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Learning to Feel Collectively

by Max Lill
The starting point of the upheavals are the anti-colonial movements that have been spreading across the globe since the end of World War II. With the Black Civil Rights Movement, they penetrate into the heart of the capitalist world system starting in the mid-1950s, where they politicize liberal students* and the existentialist beat culture of the bohemians.
By Max Lill
[This article published in Dec 2019 is translated from the German on the Internet, Kollektiv fühlen lernen « Zeitschrift LuXemburg (]

In 1968, subjectivities were changing en masse and at breakneck speed. Music was a means of tearing down the dividing walls between the personal and the political. It's a legacy that the left needs to reconnect with.

The Sixties anniversary season is drawing to a close - and in the face of countless wildly pieced-together flower power docs with white middle-class bias, I'm tempted to exclaim: Finally! The kitschification of the sixty-eight mythologies is as annoying as their mirror-image demystification according to the motto: all privileged hedonists and dogmatic politicos, only a romantic prelude to neoliberal individualism. In fact, it is about one of the great watersheds of history. And in the current struggles it is also important to find again something of the spirit of concrete utopia of that time - despite everything.

A similar initial consideration has led Bini Adamczak to bring the revolutionary waves of 1917/18 and 1968 into a reciprocal exposure relationship (see Adamczak 2017). In doing so, it becomes clear that the defeats of the left in the "age of catastrophes" (Hobsbawm) between 1914 and 1945 were also due to the fact that martial struggle, authoritarian disciplining, and truncated fetishisms of rationality dominated its theory and practice. To this "universal masculinization," the cycle of the 1960s forms a countermovement. Adamczak speaks of "differential feminization," referring to a process of sensitizing, opening, and reshaping subjectivities.

This is not coincidentally linked to an aestheticization of everyday culture and politics. It is about a striving for emancipation that touches on deep layers and nuances of relationships that can only be represented by playing with sensual shades and metaphorical images. Unlike in the classical bourgeois arts, and even in many of their avant-garde dissolution movements up to the mid-20th century, the life-world of broad class fractions (rather than a relatively autonomous and elite sphere of art) is the main field of action here. The pop culture that emerges from this offers symbolic households whose concrete meanings are only constructed in the reception process by the audience through ever new arrangements of the individual elements in everyday life (cf. Diederichsen 2014).

For all its genre-busting power, music is clearly at the center of this in the 1960s-or, more precisely, certain musical design techniques. There are historical reasons for this, the reflection of which can help us gain a clearer understanding of the structural transformation of the public sphere and the relationship - central to struggles for emancipation even today - between the expression of subjectivity and collective resistance (cf. in more detail: Lill 2013).


The starting point of the upheavals are the anti-colonial movements that have been spreading across the globe since the end of World War II. With the Black Civil Rights Movement, they penetrate into the heart of the capitalist world system starting in the mid-1950s, where they politicize liberal students* and the existentialist beat culture of the bohemians. Soon they were no longer just demanding equal rights, but were asking the question of power. They do this singing from the beginning. With voices so strong that they can get into your marrow even on the blurred black and white images of the confrontations with the racist mob.

Birmingham (Alabama) police chief "Bull" Connor sets his dog squad on schoolchildren in 1963, sparking a nationwide wave of outrage that leads to the movement's breakthrough "March on Washington." "Bull" Connor goes on record at the time saying the chanting makes him sick. From every black church, every human chain, every crowded jail cell, the freedom songs hit him. It is a spiritual demonstration of power. And the brutal old man obviously feels that these songs, accompanied by hypnotic clapping, are a weapon against which his army is ultimately helpless.

In the music, a utopia of radical liberation crystallizes quite immediately in this historical moment. In the centuries of total disenfranchisement before, it had been kept alive as a primarily religious longing for an afterlife of this broken world: practically celebrated as momentary redemption in the spirituals, an ecstasy of the here and now, in which the Holy Spirit or even clandestine forces of voodoo seemed to enter the bodies of the faithful. For them, the divine message revealed itself in the voice, the center of all origin myths, which are only translated and remembered in the sacred writings and narratives. Following the call-and-response principle, individual voices broke out of the collective chant of the congregation, emerging in a frenzy of improvisation, only to sink back into the chorus of the many.

