Love

Over Christmas I read Jonathon Green's excellent oral history of counter-cultural London, Days in the Life. Not surprisingly, the book ends (in 1971) on a down beat, with several contributors noting that hippy lifestyles were too often another form of consumerism, and that the counter-culture's emphasis on individual desire and freedom opened the way for Thatcherism, which can be seen not only as a reaction to the 'permissive society' but in some senses its extension and completion. The story of the Sixties, as often told, is one of failure: the unachieved revolutions of '68, the murder of Meredith Hunter at Altamont, the elections of Nixon and Heath and so on. But, of course, there were real and substantial gains, in terms of civil rights, legalisation of homosexuality, challenge to censorship laws, the rise of feminism, and so on. Perhaps it's something to do with our own times that we see the decade in terms of its political failures, what it did not (and perhaps could not) achieve, rather than its manifest successes - let alone its extraordinary cultural production.

What many of the contributors to Days in the Life identify about the hippy movement was its lack of any kind of ideological rigour - and in fact, when this was introduced towards the end of the decade, that was when the larger counter-cultural constituency (from wealthy people who simply enjoyed the lifestyle, to radicals who saw things in terms of social and political revolution) became unglued. Probably, of course, it was the very lack of a defined ideology or program which allowed these very disparate people to hang together in the first place. 'Peace and love' sloganeering can only take you so far - but it takes you somewhere.

On Chris O'Leary's wonderful Bowie blog, Pushing Ahead of the Dame, he calls the Bowie/Queen collaboration 'Under Pressure' 'a sad hippie song beneath its arias and cannonades': 'there’s a sadness along with the bravado, a sense of loss to go with the heroics. Something is going away, going away for good, and Bowie and Mercury see it, if only in shadows.' He calls it 'the last song of the titans'. I never paid the song much attention until recently, and it was this Pushing Ahead of the Dames entry that made me think about it differently. O'Leary is right in pinpointing Bowie's 'crescendo performance in the second bridge' as the key: it's the one that contains the lyrics

Because love's such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure

Love. Every time I hear that section now the hairs raise on the back of my neck. Even more so than in 1981, when 'Under Pressure' went to number 1, I feel the urgency of this lyric. The 'love' of the counterculture, 'All You Need Is Love', the universal panacea, gives way to something more direct. We might call it care, as Bowie does; or compassion, or empathy, or understanding. It's something that stands behind Brexit and the resistible rise of Donald J. Trump: we have been encouraged not to care for others, but also not to care for and about ourselves. Perhaps we should understand late capitalism or neoliberalism or whatever you might want to call it as an emotional project which teaches us not to care for others; that the world is a competition, there are winners and losers, and you had better be a winner. Both Brexiteers and Trump rattle on endlessly about 'winning', for good reason. It reflects a worldview in which to care is to be weak, to not look out for yourself, to lose.

But caring for yourself and caring for others are connected. What does it say about oneself, or the society in which we live, if we can ignore the pain of other human beings? If it is 'better' not to care? In academia, we are now forced to run several rat-races: the REF, the TEF, grant funding, and so on and so on. Not because these things have value in themselves: they have none. They are in place to encourage or rather determine a certain kind of behaviour, a certain kind of emotional response, to others and to oneself. To be competitive, not collegiate; to place one's energies towards certain tasks and not to others; and what this produces is anxiety, and fear, and a sense of worthlessness, and misery. It's a microcosm of what has happened and is still happening across the UK and US and elsewhere. In this new year of 2017, which I think of with apprehension rather than hope, anxiety rather than excitement, I make no resolutions, except to be able to look into the mirror and know that I care, for others and for myself.

'This is ourselves/ Under pressure'.

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