View the h-1960s Discussion Logs by month
View the Prior Message in h-1960s's March 2005 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
View the Next Message in h-1960s's March 2005 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
Visit the h-1960s home page.
Marianne DeKoven. _Utopia Limited: The Sixties and the Emergence of the Postmodern_. Duke University Press, 2004. xix + 362 pp. Notes, annotated bibliography, index. $23.95 (paperback). ISBN: 0-8223-3269-8. (Also available in unjacketed library cloth, ISBN: 0-8223-3280-9). Reviewed by Michael J. Kramer, Doctoral Candidate, History Department, UNC-Chapel Hill To Everything Turn, Turn, Turn: The Pivot of the Sixties Did the 1960s mark the beginning or the end of an era in the United States? Marianne DeKoven, a professor of literature at Rutgers University, has written a dense but lucid investigation of key literary and intellectual texts on the left in order to address this recurrent question of rupture or continuity in 1960s historiography. She interprets crucial works by Herbert Marcuse, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs, the Living Theater, James Baldwin, Robin Morgan, Shulamith Firestone, Toni Morrison, and others to argue that we can glimpse the nascent turn toward a postmodern “structure of feeling” within essentially modernist publications. Adopting the metaphor of “the pivot” -- a metaphor she might have developed even further -- DeKoven carefully delineates how key texts reveal a shift from their modernist positions toward postmodern modes of comprehension and analysis. For DeKoven, postmodernism is hard to recognize because we now live within it, but texts of the 1960s allow us to recognize more clearly how the current zeitgeist emerged out of the final flowering of modernism. Modernism? Postmodernism? These are vast categories of periodization, so amorphous and complex as to make many roll their eyes (a particular feeling of frustration that DeKoven, drawing upon Frederic Jameson, might characterize as -- yes -- postmodern) . So too, the modern-postmodern debate has become a much-abused punching bag, one hit so many times by so many people that even DeKoven herself admits it may be ready for retirement. DeKoven’s success comes in refusing to simplify definitions of the postmodern. With lengthy sections on the latest scholarship on both postmodernism and the 1960s, her annotated bibliography alone reveals an awareness of the many positions available on these twin topics. In her own analysis, she utilizes, among others, Jameson’s more despairing account of postmodern photography, literature, and architecture as revelations of a de-historicized, deeply problematic “culture of late capitalism” . But she also draws upon more celebratory portrayals of postmodern artworks as reactions against this system of “late capitalism.” She makes especially effective use of Linda Hutcheon’s argument that what defines postmodern art are its “complicitous critique” and its “resistance-from-within” . The danger with this nuanced approach is that postmodernism becomes so many different things as to be rendered a useless category. For the most part, however, DeKoven portrays the differences between the modern and the postmodern clearly, if somewhat abstractly. “Unity and homogeneity, in general, give way to diversity and heterogeneity,” she explains, “directionality to flux, hybridity, and boundary-crossing. Mappable space, in Jameson’s terms, has given way to postmodern hyperspace -- mobile, decentered, nomadic, fragmented, border-crossing, shape-shifting, unencompassable by self-consistent, centered reason” (18). These descriptions of the modern and the postmodern are perhaps a touch too neat and dichotomized, but when DeKoven dips into the complexities of particular texts, she begins to develop her argument more clearly: modern and postmodern overlapped in the 1960s in ways that reveal how they both converged and diverged; in the “pivot” of those tumultuous years, modernism and postmodernism existed within the same pieces of writing and, simultaneously, began the process of separating from each other. “The Sixties and the Emergence of the Postmodern”: As the wording of DeKoven’s subtitle suggests, the original idea in _Utopia Limited_ is its emphasis on the emergence of postmodernism. Rather than argue that the 1960s marked a sudden rupture with the past, DeKoven carefully describes the ways that the texts of her study embodied the messy interpenetration of modernist and postmodernist perspectives. “It is on the pivot of these elements of continuity (democratic egalitarianism and political subjectivity),” she claims, “that the shift took place in the sixties” (18). What was new in postmodern art was an ambiguity and ambivalence about the possibilities for radical social revolution; what remained was a commitment to some sort of change and improvement nonetheless. DeKoven’s position on this topic of change and continuity in the 1960s does not fall into either of the two currently dominant historiographical camps. On one side, many literary and cultural scholars interpret the 1960s as a moment of rupture; on the other, many historians seek to knit the decade and all that it symbolizes into enduring patterns of the past. Jameson’s famous essay “Periodizing the 60s” offers an example of the rupture school of thought . To Jameson, the 1960s marked a radical break in the organization of nation-states, international economics, cultural production, consciousness, even history itself, as mass-mediated global capitalism emerged. Similarly, Julie Stephens notices radically new modes of social protest in the 1960s. Her study, _Anti-Disciplinary Protest: Sixties Radicalism and Postmodernism_ utilizes Foucault’s theories of power and knowledge to argue that groups such as the Diggers and Yippies combined aesthetics and politics in unprecedented ways to challenge epistemological categories of what counted as social reality . By contrast, historians have increasingly positioned the 1960s in the larger fabric of historical continuity. For instance, Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin’s survey, _America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s_, describes the 1960s as a return to the unfinished conflicts of equality that split the United States in the 1860s. So too, Dominick Cavallo’s _A Fiction of the Past: The Sixties in American History_ offers another instance of portraying the 1960s “in the American grain.” Cavallo examines the very same Diggers investigated by Stephens, yet Cavallo demonstrates not how the Diggers broke with the past, but rather how they drew upon longstanding myths of cowboys and Indians as channeled through film and television . DeKoven’s insight, grounded in her attention to reading particular texts with great care and closeness, is to demonstrate how the transformations of the 1960s were indeed something new, but were not a sudden rupture. “The pivot” becomes a key metaphor for describing the appearance of fragmented, partial, non-utopian postmodern perspectives within rather than against quintessentially modernist pronouncements about total revolution and resistance. DeKoven never quite sorts out why the postmodern perspectives appeared, a lacunae worth returning to in a moment, but she does a convincing job of chronicling them. In general, _Utopia Limited_ is a fruitful work of description rather than explanation. Instead of offering a causal claim, DeKoven locates, sorts out, pinpoints, names, and characterizes the shift to postmodernity. DeKoven starts with works by Herbert Marcuse and Roland Barthes, showing how these social critics assumed the neat, binary oppositions of modernity -- avant-garde art versus low culture kitsch, total revolutionary transformation versus partial, alienated stasis, utopian intervention versus helpless, unimaginative apathy -- even as these modernist dichotomies began to collapse within their very prose. Interpreting _One-Dimensional Man_, Dekoven reveals how, in the same breath, Marcuse advocated a “Great Refusal,” a total rejection of capitalist society, and recognized complicit, partial efforts to remedy particular problems by using the very technologies capitalism itself unleashed. DeKoven’s close readings are quite enlightening here. “What is most striking in this passage,” she writes of one section in _One-Dimensional Man_, “is Marcuse’s use of the copula ‘and’ alongside the formulation ‘in and against,’ instead of such formulations as ‘in contradiction with’ or ‘over against.’ Marcuse’s formulations, though we know they refer to modern contradiction, point at the same time toward postmodern simultaneity…” (45). Barthes, too, in DeKoven’s close interpretations of the groundbreaking essays in _Mythologies_, moves from a condemnation of the culture of the bourgeoisie to a fascination with the revolutionary potential of its technologies and commodity forms; DeKoven makes especially effective use of Barthes’ short, funny essay “Plastic” to demonstrate this point. Then, in a wonderful section that might have served as the basis for an entire book, DeKoven explores the different uses of Las Vegas as site and symbol of the transformation from the modern to the postmodern. She demonstrates how representations of Las Vegas in the 1960s at first maintained a modernist “outsider” critique of social problems. For all its “New Journalism” flair, according to DeKoven, Tom Wolfe’s mid-60s essay on Las Vegas in _The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby_ critiqued the nasty culture of gambling from a removed position. By 1971, however, when Hunter Thompson published _Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas_, the very countercultural forces that seemed to oppose Las Vegas had, oddly, been absorbed into the city’s empty, soulless glitz itself. By the time of Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, and Denise Scott Brown’s architectural manifesto _Learning From Las Vegas_, published a year later in 1972, Las Vegas had become a model itself: a utopia for future urban design. DeKoven’s close readings of _Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas_are particularly insightful; she traces out the inventive ways that Thompson tells an allegory of the failure of the counterculture to alter dominant American values. “The fear and loathing, increasingly, are not of Las Vegas itself but of the countercultural self as Las Vegas,” DeKoven argues. For her, the counterculture in Thompson’s novel is “reflected precisely in Las Vegas, rather than as