The Evolution of a Meme Cluster: A Personal Account of a Countercultural Odyssey through The Age of Aquarius

Victor Marsh

Abstract


Introduction

The first “Aquarius Festival” came together in Canberra, at the Australian National University, in the autumn of 1971 and was reprised in 1973 in the small rural town of Nimbin, in northern New South Wales. Both events reflected the Zeitgeist in what was, in some ways, an inchoate expression of the so-called  “counterculture” (Roszak). Rather than attempting to analyse the counterculture as a discrete movement with a definable history, I enlist the theory of cultural memes to read the counter culture as a Dawkinsian cluster meme, with this paper offered as “testimonio”, a form of quasi-political memoir that views shifts in the culture through the lens of personal experience (Zimmerman, Yúdice).

I track an evolving personal, “internal” topography and map its points of intersection with the radical social, political and cultural changes spawned by the “consciousness revolution” that was an integral part of the counterculture emerging in the 1970s. I focus particularly on the notion of “consciousness raising”, as a Dawkinsian memetic replicator, in the context of the idealistic notions of the much-heralded “New Age” of Aquarius, and propose that this meme has been a persistent feature of the evolution of the “meme cluster” known as the counterculture. 

Mimesis and the Counterculture

Since evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins floated the notion of cultural memes as a template to account for the evolution of ideas within political cultures, a literature of commentary and criticism has emerged that debates the strengths and weaknesses of his proposed model and its application across a number of fields. I borrow the notion to trace the influence of a set of memes that clustered around the emergence of what writer Marilyn Ferguson called The Aquarian Conspiracy, in her 1980 book of that name. Ferguson’s text, subtitled Personal and Social Transformation in Our Time, was a controversial attempt to account for what was known as the “New Age” movement, with its late millennial focus on social and personal transformation.

That focus leads me to approach the counterculture (a term first floated by Theodore Roszak) less as a definable historical movement and more as a cluster of aspirational tropes expressing a range of aspects or concerns, from the overt political activism through to experimental technologies for the transformation of consciousness, and all characterised by a critical interrogation of, and resistance to, conventional social norms (Ferguson’s “personal and social transformation”). With its more overtly “spiritual” focus, I read the “New Age” meme, then, as a sub-set of this “cluster meme”, the counterculture. In my reading, “New Age” and “counterculture” overlap, sharing persistent concerns and a broad enough tent to accommodate the serious—the combative political action of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), say, (see Elbaum)—to the light-hearted—the sport of frisbee for example (Stancil). The interrogation of conventional social and political norms inherited from previous generations was a prominent strategy across both movements. Rather than offering a sociological analysis or history of the ragbag counterculture, per se, my discussion here focuses in on the particular meme of “consciousness raising” within that broader set of cultural shifts, some of which were sustained in their own right, some dropping away, and many absorbed into the dominant mainstream culture.

Dawkins use of the term “meme” was rooted in the Greek mimesis, to emphasise the replication of an idea by imitation, or copying. He likened the way ideas survive and change in human culture to the natural selection of genes in biological evolution. While the transmission of memes does not depend on a physical medium, such as the DNA of biology, they replicate with a greater or lesser degree of success by harnessing human social media in a kind of “infectivity”, it is argued, through “contagious” repetition among human populations. Dawkins proposed that just as biological organisms could be said to act as “hosts” for replicating genes, in the same way people and groups of people act as hosts for replicating memes.

Even before Dawkins floated his term, French biologist Jacques Monod wrote that

ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role. (165, emphasis mine)

Ideas have power, in Monod’s analysis: “They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighbouring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains” (Monod, cited in Gleick).

Emblematic of the counterculture were various “New Age” phenomena such as psychedelic drugs, art and music, with the latter contributing the “Aquarius” meme, whose theme song came from the stage musical (and later, film) Hair, and particularly the lyric that runs: “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”. The Australian Aquarius Festivals of 1971 and 1973 explicitly invoked this meme in the way identified by Monod and the “Aquarius” meme resonated even in Australia.

Problematising “Aquarius”

As for the astrological accuracy of the “Age of Aquarius meme”, professional astrologers argue about its dating, and the qualities that supposedly characterise it. When I consulted with two prominent workers in this field for the preparation of this article, I was astonished to find their respective dating of the putative Age of Aquarius were centuries apart!

What memes were being “hosted” here? According to the lyrics:

When the moon is in the seventh house
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars. (Hair)

My astrologer informants assert that the moon is actually in the seventh house twice every year, and that Jupiter aligns with Mars every two years. Yet we are still waiting for the outbreak of peace promised according to these astrological conditions. I am also informed that there’s no “real” astrological underpinning for the aspirations of the song’s lyrics, for an astrological “Age” is not determined by any planet but by constellations rising, they tell me.

