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In sociology, counterculture is a term used to describe a cultural group whose values and norms are at odds with those of the social mainstream, a cultural equivalent of a political opposition. In casual practice, the term came to prominence in the general press as it was used to refer to the youth rebellion that swept North America and Western Europe in the 1960s and early 1970s. Earlier countercultural milieus in 19th century Europe included the traditions of Bohemianism and of the Dandy.


1960s counterculture

This movement was a reaction against the conservative social norms of the 1950s, the political conservatism (and perceived social repression) of the Cold War period, and the US government's extensive military intervention in Vietnam. It is sometimes discussed as the inheritor of the "Beat Generation" sensibility of the late 1940s and 1950s. Opposition to the war was exacerbated in the US by the compulsory military draft.

In one view, the 1960s youth rebellion largely originated on college campuses. The Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley was one early example, as a socially privileged group of students began to identify themselves as having interests as a class that were at odds with the interests and practices of the university and its corporate sponsors. However, other rebellious-youth formats also contributed, some involving people who had never been college students. The beatnik café and bar scene was a tributary stream.

As the sixties progressed, the Vietnam war became an increasingly high-profile object of criticism, and the sense of the younger generation as a class who wished to create a different society gained momentum. One manifestation of this was the general strike that took place in Paris in May 1968, nearly toppling the French government.

As criticism of the established social order became more widespread among the newly emergent youth class, new theories about culture and personal identity began to spread, and traditional non-Western ideas – particularly with regard to religion, social organization and spiritual enlightenment – were also embraced.

The above introduces one way of looking at the particular countercultural development of the mid 1960s to mid 1970s – simply (or mainly) an upwelling of youth. A quip from Winston Churchill is often paraphrased these days; it goes: "If you are not a socialist at 20, you have no heart, if you are one at 40 you have no brain" — indicatating the anti-conventionalism of youth (and the typical disapproval of older citizens).

Many segments of the youth of this period were well educated, by comparison with earlier periods, leading to an interest in political philosophies. So, in the "youth culture" view of the phenomenon, every sort of outlook and political philosophy (and form of political apathy) except social conservatism might be expected to flourish: libertarianism, left-libertarianism, liberalism, socialism, anarchism, communism, materialism, naturism, mysticism, hedonism, spirituality, environmentalism, feminism, and many other basic orientations. Given the era's capacity for both direct and media communication, it would be natural too that some members of the older generation would contribute to, and be influenced by, this social current within society.

During the period in question, new cultural forms that were perceived as opposed to the old emerged, including the pop music of the Beatles, which rapidly evolved to shape and reflect the youth culture's emphasis on change and experimentation. Underground newspapers sprang up in most cities and college towns, serving to define and communicate the range of phenomena that defined the counterculture: radical political opposition to "the establishment," colorful experimental (and often explicity drug-influenced) approaches to art, music and cinema, and uninhibited indulgence in sex and drugs as a symbol of freedom.

Another way of viewing the counterculture is as 'the principle of expansion' as applied not to economies or political spheres of influence but to aspects of personal life and to creativity.

The most visible radical element of this counterculture were the hippies, some of whom formed communes to live as far outside of the established system as possible. This aspect of the movement rejected active political engagement with the mainstream and, following the dictate of Timothy Leary to "tune in, turn on and drop out", attempted to change society by dropping out of it.

A considerable impediment to the success of alternative movements growing within the counterculture was posed by the very nature of the hippie ethic. When "doing one's own thing" runs to an extreme, there is an inherent rejection of values imposed from without and an adamant avoidance of other people's expectations. So, at the extreme, the individual tends to be isolated, which may or may not be much of a problem for that individual – but it does threaten to abort or curtail collaborative action or accomplishment.

Musical and other performing groups noticeably formed within the counterculture, but very many had a far shorter active existence than, say, the Grateful Dead (a rather unusual example of countercultural longevity). Since this ephemerality has long been the case in the performing arts, in itself it hasn't seemed like a noticeable failure. But not all attempts to "think outside the box" or blaze new trails were related to the arts.

Still, there were people who participated in aspects of the counterculture who were stable, dedicated, and persistent. The countercultural years and efforts had their representatives in the sciences, the trades, business, and law, to name only several walks of life (besides in the more obvious career paths of art, design, music, literature, etc.). Much was done in the area of the human interface with the natural environment (in connection with science, technologies, community planning, parks, and other spheres). While ad hoc action groups sprang up frequently, usually fading away just as quickly, some established themselves as ongoing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to working toward particular goals. The counterculture gave rise to many lasting NGOs.

