Cultural innovation: benefits and costs

bob dylan.bmp

I interviewed a woman in Boston recently who had attended Franconia College, a small, experimental, liberal arts college that existed in New Hampshire from 1963 to 1977.

Visiting the college website, Margaret (not her real name) was stunned to see the number of her alums who had died tragically. The “memoriam” page gives a summary cause of death and some of these are gruesome: “murdered at home by unknown person,” “jumped or was pushed off roof,” “alcohol poisoning,” “suicide,” “murdered by FBI(?)”, “overdose,” “after accidentally eating water hemlock, while collecting and eating water cress.” Most poignant perhaps is the entry for Robert Silver: “died of being Robert Silver and all that entailed.” I don’t have sociological details on the people who attended Franconia, but this is not the kind of thing that usually happens to graduates of a liberal arts college.

This reminded me of my own “window” on the costs of the counter culture. In 1964, I happened to know one of Vancouver’s first hippies, Barb. It was thrilling to visit the “hippy house” in which Barb and her friends lived. To a 13 year old, these people seemed glamorous. They were, I thought, pioneers, the first to take up full-time residence in the new ideologies of the moment.

This experiment ended tragically. Barb and her house mates moved from daily LSD consumption to speed to heroin and finally, to pay for the heroin, to prostitution. (This is not altogether different from the ethnographic portrait of the eldest daughter in the Gordon family painted by Donald Katz in his remarkable book, Home Fires.)

Each cultural trend brings benefit and we have a deft way of hanging on to these benefits even as the trend itself recedes. But we do not calculate the costs. In the case of the counter-culture the costs were high, and wouldn’t it be interesting to have a full quantitative rendering of what these costs were? But we don’t, as far as I know. We have several thousand books and articles on the music of Bob Dylan, and almost nothing on the costs of the world this pied piper helped create. Let us put this down to a willful, collective amnesia that resembles the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In our case, it’s “don’t reckon, don’t remember.”

Other trends are costly, too. The “Studio 54” disco era was spectacularly wasteful of careers and lives. The “alternative” moment in the 1990s created many casualties of the 60s kind. (Kurt Cobain was only the most conspicuous.) But even when the costs are not spectacular, they are still expensive. One thinks of all those kids who worked in used record stores rather than for ‘the man.” These are costs, as well.

We are a little like the hunters and gatherers who looked for foodstuffs everywhere by eating everything. Many died, but the rest got fed. Substitute “culture” for “nature,” and there we are. We try everything and damn the consequences. Driven now by a cultural imperative, we are ceaseless in our exploration. Some will pay, all will profit.

This is, in our case, a classic emergent system, driven by individual decisions, not collective objectives. No individual sees herself as a heroic figure or a sacrificial offering. Barb did not spin into tragedy that the counter culture might flourish and that our world might be transformed. She was, now to use the term from a couple of posts ago, following her “bliss.”

What difference would it make if we had a systematic account of these costs? There are no “policy implications” here. We do not want to discourage cultural innovation on the grounds that it is dangerous. But surely a sharper understanding of who we are and how we work is not out of the question. We could, for instance, work out the “commit and release” paradox (see last post) by which we participate in new trends. Some people commit and won’t or can’t release, even when the personal costs are astronomically high. We could get better at “commit and release.”

But the larger issue is pretty straight forward. It is time to put aside cultural amnesia, and to create a more sophisticated book keeping and a closer eye on the debit side.

While we are at it, why not ask the largest question: what is that cultural imperative? Why does the culture ‘that has everything” prove to be so restless, experimental, and ready to take risks? Hunters and gatherers would get the self sacrifice. But they would be a little astonished to see where we now put the bet. “You do this to change?” they might exclaim. “This is the kind of thing we do to stay the same.”


Franconia college “memorial” page

Katz, Donald R. 1992. Home fires: An intimate portrait of one middle-class family in postwar America. New York: Aaron Asher Books.

13 thoughts on “Cultural innovation: benefits and costs

  1. Pingback: The Fly Bottle

  2. Tom

    I’m struck by the degree of rationality implicit in “commit and release,” Grant. If the “decision” to follow a trend (join a movement, and so on) were calculative, then “cutting one’s losses” where the curves intersect would “make sense.” Just Say No/Do The Math.

    But, allegiance/commitment to a trend/movement is emotional/visceral, which makes the light touch necessary for seeing the tipping point/shark on the horizon a little hard to master…especially under the influence of LSD/poppers; getting the hang of simultaneously “being in the movement”/”assessing the cost/benefits of the movement” is very tricky.

    In hindsight, the Franconia/Barb stories are obvious follies. In “real time” (a phrase that didn’t exist back then) the potential stories included “you can change the world” (CSN, 1970), so it was pretty hard to tell that prostitution was in the cards.

