Theory Teacher's Blog

The 60s, I’m Not There

On New Year’s Day, with some friends, I saw the movie I’m Not There, a kaleidoscopic rendering of Bob Dylan’s life 1965-66, when Dylan famously shocked the folk music scene by adding the electric guitar and by distancing himself from the protest movement. This event is surrealistically symbolized in the movie by Dylan’s band firing machine guns into the audience. Not being myself a devotee of Bob Dylan (I possess only the Highway 61 album, which I enjoy mostly because of the whistles and pithy paraphrase of Genesis 22 on the title track), I know I am incapable of saying anything about Dylan that wouldn’t provoke genuine fans and more knowledgeable music historians to laugh at me scornfully.

Instead, I want to appreciate what I take the movie to be implying about how we today relate to the iconic 60s. Now, it is 2008, a year that — despite all of Barack Obama’s wonderfully inspiring speeches — feels rather hopeless (war, recession, etc.). When the word “change” is THE word on every presidential candidate’s lips, it’s hard NOT to cynically suspect that real change is precisely what will NOT be happening anytime soon.

But it is also tempting to compare and contrast today with the 60s, a decade that has come to symbolize change. And few media pundits have resisted this temptation. Isn’t the Iraq war the new Vietnam? Isn’t Obama the new Kennedy? But at the same time, the now aging “New-Left” activists have repeatedly complained, “the kids today are so gosh-darn apathetic and ignorant. . . not like we were in the 60s.” Over the past few years, I have been to anti-war protests, have read the syllabi for college courses, and have even attended school assemblies that all nostalgically refer back to the 60s as that decade when students really changed things, when music was meaningful. And likewise, the social sciences and humanities departments at universities are still dominated by theory that blossomed in the 60s (e.g., Lacan, Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida, Habermas, etc.) Once at an anti-war rally, after a droopy group-sing of “Where have all the flower’s gone”, somebody actually said to me, “how come there’s no good political music being written today?” And later, on a list-serve for “radical” literature professors, when a query was posted for examples of “political” literature, almost all of the responses were about 60s anti-Vietnam prose and poetry. And I wouldn’t be surprised to hear someone say, “how come there’s no good theory being written today?”

And sometimes I feel almost guilty reminding these people that most of the music in the 60s was about insipid puppy love between boys and girls or about how little they knew of science books and the French they took. More to the point, a lot of the music — as well as the political activism and theory — in the 1990s (from Nirvana to Mos Def) is perhaps even more politically sophisticated and gutsy than “The Times They are a-Changin.”

But let’s get back to the movie, I’m Not There. One of the important early scenes is a young Bob Dylan (portrayed by a black child actor) in the 1950s playing songs about the struggle to unionize the railroad, and an old black woman says to him, “Didn’t they unionize a long time ago? Before you were even born? You need to play songs about your own time, child.” And so, just as we today romanticize the 60s as the decade of change, back in the 60s the young folk singers were romanticizing the 1910s, 20s, and 30s as the decades of change. And for damn good reason. A lot happened then: women’s right to vote, 40 hour week, overtime pay, legal protections for unions, the end of child labor, not to mention most of the groundwork for civil rights… and that’s just what was happening in the United States. Instead of seeing the 60s as the beginning of change, we could see it as the end, culminating in the failure to pass the ERA in 1972 at the same time that rock music became more about hedonistic pleasure-seeking than about anything else.

The movie focuses intensely on Dylan’s despairing revelation that things are more complicated and difficult than the folk scene was able to articulate — that “change” did not usually go the way the changers thought it would go — but I left the theater not with a feeling of despair or hopelessness about Dylan in 1965 or about us in 2008, but instead with an oddly hopefull feeling that we can and ought to reinvent the music, the theory, and the spirit of protest and social justice. In other words, the 60s is dead; long live the 60s.

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February 16, 2008 - Posted by | movies

1 Comment »

  1. This reminds me of an essay we read in my FYS clas called “On the uses of a liberal education” by Mark Edmundson. In this, he pretty much trashes the collegiate system (which he is a part of, a professor at Virginia) and accuses our current generation of being lazy and unmotivated (sounds a lot like “gosh-darn apathetic and ignorant”). I found it hard to believe that a generation like the 60’s could be full of completely motivated students all doing extraordinary things. After all, the theory talked about of the time was not written by the students, but the professors and other intellectuals of the time. What did Edmundson’s generation accomplish that apparently mine, the generation that he raised and taught, won’t be able to? To me, it is the nature of our culture that the people who are incredibly motivated can do great things, while others can get by without being as passionate about learning and education. That’s how it has always been. I thought he was glorifying the 60’s like you talked about, just like people in the 60’s glorified the 20’s and so on. Are we really that different? I think we’re no less capable than they were. We have more knowledge available to us with current technology, if anythign we’re more capable.

    Comment by valteamxblades | February 22, 2008 | Reply


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