Most important, contrary to the aspirations embodied in the lyrics, peace was not guiding the planets and love was not about to “steer the stars”. For Mars is not the planet of love, apparently, but of war and conflict and, empowered with the expansiveness of Jupiter, it was the forceful aggression of a militaristic mind-set that actually prevailed as the “New Age” supposedly dawned. For the hippified summer of love had taken a nosedive with the tragic events at the Altamont speedway, near San Francisco in 1969, when biker gangs, enlisted to provide security for a concert performance by The Rolling Stones allegedly provoked violence, marring the event and contributing to a dawning disillusionment (for a useful coverage of the event and its historical context see Dalton).

There was a lot of far-fetched poetic licence involved in this dreaming, then, but memes, according to Nikos Salingaros, are “greatly simplified versions of patterns”. “The simpler they are, the faster they can proliferate”, he writes, and the most successful memes “come with a great psychological appeal” (243, 260; emphasis mine).

What could be retrieved from this inchoate idealism?

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation
Aquarius, Aquarius. (Hair)

In what follows I want to focus on this notion: “mind’s true liberation” by tracing the evolution of this project of “liberating” the mind, reflected in my personal journey.

Nimbin and Aquarius

I had attended the first Aquarius Festival, which came together in Canberra, at the Australian National University, in the autumn of 1971. I travelled there from Perth, overland, in a Ford Transit van, among a raggedy band of tie-dyed hippie actors, styled as The Campus Guerilla Theatre Troupe, re-joining our long-lost sisters and brothers as visionary pioneers of the New Age of Aquarius. Our visions were fueled with a suitcase full of potent Sumatran “buddha sticks” and, contrary to Biblical prophesies, we tended to see—not “through a glass darkly” but—in psychedelic, pop-, and op-art explosions of colour. We could see energy, man!

Two years later, I found myself at the next Aquarius event in Nimbin, too, but by that time I inhabited a totally different mind-zone, albeit one characterised by the familiar, intense idealism. In the interim, I had been arrested in 1971 while “tripping out” in Sydney on potent “acid”, or LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide); had tried out political engagement at the Pram Factory Theatre in Melbourne; had camped out in protest at the flooding of Lake Pedder in the Tasmanian wilderness; met a young guru, started meditating, and joined “the ashram”—part of the movement known as the Divine Light Mission, which originated in India and was carried to the “West” (including Australia) by an enthusiastic and evangelical following of drug-toking drop-outs who had been swarming through India intent on escaping the dominant culture of the military-industrial complex and the horrors of the Vietnam War.

Thus, by the time of the 1973 event in Nimbin, while other festival participants were foraging for “gold top” magic mushrooms in farmers’ fields, we devotees had put aside such chemical interventions in conscious awareness to dig latrines (our “service” project for the event) and we invited everyone to join us for “satsang” in the yellow, canvas-covered, geodesic dome, to attend to the message of peace.

The liberation meme had shifted through a mutation that involved lifestyle-changing choices that were less about alternative approaches to sustainable agriculture and more about engaging directly with “mind’s true liberation”.

Raising Consciousness

What comes into focus here is the meme of “consciousness raising”, which became the persistent project within which I lived and worked and had my being for many years. Triggered initially by the ingestion of those psychedelic substances that led to my shocking encounter with the police, the project was carried forward into the more disciplined environs of my guru’s ashrams.

However, before my encounter with sustained spiritual practice I had tried to work the shift within the parameters of an ostensibly political framework. “Consciousness raising” was a form of political activism borrowed from the political sphere. Originally generated by Mao Zedong in China during the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the vested colonial interests that were choking Chinese nationalism in the 1940s, to our “distant, foreign brains” (Monod), as Western revolutionary romantics, Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book were taken up, in a kind of international counterculture solidarity with revolutionaries everywhere.

It must be admitted, this solidarity was a fairly superficial gesture. Back in China it might be construed as part of a crude totalitarian campaign to inculcate Marxist-Leninist political ideas among the peasant classes (see Compestine for a fictionalised account of traumatic times; Han Suyin’s long-form autobiography—an early example of testimonio as personal and political history—offers an unapologetic account of a struggle not usually construed as sympathetically by Western commentators).

But the meme (and the processes) of consciousness raising were picked up by feminists in the United States in the late 1960s and into the 1970s (Brownmiller 21) and it was in this form I encountered it as an actor with the politically engaged theatre troupe, The Australian Performing Group, at Carlton’s Pram Factory Theatre in late 1971.

The Performance Group

I performed as a core member of the Group in 1971-72. Decisions as to which direction the Group should take were to be made as a collective, and the group veered towards anarchy. Most of the women were getting together outside of the confines of the Pram Factory to raise their consciousness within the Carlton Women’s Liberation Cell Group. While happy that the sexual revolution was reducing women’s sexual inhibitions, some of the men at the Factory were grumbling into their beer, disturbed that intimate details of their private lives—and their sexual performance—might be disclosed and raked over by a bunch of radical feminists.

