Chapter 29 - Protest and Stagnation: The Western World, 1965-1985

Society and Culture in the Western World

FOCUS QUESTION: What were the major social and cultural developments in the Western world between 1965 and 1985?

Dramatic social and cultural developments accompanied political and economic changes after 1965. Scientific and technological achievements revolutionized people’s lives, while at the same time environmental problems were becoming increasingly apparent. Intellectually and culturally, the Western world after 1965 was notable for its diversity and innovation. New directions led some observers to speak of a Postmodern cultural world.

The World of Science and Technology

Before World War II, theoretical science and technology were largely separated. Pure science was the domain of university professors who were far removed from the practical technological concerns of technicians and engineers. But during World War II, governments recruited university scientists to develop new weapons and practical instruments of war. In 1940, British physicists played a crucial role in the development of an improved radar system that helped defeat the German air force in the Battle of Britain. German scientists created self-propelled rockets and jet airplanes to keep Hitler’s hopes alive for a miraculous turnaround in the war. The computer, too, was a wartime creation. The British mathematician Alan Turing designed a primitive computer to assist British intelligence in breaking the secret codes of German ciphering machines. The most famous product of wartime scientific research was the atomic bomb, created by a team of American and European scientists under the guidance of the American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Obviously, most wartime devices were created for destructive purposes, but merely to mention computers and jet airplanes demonstrates that they could easily be adapted for peacetime uses.

The sponsorship of research by governments and the military during World War II created a new scientific model. Science had become very complex, and only large organizations with teams of scientists, huge laboratories, and sophisticated equipment could undertake such large-scale projects. Only governments and large corporations could afford such expensive facilities.

There was no more stunning example of how the new scientific establishment operated than the space race of the 1960s. The Soviets’ announcement in 1957 that they had sent the first space satellite, Sputnik, into orbit around the earth spurred the United States to launch a gigantic project to land a manned spacecraft on the moon within a decade. Massive government funds financed the scientific research and technological advances that attained this goal in 1969, an achievement that was greeted by some with great expectations for the future of humanity. One New York Times editorialist wrote:

It will take years, decades, perhaps centuries, for man to colonize even the moon, but that is the end inherent in Armstrong’s first step on extraterrestrial soil. Serious and hardheaded scientists envision, even in the not remote future, lunar communities capable of growing into domed cities subsisting on hydroponically grown food, of developing the moon’s resources, and eventually of acquiring a breathable atmosphere and a soil capable of being farmed. What with the dire threats of population explosion at best and nuclear explosion at worst, the human race, as Sir Bernard Lovell warns, may find itself sometime in the 21st century “having to consider how best to insure the survival of the species.”4 THE COMPUTER The alliance of science and technology has led to an accelerated rate of change that has become a fact of life in Western society. One product of this alliance-the computer-may be the most revolutionary of all the technological inventions of the twentieth century. Early computers, which required thousands of vacuum tubes to function, were large and took up considerable space. An important figure in the development of the early computer was Grace Hopper (1906-1992), a career Navy officer. Hopper was instrumental in inventing COBOL, a computer language that enabled computers to respond to words as well as numbers.

The development of the transistor and then the silicon chip produced a revolutionary new approach to computers. In 1971, the invention of the microprocessor, a machine that combines the equivalent of thousands of transistors on a single, tiny silicon chip, opened the road for the development of the personal computer. NEW CONCEPTION OF THE UNIVERSE After World War II, a number of physicists continued to explore the implications of Einstein’s revolution in physics and raised fundamental questions about the nature of reality. To some physicists, quantum and relativity theory described a universe in which there were no isolated building blocks. Thus, the universe was not a “collection of physical objects” but a complicated web of relations between “various parts of a unified whole.” Moreover, this web of relations also included the human observer. Human beings could not be objective observers of objects detached from themselves because the very act of observation made them participants in the process. These speculations implied that the old Newtonian conception of the universe as a machine was an outdated tool for understanding the nature of the universe. DANGERS OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Despite the marvels produced by the alliance of science and technology, some people came to question the underlying assumption of this alliance-that scientific knowledge gave human beings the ability to manipulate the environment for their benefit. They maintained that some technological advances had far-reaching side effects damaging to the environment. For example, the chemical fertilizers that were touted for producing larger crops wreaked havoc with the ecological balance of streams, rivers, and woodlands. Small Is Beautiful, written by the British economist E. F. Schumacher (1911-1977), was a fundamental critique of the dangers of the new science and technology (see the box on p. 920). The proliferation of fouled beaches and dying forests and lakes made environmentalism one of the important issues of the late twentieth century.