With the civil rights movement, this sacred counter-world, marked by the collective trauma of enslavement, broke into the social this world. It now demands worldly happiness. Provided with newly invented lyrics, the old church songs become the definitive announcement to all Bull Connors of this world: "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around."

At the same time, soul music abolished the separation between religious gospel and sexualized rhythm and blues, which had previously been considered taboo (cf. Ward 1998). Like rock'n'roll before it, soul music also shook up the white music market and caused a stir among conservative moralizers of all stripes (including those on the left). When Aretha Franklin demands "Respect" in 1967, she doesn't need to sing explicitly political lyrics. Even so, everyone - the machos of the Black Power movement included - knows what it means when a Black woman raises her voice in this way. Anti-racism and female emancipation, enlightenment and erotic desire flow together.

There has probably always been singing in revolutions. But the modern world may have experienced few such musical movements. Even Martin Luther King's speeches are half-sung; the truth of what is said seems literally bodily palpable. Even the children of white majority society, raised in a world of racist patriarchal conventions, fearful repression of war experiences and nuclear paranoia, cannot escape the pull of these voices.


As a result, the New Left is also gaining momentum. It forms particularly early in Great Britain, the other Western center of the musical revolt. Here, too, the background is internationalist. Two events in October 1956 (it is the year of the beginning of the U.S. civil rights movement) in particular stand for this: the so-called Suez Crisis around the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egypt, in which the colonial empires of Great Britain and France suffer a sensitive defeat. And the democratic uprising in Hungary, which is violently put down by the Soviet army. Both conflicts illustrate to young intellectuals like E. P. Thompson or Stuart Hall the need to set themselves apart in two ways: from the corporatist-integrated social democracy and from the communist parties dominated by the Soviet Union.

The student left is characterized by the need to practice politics also as something immediately personal: As the famous Port Huron Statement of 19621 makes clear, the sufferings and hopes of each individual are to be extracted from the shadowy realm of the small-family stronghold of bourgeois subjectivity. Translated into a counter-public sphere, a collective project of social change is to emerge from isolated pain along the guiding idea of a radically participatory democracy. It is an updating of the socialist and anarchist heritage buried in the abysses of the 20th century - and at the same time an expression of new claims to development on the basis of educational advancement and welfare state protection.

A central point of attack of the youth movements is thus the division of social life into a public and an intimate world. This leads them right into the organizing center of capitalist and also many real-socialist societies of the time: the separation and at the same time entanglement of the modes of production and life, supported by a politics that has become independent in the state and in centralized representational apparatuses. Even before feminism and the gay, lesbian, and queer movements began to form as independent forces in 1968, the gender-political hinges of social reproduction were already creaking violently. And here, too, music is a nucleus of the new.


To understand this, we have to travel back even further in thought: Music was considered in the bourgeois society of the 19th century (and in many music-philosophical texts of more recent date as well) as the paradigmatic form of an autonomous art of inwardness. It opened up, it was believed and felt, a space of pure feeling beyond any contamination by the mundane everyday world, beyond the strict conventions of social life and the rationality of the market, even beyond any strategic demands of politics.

Music as a flowing movement and playful suspension of clocked (and thus exploitable) time seemed suitable to explode all firmly established forms - and precisely for this reason had to be strictly restrained and systematized by notation. Characteristic of European classical music was the reduction of rhythmic means of composition, the most corporeal aspect of this most corporeal art: often not much more than a unified grid for the unfolding of complexly structured harmonic formations. No shifts in timing, no groove. Even the dances were strictly regulated in order to suppress all too spontaneous physical impulses.

