Forgetting the Summer of Love

The fortieth anniversary of the now famed Summer of Love is upon us and we are once again cascaded by the culture industry’s marketing onslaught: Come and remember the Summer of Love and delight in yesteryear’s youthful idealisms, a time and place of suspended reality in which flowers, powers, and cosmic love rays beamed through the universe. This marketing line helps drive a whole slew of festivals, reunions, remembrances, and nostalgia all encouraging us to break out the tie-dyes, sip on some beers, hang in the sun, and crank up the I-Pod to Janice Joplin’s Greatest Hits. Seems harmless enough, right? Despite all of its references to freedom, love, rebellion, and liberation, the Summer of Love in its current incarnation helps ferment an age of political ambivalence.

At the most basic level, the Summer of Love has been reduced to a corporate brand experience. That wasn’t always the case. The real Summer of Love was a time of profound self-exploration and serious political upheaval. We don’t get that nowadays. Instead, we get patchworks of long hair, tie-dyes, and flowers; loose comedic references to promiscuous sex and pot use; and cheap renditions of Hendrix tunes. Such decontextualized distortions don’t really jive with the historicity of that era. Long hair was a visible and defiant commitment to political change. Tie dies (as well as self-made bell bottoms, beads, and moccasins) were a withdrawal from mass produced fashion industries. Flower power was a direct response to the American war machine. And sex, drugs, and Rock n’ Roll were all out assaults on the cultural infrastructure. Simply put, the Hippies were revolutionaries and the Summer of Love was about existential politicalization. This didn’t apply to everyone of the “60’s Generation,” of course. Many people—both young and old—hated the Hippies. And many self-acclaimed Hippies simply followed a catchy trend. But however heterogeneous the times and motivations were, the Summer of Love is not reducible to beer advertisements, bad cover bands, and watered-down versions of the musical, “Hair.”

While all of this is problematic by itself, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Our hyper-consumerist society suffers from commodity equivalence—everything is commodified, with all commodities sitting along a horizontal plane of equality. A commodity is a commodity is a commodity. All products, brands, objects, and gadgets are the same, period. This applies to the Summer of Love, too. Our famed Summer of ’67 has become one more product among others. It is no better and no worse than Coca-Cola or Evian or the latest episode of America’s Top Model. Such commodification not only contradicts the ethos of that era, but converts the Age of Aquarius into an Age of Alienation. (Long live Flower Power . . . for only $19.95!)

While the Summer of Love may suffer from commodity equivalence, it is still “valuable” to some degree. That’s because each commodity is imbued with a different value status: a Saturn is not a Hummer, a Walkman is not an I-Pod, a Dunkin’ Donuts is not a Starbucks, a Natty Light is not a Coors Light, Fruit of the Loom is not Abercrombie and Fitch, and faucet water is not All Natural Artesian Fiji Water. This logic of differentiation is most applicable to the Summer of Love: this year’s reunions and festivals are not exactly trips to Paris or the Bahamas, but they’re better than our annual town folk festivals and boring summer parades.

But this whole commodity value is quite peculiar. The Summer of Love’s value (as nostalgia, as remembrance, as festival) is dependent upon its non-revolutionary aspect. In other words, we must extract its revolutionary content for it to be valuable. Celebrating the true revolutionary spirit of the Summer of Love would not only diminish its socially perceived value but also undercut the whole commodity-exchange infrastructure. This is quite interesting since the Summer of Love’s historical importance originates with its revolutionary aspect. No one remembers the Winter of ’65 or the Spring of ’51 or the Fall of ’78. Why? Because nothing happened during those time periods. But we do remember the Summer of ’67 and that’s because it was a revolutionary moment. But its commodification renders that a moot point, allowing us to forget its revolutionary origin. These are strange days indeed, but so goes our contemporary consumerism.

All this circles back around to our current times. Reducing the Summer of Love to a family vacation branding experience hinders our collective ability to conceive of and execute political action today. Look at our contemporary landscape: same-sex marriage, immigration rights, climate change, ever-increasing oil prices, evolution vs. intelligent design, global inequalities, Bill O’Reilly as the no spin guy, torture by the U.S. military, woeful Katrina neglect, soaring health care costs, under-funded education, the demonization of Rosie O’Donnell and the Dixie Chicks, rightwing witch hunts for liberal professors, ever-so forgetful attorney generals, the outing of C.I.A. agents, liberals then defending C.I.A. agents, hard-headed Republicans, squeamish Democrats, and of course a multi-billion dollar illegitimate war propagated as a necessary effect of 9/11. These are major issues worth fighting over. Lines can and should be drawn; rebellions can and should be occurring. A revolution—of some sorts, of any sorts—would not be out of line. But what are we witnessing instead? Not much. Calls to action are commonly received with “let’s wait until the next election” or “everyone’s entitled to their own opinion” or “what should I do, march in the streets?” Now some of us—particularly many readers of this piece—do actively engage our world. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. We’re quite a long way off from the Hippies, Yippies, Panthers, and Weather Underground!

But we shouldn’t be wallowing in the rebellious days of yesteryear. Instead, let’s recognize what’s going on: We have fallen into a drastic age of ambivalence. We feel damned if we do and damned if we don’t, so what’s the point? This dominant logic of the day renders us indifferent, removing us from our own will to political action. To be fair, neither mass commodification nor the Summer of Love is solely to blame for our days of indifference. Complex factors are abound—the unchallenged rise of global capital, severe media consolidation, advanced marketing strategies, sophisticated information technologies, the equivocation of electoral politics with big money fundraising and cults of personality, diminishment of civil outlets, and a comfortable compliance with hyper-consumerism are only a few of the many factors. But we must be fair on the other end too, and realize that the Summer of Love is not an innocent bystander; it too inscribes and re-inscribes our age of ambivalence. It’s not that we have simply forgotten the “true meaning” of that revolutionary summer; instead, it’s that we have not forgotten it enough. It has remained around and hung on like the overly drunk guy at the holiday party. Just be gone already! Leave us alone! You’re annoying, damn it! There’s no redemption for the clingy drunk guy or the Summer of Love. Rather than trying to recover that famed Summer we must forget it, completely. We must let it die and fade away, having it never return again, ever. And in its place we can hopefully remember something else, something more useful and contemporary: the Summer of Revolution, 2007.

Jason Del Gandio is author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (New Society, 2008) and an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University in Philadelphia. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Jason, or visit Jason's website.

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  1. The BRAD BLOG : The Electric Kool-Aid Voting Test said on July 19th, 2007 at 9:53am #

    […] make the world a better place. Heck, it was the Corporations who turned The Summer of Love into a marketing opportunity, back then as well as now. And the cash never seems to wind up in the hands of the folks who came […]