The Post-modern Autonomous Footsoldier: an Historical Perspective
January 26, 1999
Allow me to begin this diatribe by making the following statement: The post-modern Autonomous Footsoldier accomplishes in the abstract--is concerned primarily with things that are essentially absurd and seem to have no real bearing on anything of any sort of importance. The Abstract Accomplishment of the Autonomous Footsoldier can be justified with the catchall phrase "AIN'T NUTHIN' WORTH DOIN', INCLUDING DOIN' NUTHIN'." If the beatniks of yore taught us that there is nothing worth accomplishing, then the hippies that inherited the beat's bohemian discontentedness showed us that Love & Drugs are not in and of themselves a suitable alternative to accomplishment. Now it may be argued that the Ecologists and Peaceniks spawned of hippie bullshit did in fact set out to accomplish abstractions of a grand scale--"save the Earth," "world peace," "an end to all hunger," etc. This is only true to a point; their goals may have been abstractions, but the self righteous nature of the abstract goals meant that, for the most part, allying oneself with one of these movements had a lot more to do with personal psychology than with the spirit of the abstract goal. To be blunt, "save the Earth" is not an abstract goal to the Earth saving insider. Rather, it is a holy mission born of the same religious-type zealotry that drives the laissez-faire impulses of the multinational business conglomerates that make it seem as though the Earth needs little ol' US to save it. Now, I would not claim that there are no Autonomous Footsoldiers at an Earth First meeting, simply that the Autonomous Earth Firsters are self aware enough to understand that they do their activism for the love of the sport and not because they are better people than those of us who choose to invest our time and energy in being members of rock 'n' roll bands or by taking pottery classes at the community center.
Moving right along, the Beatniks said that "there is nothing worth accomplishing," the hippies took their advice and accomplished nothing. What could possibly come next? That's right, Sex Pistols fans, the post hippie reactionary Punks turned conventional logic on its ear and proclaimed that the only thing worth accomplishing was the destruction of all other accomplishments. God bless 'em for the spirited emotional content of their movement and for having their misguided little hearts in the right place. About the only thing bad one could say of the first wave of punks is that the music stank--but even that was part of the point. Ever since the original punks overdosed, the popular culture has been like unto the heavyweight title in an era between two great champions. A rapid fire succession of hip hoppin' industrial gothic alterna-teenagers has inherited then abdicated reign of the pop cultural mainstream. Don't get me wrong, there has been plenty of hopeful goodness on the fringes of the popular culture--but this has always been and always will be the case. The people WILL produce high quality superficial garbage--whether it gets radio air play or not. The thing to remember is that the bulk of today's high quality superficial garbage is presented merely as something to do on a Saturday night. It has become mere entertainment rather than full scale, balls out, pointless cultural statement. The punks were not the target audience of Punk Music so much as the music was the score for the scene. The Grateful Dead did not incite crowds of record buyers to riot in the streets--they simply saw the riot around them and thought, "jeez, wouldn't it be cool to put this mess to music?" The time has come again for the populace to rise up in great numbers and force by their actions a full scale, balls out, pointless cultural rEvolution!
The Autonomous Footsoldier is destined to inherit the subcultural vanguard. That The Movement should rise to POP! cultural prominence is not based on any particular group of footsoldiers with a slick marketing campaign and access to reliable demographic information. It is based instead on the simple fact of its remarkable inclusiveness. We are--ALL OF US--Autonomous Footsoldiers. We all daily wage battle against the forces of mass produced sameness. The mid-life crisis guy in his Mazda Miata car is an Autonomous Footsoldier who was PUT DOWN in his youth and has only begun in middle age to poke his seedling head out from behind the cultural limitations arbitrarily imposed on him by the advertisers of Madison Avenue. Try as they might, these ad executives cannot keep today's new, improved revolutionary impulses down. The advertisers are the little man behind the curtain--the spin doctors who pervert and distort humankind's natural and unstoppable impulse toward cultural autonomy. They use your very immortal soul against you--use it to trick you into buying their Vaseline and their dishwashing soap. There sleeps within all of us a noble savage who is the primeval Autonomous Footsoldier. The task for each of us in the coming New Age is to reach deep within our consciousness--to traverse the labyrinth of learned thought and behavior--to travel to the very depths of our psychology and to discover the napping place of our long slumbering Autonomous Footsoldier. Once we find him or her, we gotta take 'em up! We gotta give that noble savage a good shakin' and holler, "Hey! WAKE UP! The time is again at hand. Grab up your vorpal sword and meet me in the conscious part of my brain. There is work for us to do!"
