Arts & Culture » Arts Stories & Interviews



By Ken Goffman (aka R.U. Sirius) and Dan Joy
(Villard, 402 pages)

Back during the 2000 elections, it came to my attention that there was a third-party candidate who had slipped under the general radar. R.U. Sirius, editor of the seminal 1990s technoculture magazine, Mondo 2000, was running for a party called The Revolution®, with a slogan that rang much more true than the jingoisms of the right and left: Victory Over Horseshit. He had my vote.

That year, and each since, the holiday season has heralded a visit to Central Florida by Sirius, occasioning what's become something of a traditional meet-up of technophiles, political malcontents and weirdos in the area. This year, however, Sirius (under his given name, Ken Goffman) has a newly completed book, with co-author Dan Joy – an academic examination of a wide variety of countercultures through history, from Socrates to Sufism, from the youth counterculture of the American '60s to bohemian Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. Goffman took some time recently to answer some questions via e-mail about the book.

How did you define a counterculture in the context of your book?

Counterculture for us is endlessly anti-authoritarian or non-authoritarian, and it embraces the possibility of individual and social change – what Nietzsche called "transvaluation." It is also characterized by a puckish, playful, prankster spirit. In each chapter, representing cultural movements that are variously identified with politics, or art, or spirituality, the same "type" keeps reappearing; the individualist who (as Aldous Huxley once said about Timothy Leary) likes to tweak the snouts of authority; who doesn't take himself or herself too seriously; who would rather have a little slack than a lot of social prestige.

What elements do countercultures tend to share with one another, and is there a sense in which the growth of anti-authoritarian elements is necessary as part of our collective social evolution?

Countercultures usually foster open communication and generosity. These things are essential to social evolution. The worship of authority produces stasis. Most of human history is defined by theocracies and theocratic attitudes in which evolution is strictly forbidden. "God made this world and it's a sin to attempt to improve it." These attitudes remain powerful to this day, in the Middle East and in the American heartland. Open communication is a boon to social evolution, of course. If people are informed and up-to-speed on the latest in science, technology, philosophy and so forth they don't have to each reinvent the wheel – they can build on pre-existing knowledge. Diderot's invention of the encyclopedia in the middle of the 18th century was a massively revolutionary, countercultural act. It took information that had only been available to elites and to particular guilds and put it into the hands of anybody who could read. Diderot started open source!

What elements do you see as most expressive of the countercultures that are beginning to emerge now?

The technoculture is still endlessly countercultural. The idea of an open source culture; that everyone should have access to all the data and be able to participate in an open, anarchistic creative process whether it involves designing software or putting on a cultural event (like Burning Man) or even in a political campaign evolved out of ideas we featured prominently in Mondo 2000 in the early '90s. File-sharing – the idea that information that is infinitely replicable and easily shared with anyone anywhere in the world SHOULD be shared – these sorts of ideas form the dim outline of a new way of organizing a society, where we don't impose material scarcity in situations where there isn't any.

The way hackers and other computer enthusiasts, and ravers and Burning Man attendees will work and play and put in their own time and money to do something not because there is a potential for profits or awards or honors but out of sheer enthusiasm indicates something about human beings that goes unrecognized in both capitalist and socialist societies that presume people have to be coerced into making efforts. Granted a certain amount of autonomy, a certain permission to put some creativity into their work, and a certain shared sense of community, people will do all kinds of stuff simply so that it can be shared. It indicates an implicit future after robotics, developments in nanotechnology and so forth eliminate most forms of tedious labor.

The other area to watch for in counterculture is how avant-garde notions are spreading to areas not previously noted as countercultural centers. Part of this is related to the fact that Western historical narratives have mostly only paid attention to Western alternative movements. So, for instance, Brazil's brilliant late-'60s tropicalia movement was mostly ignored until some historians wrote books about it in the late '90s. You see an impressive art avant-garde rising up in China, working in native forms that seem to have much in common with Western avant-garde movements and literary styles, for instance. In Mexico, countercultural influences are manifest everywhere, including in the anarchistic left Zapatista rebellion of the Mayans under the tutelage of the prankster Subcomandante Marcos.

What one lesson do you most hope that readers will take away from your book?

History remembers very few people. It remembers some conquerors, some political leaders, some servants of the state and some who took greed to new heights. But by far greater numbers, it remembers artists, inventors and paradigm-breakers like Galileo, Copernicus, Bacon and Lao Tzu. Long after the bureaucrats and police chiefs and mayors and vice presidents and senators and dictators and TV commentators are off the historical playing field, forward-thinking creative artists and cultural and philosophic revolutionaries will be remembered as the great influences on human societies – those that were ignored or barely noticed today will be seen as the ones that made the future. So look to the edges.