May 07, 2008

68 at 40

It’s all part of turning 40: the reunions with old friends (and they’re so old aren’t they?), the memories of youthful excess and lost opportunities, and a mildly self-pitying feeling that, from now on, things are going to stay pretty much how they are, or get worse.

It’s the 40th anniversary, this month, of May ’68 – the date of the student protests in Paris, but also one that evokes a whole era of revolt and social change around the world. The legacy of the protest era has reached middle age. Various people are marking the occasion. I’ve put together a film series called Around ’68. Also in the Bay Area, Steve Seid at the Pacific Film Archive has done a similar series called The Clash of ’68; it’s linked to the Berkeley Art Museum’s Serge Hambourg exhibition. We share one title, Nagisa Oshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film.

Anniversaries aren’t interesting in themselves. Commemorating them is only worthwhile if it’s an opportunity to consider the meaning of an historical event, its legacy, and the difference between then and now. I’m not going to try and do that here; the films do it better. That’s why I wanted to present this series. The extra reason, I confess, is that this month is my 40th anniversary too.

I guess that having been born in May ‘68 (on the 7th, in the middle of les événements) has made me a little more interested in that period than I would have been otherwise. But lots of people roughly my age (not just the baby boomers who own the 60s) have been fascinated by those times. I think it’s something to do with the irony of being born during the protest era, which means that we first became world-aware during an especially cynical time of minimum social hope. Growing up in England, the first election I remember was that of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 (followed, a year later, by Ronald Reagan’s). Thatcher liked to say ‘there’s no such thing as society, there are only individual men and women’, and (darkly) ‘there is no alternative’ (the phrase caught on and became known, for short, as TINA). The one thing teenagers have a right to expect is that there could be alternatives. It was hard even to play at them. We didn’t have any energizing, politicized sub-culture: too young for punk, a little too old by the time dance culture spread out of Manchester. We had synth pop and New Romantics. It was grim. No wonder so many of us (not me) became Goths.

So it was easy, too easy, for us to romanticize, even eroticize, the ‘60s, and May ‘68 in particular. (That’s what still appeals to some of us about Bernardo Bertolucci’s awful The Dreamers, which we’re not showing, and what’s so rigorously avoided in another recent film of the May ’68 events in Paris, Louis Garrel’s excellent Regular Lovers, which we are showing.) It advertised itself as a time when young people insisted on alternatives.

The thrall of May ’68, like any thrall, should be resisted. For one thing, it makes it harder to focus on what’s specific about our own times. But ‘68 does give us some ways of measuring the present. Four years ago, before I moved from London to San Francisco, I helped organize a symposium at the Royal College of Art that we called ‘The Unsurpassable Sixties’. It was about the hold that decade seems still to have over us – in art, culture, politics, society. You can see it today everywhere: in the way a museum like SFMOMA is curated (the 60s crisis of Modernism is often our center of gravity), in the current presidential contests, in the Bay Area’s favorite self-images (someone once said to me that San Francisco is a ‘museum of the ‘60s’ – I don’t agree but I know what she meant). At the RCA that day we did talk about the legacies of that time, and about the differences between then and now. And someone (a baby boomer) said something (he might have been quoting someone) that really stuck with me:

He said the difference is that, nowadays, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

It’s a compact and strangely compelling statement that contains, I think, a number of truths and half-truths. Different ones for different people. For me, it’s mainly about imagination and its blind spots. It’s about which alternatives have images and which don’t. Art, including cinema, is almost useless as a means of social change. But art, especially cinema I’d say, can be good at giving us images of alternatives; and that’s the minimum we have a right to expect.

Comments (12)

  • The quote comes from Fredric Jameson, who wrote in the introduction of The Seeds of Time,

    “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.”

    It’s later quoted in a more aphoristic form by W.J.T. Mitchell and by Zizek in various places.

  • @Suzanne,

    I lived in the country thru mid-84, after that I’ve always lived in cities. So I cannot speak for the ‘burbs.

    In the country we had cable TV, newspapers etc – everyone I knew loved to talk and hang out. I grew up in what was essentially a Mennonite church, and the Mennonites in the 80s were very politically active. I believe they still are. I didn’t feel disconnected from anything. Plus we would all trek to the city frequently (it was only an hour away) to for more culture, entertainment etc.

    btw I know I write like an old Andy Rooney-guy, but I’m barely a year older than you.

  • Tim, yes, you just had to care beyond your class, but in the American suburbs how easy was it to get even a glimpse of anything beyond? I think what Erika imagines is key, gathering and talking as something primarily different about the 60s—I think no matter what part of the world you’re imagining, or from, or what the particular local agendas or problems, is the connective tissue of that time?

    Also, Erika, something I’ve been curious about since Dominic posted this is how or how not a sense of possibility manifests across age by decade, ie, from someone your age today, to mine or Tim’s or Dominic’s, to Peter’s. I often feel my immediate contemporaries are the least able to envision any kind of radical change to the status quo (& utopian fantasies (mine) are SO UNCOOL/impractical); how much is that about what Dominic’s describing above? And where the baby boomers have an–albeit often disenchanted–memory of certain forms of collective action, and maybe people your age have some kind of greater access to a sense of how to ask the right questions to get at a practical revolution? (Why are we talking about revolution in a comment box, and is this actually public space?)

