I was looking through some ancient files on my computer, and I was fascinated by a fragment of an email I’d saved from a dormitory debate back in college about a certain obscene snow sculpture that someone had built in front of our building. The building in question was called Risley Hall, a notorious den of the arts and counterculture at Cornell University. And this text strikes me as a great document of what countercultural student identities looked like in the early years of the last decade:
It’s not fair to tell someone you’re from Risley and have them roll their eyes and look at you funny. It’s not fair to be teased or have someone assume you’re a gay, pot-smoking poet with piercings and handcuffs who hates white christians and GAP clothes. It’s not fair to be asked “so how was the orgy?” every Monday morning. And it would seem at first that things like the snow cock would only perpetuate this. But I think it’s important to weigh the impacts. Someone walking by Risley, seeing the snow cock, might remark to themselves “crazy Risley,” shake their heads and keep on walking. Perhaps they’d say “it figures! Damn perverts and their orgies!” But I don’t think that it would change people’s minds if the cock hadn’t been erected in the first place. No one would have though “Gee, I used to think Risley was the weird dorm, but the absence of icy genitals makes me think I was wrong!” The fact is that our reputation is staked on a whole lot more than frozen, suggestive precipitation. It’s based on us.
I have to ask “what would it take to get people to change their minds?” I mean, seriously…we’d have to get rid of Rocky immediately, and the LGBTQ probably shouldn’t be as vocal. The SCA sure looks like freaks on the front lawn when they practice. Masquerave has people milling around our dorm dressed all sorts of perverted ways. And then there’s the way Risleyites dress in general…
I’m not trying to prove a point, because I don’t know which side of the issue I belong on yet. I definitely don’t like the bad rap we have, but on the other hand we also have a good reputation, and they both come from the _same_thing_. I don’t think we could get rid of one and keep the other. I think it’s written into the charter, and baked into the bricks that Risley challenges its inhabitants at least as much as it does the rest of Cornell. To truly change that, to the extent that people don’t give us the occasional funny look, would mean getting rid of more than snow sculptures. It would mean getting rid of what makes us Risley.”
As far as I remember, one group was arguing that the obscene snow sculpture had been built without permission, gave us a bad name, and should be removed; while another group defended it on grounds of artistic expression. But what we find here — as in all good ethnographic texts — is a kaleidoscopic view of a whole social world in miniature. All its characteristic qualities are characterized. There’s a non-normative sexuality — “gay,” “handcuffs,” “orgies.” There’s a taste in drugs: “pot-smoking,” to be opposed loosely to more mainstream “beer-drinking.” There are representative wardrobes and personal styles: “piercings,” “freaks,” “perverted ways,” “the way Risleyites dress in general…” And there are typical artistic forms, like poetry, the Society for Creative Anachronism, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
In short, we have here practically a piece of folk structuralist analysis: an exposition of the system of oppositions that organizes local identity around a series of differences from the mainstream (from “white christians” and “GAP clothes”). We see here the historical residue of something Stuart Hall described decades ago in his excellent paper on “The Hippies“:
The existential, spontaneous, loosely-organized, near-anarchic modes of Hippie society and ‘art’ provide the lived test of authenticity for this new kind of political movement. Their emphasis on the need for the individual radical to ‘live through’ his act of disaffiliation, the libertarian and anti-ideological mood of the sub-culture, find whole areas of sympathetic response in other political groupings and tendencies… The Hippies have not only helped define a style, they have made the question of style itself a political issue. (161)
What I find interesting about this text, though, is not only its typology of countercultural forms, but also its vivid performance of a certain kind of communicative rationality — and in this it is anything but countercultural. In short, the author displays mainstream, normative college “critical thinking” skills to investigate the condition of being of anti-mainstream. The author is constantly investigating, presenting and weighing evidence, evaluating causality, taking reasoned positions. As the author puts it, “it’s important to weigh the impacts”: even if x seems to reinforce the community’s negative public image, the absence of x might not do anything to improve it. And moreover, in a splendid cultural studies insight, the author points out that a negative collective identity is not necessarily separable from a positive collective identity: “they both come from the _same_thing_.” It strikes me as well as the characteristic move of a certain enlightened college relativism to defer judgement: “I’m not trying to prove a point, because I don’t know which side of the issue I belong on yet.”
In the end, then, what we see in this text is the unsteady merger of enlightenment critical rationality with bohemian counterculture. Such a merger would seem to have a certain class basis: bohemian renunciations of the mainstream often come from children of the middle class, momentarily in rebellion both against their class destiny and against cultural normativities of all kinds. As far as I know anecdotally, a lot of those people would ten years later end up either working in the culture industries (in theatre, art, etc) or else go to graduate school.
It’s interesting to reflect, at any rate, on the curious combination of hippie culture and scholarly rationality, and on the contradictory aspiration that the author of this text characterizes so nicely: the aspiration to be different and not to be teased or to become a stereotype. The author suggests that such an aspiration was structurally impossible to realize. I’m not sure about that, though: people are good at finding new camouflage for new circumstances.