French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), said that the counterculture in the sixties was defined by the many ways that groups and individuals attempted to escape the society of normalization and control that their previous generation had helped create.
The core driving impulse behind the counterculture was not just to oppose/question/critique the status quo, it was to liberate from it, to walk away from current systems to invent new ways of living – to push through the fringes with bloodshot eyes on experimental, creative lines of flight (fuite – this can mean leaking, fleeing, or escaping)
“Lines of flight are bolts of pent-up energy that break through the cracks in a system of control and shoot off on the diagonal. By the light of their passage, they reveal the open spaces beyond the limits of what exists.”
In a series of books written in collaboration with militant psychotherapist Felix Guattari (1930-1992), Deleuze conceptualizes human creativity as lines of flight. It is our desire to abandon the status quo that leads us to innovate. To go outside of the system.
We dream of being anywhere but here. We organize, systematize, align our strengths and innovate. We reorient and restructure the world on creative trajectories.
Deleuze’s idea of lines of flight offers a radically new framework to perceive the sixties counterculture which is already mired with plenty of misconceptions. The counterculture was not fundamentally oriented against mainstream society’s deals. It was oriented away from it.
The political aspect of the counterculture was rooted in the rejection of the society that existed at the time. The Free Speech Movement and Students for a Democratic Society stood in strong opposition to US government policies, especially the messy war in Vietnam. It was evident in retrospect that, in the 1970s, the militant/political end of the counterculture positioned itself against the status quo in the hope of creating a popular movement to overthrow it.
But the counterculture per se was oriented away from mainstream society. Being against was a means, not an end. This is evident in the Woodstock generation, which was propelled by the desire for another, different kind of world than ours, and another way of life, and inspired by the deep inherent belief that a different way of life was possible.
Having a ‘countercultural’ attitude and perspective does not mean that one is aggressive towards the mainstream. It reflects a foundational desire to abandon the society that exists, to leave it to its own devices, and to grow creative (with new devices) with other like-minded people.
One of the best expressions of the countercultural line of flight in the 1960s and ’70s back-to-land movement. Drop City, in Colorado, was the first of many pioneering hippie communities that had a vision of creating a new, radically different from the norms kind of society.
Between 1965 and 1973, thousands of middle-class kids, in flight from conventional parents, society, the military draft, career paths, and social conventions of all kinds, came to Drop City and other similar communes in search of liberation and alternative lifestyles.
The culture thrived with a minimum of rules. Everything was conceptualized to enable free-wheeling, nomadic lifestyles, which could be recreated or escaped at a moment’s notice. Nomadism, as Deleuze and Guattari interpret it, doesn’t necessarily require shifting around to new places.
You can sit still and be a nomad. Nomadism is a way of being. It involves refusing to be tied down by set categories and definitions. It is driven primarily by a wish, an aspiration to experiment and explore, to learn, grow, and boldly venture forth on creative lines of flight. In a desire to find the cracks in the system.
The hippie experiment collapsed under the weight of its contradictions. Over subsequent years and decades, the counterculture thrived. Today, the counterculture has been absorbed into the system of society – tamed, to an extent, yet affirmed and enabled in a safe, cocooned environment at the same time.
The corporate mavericks who shake up markets with disruptive innovations attempt to create businesses on lines of flight even though it’s merely an extension of an already existing mainstream zeitgeist. Each new generation attempts to define a new line of flight, starting with the rejection of the sounds and styles that have come before.
Nomadism is a cultural norm. While plenty of people simply want to ‘fit in’, a subset of people on fringes want to break out and head for the horizon. When we look into the future, we dream of a world that is radically different from the one we know today.
We may be stuck in offices, trapped in traffic, stacked down by debt, or shackled to unhappy relationships. Inside, we are nomads. We are already on flight.