  • Timothy, thanks for your comments. Your angle on this makes it clear that it matters so much what part of the world you’re from. I can see that, from your American perspective, the late 60s means something quite different and specific (e.g. hippies, the Vietnam draft…). ’68 will mean something different again if you’re looking from Czechoslovakia, Japan or Mexico. Sounds like the 80s in the U.S. was different from elsewhere too.

  • “For me, it’s mainly about imagination and its blind spots. It’s about which alternatives have images and which don’t.”

    I’m 28. To me 68 was a time where people were gathering and people were talking and also something a little bit mystical was happening in the air because youth in so many cities around the world said enough. And they all felt that the time was right they were looking for the right time and they saw it and they acted. They saw the open space and they jumped into it.

    Art didn’t inspire that. That inspired art.

    I would like to be tuned in to when the time is right. I would like to say enough when I feel that time is upon me. But how will I know, when that perfect moment arises to risk and act, that anyone will be there with me? We don’t meet and talk and gather in public spaces anymore. Gathering in public spaces is cheesy. Are we going to blog ourselves a revolution? Has the time for revolution passed? I think maybe. But I also think, Dominic, that you said something really important here. If there is a way, it’s about


    It reminds me that in order for us to find the real alternatives (and by that i mean separate from consumption and spectacle) we need to be more imaginative. We need to be conscientiously enthralled and looking for the moment.

  • @Dominic,

    “We didn’t have any energizing, politicized sub-culture… so it was easy, too easy, for us to romanticize, even eroticize, the ‘60s.”

    Having grown up in the 80s (I was born in 1966), I cannot find anything more wrong with your statement.

    The late 60s American anti-war movement was fueled mainly by a fear of the draft. The middle-class college students were being called up. They didn’t like it. Obviously, it was in their self-interest to stop it. There was nothing, politicially, in the 80s that had any real directly adverse effect on middle-class youth. But there were plenty of movements afoot, you just had to care beyond your class: anti-apartheid, nuclear arms race, the environment, women’s reproductive rights, the beginning of the War in Drugs.

    No one I knew romaticized or eroticized the hippies. Even though herpes put a bit of a damper on free love, there was still plenty to go around. And plenty of wrongs to be righted. Sure, the Velvet Underground in their uber-coolness were idolized, but the crunchiness and self-indulgences of hippies drove my friends and I nuts. To this day, I avoid hippies of all ages (I was a punk in the 80s)

    And yeah, new wave music became woosey and the goths were boring, but the DIY of 70s punk gave birth to the amazing alt rock of the 80s. Ignoring the coporate rock monster (much of it run by former hippies), youth created their own sound and sound.

    I would have to agree with you when you write “Art, including cinema, is almost useless as a means of social change” because I’m assuming when you say “almost” you are thinking of the exceptions like Emery Douglas or the Chicano grahics movemnt who did help create social change.


    In some incredibly broad sense we are about alternatives – but, really, who isn’t in that business these days?

    I don’t think the world is as cut and dry as it was forty years ago. I think we now live in a place of choices. I don’t see how artists are specifically about alternatives anymore. It seems to me its about keeping the choices alive. After 40 years of art becoming more vulgar, Dave Hickey recently summed up the current era, as “on the verge of a period devoted to gradual refinement. You’ve got to recognize the end of things when they end…. Can you get more vulgar than Richard Prince?”

  • “The thrall of May 68, like any thrall, should be resisted”—
    Dominic, for me—also born in 1968, and also spending part of my 1980s youth idealizing that era—one of the things most attractive about the images of those alternatives was the feeling that ENTHRALLMENT ITSELF could produce, or was what DID produce, a certain possibility for social change. It’s a kind of madness, ie, ‘hopefulness’—especially in a time of ‘minimum social hope’ (now as then?)—exactly akin to fascination or thrall, that’s needed. One has to be a little crazy I think to believe in (thus work towards) a collectively harnessable energy that can change the shape of the world we live in, or any tiny part of. What was so terrible about coming of age in the 80s, as you point out above, is that there wasn’t any alternative: nothing to capture the imagination and instigate, nothing harnessable or hopeful at hand to be erotically charged by into clear social action. There wasn’t any thrall to resist OR engage. This to say that I think I disagree—thrall shouldn’t be resisted, it should be instigated and cultivated. There’s got to be some effective medium ground between that enthrallment of the sixties that devolved into self-congratulatory fantasy ending famously and horribly at the (nearby) Altamont raceway; the idealization of the era; and a current collective cynicism that–if not exactly hopeless–keeps us from being foolish enough to think we could change the world. Conscientious enthrallment?

  • Who is the ‘we’ you refer to above, Peter? May I out you as a museum staff person of the baby boom generation and ask you to be more specific? What alternatives are being proposed, and alternative to what?

  • Peter Samis says:

    Alternatives, or “Tout pouvoir a l’imagination!” as the French slogan had it. All power to the Imagination–vs. the sclerotic, roadblocked “life” of the Establishment, whose representtives hadn’t come up with Thatcher’s There Is No Alternative phrase yet because they didn’t yet realize they actually had to dialogue with the youth who were throwing alternatives–and a lot of other things–in their face.

    We’re still all about alternatives. Isn’t that what artists DO?

  • gerital (sp) actually, geritol. fyi.

  • images of alternatives…fitting that 68 was the year the beatles relased the white album. conversely, i remember asking my mother about nixon and seeing her face turn bleak with despair.

    i raise my cup of gerital, in a toast to ’68. happy birthday dominic!

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