The Environment and the Green Movements

By the 1970s, serious ecological problems had become all too apparent. Air pollution, produced by nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, and industrial factories, was causing respiratory illnesses and having corrosive effects on buildings and monuments. Many rivers, lakes, and seas had become so polluted that they posed serious health risks. Dying forests and disappearing wildlife alarmed more and more people. A nuclear power disaster at Chernobyl (chur-NOH-buhl) in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1986 made Europeans even more aware of potential environmental hazards. The opening of Eastern Europe after the revolutions of 1989 (see Chapter 30) brought to the world’s attention the incredible environmental destruction of that region caused by unfettered industrial pollution. Environmental concerns forced the major political parties in Europe to advocate new regulations for the protection of the environment.

Growing ecological awareness also gave rise to the Green movements and Green parties that emerged throughout Europe in the 1970s. The origins of these movements were by no means uniform. Some came from the antinuclear movement; others arose out of such causes as women’s liberation and concerns for foreign workers. Most started at the local level and then gradually expanded to include activities at the national level, where they became formally organized as political parties. Green parties competed successfully in Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland. Most visible was the Green Party in Germany, which was officially organized in 1979 and by 1987 had elected forty-two delegates to the West German parliament.

Although the Green movements and parties have played an important role in making people aware of ecological problems, they have not replaced the traditional political parties, as some political analysts in the mid-1980s forecast. For one thing, the coalitions that made up the Greens found it difficult to agree on all issues and tended to splinter into different cliques. Moreover, traditional political parties co-opted the environmental issues of the Greens. More and more European governments began to sponsor projects to safeguard the environment and clean up the worst sources of pollution.

Postmodern Thought

The term Postmodern covers a variety of artistic and intellectual styles and ways of thinking that have been prominent since the 1970s. In the broadest sense, Postmodernism rejects the modern Western belief in an objective truth and instead focuses on the relative nature of reality and knowledge. Human knowledge is defined by a number of factors that must be constantly revised and tested by human experiences.

While existentialism wrestled with notions of meaning and existence, a group of French philosophers in the 1960s attempted to understand how meaning and knowledge operate through the study of language and signs. In the early twentieth century, the Swiss language scholar Ferdinand de Saussure (fayr-di-nawh duh soh-SOOR) (1857-1913) gave birth to structuralism by asserting that the very nature of signs is arbitrary and that language is a human construct. And though the external world has existed for ages, de Saussure believed that humans possessed no capacity for knowledge until language was devised. Language employs signs to denote meaning and, according to de Saussure, possesses two components: the signifier, the expression of a concept, and the signified, its meaning. For de Saussure, meaning seeks expression in language, although the reliance on language for knowledge suggested that such meaning is learned rather than preexisting.

Jacques Derrida (ZHAHK DEH-ree-duh) (1930-2004) drew on the ideas of de Saussure to demonstrate how dependent Western culture is on binary oppositions. In Western thought, one set of oppositions is generally favored over the other (in the case of de Saussure, speech was favored over writing), but Derrida showed that the privileged depends on the inferior. Rather than reversing the opposition and claiming that writing surpasses speech, for example, Derrida showed that spelling of ten altered pronunciation. This indebtedness to written language demonstrates that oral speech is not superior. poststructuralism, or deconstruction, which Derrida formulated, believes that culture is created and can therefore be analyzed in a variety of ways, according to the manner in which people create their own meaning. Hence, there is no fixed truth or universal meaning.

Michel Foucault (mih-SHELL foo-KOH) (1926-1984) likewise drew upon de Saussure and Derrida to explore relationships of power. Believing that “power is exercised, rather than possessed,” Foucault argued that the diffusion of power and oppression marks all relationships. For example, any act of teaching entails components of assertion and submission, as the student adopts the ideas of the one in power. Therefore, all norms are culturally produced and entail some degree of power struggle. In establishing laws of conduct, society not only creates ideal behavior from those who conform, but it also invents a subclass of individuals who do not conform. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault suggested that homosexuality was produced by cultures attempting to define and limit homosexual acts. Yet in seeking to control and delineate homosexuality, those in power established the grounds on which it could be defined and practiced. As such, power ultimately requires resistance for it to exist; otherwise, it loses all meaning.

