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Woodstock and the myth of the Sixties

So it is 40 years since Woodstock, which means we get people (who are cultural theory academics apparently) saying stuff like this:

To many people it kind of represents the 60s and we put that in quotation marks. All of the kind of optimism and energy of the counter-culture of the 1960s seems to have been temporarily placed at Woodstock.

It became the capital of the 60s for a brief period. And of course, I think one of the reasons Woodstock becomes so embraced, it wouldn’t be very many years before so much optimism of that period had in fact collapsed.

Basically, it is mythological bollocks.

Paul Lyons writes about how he sends his undergraduates out each year to interview people who lived during the Sixties.

He describes the reaction of students who are sent to interview baby boomers about their experiences during the decade. Inevitably these students complain that they are “not finding the right people” and that those they interviewed “weren’t really part of the Sixties.” This is because their subjects do not confirm to the tropic understanding of the Sixties held by these students: that the Sixties involved Woodstock, hippies, civil rights and the Vietnam War. For many, the sum of these tropes is the Sixties.

OK, so what is a trope? Hayden White says:

Tropic is the shadow from which all realistic discourse tries to flee. This flight, however, is futile; for tropics is the process by which all discourse constitutes the objects which it pretends only to describe realistically and to analyze objectively.

What he means is that tropes are organising concepts which in the case of history can obscure what we are actually trying to objectively consider. So, in the case of Lyons’ students, they are so fixated on the tropes of the Sixties – the sex, drugs, protest and rock and roll aspect of it – that they are unable to understand that in fact, that isn’t what constituted the experience of most people during the period. And by then denying the voice of the non-tropic recollections of history, the idea that those things constituted the decade becomes further reinforced.

You will probably find that, if you asked, most baby boomers have been to a hell of a lot less protest marches, taken less drugs, had sex with fewer people than most people 20 years younger than them. But not in all cases of course. Someone the other day was saying it would have been exciting to be young in the Sixties. Maybe – if you came from the socio-economic class where you could afford a higher education, where you might, maybe, at university have engaged with political movements. For the majority of young people growing up at the time, it was nothing like that. There is as much excitement and change and pioneering going on nowadays.

This is not to deny that there was signifiant cultural change during the Sixties and that many movements had powerful pioneers during that time to whom we should all be greatful. The women’s movement, the civil rights movements in America and the fight for Aboriginal rights in Australia, the anti-war movement were all critical and significant parts of change. However, they didn’t “happen” to everyone, and not everyone who lead those movements was young at the time.

Nonetheless, we mythologise. And Woodstock was not all peace and love anyway. There was at least one rape reported following the event in 1969 and probably a great deal more that went unreported, given the approach to dealing with rape at the time. And rape could be a very challenging area when intersected with the “free love” movement. It is notable that, by the 1980s, some women viewed their experiences with “free love” and the sexual revolution somewhat skeptically. While there was an undoubted change in the way women dealt with sex during the Sixties, the perspective that many women took by the 1980s was far from a total endorsement their sexual lives from the time. For example, Lillian Rubin interviewed one woman who argued that the revolution, which had freed them to say yes, also disabled them from saying no. “It was weird; it was so hard to say no,” said 38-year-old Paula…“The guys just took it for granted that you’d go to bed with them, and you felt like you had to explain it if you didn’t want to. Then if you tried, you couldn’t think of a good reason why not to, so you did it.” A number of other women interviewed by Rubin repeat this theme. Rubin herself notes that “it was the coercive force of a movement that, in fact, had wide appeal to women, while it also rested on a deeply entrenched structure of roles and relationships that was bound to corrupt the ideals on which it was founded.” Thus free love without sexual equality could lead to coercive expectations on women around sex.

Despite all this, when rapes occured at the Woodstock festival in 1999, it was seen as a condemnation of “young peope today” and moral panic about the manner in which this mythologised event was being diminished. And this is essentially the danger of mythologising and tropes. We can’t critical analyse in a past when we are too obsess with protecting it and with seeing it as representative of everything about an era. Nothing, no single event, and especially not an LSD fuelled orgy can represent an entire decade, and entire generation. To try and argue that it does oversimplifies and, in so doing, distorts the past. And by distorting the past and obscuring the analysis, we can’t understand it in all its complexity.

So, I might have liked to have been at Woodstock – although I tend to avoid music festivals where I have to camp…And it certainly is an interesting event which illustrates the peak, arguably, of a certain small subculture within North America at the time. But let’s not overblow its meaning, let’s not oversimplify what happened in the past.




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2 responses to “Woodstock and the myth of the Sixties

  1. HD40 ⋅

    Interesting blog. Arguably, the biggest legacy of Woodstock is its huge impact on the real children of the sixties: Generation Jones (born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X). This USA TODAY op-ed speaks to the relevance today of the sixties counterculture impact on GenJones: http://www.usatoday.com/printedition/news/20090127/column27_st.art.htm

    Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a ton of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press’ annual Trend Report chose the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009.

    Here’s a page with a good overview of recent media interest in GenJones:
    http://generationjones.com/2009latest.html

  2. mplo ⋅

    As a woman who was born in the early 1950’s and am (in terms of chronological age, anyhow.), a part of the baby-boom generation, I would say that the 1960’s were not all they’ve been cracked up to be. Sure, there was a lot of good that happened, but there was a lot of bad that happened, as well. There was also quite a bit of meanness in the 1960’s, which I experienced personally, plus, as one prominent member of my 1969 high school graduating class put it during the speech for our graduating class, people wore masks when they dealt with each other, instead of dealing with each other honestly.

    I spent a lot of time regretting having missed out on the 1960’s, including going to Woodstock 1969, until a friend of mine who’s even younger than I am, helped me put it more in perspective, making me realize that I didn’t really miss out on anything.

    Admittedly, in some ways, the 1960’s decade was a cool time to be a teenager–those were very exuberant times in many ways. There was lots of cool music and many cool movies to be had, but it wasn’t until I got much older that I realized how petty my assumptions and wishes (to have the kind of social life that I thought most teenagers had) were.

    Despite the fact that I had only one friend that I hung out with a lot in high school and wanted more, I have ended up going to all of my high school class reunions, at least in part because I’m curious as to how my classmates at large turned out. Some have turned out to be very successful, others have settled down into somewhat hum-drum lives after having had lots of fun in high school, while other classmates have either taken to abusing drugs and/or alcohol, or have passed on. One classmate of mine developed Alzheimer’s disease in his late 50’s, and had to be put into a home, and he has two children, yet!

    On attending my high school class reunions, however, I’ve also had some very good conversations with both men and women who were in my class, but, due to the fact that kids were in such different cliques and were therefore pitted against each other while in high school, never got a chance to know at all.

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