Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Enola McLuhan

Let me start this off by saying that I think it's only natural to look at the world you're living in when you're growing up, and expect to enter that very same world and take your place in it when you finally are an adult. And there undoubtedly is a resulting sense of disappointment that is universal to the human condition, because the adults that we looked up to as children will have almost certainly revealed their flaws and weaknesses, their essential humanity, as we grow up. And more importantly, as there is no way to arrest the passing of time, those adults will have inevitably aged, sooner or later growing weaker, less capable, less healthy, and will ultimately pass on.

No matter what, we cannot enter the world of our childhood as adults, not unless someone invents a time machine of course (something I believe to be impossible, but that's another story). But in traditional societies, there is at least the comfort of entering a world that is more or less the same as the one you grew up in, with the roles essentially the same, just new actors taking filling in for the older ones. The rules don't change, nor does the environment for the most part. With the exception, I hasten to add, of catastrophic events, like natural disasters, epidemics, famine, and of course war.

Another catastrophic occurrence, albeit one that has come with a multitude of benefits, has been the revolutionary changes brought about by technological innovation over the past few centuries, social, cultural, psychological, political and economic changes, and biological, chemical, and physical change as well. The phrase future shock, coined by Neil Postman and made famous by Alvin Toffler, refers to the accelerated pace of change that we live with, in which the future is now, and the world of tomorrow is radically different from the world of today.

The point I would stress here is that the worlds that we moderns enter into as adults bear little resemblance to the worlds in which we grew up. I remember full well watching the 60s unfold as a child, mostly seeing it play out on TV, and finally going away to college in August of 1974, and upon arriving, wondering, where are all the hippies? Where are all the cool counterculture types I had heard about and watched and expected to become a part of?

They were gone, of course. Not entirely, but mutated into freaks (that was the 70s term that we used), similar but not the same. The point being that things had changed drastically over the course of just a few years. So the idea that the hippies would still be around for another entire generation was entirely unfounded. But back in the 60s, there was quite a bit of speculation about what would happen if the counterculture ever took control of the culture, if it ever became the mainstream culture, if the hippies ever took charge, and ultimately, what would happen when they became adults and moved into the leadership roles occupied by the generations that had lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War?

One example of this sort of speculation was the 1968 film, Wild in the Streets, directed by Barry Shear, based on the 60s baby boomer slogan, Don't Trust Anyone Over 30! The film posits a scenario in which a young radical turned rock star gains voting rights for 14-year-olds, and is elected to the House of Representatives, and ultimately becomes President of the United States. He doesn't exactly play fair in his rise to power, and once in charge, establishes a kind of police state where all the members of the older generation are moved into retirement homes and forced to take LSD.

I know, I know, it's hilarious, isn't it? A cautionary tale, the real message being, don't trust anyone under 30. Hey, they didn't call it the generation gap for nothin'! 

And then there were the stories that predicted that the children of the hippies would rebel against their parents and reject their values and way of life, just as the youthful baby boomer had rejected the values and way of life of their parents. This revenge scenario, in some ways reminiscent of the universal argument that parents give their children, just wait until you have children of your own, then you'll see, was amplified and intensified to an extreme by the severity of the generation gap between boomers and their parents. 

Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, is best understood as incorporating just this sort of extrapolation into the future. It is often not recognized as a science fiction film, even though it posits a dystopian future, and highlights the introduction of a major new technology, the Ludovico technique, an advancement in behavior modification, based on aversion therapy. This takes what was in the 60s a relatively new idea that criminal behavior is a mental illness that needs to be treated, the goal being rehabilitation, rather than a moral failing that needs to be punished, and pushes it to its extreme. 

Politically, the future dystopia is based on the liberal to socialist principles ascendant in the 60s, albeit with roots that go back to the New Deal era, with an expanded welfare state, housing projects, and permissive parenting. And whereas the counterculture youth preached peace and love, their children rejected the idea of flower power, as it was known, and that fictional rejection in some ways anticipates the advent of punk rock in the mid to late 70s. But beyond rejection, the children of the future embraced violence of every variety, to the extremes of rape and murder.