    Now that these events have occurred, one might argue that it’s imprudent not to take them into account. That may be, but the reflective muscles necessary to do so is typically characteristic of a level of maturity most trend/movement seekers haven’t yet attained.

    How we can help the young to benefit from the experience of their elders still remains a vexing question.

  3. Amanda

    When pondering the strangeness of human behavior, I find sometimes it helps to consider it a massive numbers game.

    For example, experimentation past the point of personal safety might not make a lot of sense when thinking about the cost of A human life. However, once we’ve asserted our domination over the planet, increased our numbers a billion-fold, and feel somewhat assured of our species’ survival, the evolutionary forces have some room to “play” with the direction of the human race.

    It then seems logical for there to be more socially-induced risk-taking. Let the outliers push the bounds of culture. Some will fall in that pursuit, but once the first wave is passed, the second wave of that cultural shift will follow with jobs, art, media, etc. From a long view, these changes equal growth.

    Those who aren’t able to “commit and release” are casualties of the process, martyrs to the cause. We remember them romantically because their stories are fuel for the cultural fire.

  4. Grant

    Tom, thanks for another beauty. This is for me the paradox. We have to commit with something like full sincerity and engagement. And then we have to release as if none of it ever happened. I take your point about the emotional and the viseral but I think there is a still a rationality at work, if only an episodic rationality. The benefits are almost always very substantial. (They are first of all membership in the moment, and then all the benefits that can only follow there from.) The costs…I am not sure whether and how we think about the costs. And if you are right to say that we are effectively trust falling heedless of consequences, then I guess its not a rational act in the sense of a trade off of benefit vs. risk. Part of the problem is that these trends are usually new enough that its hard to “look down the road.” I have to think some more about this. Very good post. Thanks, Grant

  5. Grant

    Amanda, thank you, nice one, it’s still not clear to me that risk taking confers evolutionary advantage, not when the accomplishment is Studio 54 or a Volkswagon bus with decals. As you say, growth comes from this change, but what was wrong, strictly, with the old pattern? Is there some notion of wear out here? And there may well be, but this begs a question of its own. Clearly, we are addicted to change, but it’s not entirely clear why. Certainly, there is a complexity theory answer here (and this may be what you were pointing to) that says the more variety the better. And god knows we have plenty of variety now, enough to endow us with a formidable range of adaptive options. But I am tempted by the idea that at the root of this there is in us a brute curiosity about what happens if…as if we have set about mapping every human possibility or at least all the ones we can explore where large groups must be mobilized. Geez, this sounds very 60s, doesn’t it? Thanks. Grant

  6. Jaye Random

    > The “alternative” moment in the 1990s
    > created many casualties of the 60s kind.

    Que? The “alternative movement” was nothing more than consumers rejecting heavily branded music and buying more innovative music from smaller labels. I am unaware that it was associated with self-destructive tendencies on the part of a large number of small-label consumers or musicians.

  7. Grant

    Jaye, thanks for the post. Here’s one statement of the connection. It’s from a transcript of an interview done in Seattle and now available on PBSi 1996.

    MR. MINOTT: That view was echoed recently in a “Rolling Stone” Magazine article which labeled Seattle “Junkie Town,” a place where many young people attracted to the city’s so-called “grunge music” scene end up hooked on heroin. “Rolling Stone” and others point to the deaths of several high-profile Seattle musicians as proof the city is junkie-friendly. (music playing) Two years ago rock star Kurt Cobain committed suicide while high on heroin. At least three other Seattle rock musicians have also died of heroin-related overdoses in the past six years. Jackson says among some musicians, heroin is seen as a rite of passage.

    RON JACKSON: Use can be sort of idealized in that somehow this is an admission ticket to artistry or to credibility in that particular field. You’re nowhere in this alternative music scene or whatever you want to call it unless you’ve used heroin.

  8. Liz

    I am speaking without hard data here..

    I have the idea that there was a cohort of both high schools and colleges that were planned in the late 50s/early 60s and opened in the early 1960s (of which Franconia was one). “Counterculture” was a label slapped on later. Athenian School was one high school (still going), (?)Black Mountain College? )

    What fueled this?

  9. Grant

    Liz, thanks for your post, my sense is that the proximate cause was books like Summerhill, and the deeper cause with the Romantic, Rousseauian (sp?) conviction that higher education was a barrier to the discovery and cultivate of full self hood. As I recall, people were arguing that education was designed to serve the military industrial complex, turning us all into cogs of the machine (play appropriate Pink Floyd music here). Obscure little colleges (Bennington and others) were suddenly no longer fall-back, “safety” colleges but the place to be. Thanks, Grant

  10. Grant

    A further thought on the excellent post from Tom. Commit and release is not rational from a narrow economic point of view, but I am not sure that this relegates it to the “emotional, visceral” realm. It is rational in a larger culture sense and this of course evokes one of the larger problems of this blog: how we integrate consumer behavior that is rational from the cultural point of view with behavior that is rational from the economic point of view. Thanks again. Grant

  11. LK

    grant and all the thoughtful commentators here…

    all this talk about the cost of counter/sub cultural innovation brought a few things to mind. in no particular order, they are:

    1. that in mimicking the behaviour of cultural trailblazers, particularly those who have ‘made it’ and thus have support systems, advisors, rescuers, etc we fail to see this apparatus at work and somewhat foolishly ape their movements and behaviours without realizing that for some there are safety nets.