That said, let us now turn the discussion to the original topic--that of the Autonomous Footsoldier in historical perspective. IN THE BEGINNING there were Mountain Men. The historical mountain man took his cues from the mythological Original Autonomous Footsoldier. I speak, of course, of a natty haired, cave dwelling, forager and wooly mammoth hunter who had the advantage of there being no prime time T.V. to watch or University to attend and certainly no chance that he might lose his menial job through random urine testing.
This original champion of the individual's right to provide for his or her own well being and not take no shit offa nobody lived, we should all assume, by a credo that read as follows: "go where the prehistoric antelope herds go and carry a big stick." Something of the prehistoric mythological ideal is expressed in the POP!ular drinking song which has survived from time immemorial, 99 bottles of beer on the wall. "Take one down and pass it around, 98 bottles of beer on the wall." Simple, direct, and remarkably lucid, 99 Bottles of Beer reflects the basic nature of existence. Philosophically it pulls no punches. Indeed, eventually there will be no more bottles of beer on the wall. Eventually, we will have passed around ninety nine bottles of beer and This Life will fade away into obscurity...a dim memory dreamed from the depths of a drunken stupor.
Humankind's progression out of the caves and into apartment complexes carried with it a fundamental change in the nature of man's self image. No longer did nomadic bands of wild men and women roam the Earth in search of wild game and bottles of beer on the wall. Modern man was only autonomous in the sense that he was held responsible for his screw ups (which always have been and always will be many and varied). Rather than depending for survival upon Nature and their own Dexterity in dealing with the curve balls, storms, plagues, droughts, and ice ages that Nature threw at them, Modern People became dependent upon a colossal bureaucratic godhead made up of other people--and also upon the fickle winds of a synthetic Nature known as Economics. This big change is reflected in those boring one verse songs with the refrain, "second verse,/ same as the first,/ but a little bit louder and a little bit worse." Far removed from the inspirational simplicity of a ninety nine bottle beer party, these "second verse,/ same as the first" songs serve to illustrate the futile repetition of modern life--the nonsensical lyrics becoming louder and worse as modern man runs around in ever smaller and more frantically pointless circles. We will touch on this in more detail later, but quickly allow me to point out that there is a serious difference between a frantically pointless circle and a spiritedly pointless abstract geometrical design.
If the cave dwellers of old represent the prehistoric, mythological ancestors of the modern Autonomous Footsoldier, the modern or Historic age shall arbitrarily begin with the North American Mountain Men of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The arbitrary system of categorization is like unto the system whereby Abraham is the mythic founder of Israel, but Moses and his LAWS begin the historic age. At any rate--The Mountain Men. Here were a bunch of wild haired boys that said, "To hell with sugar cane plantations and tulip speculation, I'm gonna go out into the wild and live by my own DEXTERITY as an Autonomous Fur Trapper. These guys were not the mythic cave dwelling ideal in that they trekked back to St. Louis to sell their season's work to the highest bidder and to blow off a little steam in the Old West Whorehouse. This is an important point: Modern Autonomous Footsoldiers are often hard pressed to live by the whims of pure Nature, but must reconcile themselves with the whims of Economic Nature.
The Mountain Man gave way to the Frontier Homesteader--whose grandchildren became exactly the sorts of communities that the original homesteader had run away from to begin with. This pattern of running away to create anew the same old crap continued until 1900 or 1896 or some damn time when Frederick Jackson Turner told us, "There is no more frontier," and we had to find a new verse to sing over and over again--louder and worse. With no more Natural frontier, the wild men and women were forced to turn their attention toward the synthetic Frontiers: Economics, Social Perspective, Jazz Music.