Expressive stylistic devices were found in domestic music, which was considered sentimental. Beyond public eyes and ears, music-making daughters also had their place in it. They were supposed to embody feeling and graceful sensuality in order to fetch a good price on the marriage market. In the concert hall, on the other hand, the inner vision of the ingenious (male) composer was magnified to gigantic proportions with the help of a disciplined orchestra and, in sharpest contrast to the singing black church congregation, demanded absolute obedience from the musicians and total restraint from the listeners. The audience remained absorbed, eyes closed, in an attempt to synchronize their inner selves with the composer's fantasy set to music.

What is expressed in this practice and ideology of bourgeois musical culture is a historically particularly acute separation of spheres: here the (female connotated) world of the nuclear family, in which romantic emotional interiority is cultivated and projected into artistic works. There the (male) world of individualistic discipline and competition and of power struggles driven by abstract ideas and class interests.

This dualism, which has also become deeply inscribed in many social theories, hardly ever applied in this form to the working class and the colonized masses - even if Fordism, at least in the centers, advanced its extension to the respectable milieus of the wage-earners. In the subaltern class fractions, the community, with its semi-public spaces and collective goods, played too important a role as a survival resource. And rather than a general repression of the senses, the danger was to be reduced by hegemonic culture (analogous to the construction of femininity) to the physical and the repressed other of spontaneity, emotionality, and intuition.


In the entertainment industry, this Other has been more and more publicly present since the turn of the century and can be absorbed, albeit commercially dressed up, as a source of inspiration by youth countercultures.

The emergence of a global youth culture begins most notably with the rock and roll of the 1950s and the skiffle and folk of the early 1960s - music that built, often unabashedly, on those performative techniques that had been developed, particularly among the African American proletariat. One can criticize some of this as variants of privileged cultural appropriation. But this should not make us forget that for many white young people a very serious engagement with these cultural practices sets in: a searching and sensing also of the social experiences that are communicated in them (cf. Cantwell 1996). Of course, this is often initially based on stereotypes. But social learning processes begin, new ways of relating and self-design are opened up. Many break out in order to put distance between themselves and their milieu of origin, which is partly petty bourgeois, partly educated bourgeois - and often also in order to fight in a very practical way with the declassed against racism and exploitation. It is this cross-class solidarization that - even before the onset of the economic crisis processes - ushers in a hegemonic crisis of the old order.
In the revival of U.S. folk music, the memory movement is initially in the foreground: folk in the U.S. has been closely interwoven with the history of the labor movement since the turn of the century. The traditional songs act as a collective memory of the struggles from the New Deal period in the 1930s, when a revival had already brought urban intellectuals and proletarian folk cultures into contact. Music becomes a time machine: with it, young people travel from the uniformly history-forgotten suburban settlements to an earlier junction in order to reinvent themselves in the present.

Bob Dylan first appears as an incarnation of Woody Guthrie, but soon sings of the racism of the present and, as an androgynous dandy, explores America's repressed unconscious in surrealistic linguistic labyrinths. And Joan Baez enters the stage as a reincarnation of a virginal Madonna figure reminiscent of the Victorian age, who sings infinitely sad ballads. But she too turns out to be a very contemporary figure: an emancipated, promiscuous woman and radical activist. In the process, this tragic dream couple of the folk revival interweaves reflections of their own love story with the handed-down metaphors of folk and popular cultures and the experiences of current struggles that their audience projects onto them with messianic verve.


Beatlemania follows: the pent-up feelings of teenagers - especially female ones - break free. Expressive, publicly visible youth culture had until then been a clearly male-dominated affair. The Teddy Boys with their motorcycles already showed this in their name. The Beatles now also sing about girls' dreams in a euphoric gesture, embodying them in persona - and hundreds of thousands of ecstatic fans run down police lines to be close to them. Without this eruption of female passions, it is hard to make sense of the second wave of feminism that becomes unmistakable when the same cohorts reach college five years later.

