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Reading between the lines

Michael Fitzpatrick reviews a stimulating study of how the counterculture of the sixties helped shape the dominant values of the nineties

Senile delinquents

  • Arrested development: Pop culture and the erosion of adulthood
    Andrew Calcutt, Cassell, £14.95 pbk

It was shortly after the memorable night at the White Lion at Heeley Bottom in Sheffield, when the underground band Pharmaceutical Earthmover smashed up their equipment, that the headmaster summoned me to his office. He had heard a rumour that I had plans to divert a coach hired for a school trip to the Motor Show in London to an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Grosvenor Square. For the generation that came of age in the late sixties the happenings of the counterculture were as familiar as the demos of radical politics.

I offer these reminiscences of those far-off days in the spirit of the personal vignettes which illuminate Andrew Calcutt's stimulating new book. In turn garage band bass player, record producer, revolting student and campaigning journalist, Calcutt has certainly paid his dues. Now an older and wiser man (and a regular contributor to this magazine), he looks back with some embarrassment at the foibles of his youth (don't we all?). But Calcutt's retrospective gaze has a sharper focus as he traces the evolution of some of the key preoccupations of the radical fringe in the postwar decades to become the mainstream prejudices of Western society in the post-Cold War era.

When you notice that a song by Lou Reed, formerly of the Velvet Underground, has become a hit in the form of a promotional video for the BBC Children in Need appeal, and pick up a leaflet advertising a 'cele-bration of the life and work' of the beat poet Allen Ginsberg to be held in a church in central London (seats bookable by American Express, Visa, etc), you begin to see that Calcutt has a point. The fact that the current political leaders of the USA and Britain both proclaim their youthful role in rock bands and advertise their continuing affinity for popular culture further confirms Calcutt's thesis.

In a series of tightly argued and well substantiated chapters, Calcutt reveals how the values of marginalised writers, musicians and artists of the 1950s and 1960s have acquired apparently universal appeal in the 1990s. When existentialists and beatniks first celebrated the experience of alienation, the estrangement of the individual from society and from other people, they were generally regarded as perverse and nihilistic. In the postmodernist fashion that prevails in contemporary intellectual life, such ideas are commonplace. The elevation of a childlike sensibility was once a peculiarity of the hippies; today it is a central feature of the culture of victimhood.

The virtues of vulnerability, even of madness and disability, the cults of 'the freak', the 'beautiful loser' and the 'damaged' - all have now won popular approval. The Millennium Dome offers space for the New Age mysticism that was once confined to tents in Glastonbury (an event which has itself been embraced as a feature of national life alongside the Last Night of the Proms). The ironic postures that were once an adolescent rite of passage now provide a way of evading responsibility for a whole society.

Calcutt's key point is that the distinctive feature of the counterculture - the twin rejection of contemporary society and of the possibility of changing it - which was then the novel conviction of a marginal fringe, has now become tired and universal. Today everybody is revolted by capitalist society (even its most successful entre-preneurs), while nobody believes that any alternative is possible (even those most oppressed by the system). In this climate of fatalism and despair the counterculture provides every cynic with a ready source of intellectual reinforcement.

Displaying an encyclopaedic knowledge of the diverse manifestations of the counterculture, Calcutt supports his thesis with a wealth of illustrations from the novels, films, poetry and music of the period. He has also unearthed some fascinating contemporary critiques of the counterculture, including some astonishingly presci-ent comments from the most unlikely sources, from Bernard Levin to George Kennan.

I take a slightly less jaundiced view of our youthful antics than Calcutt however. And, while accepting the general drift of his analysis, I would enter a few reservations.

There is a danger here of reading history backwards, of viewing the counterculture only from the perspective of its degraded consequences, rather than in its own context. It is worth recalling the atmosphere of stultifying conformity that prevailed in the aftermath of the defeats that led up to the Second World War and was sustained through the international and domestic impact of the Cold War. Calcutt quotes a critical contemporary assessment of the radical psychiatrist RD Laing: 'his inculpation of society comes so near to being absolute that it is experienced as an exhilarating liberation.' This is indeed how Laing - and many of his co-thinkers - were experienced at events like the 'Dialectics of liberation' conference at the Roundhouse in Camden Town in 1968. The transition of ideas from the bohemian ghettoes of the 1950s to the establishment circles of the 1990s was a complex process and each moment needs to be grasped in its particularity.

There is also a risk of a one-sided perception of past trends. To continue with Laing, it is quite legitimate to criticise the irrational extremes to which he took his repudiation of orthodox psychiatry, and to note the enduring influence of the absurd notion of madness as a more authentic mode of existence (in film, for example, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to Shine). On the other hand, it is also important to recognise the intellectual force of Laing's critique of the mechanistic tradition and the deeply humanistic current in his work. This contributed to the movement to abolish the asylums in favour of care in the community (a trend now casually disparaged by many who, unlike Laing, have no experience of the back wards of the old institutions).

