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.

Countercultural milieux in 19th-century Europe included the traditions of Romanticism, Bohemianism and of the Dandy. Another movement existed in a more fragmentary form in the 1950s, both in Europe and the US, in the form of the Beat generation, or Beatniks,[2] followed in the 1960s by the hippies. However, the act of labeling any group is a controversial activity. For example it could be stated that a "gangsta" counterculture has formed in the last few decades, but this would clearly raise many issues about who is imposing what standards, and why. By contrast, the 1950s and 1960s movements usually cited are now considered "safe" and even trite examples, just as the Cuban Missile Crisis is often given as the textbook example of "groupthink." For the label to have greater sociological meaning, difficulties must be overcome in the objectivity and wider applicability of the term, not just confining it uselessly to suggest a couple of often glamorized examples from the fairly recent historical past. Especially when those few historical examples have been "normalized" or misrepresented so that only the most laudable of their goals (e.g. concerns with pacifism, anti-war activism, and ecological sustainability) get emphasized. Rather than "counterculture" being defined in a specific way (cultural norms and values in opposition to the dominant culture) but rarely applied productively to current issues, the term should be reclaimed as a vital part of the analysis of social conflict, competing reference groups, and daily power struggles involving (usually nonmaterial) cultural components.

The term 'counterculture' 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.[1][2][4]


[edit] Sixties and seventies counterculture

In the United States, the counterculture of the 1960s is identified as a rejection of conventional social norms of the 1950s. In general, youths of the day rejected the cultural standards of their parents. This rejection was driven by cultural and political segregation, particularly in the Deep South, and resistance to the Vietnam War[5][6].

In the United Kingdom this counterculture has mainly been interpreted as a reaction against the post-war 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, experimentation with psychedelic drugs and a predominantly materialist interpretation of the American Dream. This, coupled with the sufficient leisure time and motivation of white, middle-class youth--who made up the bulk of the counterculture--led to concerns about and demonstrations for social issues. These social issues include support of the civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights movements, plus a rejection of the Vietnam War. The 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. These demonstrations went on to create far-reaching changes affecting many aspects of society.[citation needed]

Rejection of mainstream culture was best embodied by the new genres of psychedelic rock music, pop-art and new explorations in spirituality. Musicians who exemplified this era include Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, The Velvet Underground and Nico. The pop-art culture led by Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick also played a part in social change in the United States by redefining what art was and what made it valuable. Warhol's mass-produced monographs and silk-screens, such as the iconic Campbell's Soup Cans, challenged the notion that art is only about certain subjects (i.e., wealthy patrons or pretty landscapes), or that art is a singular creation. An entire generation's liberal views about glamour, art, and drugs found prominent expression in Warhol's paintings, films, and music. Sentiments were also expressed in the song lyrics and popular sayings of the entire 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 (Sun Signs). This led Theodore Roszak to state [4]"A (sic) eclectic taste for mystic, occult, and magical phenomena has been a marked characteristic of our postwar WWII youth culture since the days of the beatniks" (1968).[4]

The counterculture in the United States reached its peak between 1965 and the mid-1970s. It eventually waned for several reasons: mainstream America's backlash against its excesses, many notable countercultural figures died, the Civil Rights movement achieved its main political goals, and the Vietnam War ended. Though most of the 1960s countercultural groups have died out, they have left a lasting mark on society that continues to inspire modern-day movements.[citation needed]

[edit] Counterculture literature

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; Keep on Truckin'; Fritz the Cat; Fat Freddy's Cat; Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers; the album cover art for Cheap Thrills; and contributions to International Times, The Village Voice, and Oz magazine. During the late '60s and early '70s, these comics, cartoons and magazines were generally available for purchase in 'hippie stores' along with items like hash pipes, beads, incense, large cigarette papers ('skins'), joss sticks, posters, freaky T-shirts, books, and other hippie paraphernalia.

[edit] Lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender counterculture

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender community (commonly abbreviated as the "LGBT" community), mostly evident in North America, Western Europe, Australasia and South Africa, 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 these 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." But even then, there were dissenting views. Sigmund Freud publicly expressed his opinion that homosexuality was a perfectly normal condition for some people.[citation needed]

According to Charles Kaiser’s The Gay Metropolis, 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.[7]

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. By the early 1960s, openly gay political organizations such as the Mattachine Society were formally protesting abusive treatment toward gay people, challenging the entrenched idea that homosexuality was an aberrant condition, and calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Despite very limited sympathy, American society began at least to acknowledge the existence of a sizable population of gays. The film The Boys in the Band, for example, featured negative portrayals of gay men, but at least recognized that they did in fact fraternize with each other (as opposed to being isolated, solitary predators who "victimized" straight men).