Moreover, the hippies emphasized the consciousness-expanding potential of hallucinogenic drugs, notably LSD, but also peyote and its derivative, mescaline, as well as the mild, mellowing quality of marijuana, while some got hooked on the comfortably numbing opiate, heroin. Drug use in general was condoned, but stimulants were generally used either to balance out the effects of depressants, including barbiturates and alcohol (drinking and popping pills was an activity they shared with their parents, albeit engaged in without parental or legal permission), or in the service of consciousness expansion, for example in the form of the psychedelic drug, STP. In A Clockwork Orange, their children favored stimulants, not for their mind-altering qualities, but to enhance their ability to engage in violence and sex. And they ingested them in the form of milk plus, milk being exactly the kind of wholesome, mainstream beverage rejected by the hippies.

The counterculture style was all about color, the psychedelic and the florescent and dayglo, paisley prints and the rainbow (an emblem adopted by Apple Computer, silicon valley being largely a Californian off-shoot of the counterculture, and in politics first by Jesse Jackson in the form of the Rainbow Coalition, an extension of the 60s Civil Rights movement, and later by supporters of gay rights, marriage equality, and the LGBT community generally). In Kubrick's film, their children dressed in colorless white, and black, a stark rejection of the psychedelic style (again, anticipating in some ways the punk style of the 70s).

The rejection of the baby boomers by their parents extended to their music . You might say that the call to arms of rock music was, roll over Beethoven, while in this narrative, their children, or at least the main character, Alex, preferred classical music, and Beethoven above all. 

I should note that the film is an adaptation of the 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, which of course predates the hippies, but not the counterculture itself, which had not fully flowered but was certainly firmly rooted by then. And in the United Kingdom, Burgess being an English writer, the Social Democrats had dominated the political scene since the end of the Second World War.

 And if you've never read the novel, I highly recommend it, if for no other reason than for its highly sophisticated emphasis on language. Burgess was a linguist, putting him in the same class as J.R.R. Tolkien, and much like George Orwell, he included a fictional future language based on English, in this case called Nadsat. In large part, Nadsat consists of words borrowed from Russian, such as droog, meaning close friend, devotchka, meaning girl, and Bog, meaning God. In some instances the Russian words are adapted into more familiar English ones, such as khorosho, which means good, turned into horrorshow, and golova, meaning head, turned into Gulliver. And according to the Wikipedia entry on
Nadsat, the name of this argot comes from the Russian suffix that is the equivalent of the English suffix -teen, implying that it is the speech of the fictional future's youth. Presumably, the use of Russian is a reflection of an increased acceptance and influence of the Soviet Union, in conjunction with the strong left wing political tilt of the dystopia imagined by Burgess.

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I remember reading the novel as a teen, and seeing the film when I was in college, and I just have to note the difference between narratives like this one, and the present day penchant for young adult fiction with simplistic dystopian scenarios.

There's also a bit of the revenge scenario in the character of Alex Keaton, the role that first brought Michael J. Fox into national prominence, on the 80s TV sitcom, Family Ties. Alex's parents were former hippies who remained very much in the liberal, progressive camp, while their son turned out to be, much to their surprise, a young Republican, a conservative, and a Reagan supporter.

But putting all that aside, this has turned out to be a rather long preamble to the main point of this post, which is to continue my series on Firesign Theatre, and most recently on their first album, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him. As I've mentioned before, the album was released in 1968, making it a product of the 60s, a product of the counterculture, its humor satirizing both the mainstream culture of the 60s, and the counterculture itself. This is apparent in the first two tracks on side 1 of the album, the focus of my previous posts, Waiting for the Firesigns, and especially Sending Up the 60s.

The third and final track on side 1 could be grouped in the same genre as Wild in the Streets and A Clockwork Orange, as a future scenario based on the present, circa 1968,
extrapolating what things would be like if and when the youth took over, the hippies were in charge, and the counterculture became the culture. And while there is a hint of dystopia in this satire, for the most part it's a comedic celebration. 

