Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Thoughts on Counterculture Consumerism

In Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter examine the phenomenon of past and present ‘counter-culture’ movements. Through their examination of these growing movements, Heath and Potter seek to explain how the search for individuality and a method of rebellion has in actuality become the newest method of conformity in consumer culture. In order to understand this ‘evolution’ of counterculture, one must understand the groundwork of the movement in the first place. They give the history of the baby boomers that “declared their implacable opposition to ‘the system’… and renounced materialism and greed, rejected the discipline and uniformity of the McCarthy era, and set out to build a new world based on individual freedom”. Next are the ‘Hippies’ who “bought VW Beetles for one primary reason—to show that they rejected mass society” and in direct protest to the Big Three. Heath & Potter list many other ‘movements’ that label themselves as counterculture, but one of the things that interests the authors most is the connection between the counterculture movement and the consumer culture now associated with them.

The counterculture movement has become more of a material search for ‘self’. The quest for the individualistic, ‘Other’, exotic, etc., which has been associated with the counterculture has turned into a search for commodities. Who can buy the latest ‘cutting-edge’ technology, or wear the latest fashion, in essence who can be the first to be different. This relay of supposedly counterculture values to a consumer market has only led to a furthering and revitalization of mainstream consumerism under a new label. Perhaps the only way to be truly counterculture is to “opt out of the system… and go off and live in the woods somewhere (and not commute back and forth in a Range Rover). Because the everyday acts of symbolic resistance that characterize countercultural rebellion are not actually disruptive to ‘the system’”, they perpetuate and fuel mainstream consumerism. True rebellion and counterculture only occurs when “it becomes genuinely antisocial”.

Heath, Joseph and Andrew Potter. 2004. Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. HarperCollins: New York.
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