stranded, outcast, or alien there.” DeKoven explains that, “Las Vegas, as visible and outward form of the inner rot of the sixties, is merely the most appropriate setting for the self-destruction of the counterculture, where the death orgy can proceed with greatest ease, rapidity, and absence of friction” (87). As _Utopia Limited_ progresses, DeKoven turns increasingly to what develops into a central theme of the postmodern in her book: Identity and subjectivity, rather than collectivity and community, became the crucial battlefield for struggles over freedom, justice, and equality in the 1960s. She traces this focus on the politics of subjectivity through documents as disparate as the “Port Huron Statement,” the Living Theater’s performance _Paradise Now_, the novels of William Burroughs, the essays of the cultural critic Richard Poirier, the work of R. D. Laing, understandings of the Vietnamese in Frances Fitzgerald’s 1972 book _Fire in the Lake_, the feminist breakthroughs of Robin Morgan and Shulamith Firestone, and the work of James Baldwin on African-American life. In each text, she traces how modernist drives toward a collective, total revolution gave way to postmodern sensibilities in which partial, local, limited resistance became the focal point. In these new, postmodern orientations, utopian dreams of sudden, complete transformation were discredited. In their place, compromised but possible efforts at reform seemed the most sensible pathways toward change. Thinking carefully about the famous New Left and feminist phrase that the “personal is political,” for instance, DeKoven demonstrates how, “it was intended to link subjectivity to the political, thereby transforming both, not to define the political as or through subjectivity.” But, DeKoven points out, “In the sixties shift to postmodernity, ‘the personal is political,’ which annexes subjectivity to the social, becomes reconfigured as what might be dubbed ‘the political is personal,’ where political struggles are defined by, and located most meaningfully within, the realm of subjectivity, that includes and projects local, particular political allegiances and goals” (191). This new emphasis on subjectivity, DeKoven argues, retained shards of the modernist urge to reconfigure the social, but it increasingly focused on the self as the mode through which non-totalitarian change might occur. A final section in _Utopia Limited_ considers the aftermath of the 1960s pivot from the modern to the postmodern in the novels of E. L. Doctorow and Toni Morrison. DeKoven shows how these authors reincorporated modernist literary forms to offer ways of thinking about how the utopian drive toward a better world persisted in its new, limited, postmodern form. Limited becomes a crucial pun here in both its economic meaning, which circumscribes utopia in a dominant system of global capitalism, and in its sense of the partial and particular rather than the transcendent and total. To DeKoven, the politics embedded in Doctorow’s and Morrison’s writings emerge from a strange combination: the simultaneous demystification and persistence of modernist utopianism after its discrediting in the 1960s. Quoting a powerful letter from a participant in the 1968 Prague Spring movement, DeKoven catches a bit of the politics that she notices in the post-60s writings of Doctorow and Morrison. “We’ve had our fill of Utopia,” the letter writer announces. “No more. Now we are building piecemeal, building a democratic society that will be as imperfect as the people who live in it. …It won’t be a Utopia, but it will be a human kind of society, fit for people to live in” (286-287). DeKoven demonstrates the ways in which 60s thinkers worked through these new ideas, which she refers to as a kind of “post-utopian utopianism, or utopian post-utopianism” (269). Caught up as they were in modernist dreams of utopia, the 60s writers she examines were also increasingly suspicious of modernism. They were eager to seek out other modes of transformation. As with any book that pursues large claims, _Utopia Limited_ possesses its own set of limitations. DeKoven’s primary focus on written material misses the ways in which other forms of expression -- film, television, music, visual arts, graffiti, the “underground” press, just to name a few -- manifested formal properties that set them against the written novel or essay as harbingers of postmodernity. To be sure, DeKoven does examine other forms: Her chapter on the Living Theater addresses theatrical performance, and DeKoven gestures to the role of group meetings such as the SDS convention that gave birth to the “Port Huron Statement” and feminist consciousness-raising gatherings. Also dropped in between chapters in _Utopia Limited_ are short “Endnotes” on topics such as rock music, but these are so brief as to be whispers of entirely different projects altogether. One cannot write a book about everything, but DeKoven might have justified her choices of evidence more convincingly. DeKoven also could do more to delineate between her focus on the United States alone and a more international perspective. So too, she might have broadened her study beyond its focus on progressive and countercultural texts: What would the emergence of postmodernism look like if studied through