Trends in Art, Literature, and Music

Beginning in the 1960s and continuing well into the 1980s, styles emerged that some have referred to as “Postmodern.” Postmodernism tends to move away from the futurism or “cutting-edge” qualities of Modernism. Instead it favors “tradition,” whether that means using earlier styles of painting or elevating traditional crafts to the level of fine art. Weavers, potters, glassmakers, metalsmiths, and furniture makers have gained respect as artists. Postmodern artists and architects frequently blur the distinction between the arts, creating works that include elements of film, performance, popular culture, sculpture, and architecture. ART In the 1960s and 1970s, artists of ten rejected the notion of object-based artworks. Instead, performances and installations that were either too fleeting or too large to appear in the traditional context of a museum were produced. Allen Kaprow (1927-2006) suggested that “happenings,” works of art rooted in performance, grew out of Jackson Pollock’s process of action painting. Rather than producing abstract paintings, however, Kaprow created events that were not scripted but chance occurrences. These “happenings” of ten included audience participation. Kaprow’s emphasis on the relationship of art to its surroundings was continued in the “land art” of the early 1970s. In one such example, Spiral Jetty (1970), Robert Smithson (1938-1973) used a bulldozer to move more than 6,000 tons of earth into a 1,500-foot-long corkscrew in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Responding to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as to the cycles of nature, Smithson’s artwork resembled a science-fiction wasteland while challenging notions of traditional fine art.

Postmodernism’s eclectic mixing of past tradition with Modernist innovation became increasingly evident in architecture. Robert Venturi (b. 1925) argued that architects should look as much to the commercial strips of Las Vegas as to the historical styles of the past for inspiration. Venturi advocated an architecture of ”complexity and contradiction” as appropriate for the diversity of experiences offered by contemporary life. One example is provided by Charles Moore (1929-1993). His Piazza d’Italia (1976-1980) in New Orleans is an outdoor plaza that combines Roman columns with stainless steel and neon lights. This blending of modern-day materials with historical reference distinguished the Postmodern architecture of the late 1970s and 1980s from the Modernist glass box.

Another Postmodern response to Modernism can be seen in a return to Realism in the arts, a movement called Photorealism. Some Photorealists paint or sculpt with such minute attention to detail that their paintings appear to be photographs and their sculptures living human beings. Their subjects are of ten ordinary individuals, stuck in ordinary lives, demonstrating the Postmodern emphasis on low culture and the commonplace rather than the ambitious nature of high art. These works were of ten pessimistic or cynical. LITERATURE Postmodernism was also evident in literature. In the Western world, the best examples were found in Latin America, in a literary style called “magic realism,” and in central and Eastern Europe. Magic realism combined realistic events with dreamlike or fantastic backgrounds. One of the finest examples of magic realism can be found in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (gah-bree-EL gahr-SEE-ah MAHR-kes) (b. 1928), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. The novel is the story of the fictional town of Macondo as seen by several generations of the Buendias, its founding family. The author slips back and forth between fact and fantasy. Villagers are not surprised when a local priest rises into the air and floats. Yet, when wandering Gypsies introduce these villagers to magnets, telescopes, and magnifying glasses, the villagers are dumbfounded by what they see as magic. According to the author, fantasy and fact depend on one’s point of view.

The European center of Postmodernism is well represented by the work of the Czech writer Milan Kundera (MEE-lahn koon-DAYR-uh) (b. 1929). Like the magic realists of Latin America, Kundera also blended fantasy with realism. Unlike the magic realists, Kundera used fantasy to examine moral issues and remained optimistic about the human condition. Indeed, in his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Kundera does not despair because of the political repression in his native Czechoslovakia that he so aptly describes but allows his characters to use love as a way to a better life. The human spirit can be lessened but not destroyed. MUSIC Like modern art, modern music has focused on variety and radical experimentation. Also like modern art, modern classical music witnessed a continuation of prewar developments. Some composers, the neoclassicists, remained closely tied to nineteenth-century Romantic music, although they occasionally incorporated some twentieth-century developments, such as atonality and dissonance. Their style was strongly reminiscent of Stravinsky (see Chapter 24).

The major musical trend since the war, however, has been serialism. Inspired mostly by the twelve-tone music of Schonberg (see Chapter 26), serialism is a compositional procedure in which an order of succession is set for specific values: pitch (for tones of the tempered scale), loudness (for dynamic levels), and units of time (for rhythm). By predetermining the order of succession, the composer restricts his or her intuitive freedom as the work to some extent creates itself. Nevertheless, the mechanism the composer initially establishes could generate unanticipated musical events, thereby creating new and exciting compositions. Serialist composition diminishes the role of intuition and emotion in favor of intellect and mathematical precision. The first recognized serialist was the Frenchman Olivier Messiaen (oh -lee-VYAY meh-SYANH) (1908-1992). Significantly, Messiaen was influenced by, among other things, Indian and Greek music, plainchant, folk music, and birdsongs. Most critics have respected serialism, although the public has been largely indifferent, if not hostile, to it.