    2. a conversation i had recently with a group of my female friends at university (UBC in vancouver, quite the opposite of bennington college etc)…we were generally raised as middle to upper middle class west side white girls, university educated, well-travelled, speakers of three plus languages etc, daughters of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and accountants, and when we talk about men we now seem to be most impressed by the ones who can wield a hammer and do drywall versus the ones who can go on at length about bertrand russell and schopenhauer…i.e. the ones we went to school with. we realized that our fathers all worked so hard so that this wouldn’t be the case, yet is has, nonetheless. we also realized that none of our fathers had a toolbox, not that they were extraordinarily wealthy, but that hitting nails was something they did not do, or know how to do.

    3. similarly, we west side girls all now want to live on the east side, whereas the people we know who made it out of the east side are the most loathe to return.

    i’m not sure what the conclusion to be drawn here is…but somewhere in here there may be something profound about ideas of social/cultural ‘betterment’ and how the straight line that moves in one direction approach no longer fully accounts.


  12. Ned Depew

    Grant –

    Reductionism almost always leads to false conclusions, although it can lead to interesting and diverting speculations, as it has here.

    I attended Franconia from 1965 – 1968 in the lower Division, and then mostly off-campus until about 1970, when I just sort of drifted away from my Upper Division intentions, in favor of actually doing the real work that I was “preparing myself for” through my education. It was a socio-phiolosophical decision based on the rejection of the whole panoply of conventions attached to what I call “credentialism.”

    Digression alert!:(Perhaps the most shining current example of this absurd mind-set, to which I reacted forty years ago, is the fact that George W. “C-average, ran three businesses into the ground by the age of thirty-five” Bush has a BA from Yale, and an MBA from Harvard! Leading to a paraphrse of the old Groucho Marx line: “Any club that would have him as a member I don’t want any part of.”)

    Were there damaged people at Franconia whose lives ended tragically? Certainly. There were also joyful, happy, creative people there whose lives ended just as tragically.

    But your analysis would have to include comparison with a “control” group (or better yet, several) in order to draw any conclusions from that fact. Many men and women of genius have committed suicide – but committing suicide in by no means a proof of genius.

    Your whole premise appears to me to be skewed by your apparent prejudices concerning whatever you think you mean by “the counterculture.”

    There is a price to be paid for living every day, by everyone. Those who are not aware of that fact are sleepwalkers. Life is dangerous, challenging, unpredictable. But as E.M. Forster so profoundly pointed out, “it is not dangerous in the sense of a battle, but in the sense of a Romanitc Adventure, and its essence is Romantic Beauty.”

    In a real adventure (as opposed to a Hollywood movie version) there is real danger. People sometimes even die. Lives are changed, and not always for “the better.”

    To try to generalize about what was a deeply-diverse, barely-cohesive and barely-coherent zeitgeist, constantly under reconstruction and redefinition, based on a few anecdotes and vague, unresearched conclusions drawn from an uninformed perusal of a list of names of the dead is simply to allow your projections unrestrained free-association, and makes a much clearer statement about your own psychology and world-view than about anything that happened within or around “the counterculture.”

    To give one example – Bob Silver was not a student, but a teacher, who came of age not within the counterculture, but in the 1950s. He died, as I recall, of natural causes – cancer or some like – but he was such an amazingly creative and complex person that someone chose to give him the one sentence eulogy you quote. It seems you may have interpreted it to fit your own preconceptions.

    As Satre points out, the existential consequences of an action are never “in.” Everything we do keeps resonating through time in ways too complex for us to even imagine, much less trace. In the 1980s, when Henry Kissinger asked Chou EnLai what he thought about the French Revolution, Chou deadpanned, “It’s too soon to tell.”

    But the truth is that it’s always “too soon.” And it always will be.

  13. Harry H. Snyder III

    Well my big counter-culture experience, while a student at Franconia, was the operation of an automobile junk-yard behind the college’s maintainance shed. I grossed about a grand a month, which (as college jobs go in those days) was pretty good!

    I also learned one of the most lucritive trades in my repertoire, how to work in the food service indrustry. When all my other trades (I have a Masters in Education from The University of Maine) fail me, I can always go back to flipping burgers, and people always have to eat!

    Sure there were assholes, but we didn’t have the greek life where real assholes prosper.

    anyhow, blogs are blogs….if you knew what you were discussing, they would call you an “information site”

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