The relationship between the left and the counter-culture was, I think, more complex than Calcutt allows. In his discussion of the trend for elevating the sensual and the emotional over the rational and intellectual, he notes that 'the left allowed itself to be reworked in the image of the counterculture'. This is undoubtedly true of certain sections of the left, notably of the more academic elements of the New Left, but it is not true of the more trade union oriented sections, which were little influenced by any form of culture. It was also more true at some times than at others - and it was a relationship which worked both ways. In the 1950s and early 1960s, and again from the late 1970s, the left was in a relatively weak and defensive position and tended to retreat into 'cultural politics'. By contrast, in that golden decade from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, when a combination of factors created unprecedented scope for radical political activity, the popular upsurge encouraged a wave of innovation and creativity in the wider cultural sphere.

The stagnation of society in the 1990s is revealed in its compulsion to revisit this period and the apparently ceaseless recycling of its products. But, as Bob Dylan rightly says, 'nostalgia is death'. While Andrew Calcutt concludes that 'there are no cultural solutions to the problems posed by victim culture', his book is an important contribution to understanding some of these problems and their antecedents.

Joe Kaplinsky on the debate about the limits to scientific knowledge

The end of science?

  • The end of science: Facing the limits to knowledge in the twilight of the scientific age
    John Horgan, Little Brown, £18.99 hbk

  • Impossibility: The limits of science and the science of limits
    John D Barrow, Oxford University Press, £18.99 hbk

John Horgan is a senior writer at Scientific American - one of the most respected popular science magazines in the world, and John Barrow an astronomer at the University of Sussex. Unlike many influenced by a postmodern perspective, both would declare themselves pro-science. So despite their pessimistic mood, it is interesting to see what they have to say about the way in which the debate over the future of science is influenced by a sense of uncertainty, limits and even despair.

Horgan has interviewed many of the world's greatest scientists, and others including Francis Fukuyama, Karl Popper, Thomas Khun and Paul Feyeraband. He origin-ally envisioned his book as 'a series of portraits, warts and all, of the fascinating truth-seekers and truth-shunners I had been fortunate enough to interview'. The End of Science remains full of well-written character sketches. But in the course of asking whether there are limits to science, Horgan writes, 'I began to imagine that I knew; I convinced myself that one particular scenario was more plausible than all the others. I decided to abandon any pretence of journalistic objectivity and write a book that was overtly judgmental, argumentative, and personal' (p5).

Horgan was turned on to science while at college. An English major, he became disillusioned with literary criticism that could never resolve questions of meaning and whose message is that all texts are in a sense 'only kidding'. In contrast he was attracted by the power of science to provide definite answers.

In the afterword to the English edition of The End of Science Horgan approvingly cites a reviewer who understood his message better than most: driven more by fear than by certainty, Horgan is warning that 'science has manned the battlements against the postmodern heresy that there is no objective truth, only to discover postmodernism inside the wall' (p281). The picture he paints is one of scientists retreating from the world to ponder the unanswerable. Partly this is an accurate reflection of a society which seems no longer able to value science as a tool of progress.

Perhaps most importantly, Horgan sees how limited in scope are many of the ideas that are attracting the brightest minds. For example, chaos theory and complexity theory (Horgan coins the deprecating term 'chaoplexity') are not going to provide a universal means for understanding nature and society. Evolutionary psychology has yet to yield many profound insights, and may ultimately prove unimpressive. The speculations of physicists that the smallest constituents of matter might oscillate in unseen dimensions seem to be based more on criteria like mathematical beauty than on the experimental data of old. Horgan's point is not that these ideas are unscientific, but rather that they are invested with unwarranted significance. While undoubtedly true, at least outside the scientific community, the reason these ideas get so much attention today remains to be explained.

Horgan's explanation is that all the big ideas have been discovered. It may be, he suggests, that we simply cannot know the answers to questions like how life on earth began; we can only speculate and guess. For Horgan, scientists who turn to such questions are living in the shadow of the past. Like Harold Bloom's 'strong poets' who can only come to terms with Shakespeare, Dante and other masters by seeking to misread and reinterpret them, Horgan's 'strong scientists' practice what he calls 'naive ironic science' in a post-empirical mode.

Horgan takes inspiration from biologist Gunther Stent's 1969 collection of essays, The Coming of the New Golden Age. In particular he takes the simple point that just as science had an historical beginning, so we are forced at least to concede the possibility of an end point. Horgan seems not to have appreciated the prevalence of 'endism', and thinks that this is a controversial point. While it is vigorously contested by many scientists, in popular culture more broadly it chimes perfectly with today's gloomy outlook.

The Coming of the New Golden Age was written in response to the student's free speech movement at Berkeley. Concerned at the challenge to its authority the university appointed a committee to talk to the students and 'calm them down'. Stent's lectures and essays were an attempt to make sense of the abandonment of ration-ality, civilisation and technological progress by the elite of America's youth.

