Craig J. Peariso, Radical Theatrics: Put-Ons, Politics, and the Sixtie
(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014)
The 1960s and early ‘70s were characterized in the US and internationally by radical anti-systemic movements for black liberation, LGBT rights, an end to the Vietnam War, women’s liberation, protection of the ecosystem, and general opposition to imperialism and capitalism. A main theme of Peariso’s book is a feeling among young activists – the first generation brought up on television and an all-pervasive mass media – that rebellion itself had become part of a media spectacle. The influence of New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse – primarily his One Dimensional Man (1964) and Eros and Civilization (1955) – provides a backdrop to Peariso’s work. According to Marcuse’s theory of “repressive tolerance,” we live in a “society without opposition,” in which “the oppositionality necessary for dialectical thought, and thus for any meaningful, radical transformation, had essentially vanished.” Rebellion has been commodified and contained; in Marcuse’s words, quoted by Peariso, “Zen, existentialism, and beat ways of life are no longer contradictory to the status quo…but are quickly digested by the status quo as part of its healthy diet,” and “the modern artist’s statements of alienation” become “little more than advertisements for the status quo.”
Peariso discusses other thinkers of the 1960s/70s who expressed similar reactions, such as film critic Jacob Brackman, theater critic Robert Brustein and philosopher/critic Susan Sontag. Brustein felt that dissent in the US had become ineffective and was smothered by an “overwhelming permissiveness.” Sontag came to a similar conclusion in her theory of “camp,” an aesthetic of ironic but superficial detachment which she saw as pervasive in post-war America and as signaling the “collapse of modernism.”
The put-on, for Brackman, was a more active incarnation of Sontag’s “camp sensibility.” It entailed “a process of escalating confusion and distrust … a form of relating to others that perpetually casts what is said into doubt.” With the put-on, the forms of the dominant culture could be used against themselves, as in the work of Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, and as theorized by Susan Sontag. Brackman saw the put-on as limited and even politically regressive. If the object of a put-on failed to recognize the joke, the put-on would only reinforce existing stereotypes. Further, the put-on would be used most against the “most sympathetic” among the enemy, such as probation officers or social workers. There was also the threat of retaliatory violence from certain targets of a put-on, such as the police. But Brackman did also hint at a more liberatory role for the put-on, which was used most often by the powerless. While it was essentially a defensive tactic it could be offensive, recasting the terms of conflict, making the weaker party appear to be “in” and its adversary “out,” forcing the adversary into confronting the inadequacy of its own terms, as when it formed exaggerated stereotypes of resistance groups, such as the “militant Negro.” The put-on was thus a highly theatrical form of activism.
Sexuality was central to 1960s discourse. Peariso refers to Marcuse’s theory (derived from Freud) of “surplus repression.” Marcuse rejected the modern restriction of sexuality to its genital expression, in favor of a more infantile free-floating “polymorphous perversity.” While Freud felt that sexual repression is necessary to the early development of the individual, Marcuse viewed a more open eroticism as a sign of potential liberation. Such eroticism, unlike art, could not be assimilated into the dominant society, and thus had subversive potential. Marcuse’s ideas influenced the countercultural theorist Theodore Roszak, who saw the “liberating potential of Eros” at the heart of the counterculture, undercutting traditional ideas of masculinity.
Peariso brings out the theatrical, “put-on” expressions of the Yippies, the Black Liberation Movement and the gay rights movement as well as the attempts by these movements to redefine sexuality. He discusses the tensions between the broader anti-war left and the Yippies in events such as the attempt to “levitate” the Pentagon and the Yippies’ 1968 “Festival of Life” in Chicago, which overtook the more mainstream left’s demonstration against the Democratic Convention. The whole event became a gigantic media spectacle, going far beyond Abbie Hoffman’s and others’ own attempts to manipulate the media. According to Peariso, Hoffman became entrapped in his own spectacle, becoming a type of leader the counterculture abhorred; yet Hoffman’s self-conscious put-ons may have represented a way out from the circuit of media cooptation. Hoffman’s performance of society’s stereotype of hyper-sexualized, rebellious hippies was the key for understanding Yippie activism.
The put-on also had implications for the development of gay liberation. After Stonewall the gay rights movement radicalized, leading to the formation of the revolutionary Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The movement was influenced, perhaps indirectly, by Marcuse, and identified with the counterculture. However, gay liberation lacked acceptance among the broader left. Hoping for such acceptance, they felt ambiguous toward drag queens, transvestites and transsexuals, sometimes regarding these expressions of identity as being inauthentic attempts to conform to society’s stereotype of homosexuals. By contrast, the Gay Activists Alliance, a spinoff from the GLF, rejected the effort to gain acceptance from the broader left, preferring to focus strictly on gay issues. The GAA, influenced by the Yippies, used put-on-style “media zaps,” as in the action that forced New York Mayor John Lindsay to recognize gay rights. Unlike the GLF, the GAA was not uncomfortable playing up to society’s stereotype of homosexuals. According to Peariso, the GLF was never able to surmount its inherent contradictions, seeking “authenticity” but also struggling to avoid compromising with societal expectations. On the other hand the GAA, like the Yippies, fused political activism with visual and cultural styles to create an ultimately more successful form of social and political activism.
Peariso focuses at length on Eldridge Cleaver, one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party. Cleaver, with his macho posing, homophobia, and confrontational style, has often been dismissed as practicing a misguided and backward form of identity politics. Peariso offers a more complex interpretation. Cleaver valued black authenticity and decried attempts to conform to white standards of beauty and sexuality. He felt that Western civilization suffered from an alienated or fragmented sexuality which had fallen away from what he called a “Unitary Sexual Image” in which the male and female aspects of the human race were fused. A future utopian society would be a reconciliation of the divided parts of humanity, but class and racial oppression stand in the way. Ruling classes, according to Cleaver, living a life of the mind, fear the sexuality of the lower classes. This is closely tied in with black oppression. Cleaver saw a solution to this alienation in a surprisingly moderate desegregation and integration, leading to “the reunification of mind and body.”
Cleaver had ambiguous attitudes towards same-sex love. He felt that the works of gay African-American writer James Baldwin showed “alienation from his own masculinity that rendered him incapable of recognizing the most progressive forms of political, sexual, and racial identity,” and he saw a “hatred of blacks” in Baldwin’s writing. Elsewhere, though, Cleaver seems to write favorably of homosexuality. He wants to “throw the Beatles a homosexual kiss for importing negritude by the ton into white culture” and says that American culture would be saved by a “stealthy ghost” which was a term he used denoting homosexuality. Peariso mentions an incident at a party when Cleaver gave Baldwin a kiss. Although Peariso sees Cleaver’s persona as a form of put-on, consistent with his activism, he feels that Cleaver’s activism remained trapped within its own contradictions and thus unable to adequately confront the system it sought to overthrow.
Peariso provides an interesting take on the 1960s left. While he mentions the influence of Marcuse and other thinkers, he could perhaps have provided a broader context. David Mairowitz’s The Radical Soap Opera (1976) covers similar ground but also includes theories of drama and thinkers such as Wilhelm Reich. Peariso does not mention the Situationist school, which could have provided a theoretical framework for the movements he discusses. Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1971), taking a cue from Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, posits an all-embracing “spectacle” dominating society, pointing to the difficulty for activists of working for substantial social change in a context where alternative cultural movements are commodified and absorbed by a pervasive media apparatus.