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The Specter of the Counterculture II: The Cunning of Desire

08/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sitting here in a coffee house on the Pacific in Arcata, California, spiritual capital of the American counterculture (no signs, no hype, but a lot of head shops, used CD and vinyl stores, tofu take-outs and supply outlets for indoor greenhouses), it is clear we are a long way from Washington, D.C. In the first installment of this essay on the counterculture, I talked about how the (now seemingly) low grade self-indulgence and self-involvement of the 1960s alternative movements was taken over by the self-glorifying American right. Under the banner of defeating the counterculture on behalf of traditional American values, the Reagan-Bush II cadres gave in to world-class self-aggrandizement and imperial overreach, supported by a public that mouthed classic pieties while indulging in materialist excess and corrosive selfishness of every sort.

What is most perplexing in the effort to make sense of the jagged path of contemporary America is not that a political-cultural movement would act contrary to its stated aims - no surprise here. Rather, in a time when the core national values of work, moderation, social utility, community morality and global development were at stake, its putative defenders were so cavalierly, visibly, yes gleefully, parading their utter immunity from controls, constraints and moral absolutes.

How had 'what feels good is good' become the new normal? Here I want to introduce a concept, the cunning of desire. The nineteenth century philosopher Hegel in talking about historical change had coined the phrase "the cunning of reason," hoping to understand how historical actors often promote larger ends and patterns of which they are entirely unaware. Few of us any longer believe that history is in any sense rational, issuing from the brow of a cosmic philosopher. But let me suggest that deeper attitudes toward desire have had a major impact on the last half century.

When the 1960s counterculture rejected the classic American attitude toward instinctual self-denial, conformist social behavior, sexual repression, emotional restraint, and identity-as-social-role in the name of greater pleasure, self-expression, authenticity, and personal empowerment, the floodgates opened. A frontier culture that delicately balanced extreme individualism and severe village constraints could not hold. Local community vigilance (think Scarlet Letter and Middletown) broke down before suburban anomie, youth culture and college 'free-zones.' University educated young adults living in transient urban neighborhoods were virtually immune to organized social control.

The key factor, however, was the emergence of the affluent society. People began to imagine the fulfillment of dreams never before considered possible, let alone realistic, whether in the arts, business, personal relations, lifestyle or spirituality. Older generations began to imitate and envy the young, drawn by their easier access to their affective lives. The presumption that social rules were there for our benefit no longer made sense. In fact, in the mouths most often of those who resented this alternative culture, it sounded downright repressive.

Desire had become the new social currency, and "if not now - when?" the new reasoning. What was the cunning of desire, the larger pattern? Those from more traditional backgrounds were surprisingly no less susceptible to the call of release, to the intoxication of pleasures long forbidden. They were unwittingly becoming exponents of levels of instinctual expression and display they had been raised to condemn. But this release was paradoxical. For those raised in repressive households and communities, dreaming of someday being the ones giving the orders, the consequence of liberation was entirely predictable: they were now under the cover of reasserting moderation acting out the largest power grab in American history, most likely, Hegel would warn us, without realizing it.

Desire, in other words, in its cunning was not to be denied. And, if you think about it, its subversive power has played a long - if unacknowledged - role in the national project. The assault on the straitjacket of traditional morality began with colonization itself. The U.S. was itself founded and settled by those who rejected the dictates and regulations promulgated in the name of social class and caste hierarchies, state churches, aristocracies and other forms of lese majeste.

Which means that this country has from the outset been caught between liberating itself from old shackles and the forces of social order intent on implementing new ones, though always in the name of freedom. This has made the nation a bit of a hypocrite, claiming to promote individualism against all constraints even as the constraints multiplied. And in the decades since the counterculture, that hypocrisy has grown, not from some native evil, but from an unrelenting sense of confusion and entrapment.

Post-war Americans loved the release they were creating for themselves, and they hated it. Not only or even primarily the stain of guilt about what earlier generations would have thought, but rather the terror that they were becoming cultural pioneers in ways their foreparents never imagined. Where were the road maps for the kinds of work and leisure, intimate relations and family structures, child-rearing and education, community, participatory democracy, and identity that came with release from all the older constraints?

There were, of course, no such maps. And in their fear some Americans ran, others drifted, to the voices proclaiming tradition, too needy of security to realize these savagers of liberal regulation in the name of white picket fences had plans for corporate and governmental dominance only those unleashed with a vengeance could imagine. And even as the public garnered the truth from these bullies and show-offs, they were too scared and ambivalent to resist.

The ironic result is nearly total incoherence. Desire is everywhere suggested, promised, sold, and nowhere really embraced. Our button-downed society makes the 50s look like Woodstock, with ever tighter and smaller boxes - No Child Left Unboxed - yet is reinforced not by stocks on the village green but by material and emotional bribery, consumption rewards, golden handcuffs, fantasies of the big lottery hit, all

needed to sustain a game that no one wants, but everyone plays.

Yet no extrication seems possible. Conformity is now sold by parents to their kids not as legitimate or virtuous but inevitable: "don't rock the boat, there are no life preservers." Only the novelists depicting what has happened to us get it right. Richard Ford in his magisterial The Lay of the Land portrays a late middle-aged society being eaten by a slow growing cancer called suburban anesthesia, a chilling depletion of anything beyond the will to consume ourselves (literally) into oblivion. Mohsin Hamid in The Reluctant Fundamentalist speaks of an America that has turned back upon itself in closed rooms of nostalgia, the once most forward-looking nation now seeking salvation in fairy tales that history has come to an end.

But, then, this is also - is it not? - the cunning of desire? If you turn away from your deepest instincts and your dreams of self-development, you will - you cannot but - wither and ultimately expire. And so Americans have for the past two generations put themselves, their policies and their children, in the hands of the merchants of death, and sought their own inward demise in the return to long departed tradition and prisons of social normality as escape from the unscripted power to make history, themselves and their society, anew.

The desires of the heart and spirit are demanding taskmasters. They cannot be fooled by empty rhetoric and new-in-box and never used consumer fantasies and tear-down houses-but-not-homes, a world of entirely substitute and extraneous fulfillments (death by ten thousand sugar highs) for very long. Eventually they cry that attention be paid to their wish for self-realization and identity, genuine connectedness and community. Now that the access to desire is no longer a secret, this demand for a life of genuine wishes and fulfillments is seemingly the only alternative to the further and final release of air from our psychic balloon. This new potentiality, what I will call healthy narcissism, I hope to explain at greater length.