Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book Review: GETTING LOOSE, Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s Sam Binkley (Duke University Press 2007)

As a non professional scholar and obsessive of all things 1970s related it seems there is always more to learn and in turn be inspired that most complex and crazy of decades. I thought Bruce Schulman's THE SEVENTIES an excellent start, especially on the (party) politics of the period. I also endorse Thomas Hine's THE GREAT FUNK as it has an orientation towards what in academe is called "material culture" and actually attempts to investigate and make sense of the DESIGN of the period.

But in GETTING LOOSE, Sam Binkley has added another important voice to the discussion, that of sociology and cultural studies in general and the "genealogy" of Foucault in particular. I have a vexed and ambivalent relationship to some of cultural studies in general. Sam Binkley's book, however, as old fashioned as it may to be to put it this way, is simply excellent history. In GETTING LOOSE Binkley makes us go on a journey through some of the most important psychological developments of that period, and their implications for today. It is an intellectually curious book, at times funny, but most of all, at once critical and evenhanded, even entertaining.

One of the ways Binkley accomplishes all of this is through examples of texts from the period (some of the most exotic are the hippie and communal and handmade alternative family newsletters) as well as narratives of the men and women who wrote them. An attempt is made to get inside the motivations and minds of the people as well as draw political conclusions about their varied and various projects. The book is filled with reproductions of some of the most iconic as well as lesser known examples of the various cultures that flourished then. Also each chapter focuses on a certain aspect of the decade in great detail, for example, the story if Ida Rolf and rolfing, the exploits of gurus like Stewart Brand, and the explosive creativity of the women's movement contribution to psychology and health. This is a dense book: there is a lot here and it all adds up to a thorough if motley and cubistic picture.

As one reads the book a genuine paradox emerges: this is that "getting loose" becomes both a kind of liberation of body, mind and spirit and from rigid "boxes" of the past. Yet at the same time getting loose itself becomes a compulsory regime of discipline. In Binkley's narrative there is no free space of uncompromised purity. Like Marx and his dialectic, the radical changes wrought by the new modes of being and behaving serve contradictory yet inextricable ends. The result is an extraordinary shift consciousness perhaps parallel to that which occurred after developments like Gutenberg's press. As Binkley succinctly puts it:

"Identity today requires reflexivity and the willingness to make substance out of one's choice of oneself, but also a tolerance for the ultimately ephemeral quality of this substance, whose fragmented story one rewrites with every mundane lifestyle choice".

Reading this I was often reminded of Clane Hayward's memoir THE HYPOCRISY OF DISCO. Clane Hayward's book is a very good book of literature, a memoir of some of the more extreme of the alternative living arrangements and from the point of view of children living with and "under" them. Like Hayward, Binkley makes you understand and empathize with the struggles of some of these pioneers to make a different and, to their mind, better world. Also like Hayward, there is a sense of pain too when it fails or goes awry. As Bruce Schulman pointed out in a more explicitly political context, there is a sense in which "doing your own thing" could be a new form of restriction, that is, a new way for conservative and purely market forces to extend their influence over all of everyday life.

GETTING LOOSE is a must for those interested in American history and in some of the changes in our lives that have come to us over the past forty-odd years. Reading it, I wished more scholars in Binkley's model shared his flair for the stories of history and comprehension of subject matter. Whereas all too often I find them a bit bland or ideological, I find Binkley immersive and scrupulous. Reading it proves there is much excitement still in the fields of sociology and American studies. I came away from GETTING LOOSE as confirmed as ever in my view that the 1970s has never been more relevant to many of the basic cultural and material matters that at times we take for granted.

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