An offshoot of serialism that has won popular support, but not the same critical favor, is minimalism. Like serialism, this style uses repeated patterns and series and steady pulsation with gradual changes occurring over time. But whereas serialism is of ten atonal, minimalism is usually tonal and more harmonic. Perhaps the most successful minimalist composer is Philip Glass (b. 1937), who demonstrated in Einstein on the Beach that minimalist music could be adapted to full-scale opera. Like other modern American composers, Glass found no contradiction in moving between the worlds of classical music and popular music. His Koyaanisqatsi (koh-YAH-niss-kaht-si) was used as background music to a documentary film on the disintegrative forces in Western society.

Popular Culture: Image and Globalization

The period from 1967 to 1973 was probably the true golden age of rock. During this brief period, much experimentation in rock music took place, as it did in society in general. Straightfoward rock ‘n’ roll competed with a new hybrid blues rock, created in part by British performers such as the Rolling Stones, who were in turn inspired by African American blues artists. Many musicians also experimented with non-Western musical sounds, such as Indian sitars. Some of the popular music of the 1960s also focused on social issues. It was against the Vietnam War and materialism and promoted “peace and love” as alternatives to the prevailing “establishment” culture.

The same migration of a musical form from the United States to Britain and back to the United States that characterized the golden age of rock also occurred when the early punk movement in New York spread to Britain in the mid1970s after failing to make an immediate impact in the United States. The more influential British punk movement of 1976-1979 was also fueled by an economic crisis that had resulted in large numbers of unemployed and undereducated young people. Punk was not simply a proletarian movement, however. Many of its supporters, performers, and promoters were British art school graduates who applied avant-garde experimentation to the movement. Punk rockers such as Britain’s Sex Pistols rejected most social conventions and preached anarchy and rebellion. They of ten wore tattered clothes and pins in their cheeks, symbolizing their rejection of a materialistic and degenerate culture. Pure punk was short-lived, partly because its intense energy quickly burned out (as did many of its performers) and partly because, as ex-punk Mick Hucknall said, “the biggest mistake of the punks was that they rejected music.” Offshoots of punk proliferated through the 1980s, however, especially in Eastern Europe, with groups named Crisis, Sewage, and Dead Organism.

The introduction of the video music channel MTV in the early 1980s radically changed the music scene by making image as important as sound in selling records. Artists like Michael Jackson became superstars by treating the music video as an art form. Jackson’s videos of ten were short films with elaborate staging and special effects set to music. Technological advances helped shape the music of the 1980s with the advent of the synthesizer, an electronic piano that produced computerized sounds. Some performers replaced ensembles of guitar, bass, and drums with synthesizers, creating a futuristic and manufactured sound.

Paralleling the rise of the music video was the emergence of rap or hip-hop. Developed in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s, rap combined rhymed lyrics with disco beats and turntable manipulations. Early rap groups like Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five instilled social commentaries into their songs, using the popularity of hip-hop to raise awareness about social conditions in American cities.

The Growth of Mass Sports

Sports became a major product of both popular culture and the leisure industry. The development of satellite television and various electronic breakthroughs helped make sports a global phenomenon. The Olympic Games could now be broadcast around the globe from anywhere in the world. Sports were a cheap form of entertainment since fans did not have to leave their homes to enjoy athletic competitions. In fact, some sports organizations initially resisted television, fearing that it would hurt ticket sales. Soon, however, the tremendous revenues possible from television contracts overcame this hesitation. As sports television revenue escalated, many sports came to receive the bulk of their yearly revenue from television contracts. The Olympics, for example, are now funded primarily by American television. These contracts are paid for by advertising sponsors, mostly for products to be consumed while watching the sport: beer, soda, and snack foods.

Sports became big politics as well as big business. Football (soccer) remained the dominant world sport and more than ever became a vehicle for nationalist sentiment and expression. The World Cup is the most watched event on television. Although the sport can be a positive outlet for national and local pride, all too of ten it has been marred by violence as nationalistic energies have overcome rational behavior.