By several of those absurd coincidences(?) that make history so amusing, the end of the Natural American Frontier came about just as the last vestiges of the aboriginal North American Nomadic Hunter Gatherers were being wiped clean and put out to pasture on The Reservation--AND as massive waves of Modern folks were immigrating from the old world to swell up the big cities--and as the big post industrial boom times came along to create and sustain The Great Twentieth Century American Middle Class. This is going to begin to sound extremely familiar here in a moment. The big, new, semi-affluent population became (SURPRISE!) all high & mighty Self Righteous and decided that their Puritan forbears had probably envisioned a new nation under god with a Constitutional amendment against alcohol. Now that there was no more Frontier for the Autonomous Footsoldiers to run to, the church marms had decided to rub a little salt into the wounds. Of course, there were plenty of isolated Autonomous Survivalist types panning for gold in Alaska and whatnot--heirs to the Mountain Man tradition, but it is the New prohibition era Frontier Homesteaders that we are concerned with. I speak, of course, of the Lost Generation. The hot blooded youngsters of the New Middle Class did not leave Ma & Pa forever to go off to Oregon and plant crops, they left to go out to the Jazz club with flasks of bathtub gin stuffed into their garters. They left to go out carousing in Chet Morton's Jalopy and to dabble with premarital sex in a Rumble Seat. The writers and artists often left the country all together to live in old world cities where Bohemian deviance was old news and the church marms had long since gotten used to it.
Then came the big stock market crash--Economic Nature strikes back. The depression brought lots of folks back into the fold. When the status quo is already an Economic Wilderness, the impulse to run away to the Wilderness doesn't burn so bright in the mind's eye of the next generation. Plus, the next generation came along just in time to be able to participate in The Big One--WWII: The Combined Forces of Good Versus the Combined Forces of Evil. The Big One put the U.S.A. on the world map and helped the economy to boom again. Bring on the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac was drafted into the Navy, then kicked out of Boot Camp for being "schizophrenic." Jack Kerouac was the very model of Beat era Bohemian discontentedness. He didn't give a good god damn about the Combined Forces of Good--he wasn't marching in Anybody's parade!
However "groundbreaking" On the Road may have been, it was Alice B. Toklas who invented the Hash Brownie and the beat generation didn't go anywhere that nobody hadn't already been. The main things that distinguished the Beats from their predecessors were forays into Eastern Religion (the oldest trick in the Book of Bohemian Discontentedness) and their crossover from Swingin' jazz to Bebop--which, incidentally came about as a direct result of Black Jazz Musicians becoming fed up with catering to the POP! cultural mainstream and seeking to develop a new musical form that only insiders could understand--the Boppers were the Frontier Homesteaders and the Beats were the tagalongs that eventually caused the next generation of freaky jazz musicians to head off again into the wilderness in search of Free Jazz and Electronic-driven Experimental Jazz.
All criticism aside, the Beats were Frontier Homesteaders of a sort--and the outpost of Urban, Intellectual tradition that they established in the social wilderness was soon subjected to mass immigration by each succeeding wave of Baby Boomer Hippie as they came of age and affected their measure of Bohemian discontentedness. The Lost Generation/Beat Generation Frontier Outpost soon swelled well beyond capacity and became a large City on the Hill--teeming with millions of malcontents, fueled by self righteous indignation and the idea that "everything would be O.K. if only everyone were like US." Remember the impulse to prohibition?
With the sixties generation New Ideology bursting at the seams, it was only natural that folks once again attempt to emigrate to potentially greener pastures. "Fourth verse/ same as the first/ a little bit louder and a little bit worse!" It is nineteen seventy five. Every other boy in the Hometown High School yearbook has long hair. The football team smokes reefer and congressmen are wearing extravagant sideburns. Many people who ten years earlier had been questing for Autonomy gave up and became Born Agains, Greenpeace members, Hare Krishnas, or Investment Bankers. Who will speak for the youth? The Eagles? I don't think so. Allow this mixture to ferment for a few years and the next thing ya know you've got Luke Skywalker riding in to save the day on a white horse and wearing a purple mohawk and large size safety pin nose ring. This particular generation chose to give up the Big Illusion and call themselves what everybody had been all along--PUNKS! To the incessant twang of an untuned Hondo Stratocaster, The Punks sang a drinking anthem called "Fuck It All! Ya Can't Beat The System, But Ya Sure As Shit Can Make A Lot Of Noise And Have One Hell Of An Offensive Party" (at least that's what the good punks were shouting). The Autonomous Instincts of the hopelessly naive youth strike again--keeping the world safe for cultural rEvolution! In time, however, even this frontier outpost fell victim to the ravages of social progress and also to Madison Avenue's uncanny ability to roll with the punches. It was not long before Punk developed into a spandex wearing glam rock affair that was so entirely disheartening that no one could find anything in it to complain about except sexist lyrics and the potential threat of the Mystical "backward masking" of Satanic messages. This sort of stuff was so dull that most people simply went to college to get engineering degrees and dismissed music all together in favor of Michael Jackson's Big Choreography.
