Course Number: JOUR-GA 1281.003
Day & Time: Friday, 10:00am-1:00pm
Instructor: Steve Wasserman
YEARS OF HOPE, DAYS OF RAGE: THE SIXTIES
People never find it easy to confront the past; they generally prefer to consign it to oblivion. In today’s society, the model citizen is too often one without memory. Spurious historical categories are essential to social amnesia. The notion of the decade, for example, is among the more ubiquitous of such categories. It is, to be sure, a convenience, but it also is a tool of demarcation, an ideological term used to protect the present from the past. It reduces complex events to easily digestible chunks of time: A “decade” is a collection of social forces or tastes that is inevitably discarded. Experience becomes fashion: Everything changes, nothing lasts. History is turned into a species of exorcism and kitsch.
This is especially true whenever one hears talk about “The Sixties.” The term is, of course, a code name for the upheaval thought to have occurred in those over-oxygenated years. But it is used to hallow certain experiences while hollowing out others. The mosaic of moods and movements (musical, artistic, political) that were so much a part of that period has unfortunately congealed in the popular imagination as “The Sixties.” This apparently innocuous term conceals the fissures and frictions, the many divisions and differences, inherent in any time of social dislocation. It suggests the hegemony of particular experiences (Woodstock Nation, say) and neglects or diminishes the importance of others (the Silent Majority, for instance). It is worth recalling, for example, that there was much political conservatism and quietism in the 1960s.
The packaging of history into decades exacts a toll on collective memory. For many people, “The Sixties” is a kind of exotic folklore (Twiggy, the Beatles, Timothy Leary, Godard, Vietnam, the Black Panthers), as strange and harmless as the glittering artifacts of a Stone Age tribe displayed in a glass case in a museum. Thus, it does not surprise when “The Sixties” reappears as a prime-time series on HBO or network television. Its purpose is entertainment, but its effect is to trivialize and flatten history.
This course will seek to complicate commonplaces about that time that have by now lodged themselves in the frontal lobe of popular consciousness. It will seek to apprehend what critic Greil Marcus has rightly called the “moods of rage, excitement, loneliness, fatalism, desire” that buffeted America and the world in those turbulent years. The changes wrought in our sense of ourselves are not well understood, even now, nearly a half-century later. There is little doubt, however, that the social, moral and aesthetic issues first articulated then have now become acute. Many of the hopes born in that era today lie interred within a catacomb of caricature. Exhuming the corpse of those dreams will almost be an act of archeology, a salvage operation. Historical truth is always elusive; things are always more complicated than we care to remember. This course will strive to provide a more subtle sense of what a historical moment contains. Perhaps, even if it be a conceit, such an autopsy won’t mean the moment of exhausted possibilities is at hand.