The most telling example of the potent mix of politics and sport continued to be the Olympic Games. When the Soviets entered Olympic competition in 1952, the Olympics began to take on Cold War implications and became known as the “war without weapons.” The Soviets saw the Olympics as a way to stimulate nationalist spirit, as well as to promote the Communist system as the best path for social progress. The Soviets led the Olympics in terms of total medals won between 1956 and 1988. The nature of the Olympics, with their daily medal count by nation and elaborate ceremonies and rituals such as the playing of the national anthem of the winning athletes and the parade of nations, virtually ensured the politicization of the games originally intended to foster international cooperation through friendly competition.

The political nature of the games found expression in other ways as well. In 1956, six nations withdrew from the games to protest the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising. In 1972, twenty-seven African nations threatened to pull out of the Munich Olympics because of apartheid in South Africa. Also at the Munich Games, the Palestinian terrorist group Black September seized eleven Israeli athletes as hostages, all of whom died in a confrontation at an airport. The United States led a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games to. protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviets responded by boycotting the Los Angeles Games in 1984. As sports assumed a prominent position in the social life of the world, the pressures and rewards to not just compete but win intensified. Fueled by advertising endorsements, the scientific study of sport led to aerodynamic helmets for cyclists, skintight bodysuits for skiers and swimmers, and improved nutritional practices in all sports. Such technological advances, however, also increased the manner in which athletes might break the rules. From steroids to blood doping, some have used medical supplements to illegally enhance their conditioning. Mandatory drug testing was instituted for athletes competing in many events including the Olympics and World Cup. Nevertheless, several winners of the Tour de France were later disqualified for positive drug tests, and reports of steroid abuse prompted a governmental investigation of Major League Baseball. POPULAR CULTURE: INCREASINGLY GLOBAL Media critic and theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) predicted in the 1960s that advances in mass communications technology, such as satellites and electronics, would eventually lead to a shrinking of the world, a lessening of cultural distinctions, and a breaking down of cultural barriers, all of which would in time transform the world into a single “global village.” McLuhan was optimistic about these developments, and his ideas became quite popular at the time. Many critics have since argued that McLuhan was too utopian about the benefits of technological progress and maintain that the mass media created by these technological breakthroughs are still controlled by a small number of multinational corporations that “colonize the rest of the world, sometimes benignly, sometimes not.” They argue that this has allowed Western popular culture to disrupt the traditional cultures of less developed countries and inculcate new patterns of behavior as well as new desires and new dissatisfactions. Cultural contacts, however, of ten move in two directions. While the world has been “Americanized” to a great extent, formerly unfamiliar ways of life and styles of music have also come into the world of the West (see Chapter 30).


Chapter Summary

The late 1960s experienced a rash of protest movements. The so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s led to a revolt in sexual mores, encouraged by the birth control pill as well as sexually explicit movies, plays, and books. A growing youth movement in the 1960s questioned authority and fostered rebellion against the older generation. Numerous groups of students and radicals protested the war in Vietnam and unsatisfactory university conditions. Women actively sought equality of rights with men. The women’s movement gained momentum in the 1970s and 1980s, but the student upheavals were not a “turning point in the history of postwar Europe,” as some people thought at the time, especially in 1968, when the student protest movement reached its height. In the 1970s and 1980s, student rebels became middle-class professionals, and revolutionary politics remained mostly a memory.

In the 1970s, the Cold War took a new direction known as detente as the Soviet Union and the United States moved, if ever fitfully, toward a lessening of tensions. With the Antiballistic Missile Treaty in 1972, the United States and the Soviet Union believed that they had reached a balance, or “equivalence,” that would assure peace. The early 1980s, however, saw renewed tensions between the superpowers. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the introduction of the cruise missile and “Star Wars” by the American president Ronald Reagan brought a decline in detente. But as we shall see in the next chapter, a dramatic shift in Soviet leadership would soon bring an unexpected end to the Cold War.

Between 1965 and 1985, the Western world remained divided between a prosperous capitalistic and democratic West and a stagnant, politically repressed Eastern Europe. After two decades of incredible economic growth, Western European states experienced severe economic recessions in 1973-1974 and 1979-1983, although their economies largely recovered in the course of the 1980s. In Eastern Europe, Soviet leaders continued to exercise control over their satellite states while recognizing the need to provide some leeway in adopting domestic policies appropriate to local conditions.

Dramatic social and cultural developments accompanied political and economic changes after 1965. Scientific and technological developments, especially the rapid advance of the personal computer, began to revolutionize people’s lives, while ecological problems became increasingly apparent and led to the Green movements and Green parties that emerged throughout Europe in the 1970s. Intellectually and culturally, the Western world after 1965 was notable for its diversity and innovation. New directions led some observers to speak of a Postmodern world in both literature and the arts.