Is There Any Such Thing as Counterculture Anymore?

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 7 2012 11:26 PM

Beginning To See

The music and cultural critic Ellen Willis’ essays were long arcs toward an answer she never reached.

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The very mainstreaming of the counter impulse makes Willis' approach to argument itself more valuable and vital than ever. I love the way Willis practices storytelling as criticism, and vice versa. A great example is Beginning To See the Light's title track, a rambling 1977 reflection on her "capitulation to the Sex Pistols." In the first paragraph, Willis is “skeptical about punk,” jaded about “the revolt against musical and social pretension” and “put off by the heavy overlay of misogyny in the punk stance.” On the next page she bitches about Jimmy Carter and Mario Cuomo before embarking on a hiking trip; on the page after that, she admits she “was beginning to emerge from a confusing and depressing period” and was starting to wonder if “rock-and-roll [was] no longer going to be important in my life.” The very next sentence: “Then I gave up trying to censor my thoughts.” So she breezes through “thoughts” on Bessie Smith, the Ramones, the ongoing struggle to assimilate the developments of the ’60s, disco, and “womens-culture music” before concluding that “music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated ... challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman ... the form encouraged my struggle for liberation.” Consciousness is a process, and so is criticism; the act of beginning to see is as important as the light.

Ellen Willis.
Ellen Willis.

Nona Willis Aronowitz.

This is made most literal in the book's closing essay, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” a piece Willis wrote for Rolling Stone chronicling her 1976 trip to Israel to try to understand why her brother had suddenly reinvented himself as an Orthodox Jew. That Willis returned to New York without having seen—or, at least, allowed herself to fully buy into—"the light" of a serious commitment to Judaism is something she admits in the book's acknowledgements when she thanks Jann Wenner for giving her "20,000 words' worth of space to describe a failed conversion experience." The piece is not so much about a trip to Israel or even the ideological conflicts between feminism and Judaism as it is about the writer's struggle as an adult woman to determine what kind of person she's going to be. Willis' most compelling works are first-person, open-ended narratives about what it feels like to live in the world and absorb culture and try to process it through some kind of internal belief system while constantly reorienting one's thinking. “Even my work—my excuse for so much of what I did or didn't do—sometimes struck me as ridiculous. What was the point of sitting home scratching symbols on paper, adding my babblings to a world already overloaded with information?” It's a thought I have some version of every day.

Willis' exhaustion with her own work sparked No More Nice Girls' centerpiece, “Escape From New York” (1981), a chronicle of a solo road trip Willis took across the country and back on Greyhound buses. “Lately I've been feeling isolated, spending too much time hiding out in my apartment, wrestling with abstract ideas. What better remedy than to take a bus trip, join the transportation-of-last-resort community, come back and write about what I've learned?”

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The result is a sprawlingly cinematic state-of-the-union—and a testament to American film as the last bastion of a default patriarchal point of view, in that you'd have to think pretty far outside of the commercial industry to imagine a movie about a woman traveling across the country and back on a Greyhound bus, alone, essentially just for the hell of it, in which the only real threat she experiences comes from challenges to her political and aesthetic points of view.

I love “Jerusalem” and “Escape” and other essays in which Willis places political debates in the context of daily life. I'm less high on Willis' feminist/political polemics, although I think she'd say that's more my problem than hers. These essays are passionately argued and by all appearances academically on-point. But more often than not, they make my eyes glaze over. Maybe it's because in our own current moment, between Paul Ryan's would-be abortion policies and Aaron Sorkin's romanticizing of female incompetence, we seem to be rearguing the most elementary issues. But also, the manifestos seem superfluous compared to more creative works of persuasion. It's not as though she ever leaves what she believes behind, whether she's writing an objective report on a rape case or satirizing “President Ray Gun” or considering the legacy of Picasso. Nothing she can say in objection of Andrea Dworkin says as much about the struggle of liberation in the real world as her observation, in “Escape from New York,” that a friend and fellow activist “hasn't been able to get [her husband] to share the housework.”

I know that in this preference for Willis’ elegantly crafted, personal pieces I'm essentially embodying the very attitude that No More Nice Girls, as a motto, seeks to combat. To Willis, I might as well be telling her friend to shut up and do the housework herself, because the whole radical argument is that a woman's life is her own to live, her body and mind are her own to police, and she'll be the one to decide what she believes and how she'll express it. Fair enough—even if Willis herself, paradoxically, can't extend that same freedom of identity to Juli Loesch, or other feminists who pose a threat to Willis' own preferred version of female liberation.

Of course, that Willis never gave a shit about consistency was part of her magic. She so often left her full train of thought exposed like a nerve—leaving in first-blush impressions, even when they were prejudicial or patently ridiculous, at times allowing herself to come off as unfashionable, unkind, even prudish. Her essays are long arcs toward an answer—an answer that sometimes eludes her. As the political and social battles she fought have either faded away or changed shape, her humility remains startling. In our world of binary polemics and Like-button activism, to suggest that thought is a process and ideas the result of a narrative is startling, energizing—countercultural, even.

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Beginning To See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll by Ellen Willis. University of Minnesota Press.

No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays by Ellen Willis. University of Minnesota Press.

The former film editor of the LA Weekly, Karina Longworth has contributed to the Guardian, NPR, Vulture, and other publications. Her book Al Pacino: Anatomy of an Actor will be released by in May by Cahiers du Cinema, for whom she is currently working on another book, about Meryl Streep.