Social anthropologist Jentri Anders, based in California, has observed that a number of freedoms were endorsed within a countercultural community which she lived in and studied: "freedom to explore one’s potential, freedom to create one’s Self, freedom of personal expression, freedom from scheduling, freedom from rigidly defined roles and hierarchical statuses…" Additionally, Anders believed these people wished to counteract, in the education of children, a perceived discouragement of the "aesthetic sense, love of nature, passion for music, desire for reflection, or strongly marked independence…"

In his essay From Satori to Silicon Valley (published 1986), cultural historian Theodore Roszak made the point that the Apple Computer emerged from within the West Coast counterculture. Roszak gives a bit of background on the development of the prototype models of these original home computers and on the two Steves' (Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, the computer's developers) evolution toward being businessmen. In fact, a considerable number of early computing and networking pioneers – after discovering LSD and roaming the campuses of UC Berkeley, Stanford, and MIT in the late 60s and early 70s – would emerge from this caste of social "misfits" to shape the modern world.

Of course, it cannot be claimed that everyone involved with the counterculture lacked concern for others (or qualities like loyalty and conscience). Some people were consciously experimenting with one eye to common-sensical social norms, acknowledging their customary value (and not wishing to "throw out the baby with the bathwater").

Then too, "the counterculture" may or may not be something that an individual himself or herself identified with, even when that person was identified as an apparent member of it by someone observing it from the outside. Perhaps those people who were in fact successful in achieving something in cooperation with others (or who, as '60s individualists were able to find a niche and pursue some career) either never really identified themselves with the counterculture, or came to dis-identify with it over time.

In any case, as members of the hippie movement grew older and moderated their lives and their views, the 1960s counterculture was to some extent absorbed by the mainstream, leaving a lasting impact on morality, lifestyle and fashion. Though not from the so-called '60s Generation, and having grown up in American-Heartland farming country, Jay Walljasper, a commentator and the editor of Utne Reader, has written, "From the great gyrations of the counterculture would come a movement dedicated to the greening of America. While many once-ardent advocates of radical ideas now live in the suburbs and vote Republican, others have held fast to the dream of creating a new kind of American society and they've been joined by fresh streams of younger idealists." But the counterculture is a legacy that is still actively contested – debates that are sometimes framed in the U.S. in terms of a "culture war."

Russian counterculture

Although not exactly equivalent to the English definition, the term "Контркультура" (rus. 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 art 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 artwork promoted parody, often within existing settings. For example, the Russian anekdotal joke tradition turned the settings of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy into a grotesque world of sexual excess. Another well-known example is a cycle of short verses that dealt exclusively with cruel deaths and/or mutilations of small innocent children.

In the mid-80s, the Glasnost policy allowed the production of not-so-optimistic artwork. 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. Interestingly enough, although Russian movies of that time would be rated AO in 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 web sites appeared that posted user-written short stories that dealt with sex, drugs and violence. Since stories were actually posted by editors, it's pretty clear what the characteristics of Russian counterculture were. The following features are considered most popular topics for the artwork:

  • Wide use of explicit language
  • Deliberately bad spelling
  • Drug theme - descriptions of drug use and consequences of substance abuse - at times quite gruesome
  • Alcohol use - positive
  • Sex and violence - nothing is a taboo. In general, violence is rarely advocated, while sex is considered to be a good thing.
  • Parody - media advertising, classic movies, pop culture and children's books are considered to be fair game.
  • Nonconformism to daily routine and set nature of things
  • Politically incorrect topics - mostly racism, xenophobia and homophobia

As with pornography, Russian counterculture has blurred borders and is hard to define. Generally, any content posted on a number of counterculture sites, like Udaff, Litprom or is considered counterculture, although some of the stories there have nothing to do with all of the above apart from being counterculture-inspired.

The interesting aspect is the influence of the contra-cultural developments on the Russian pop culture. In addition to the in Russian traditional music styles like songs with the jail related lyric, the new music styles with the explicit language were developed. The most known representative of such popular music is Russian band “Leningrand”.

See also

See earlier countercultural manifestations

External links

es:Contracultura fr:Contre-culture it:Controcultura pl:Kontrkultura pt:Contracultura ru:Контркультура

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