This connection can easily be lost sight of from today's perspective, as male domination of rock music extends into the present. Especially towards the end of the 1960s, with the first heavy defeats of the emancipation movements, an open machismo partly intensifies again, which in turn represents a starting point of the feminist and queer movements of the 1970s and on which the Riot Grrrls of the 1990s and today, for example, the virtuoso productions of St. Vincent still work off.
Around the mid-1960s, on the other hand, not only strong women like Janis Joplin or Grace Slick enter the stage of rock music, which (apart from exceptions like the glorious Jimi Hendrix) is now dominated by whites (also a long-lasting consequence of those setbacks that lead to a renewed split between black and white countercultures). There are also a particularly large number of fragile, sensitive male voices to be heard. Musicians like Neil Young perfectly celebrate the imperfect and vulnerable. Their bodies tend to be weak and delicate, their movements nervous, full of underlying tension. They don't perform like leaders and heroes, but like fine antennae that translate what they experience together into sounds, words and gestures.

In the early hippies, the tendency towards androgyny and pre-discursive sensitization is radicalized. Intimate values are now supposed to shape all human relationships, and music is considered their natural manifestation. In sprawling improvisations and happenings, the intoxicating threshold experience of merging with the collective is sought. This leads first to the liberating embrace of humanity, then in many cases to drug cult and psychosis. After a brief contact with a political activism radicalized in the light of Vietnam and Black Power, the retreat into esotericism and land commune sets in.


The pop culture that emerges from these and many other search movements works with technologies of proximity that emphasize the roughness and individual nuances of voices and place rhythm at the center of musical composition. The map of the social thus becomes more legible and malleable. And it also becomes more memorable across time.

The tragic turn of these innovations into an economized culture of self-promotion is well known. Turning one's innermost self outward and presenting it in a supposedly nonconformist way is today the authoritative slogan of casting shows and personal coaching: a technique of domination and a propaganda lie. This has discredited the authenticity demands of the sixty-eighters. It became increasingly clear that the attempt to articulate oneself comprehensively and directly in public runs the risk, under the given conditions, of ending in self-exposure or shenanigans - and that it is also only compatible with organized politics to a limited extent. The real existing public sphere is ideologically too encrusted and divided. In it, something true and lively can often only be presented through trickery, masquerade and transformation.

The translation of intimate feelings into publicly communicable (and thus cathartically transformed) ones remains crucial for emancipation movements, however - just as the translation between experiences of oppression and resistance of different social worlds.

With the constellation of the 1960s, its dynamic of the unfolding of new subjectivities, the outstanding significance of music for social struggles is nevertheless probably behind us today. Its reverberations are increasingly audible again, for example in the context of Black Lives Matter and the repoliticization of hip-hop. But it is not so much the aesthetic forms and the self-designs or cultural traditions associated with them that are at the center of the disputes (in retrospect, the angry fan protests against Dylan's transition to rock music seem touching). The front lines are also more strongly determined by collective goals in pop culture today. Above all, resistance to racist patriarchal authoritarianism and the universal logic of destruction of fossil capitalism has a unifying effect.

At the same time, the divide between the intimate and public worlds no longer seems quite so deep for the Fridays-for-Future generation, which has grown up with a Facebook avatar - and, contrary to familiar cultural-critical objections, this does have its advantages. We swim in pop cultural characters the way older societies swam in religious imagery. At the same time, we have gained distance from the forms of representation, and can play with them more easily - whether against or with each other. Bringing the colors and sounds of this language of everyday life back into politics should be a minimum requirement for all attempts to advance a left-wing transformation project.

Adamczak, Bini, 2017: Relationship Revolution. 1917, 1968 and Coming, Berlin
Cantwell, Robert, 1996: When We Were Good. The Folk Revival, Cambridge/London
Diederichsen, Diedrich, 2014: On Pop Music, Berlin.
Lill, Max, 2013: The whole wide world is watchin' - Music and youth protest in the 1960s. Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead, Berlin.
Ward, Brian, 1998: Just my soul responding. Rhythm and Blues, black conciousness and race relations, London.

1 The manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), adopted in Port Huron (Michigan), is considered a programmatically fundamental document of the New Left in the USA.
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