Humanities on the Edge Preview: Timothy Scott Brown
Timothy Scott Brown’s latest book, West Germany and the Global Sixties: The Anti-Authoritarian Revolt, 1962-1978, discusses the complex web of political, social, and cultural factors that contributed to the anti-authoritarian movement in West Germany during the 1960’s. Typically associated with the German Student Movement, the critical conversation surrounding the West German Protests of ‘68 often revolve around the widespread desire for social change and dissatisfaction with the seeming hypocrisy of the government. Historians and critics often connect the events in Germany with protests and social movements occurring across the globe in the 60’s. In his essay, “1968 in West Germany: the anti-authoritarian revolt,” Brown describes the anti-authoritarian movement in Germany as follows:
This period…may be understood as one of convergence followed by a period of divergence. First, against a backdrop of a rising youth culture, dovetailing with bohemian currents of disaffection from bourgeois society represented by the Beats and expressed in particular by the devotion of young people to rock music and its attendant mores, a heavily politicized cultural revolution rooted in the arts…a rebellion against capitalist consumer society that rooted itself not in the mass militancy, Marxist parties and labor struggles of the interwar period, but in the conditions, problems, and perspectives of daily life.
Brown’s analysis is particularly useful in its insistence on the complexity of the situation in Germany in the 60’s; his globally minded approach seeks to understand the confluence of transnational factors that informed the movement without sacrificing locality and specificity: “[this book] seeks to capture the globality of 1968 not in the multiplication of individual national scenarios but in the intersection of global-vectors across one local terrain. One advantage of this approach is that it enables us to write the history of an individual national 1968…without falling victim to the limitations of purely national history…” (5) His attention to the multilayered nature of the situation reminded me of how often we tend to link historical events with overly simplistic origin stories -- creating simple chains of cause and effect that fail to take into account the variety of factors that contribute to the “important” historical events that we culturally anthologize. Even the concept of “event” becomes limiting in that it isolates and elevates a moment in time apart from its context.
What I find particularly interesting about Brown’s nuanced analysis is its emphasis on the role of art and pop culture in revolution, and his critique of “protest” centric analyses of revolution. Several of the chapters of Brown’s book focus on cultural production, such as the underground press, politicized rock groups, and film. Brown writes that our understanding of “protest” in narrow political terms misses the ways in which many activities, and individuals, take oppositional stances: “not only does an exclusive focus on protest reduce the focus to an area so narrow that it excludes important parts of the picture – until, indeed, all that is left is a binary of opposition between ‘protest’ and ‘power’ – but it also robs the agency of the protagonists, reducing them to a defensive posture in the face of the state’s initiatives” (12). In addition to art and cultural production, Brown’s comment also made me think about identity itself as a site of powerful, albeit not necessarily “explicit” protest. For some, enacting or performing one’s identity in the public sphere would seem in and of itself to constitute a challenge to dominant forms of power.
As I was thinking about pop culture as protest, however, the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial popped into my head, along with all of its negative connotations – protest exploited by consumerism, and as a result, divorced from all subversive potential. Brown ultimately addresses this issue at the end of his essay, writing that,
In the realm of culture, the dominance of what Mark Fisher has dubbed “capitalist realism” – as an overarching paradigm delimiting the boundaries of the possible – is so deeply inscribed (e.g., into reality television, with its emphasis on submission to the domineering “expertise” of music industry figures, chefs, or business magnates, Social Darwinist values of competition and acquisitiveness, and pathological individualism) that it is hard to assign popular culture the status of a site of emancipation that has sometimes been claimed for it (e.g., by Cultural Studies)…This fact is evident in the popular arts, where the very proliferation of culture has tended to rob it of its subversive force.
Brown not only vocalizes the problems with using popular art in the contemporary moment to express political dissatisfaction, he also sees the limitations of new media -- tools that some have heralded for their democratic potential. However, Brown’s view is not entirely pessimistic, he cites the Occupy movement as well as the Black Lives Matter movement as evidence that “stirrings of self-organization from below, [and a] growing rejection of capitalism” are still alive and well. Ultimately, Brown’s historical analysis raises several thought provoking questions about protest and the relationship between politics and art: Is all art inherently political? Do artists have a public responsibility in terms of politics and representation? How can we create productive forms of large scale protest? How can individuals participating in large scale movements prevent themselves from unintentionally incorporating the ideologies they are fighting against? It will be interesting to hear how Brown addresses these issues, and their relevance to current political situations, at his lecture on September 28th.
“1968 in West Germany. The anti-authoritarian Revolt,” The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture. What was Politics in 68? A Special Issue on the West German Sixties. Volume 7, Issue 2, 2014.
West Germany and the Global Sixties: The Anti-Authoritarian Revolt, 1962-1978 (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013; 2015).