Inheriting The Grid #7

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

“History does not usually suit the convenience of people who like to divide it into neat periods, but there are times when it seems to have pity on them. The year 1968 almost looks as though it had been designed to serve as some sort of signpost. There is hardly any region in the world in which it is not marked by the spectacular and dramatic events which were to have profound repercussions on the history of the country in which they occurred and, as often as not, globally. This is true of the developed and industrialized capitalist countries, of the socialist world, and of the so-called ‘third world’; of both the eastern and western, the northers and southern hemispheres.” —Eric Hobsbawm, 1968: A Retrospective

In early 2008, AREA Chicago released the following statement about our intentions for a year-long project which would examine the legacy of the time period surrounding 1968:

“1968/2008 will be a hybrid cultural project gradually unfolding for one year on the occasion of 40 years passing since the “signpost” year of international political turmoil, social upheaval and the dramatic transformation of what we know as the left. Sponsored by the local research and culture publication, AREA Chicago, in order to explore the legacy of the late 1960s/early 1970s on contemporary cultural and political organizations in their city, the project will also have nodes outside of Chicago. It will include events, publications, reading groups and a website. This will be a time for “critical commemoration,” examining the meaning of the late 1960s for present-day social movements in the U.S.: its aftereffects and ongoing legacies; its failures, discontinuities, and pyrrhic victories; and our current attitudes — of nostalgia, forgetting, appropriation, denunciation, and revivalism.

    This project will attempt to engage with social movement historians, liberals who went to college in the 1960s, old leftists that are still alive, those who organize and those who are organized, frothing and non-frothing leftists, self-identified revolutionaries, oral historians, the educators/parents/mentors of radical activists, new leftists who rejected the old left, new leftists who embraced the old left, baby boomers who are disappointed in today’s youth, youth who blame the baby boomers for everything, people who thought there was going to be a revolution, youngsters who want to learn from people with experiences, politicians who used to hate politicians, the children of liberal baby boomers, the children of militants, the artists who want to revisit counterculture, the people who made the 1960s counterculture cooler than the political ideas of the times, CEOs who were in the SDS, new Black Panthers and new SDSers, people who like what they know about the 1960s but didn’t live in them, people who were born in 1968, people who lost loved ones in political violence in the 1960s/70s, people who want to know where they are going after they know where they are from.”

In reality, the year-long project had begun a year earlier, in the cold early months of 2007. At that time I had initiated a reading group that was to read two key texts relating to 1968: Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer, and its Aftermath by Paul Berman (Softskull Press, 2005) and The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 by George Katsiaficas (South End Press, 1999). The book by Berman embodied my primary interest in the topic of ‘68—this was the question of legacy and of the translation of ideas from one moment to another. Berman’s analysis–while not something I agree with entirely—looks at militant left-wing (mostly student) activists of 1968 and follows their careers as they enter government and generally less-marginal forms of politics than that of their youth. What I take away from his study of these characters is that there is continuity in their visions of how the world should work when they fight cops in the streets and when they make policy in the houses of government—sometimes even when it has consequences which would be hard to see as “Leftist.” It complicates the narrative of the “sell-out.” The book focuses significantly on a case of media sensation that erupted when Joshchka Fischer, then Gerhard Schröder’s Foreign Minister in Germany, was scandalized by the wide circulation of a photo of him fighting police at a protest in the early 1970s. The image’s circulation caused a cultural backlash when people came to associate Fischer with the turmoil of ’60s and ’70s student protest and left-wing militancy.

At the time we discussed that this book would be more difficult to write in the U.S because there is less cross-over between the far-left and electoral politics, whereas in many other parts of the world it is not uncommon to have people move in and out of activism, organizing and government over the course of their life and treat them as distinct but interrelated spheres for implementing long term strategies or change. Still, you could have a similar investigation of the legacy of ‘68 in Unitedstatsian politics by looking at figures like the Clintons (student activists), Tom Hayden (SDS) and our own Bobby Rush from Chicago (former Black Panther). These readings formulated the emphasis on 1968 not in terms of rehashing old debates or telling the history of Free Speech, Civil Rights, SDS, The Black Panther Party or the Weather Underground—stories which have an entire literary and documentary industry built around them… But as a way to inquire into the, albeit abstract, question of “legacy.” What is the relationship between then and now and how does it influence our lives, work and culture?

Little did we know that the 2008 election would come to focus so much on Chicago’s 1968 legacy. In the form of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the social and political conservatives tried to re-ignite fears of the Black Power movement, and in the form of Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, they tried to rekindle people’s fears of an antiwar movement that seemed to have gone too far.  What nobody took the time to recognize is that here in Chicago, the legacy of the so-called New Left is all around us—in the pulpits, in the lecture halls, on the bookshelves, on the streets, and in the board rooms and in the halls of government. Of course this isn’t the case across the country, but here it is not uncommon to see cross-fertilization produced by interactions between militant social movement figures of the past and other segments of civil society. This is a major urban area in which the thought of yesterday lives on, though changed, in today’s institutions.

