Monday, 4 February 2008

Hippies and Longhairs in the Capitalist World System

'This September I was in the small city of Isfahan, in the heart of Persia. Persia is an underdeveloped country, as one horrendously says, but [its economy] is rapidly taking off, as one says in a likewise horrendous way. … One night, I was walking through the main street when I saw two monstrous beings among all those ancient, beautiful boys, full of an ancient human dignity: they were not really ‘capelloni’ [longhairs], but their hair was cut in a European fashion, long at the back, short at the front, straw-like, artificially stuck around the face, with two filthy tufts over the ears. What was this hair saying? It was saying: ‘We do not belong to this mass of wretched creatures, underdeveloped poor fellows who were left behind in a barbarian age! We are clerks in banks, students, sons of people who grew rich and work in the oil companies; we know Europe, we have read a lot. We are bourgeois: and here is our long hair that bears witness to our international modernity of privileged people.’

- Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘The “Discourse” of Hair’, Corriere della Sera, 7 January 1973

There are those who have abundant, swollen hair … perfectly set and similar to the ‘perm’ that was popular with ladies in the forties … Others unintentionally quote even more distant eras: the twenties or early thirties: … their hair falls smoothly on both sides of the forehead, while over the forehead there is a small, long and accurate fringe. … Still others, whose hair is without resources, have let it grow wild: but it falls in extremely black and dishevelled locks: the exact hair of a neorealist hooker from the fifties. … There also those who quote men, rather than women: that is, they quote Great Men of the Past who are completely unknown to them: Christ, Cavour, a reactionary intellectual of the eighteenth century, a judge portrayed by an anonymous neoclassical painter.

- Pier Paolo Pasolini, Petrolio

The town where these lines are being written is a small meeting place for hippies, mainly British, American and Dutch; they spend all day here in a very lively square in the old town, mixed in with (but not mixing with) the local population who, either through natural tolerance, amusement, habit or interest, accept them, exist alongside them and let them get on with life without ever understanding them or ever being surprised by them either. … [O]nce out of its original context, hippy protest comes up against an enemy far more significant than American conformism, even if this is backed up by security on the university campus: poverty (where economics coyly uses the expression developing countries, culture and real life use the more honest poverty). This poverty turns the hippy’s choice into a copy, a caricature of economic alienation, and this copy of poverty, though sported only lightly, becomes in fact distinctly irresponsible. For most traits invented by the hippy in opposition to his home civilisation (a civilisation of the rich) are the very ones which distinguish poverty, no longer as a sign, but much more severely as a clear indication, or an effect, on people’s lives: undernourishment, collective living, bare feet, dirtiness, ragged clothing, are all forces which, in this context, are not there to be used in the symbolic fight against the world of riches but are the very forces against which we should be fighting. Symbols (which the hippy consumes frenetically) are therefore no longer reactive meanings, polemical forces, nor are they critical weapons that we appropriate from a well-off civilisation that conceals its image of overnourishment by constant referral to it and that tries to make overnourishment’s signifiers look glossy; if we think of them as being positive, these symbols become, not a game, or a higher form of symbolic activity, but a disguise, a lower form of cultural narcissism: as is demonstrated by linguistics, the context overturns the meaning, and the context here is that of economics.

Roland Barthes, ‘A Case of Cultural Criticism’, Communications 14, November 1969


David McDougall said...

Just catching up with this now - impressive. "Nonconformity" is always a luxury afforded only to the ruling classes.

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