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.[8] Although gay radicals used pressure to force the decision, Kaiser notes that this had been an issue of some debate for many years in the psychiatric community, and that one of the chief obstacles to normalizing homosexuality was that therapists were profiting from offering dubious, unproven "cures".[9]

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); 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.

In 2003, the United States Supreme Court officially declared all sodomy laws unconstitutional.[10] Annual gay pride events take place throughout the US and the world. Many of the current debates at the forefront of the LGBT community, such as same-sex marriage and parenting) would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago[citation needed]. As of 2007, the gay community is focusing on marital rights, although sufficient numbers of Americans oppose gay marriage to the point that 27 state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage have been passed by comfortable popular margins of 60–80%. This indicates that despite the wider acceptance and tolerance of homosexual life, it is still viewed by mainstream American society as an aberration, making it in every sense one of several contemporary 'countercultures'.

[edit] Russian/Soviet counterculture

Although not exactly equivalent to the English definition, the term "Контркультура" (Kontrkul'tura, "Counterculture") found a constant use in Russian to define a cultural movement that promotes acting outside usual conventions of Russian culture: use of explicit language, graphical description of sex, violence and illicit activities and uncopyrighted use of "safe" characters involved in everything mentioned.

During the early '70s, Russian culture was forced into quite 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. The following features are considered the most popular topics for such works:

  • Wide use of explicit language;
  • Deliberate bad spelling;
  • Drug theme: Descriptions of drug use and consequences of substance abuse;
  • Alcohol use: Negative portrayals;
  • Sex and violence: Nothing is a taboo — in general, violence is rarely advocated, while all types of sex are considered to be a good thing;
  • Parody: Media advertising, classic movies, pop culture and children's books are considered to be fair game;
  • Nonconformance to daily routine and set nature of things; and,
  • Politically-incorrect topics: Mostly racism, xenophobia and homophobia.

A notable aspect is the influence of the contra-cultural developments on Russian pop culture. In addition to traditional Russian styles of music, such as songs with jail-related lyrics, new music styles with explicit language were developed.

[edit] Asian counterculture

In the recent past Dr. Sebastian Kappen, an Indian theologian, has tried to redefine counterculture in the Asian context. In March 1990, at a seminar in Bangalore, he presented his countercultural perspectives (Chapter 4 in S. Kappen, Tradition, modernity, counterculture: an Asian perspective, Visthar, Bangalore, 1994). Dr. Kappen envisages counterculture as a new culture that has to negate the two opposing cultural phenomena in Asian countries:

  1. invasion by Western capitalist culture, and
  2. the emergence of revivalist movements.

Kappen writes, "Were we to succumb to the first, we should be losing our identity; if to the second, ours would be a false, obsolete identity in a mental universe of dead symbols and delayed myths".

The most important countercultural movement in India had taken place in the state of West Bengal during 1960s by a group of poets and artists who called themselves Hungryalists.

[edit] See also

[edit] Notable countercultures

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] External Links

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ a b "counterculture," Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, 2008, MWCCul.
  2. ^ a b c F.X. Shea, S.J., "Reason and the Religion of the Counter-Culture", Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 66/1 (1973), pp. 95-111, JSTOR-3B2-X.
  3. ^ Andrea Gollin (2003-04-23). "Social critic Theodore Roszak *58 explores intolerance in new novel about gay Jewish writer". PAW Online. Retrieved on 2008-06-21. 
  4. ^ a b c d Roszak, Theodore, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition, 1968/1969, Doubleday, New York, ISBN-10: 0385073291; ISBN-13: 978-0385073295.
  5. ^ Eric Donald Hirsch. The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-65597-8. (1993) p 419. Members of a cultural protest that began in the U.S. in the 1960s and Europe before fading in the 1970s... fundamentally a cultural rather than a political protest."
  6. ^ Mary Works Covington, "Rockin' At the Red Dog: The Dawn of Psychedelic Rock," 2005.
  7. ^ Kaiser, C. (1997). The Gay Metropolis, New York: Harcourt Brace. ISBN-10: 0156006170
  8. ^ Conger, J. J. (1975) "Proceedings of the American Psychological Association, Incorporated, for the year 1974: Minutes of the Annual meeting of the Council of Representatives." American Psychologist, 30, 620-651.
  9. ^ Kaiser, C. (1997). The Gay Metropolis, New York: Harcourt Brace.
  10. ^ LAWRENCE ET AL. v. TEXAS, June 26, 2003


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