Between the constant references to that era in the presidential election and the nostalgic love for anniversary, we found ourselves wondering “How can AREA produce a Critical Commemoration?” As soon as 2008 rolled around the floodgates of 1968 anniversaries opened up—there were conferences across the world, there were magazines (from Time to Artforum), and exhibitions. All of this culture, scholarship and media was trying to make sense of what had happened then and why it was important—in some cases it was asking “what does this mean for us today?” As we prepared this issue we found ourselves concerned not only with the history but really with the phenomenon of 1968, leaving us wondering, in the face of a general cultural obsession with a watered-down understanding of the 1960s and a sub-cultural obsession in activist groups, art scenes and in the university, with the politics and history of 1968—what can AREA add to the conversation?

Around the same time as this issue was getting formulated, AREA began discussions with Lisa Lee from the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum about the challenge of working with history as your subject matter. At the Hull-House Museum, they were used to dealing with this challenge, because they are a history museum. However, under the leadership of Lisa Lee the museum has come to approach history not as static content, but as a set of ideas and methods which can be embodied. So as opposed to having panels about the history of Immigration and the Hull House, they hold workshops for activists engaged in the Movimiento 10 de Marzo (March 10 Movement) and other immigration struggles around sanctuary from deportation and workers rights. This strategy for approaching the history they are charged with preserving is inspiring and completely in-line with hybrid and participatory methods AREA seeks to employ. With support from Hull-House, AREA was able to rove throughout the city for the year and work on various events, commission research projects and develop organization collaborations with the folks from Looks Like Freedom (an art show at DOVA Temporary Gallery in Hyde Park), the Southside Community Arts Center, Backstory Cafe, Public Square, ITVS, and Alternative Press Center. We focused our energy on developing the biggest and most complex issue of AREA yet, and used part of the budget to commission ambitious magazine contributions.

Over the course of this year there are some recurring patterns I have noticed that have bearing on the project you hold in your hands:

  • There is much to be learned in terms of strategy and history from the people who were organizing culture and politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
  • People really aren’t easily grouped into generational categories and you cannot isolate the moment of 1968 from other moments in time.
  • Groups, scenes and communities are not and were never monolithic.
  • Some of the most useful lessons to be learned from the generation of 1968 we will never learn because they are too protective of it—either because it represents emotionally challenging hardships, failures or betrayals, or because it still stands to implicate them or others in extra-legal events or history they would rather not be associated with.
  • The conflicts and disputes from the generation of ’68 are still reverberating on the left. The fragmented Left we have today is largely the result of splits produced by some combination of government repression, disruption and intervention and/or irresponsible and dishonest posturing by leadership figures faced with moments of crisis.
  • A great many of the ideas we hold dearly today were developed and tested in the period surrounding 1968. It is our responsibility to learn from them.
  • The generation of 1968 was faced with media culture like the world had never seen before. There were several varieties of responses to that. On one hand you have people critiquing the spectacle and on another you have people feeding the spectacle with their own images. More people talk about the folks that fed the media culture images of protest, counter-culture and resistance.
  • History is written in many different ways and sometimes those that control the archives and have the best book deals don’t tell the best stories or the stories we really need to hear.
  • There is a lot of mythology and misinformation about what the New Left and the late 1960s were all about and that is perpetuated from all sides.
  • It is convenient to write the history of the 1960s as that of mealy “counter culture”, because the politics from right and left were so intense and ideologically at odds that dumming the history down is a way of keeping younger generations from learning critical lessons.
  • Many of the political claims made my leftist groups in the 1960s and early 1970s have had unintended consequences.
  • Young people have a hard time talking about inter generational dynamics.

The collection of ideas that you hold in your hands is diverse, rich, complex and even sometimes contradictory. My co-editors and I have made an attempt to assemble contributions that reveal the spectrum of lessons we need to learn and provide as many points of entry as we could. We don’t think by doing this that we are through with this history or have resolved all that needs to be resolved. We cannot move on from 1968 no matter how much we might think that it needs to be left behind or that today does not relate to then. Our lives, families, organizations and cultures are entertwined with what happened then and what has been said, what has been celebrated and what has been hidden. It is our task to make sense of this history and the politics we have chosen, learned and inherited.

This issue of AREA, like the six that came before it, represents the collective labor of dozens of people and organizations. As we move into 2009 we are attempting to make a shift towards an economic model that is primarily based on individual donors. Please consider giving a donation of your own hard-earned money to support all of these people’s labor in the future If you represent an institution that can offer $10-20k of support for AREA to be a project in residence while we develop a new issue of the magazine, please get in touch. We also encourage readers to get in touch about becoming contributors to the publication itself and are always looking for proposals. Send one in for our Money issue by February 1st, 2009.

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