Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Sixties

Sixties coverWhat exactly do we mean by "The Sixties," anyway? For almost everyone, the decade has a meaning beyond the purely chronological. Arguments can be made that the cultural, social and economic changes that are encompassed by the term "The Sixties" really begin as early as the release of Elvis Presley's first single, "That's All Right," in July 1954, or as late as first appearance of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan's television show in February 1964. The decade could also be said to have truly begun with the protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee in San Francisco in May 1960, or the election of John F. Kennedy in November 1960, or the March on Washington in August 1963. As for the end of The Sixties, a vast number of events have been given that designation, stretching from the Rolling Stones' Altamont concert in December 1969 to the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975.

Reading Jenny Diski's The Sixties (Picador, 2009), though, is a reminder that those markers are very US-centric. The Sixties were a worldwide phenomenon, as the student protests of 1968 showed. For Diski, a British writer whose book begins by questioning the entire project of retrospective historical periodization by decade, The Sixties "began in the mid-1960s...and it ended in the mid-1970s when all the open-ended possibilities we saw began to narrow, as disillusion, right-wing politicians, and the rest of our lives began to loom unexpectedly large" (p. 3).

If you think that definition sounds more personal than sociological or historical, you'd be right. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Diski turned 18 in 1965, and 30 in 1977.) The publication of The Sixties as the latest entry in Picador's Big Ideas/Small Books series, which is devoted to consideration of broad philosophical, psychological and sociological topics (other titles in the series so far are Time, Violence, Bodies, and Moral Relativism), is somewhat misleading. The Sixties does not attempt to be a comprehensive survey of the sweeping changes that occurred during the period. The civil rights and anti-racist movements in the US and UK, the parallel movements for feminism and gay and lesbian liberation, and the anti-Vietnam War movement are given only sketchy coverage. Developments in art, fashion, film, television, and books get varying degrees of glancing attention. And of the sacred triumvirate of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, it's the first two that Diski spends vastly more time on. Music--surely a central aspect of the experience of the Sixties for anyone who lived through them--gets only a couple intentionally comic asides, perhaps because she can safely assume that Sixties music remains inescapable. (In the introduction, after puncturing baby boomer nostalgia about differences in youth culture between then and now, she writes, "In truth, the only thing that is absolutely certain is that the music then was better" (p. 3).)

So as Diski's definition of the period suggests, you shouldn't look to The Sixties for an "objective" account of the era (as if such a thing were possible). But as a description of her experience of a confusing and contradictory time The Sixties takes its place alongside Diski's other excellent and highly personal works of nonfiction. She focusses on three main areas--communal living/politics, alternative schooling, and radical psychiatry--and describes her difficult and often painful experiences with each. (Incidentally, the emphasis on personal experience as a central element of reportage was a founding principle of the New Journalism created by writers such as Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe and Ellen Willis--another legacy of The Sixties, and one which Diski doesn't mention.)

While The Sixties is most successful when it's most personal, occasionally Diski lapses into "we speak," as in "We were guilty, too, of failing to understand the power of capitalism..." (p. 132). Exactly who is "we"? Diski generally avoids the annoying baby boomer tendency to universalize individual experience, though. And she does point out that the "we" she is invoking were a far smaller group than it seemed at the time, as the later elections (and re-elections) of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher showed: "One day, I supposed, our lot would be in charge and then things would be different. It didn't cross my mind then that 'our lot' would not remain our lot, or that there were another lot (and far more of them) in our generation who were as pragmatic about power as the unreconstructed generations before us" (p. 78). As this suggests, her discussion of the legacy of The Sixties necessarily includes its many failures of both practice and imagination; the final word in this slim, highly readable and thought-provoking book is "discouraged."