The title of the track, "Le Trente-Huit Cunegonde," is a bit mysterious. Cunégonde is a character from Voltaire's philosophical novel, Candide, itself a satire, and perhaps suggests a warning against the optimistic if not utopian sensibility of the counterculture, that the best of all possible worlds as imagined by the hippies might not be the perfection they would have believed it could be. I'm just speculating here, of course, and I have no idea what the reference to 38 in the title (trente-huit) refers to. But it really doesn't matter, as it has not bearing on the piece itself, which is almost 7 1/2 minutes long (one of their shorter bits, like the first two on side 1).

I find it interesting to recall that during the 60s, concern about police brutality was not simply or even mainly a race issue, and that cops were often referred to as pigs by members of the counterculture. The idea of a hippy police force may seem like an oxymoron, but there is a sense in which reform movements, when successful, turn their radicalism into a new orthodoxy.

The roots of 60s counterculture can be found, in part, in the Beat Generation of the 50s, writers and poets who began their careers in the 40s, and rose to prominence during the postwar era. Also known as beatniks, they had a major influence on and were greatly admired by the hippies. Prominent among them was the poet Allen Ginsberg, perhaps best known for his poem "Howl" published in 1955, which begins with the line, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked..." When the woman at the beginning of the sketch asks the cops if they want to hear her rap, back in the 60s the term just meant talk, with the specific connotation of speaking in a sincere and truthful manner, a heart-to-heart. So when she starts to recite "Howl" she is actually not rapping as it was understood back then, plus while she uses Ginsberg's poem to try to demonstrate her hippy credentials, her choice also reflects the fact that she's an old-timer in this brave new groovy world, and therefore not with it, much like her faded body paint.

Dr. Benway is a reference to a fictional character created by another beat writer, William S. Burroughs, who was, among other things, a student of Alfred Korzybski and general semantics. And of course it's 8 million copies of the best known novel by Burroughs, Naked Lunch, that the hippy air force drops on the last stronghold of unhip resistance.

And the name of the plane they drop the literature from? Why, it's the Enola McLuhan, bet you were wondering what the title of this post had to do with all this, weren't you? The Enola reference is of course to the Enola Gay, the name of the aircraft used to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And not to make light of that horror, but it could be said that McLuhan's impact on the intellectual and artistic scene of the 60s was quite the detonation, in and of itself.

It's quite fitting that the Enola McLuhan drops books rather than bombs, and on a third world nation with low literacy rates, as McLuhan had argued that the social and psychological impact of the introduction of writing, the alphabet, and printing has been explosive, and militant in its own right. The medium is the munition! Indeed, arguably, the homogenizing effects of the alphabet and print far outstrips the flattening impact of the bomb.

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As I've suggested in my previous posts about Firesign Theatre (A Nick in Time for Firesign, Of Flip Sides and Firesigns, Waiting for the Firesigns, and Sending Up the 60s), their approach to sound recording has produced a form of comedy that has been compared to music, and that is based on the creation of a soundscape or sonic environment, along the lines of what McLuhan referred to as acoustic space (aka auditory space). The repetition in this particular radioplay of the 60s slang word groovy, by the way, also invokes an acoustic metaphor, as groovy is derived from grooves, which is how music is recorded onto vinyl and earlier recording media such as wax cylinders. So, back in the 60s, you might also say, dig those grooves, man, to refer to a musical recording that you like, and more generally to being in the groove, for settling into a routine in a positive sense (as opposed to being in a rut), for getting into something in depth, having a very positive experience, getting into the zone, etc.

There is also some play with media in this bit, involving telephone and television. But it is the direct reference to McLuhan that, for me, confirms the fact that Firesign Theatre represents a great example of media ecology praxis.

Now all that's missing is a breakfast cereal called Granola McLuhan!

The Medium is the Muesli

Well, I guess this all goes to show I'm probably better off living in this world, rather than the world I thought I'd live in when I was growing up, even if this world is not the best of all possible worlds. Not that I have any choice in the matter, or in the fact that, when it comes to media and technological innovation, it's bombs away, over and over again!

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