The Making of a Counter Culture:Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition by Theodore Roszak London 1970
Reviewed by Laurie Chisholm
If you want to understand the spirit of the 60s, there is no better book than this. It is regarded as the bible of the counter culture. Indeed, the very phrase counter culture was coined by Roszak in this book and is now often written as a single word: counterculture.
This is surprising, because the book was written in the heat of the 60s upheaval.
Alan Watts wrote in 1969, "If you want to know what is happening among your intelligent and mysteriously rebellious children, this is the book. The generation gap, the student uproar, the New Left, the beats and hippies, the psychedelic movement, rock music, the revival of occultism and mysticism, the protest against our involvement in Vietnam, and the seemingly odd reluctance of the young to buy the affluent technological society―all these matters are here discussed, with sympathy and constructive criticism, by a most articulate, wise, and humane historian."
You can’t begin to understand the counterculture unless you can empathise with the feeling that the always praised rational, modern, secular society is cramping the human spirit.
This society is complex and differentiated, so relies on the opinions of experts, devaluing those of lay people. It is committed to science and only recognises objective facts.
Roszak is a scholar with wide-ranging interests and a deep understanding of religion broadly understood, as well as a gift for writing very quotable sentences.
He also has a sensitive feel for the discontent that motivated the counterculture. He concedes that questioning the establishment is not straightforward:
“It is not easy to question the thoroughly sensible, thoroughly well-intentioned but nevertheless reductive humanism with which the technocracy surrounds itself without seeming to speak a dead and discredited language (pxiv).”
The book is a valiant and articulate attempt to do that questioning.
“The hippie, real or as imagined, now seems to stand as one of the few images toward which the very young can grow without having to give up the childish sense of enchantment and playfulness (p40).”
Roszak analyses the ‘technocracy’ and so helps to make comprehensible why the then younger generation would rebel against the ‘system.’ It also analyses some of the thought leaders who influenced that younger generation.
Roszak gives us two images from other ages as parallels to the alienation felt by 60s youth. There are the Centaurs invading the gods’ civilised festivities. And there are the early Christians invading the late Roman Empire and its civil religion:
“Hopelessly estranged by ethos and social class from the official culture, the primitive Christian community awkwardly fashioned of Judaism and the mystery cults a minority culture that could not but seem an absurdity to Greco-Roman orthodoxy. (p43)”
In Chapter 3, he looks at liberation through an analysis of Herbert Marcuse (author of One-Dimensional Man) and Norman Brown (author of Life against Death and Love’s Body). While Marcuse takes an essentially empirical view of transcendence, denying it any religious quality, Brown (and Roszak) want to make room for visionary experience.
In Chapter 4, he looks at Allen Ginsberg, who became fascinated, first with Zen Buddhism and then with Hinduism.
Roszak’s book was written in the midst of the 60s ferment, so has a somewhat fragmentary and preliminary character, but is nevertheless very suggestive and stimulating.
My thanks to John Craighead who gave me this book on long-term loan.