And so, with the entire Punk movement effectively reduced to a mere Gelding offshoot of good old three chord rock 'n' roll, the Economy kept on truckin' and we the population subjected ourselves to a bland and tasteless summarization of the past fifty years of social trend. Yes folks, I speak of the business BOOM of the "Retro-" mentality. Why create anything of any cultural interest when we can simply watch "Back to the Future," buy the "Freedom Rock" C.D. set off of T.V., listen to the Wacky Guys in the Morning Oldies Station radio show on our way to work, and celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Woodstock with a Pepsi Cola staged Superevent? Those boys on Madison Avenue started with the fifties and worked their way up--selling a happier, "less confusing" time gone by. When the Retro-Advertising campaign caught up to the present, they had to stop and delve back further into history--so that now we can take Swing Dance lessons every Wednesday night anywhere in America.
It's not that oldies radio or the resurgence of swing is a bad thing. We should all be aware of our cultural heritage. POP! music for the Twenty First Century SHOULD be a composite of everything that came before. It should simply happen as a part of the creative process--NOT as a result of a demographic market research project. It is the task of the Autonomous Footsoldier to look unflinchingly at his or her social identity and to be willing to honestly own up to whence it came. In as much as we consume product, we are product. We must as individuals be aware of this. Life on the cusp of the New Millennium is BOTH a 99 Bottle beer party AND a second verse to the same old song. It is true. There is nothing worth accomplishing, yet non-accomplishment for its own sake will not satisfy the creative or adventurous mind. In the face of such overwhelming, documented Truth....what, you may ask, is there then left to DO? It is my hope that I have already answered this question, but I will answer it again. You must choose some arbitrary thing to accomplish that is so obviously pointless and absurd that you will never be in any danger of mistaking your mission in life for something that is absolutely important and which must be seen through at all costs. The ends never justify the means quite simply because there are no Ends--there are only the Means. The Ends is a trick of the mind. The Ends is the funniest trick that any god ever played on Its creation. Listen closely and you will hear the gods laughing at you. Don't get offended--the sound of the gods laughing at you is your sign that you have figured as much shit out as you will ever need to know.
Now, lest I come across as "preachy" or "political," let me hasten to explain that I neither offer nor endorse any solutions to society's cultural ills. No, friends, I stand on the fringe and have no plans to emigrate into the mainstream of even the most Utopian of societies. What I offer--outside of a little mildly amusing, sarcastic humor--is simply an historical perspective that you the reader may use as a tool for understanding your own role in the multi-billion celled organism that is humanity.
History textbooks are riddled with absurdity--and it goes well beyond the beatnik's bongo parties. From Tycho Brahe's exploding bladder to Napoleon's "short guy syndrome," the catalysts of historic development have always found their source in the individual's basic inability to cope with his or her own psychology. The timeless question must forever be asked: "Man of Action...or Raving Lunatic?"
I have read that fine art forgeries often go undetected for several generations, but become extremely obvious once the fashionable styles of painting have evolved some distance from the styles of the period in which the forgery was painted. Once there is a little historical perspective, the unconscious stylistic qualities of the forger stand out against the stylistic qualities of the time during which the forgery was supposedly painted. In much the same manner is revealed the subconscious social perspectives upon which historical events were based. Hitting still closer to home, you could likely use this technique to discover why you yelled at your girlfriend last night, or dropped out of college five years ago, or why you keep doing the same old crap time and time again--"another new job/ same as the first/ you're a little more desperate and your life is getting worse."
and now, if you'll excuse me, somewhere in this damn town there are ninety nine bottles of beer with my name on them.