conservative or reactionary texts from the 1960s? That such questions remain unexplored does not undo _Utopia Limited_’s contributions. These are minor critiques of what amounts to a series of powerful re-readings of crucial 1960s texts. DeKoven illuminates the ways in which liberation surged forward on the dominant logic of modernism yet began to break off -- to “pivot” -- toward new frameworks of the postmodern. That said, the useful trope of the “pivot” can begin to feel more like a spike pounded into the reader’s head. Because _Utopia Limited_ is a work of description, skillfully catching the moments in specific texts where modernist and postmodernist language overlap and intersect, it starts to repeat itself. Part of the problem is that DeKoven tends to use adjectives rather than verbs. Often, she writes passages such as the following, which concludes her book: “If we understand how our current postmodern conjuncture emerged from the utopian modernity of the sixties, and still, in very different forms, carries some of its promise, we can recognize the popular, egalitarian, specific, muted, ironic, ambiguous, carefully pitched, disconnected, multiform, multigenre, cross-cut, sampled, electronic, hybrid, transnational, border-crossing, nomadic, multilingual, wavering or roaring voices, often misheard or misinterpreted, of that promise when they speak” (290). The question of causality remains in the background. Rather than focus on why or how societies moved from the modern to the postmodern, she focuses on sorting out the qualities of each “structure of feeling” as it appeared in particular texts. This emphasis on description always threatens to reify modernism and postmodernism as a static dichotomy, thus undermining DeKoven’s entire argument about the emergence of postmodernism in the modern itself. The danger is that the break will seem too clean, the rupture too neat, the periodization too simplistic. This is where the notion of “the pivot” is more thoughtful and inventive than DeKoven realizes. As an image of someone turning, the pivot offers a metaphor of historical change that does not simply move in linear fashion. Instead, the pivot conceptualizes the agents and actors of history moving through time in a circular fashion, wheeling about as they reincorporate elements of the past into visions for the present and future. This circular vision of progress suggests other possibilities for the logic of history than either modernism’s march toward utopian breakthrough or postmodernism’s dystopian end of history in an ever-fragmented, “de-centered” present. In their place, the 1960s seem more like a moment when the pivots of many participants widened the gyre, to reference Joan Didion referencing W. B. Yeats . The center could not hold, but rather than slouching toward Bethlehem, as Didion would have it, participants on the left were, according to DeKoven, pivoting toward a more limited utopianism. In elucidating this pivot, DeKoven glimpses a larger historical dance of change and continuity in the “post-utopian utopianism, or utopian post-utopianism” of the 1960s. Rather than postmodernizing history by declaring it over or theoretically impossible to formulate without imposing a master narrative, DeKoven begins to develop a new model for historicizing the postmodern . With the metaphor of the pivot, she shows how progressive literary and political texts emerged in the 1960s with a compromised and impure perspective that, nonetheless, clung to the dream of a more just, egalitarian social order. Though _Utopia Limited_ has its shortcomings, its own limitations, DeKoven’s careful readings of primary materials and her intervention in the existing historiography can greatly help scholars themselves pivot more deftly through the whirligig of the 1960s and its dizzying spin toward the postmodern.  Frederic Jameson, _Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism_ (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992).  Linda Hutcheon, _A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction_ (New York: Routledge, 1988); _The Politics of Postmodernism_ (New York: Routledge, 1989).  Frederic Jameson, “Periodizing the 60s,” in _The 60s Without Apology_, Sayres, Sohnya, et. al., eds. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press in cooperation with Social Text, 1984).  Julie Stephens, _Anti-Disciplinary Protest: Sixties Radicalism and Postmodernism_ (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).  Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, _America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Dominick Cavallo, _A Fiction of the Past: The Sixties in American History_ (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).  Joan Didion, _Slouching Towards Bethlehem_ (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968).  For a related discussion of metaphors for historical change and continuity that arise in studying the 1960s (for instance, the “kaleidoscope” or the “corkscrew”) see the final chapter, “A Backward Glance at the End of History,” in Paul Berman’s _A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968_ (New York: Norton, 1996). Copyright © 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H- Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.