Stent characterised the mood of the Berkeley students as 'anti-rational and anti-success'(Golden Age, p17), emphasising that 'the anti-success aspect goes far beyond opposition to meretricious strife for material reward' (p18). This he traces to the beatnik culture which evolved in the North Beach district of California in the early 1950s. The beatniks, he suggests, never grew up. They 'did not need to conform to society upon reaching middle age; by then, society had already conformed to their standards'(p16). By the 1960s, Stent explains, 'beat philosophy had moved across San Francisco Bay and matriculated in the University of California at Berkeley' (p17).

Stent explained the attraction of youth to these ideas by focusing on the decline in struggle. He suggested that if people became content with what they had there could be no incentive to develop science further, and so society would arrive at a static end point, a 'new Polynesia'.

Horgan seems not to understand the 'coming of the new golden age' that Stent described. During his interview for Horgan's End of Science, Stent apparently 'plunged into a diatribe against environmentalism. It was at heart an anti-human philosophy, one that contributed to the low self-esteem of American youth and poor black children in particular'. Horgan was thrown: 'Alarmed that my favourite Cassandra was revealing himself to be a crank, I changed the subject.' (p14) Yet the spread of environmentalist sentiment - which does indeed have powerful anti-human undertones - is perhaps the best index of the way in which the spirit of North Beach has engulfed the whole of society.

Barrow's book, Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits, is much less focused on people than is The End of Science. Rather it is an exploration of how the laws of logic and of nature place limits on what we can ever do or know. Like Horgan, Barrow is sensitive to the fact that his audience will instinctively react against the idea of any absolute limits to science: 'There are some who would equate the very idea of limits to scientific knowledge with a violation of our freedom of thought and action. Limits of cost are one thing, but absolute limits are surely something completely different. Show me one of those and I'll jump over it, tunnel under it, or simply skirt round it.' (p190) But Barrow is, quite rightly, having none of that.

Natural laws, by definition, must be obeyed, and unlike their social counterparts they cannot be repealed. A law of nature may be shown to be of more limited scope than we once assumed, but in essence it represents something of the truth. We can only comprehend the world because it is ordered, and that order rests on the existence of rules. Where Barrow goes too far is in viewing all natural law through the prism of limits. Where traditionally science has defined the world by describing and manipulating it, Barrow finds persuasive the possibility that reality may be defined more precisely by the limits of its description and manipulation.

Barrow gives a brief assessment of past views of progress, including a more competent reading of Stent than Horgan's. He does not think Stent was right, preferring to locate limits in the natural realm. He suggests that inequality rather than absolute wealth will be a spur to development even in Stent's 'golden age', and that new answers bring new questions. Barrow has more sympathy for Horgan's point of view, which at first sight he says 'seems very likely' to be true: 'If there are limits, and knowledge is cumulative, we can only be approaching them - there is no alternative.' (p34)

He runs through limits ranging from the speed of light, which limits how much of the universe we can see, through to limits imposed by the structure of our brain (which was not evolved for 'doing science') and to Go..del's theorem which suggests there are limits to logic itself.

But Barrow cannot give practical examples of where these limits have become absolute. Given the scope for practical experimentation that remains, it seems pre-mature to declare that we are reaching the limits of what may ever be known. Take his discussion of 'cosmological limits'. Our most sophisticated theories of the big bang go under the name 'inflation' and suggest that the entire visible universe is contained within an isolated 'bubble' whose edge we can never observe simply because it is too far away. Right now a series of space telescopes are being prepared for launch which are designed to test our still uncertain theories of the big bang against obser-vations many times more accurate and detailed than any we have made up to now. Other techniques such as gravitational-wave astronomy, the detection of ripples in space-time, are predicted but yet to be developed. In this situation it seems perverse to suggest that a defining feature of our best theories is that they tell us what cannot be known.

Horgan ultimately admits that what he wants from science is spiritual fulfilment. It is this lack which prompts his pessimistic conclusions. But it will not be made good by science - or literature - alone. In the nervous nineties we stand on the shoulders of giants, but dare not enjoy the view for fear of falling. The problem is not the end of science, but vertigo.

Read On

Okay, so I'm not exactly neutral. I have read everything John Irving has written and I am, in a Kathy Bates kind of a way, his biggest fan. A Widow for One Year entirely lives up to my expectations. Eddie O'Hare, a 16-year old virgin, is employed by a children's writer ostensibly to be his assistant, but really to sleep with the writer's wife in order to help him with his divorce strategy. Project achieved, Eddie becomes obsessed with the wife, who duly leaves her husband and child, and indeed he remains so for 40 years.

The book is the story of the writer's child, Ruth Cole, a successful novelist: her interviews with journalists who haven't read her book, readings for her audience, re-meeting Eddie, her refusal to contact her long-lost mother, and her research for her new book which leads her to witness the murder of a prostitute and to her second husband.

Particularly since writing The World According to Garp in 1976, Irving has developed a style which is traditionally character-based, and one which is entirely engrossing.

Everybody who has the capacity to get lost in a novel should read A Widow for One Year. When I reached the last 40 pages I walked around my flat for half an hour just to avoid finishing it.

Irene Miller

John Irving, Bloomsbury, £16.99 hbk

Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998

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