As they began to demand equal rights to orgasm in the bedroom, the women started to seek equal access within the performance group, too. They requested rehearsal time to stage the first production by the Women’s Theatre Group, newly formed under the umbrella of the wider collective. As all of the acknowledged writers in the Group so far were men—some of whom had not kept pace in consciousness raising—scripts tended to be viewed as part of a patriarchal plot, so Betty Can Jump was an improvised piece, with the performance material developed entirely by the cast in workshop-style rehearsals, under the direction of Kerry Dwyer (see Blundell, Zuber-Skerritt 21, plus various contributors at www.pramfactory.com/memoirsfolder/).

I was the only male in the collective included in the cast. Several women would have been more comfortable if no mere male were involved at all. My gendered attitudes would scarcely have withstood a critical interrogation but, as my partner was active in launching the Women’s Electoral Lobby, I was given the benefit of the doubt. Director Kerry Dwyer liked my physicalised approach to performance (we were both inspired by the “poor theatre” of Jerzy Grotowski and the earlier surrealistic theories of Antonin Artaud), and I was cast to play all the male parts, whatever they would be.

Memorable material came up in improvisation, much of which made it into the performances, but my personal favorite didn’t make the cut. It was a sprawling movement piece where I was “born” out of a symbolic mass of writhing female bodies. It was an arduous process and, after much heaving and huffing, I emerged from the birth canal stammering “SSSS … SSSS … SSMMMO-THER”!

The radical reversioning of culturally authorised roles for women has inevitably, if more slowly, led to a re-thinking of the culturally approved and reinforced models of masculinity, too, once widely accepted as entirely biologically ordained rather than culturally constructed. But the possibility of a queer re-versioning of gender would be recognised only slowly.

Liberation

Meanwhile, Dennis Altman was emerging as an early spokesman for gay, or homosexual, liberation and he was invited to address the collective. Altman’s stirring book, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, had recently been published, but none of us had read it. Radical or not, the Group had shown little evidence of sensitivity to gender-queer issues. My own sexuality was very much “oppressed” rather than liberated and I would have been loath to use “queer” to describe myself. The term “homosexual” was fraught with pejorative, quasi-medical associations and, in a collective so divided across strict and sometimes hostile gender boundaries, deviant affiliations got short shrift.

Dennis was unsure of his reception before this bunch of apparent “heteros”. Sitting at the rear of the meeting, I admired his courage. It took more self-acceptance than I could muster to confront the Group on this issue at the time. Somewhere in the back of my mind, “homosexuality” was still something I was supposed to “get over”, so I failed to respond to Altman’s implicit invitation to come out and join the party. The others saw me in relationship with a woman and whatever doubts they might have carried about the nature of my sexuality were tactfully suspended.

Looking back, I am struck by the number of simultaneous poses I was trying to maintain: as an actor; as a practitioner of an Artaudian “theatre of cruelty”; as a politically committed activist; and as a “hetero”-sexual. My identity was an assemblage of entities posing as “I”; it was as if I were performing a self. Little gay boys are encouraged from an early age to hide their real impulses, not only from others—in the very closest circle, the family; at school; among one’s peers—but from themselves, too. The coercive effects of shaming usually fix the denial into place in our psyches before we have any intellectual (or political) resources to consider other options. Growing up trying to please, I hid my feelings. In my experience, it could be downright dangerous to resist the subtle and gross coercions that applied around gender normativity.

The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, of the British object-relations school, argues that when the environment does not support the developing personality and requires the person to sacrifice his or her own spontaneous needs to adapt to environmental demands,

there is not even a resting-place for individual experience and the result is a failure in the primary narcissistic state to evolve an individual. The “individual” then develops as an extension of the shell rather than that of the core [...] What there is left of a core is hidden away and is difficult to find even in the most far-reaching analysis. The individual then exists by not being found. The true self is hidden, and what we have to deal with clinically is the complex false self whose function is to keep this true self hidden. (212)

How to connect to that hidden core, then?

“Mind’s true liberation...”

Alienated from the performative version of selfhood, but still inspired by the promise of liberation, even in the “fuzzy” form for which my inchoate hunger yearned (sexual liberation? political liberation? mystical liberation?), I was left to seek out a more authentic basis for selfhood, one that didn’t send me spinning along the roller-coaster of psychedelic drugs, or lie to me with the nostrums of a toxic, most forms of which would deny me, as a sexual, moral and legal pariah, the comforts of those “anchorage points to the social matrix” identified by Soddy (cited in Mol 58). My spiritual inquiry was “counter” to these institutionalised models of religious culture.

So, I began to read my way through a myriad of books on comparative religion. And to my surprise, rather than taking up with the religions of antique cultures, instead I encountered a very young guru, initially as presented in a simply drawn poster in the window of Melbourne’s only vegetarian restaurant (Shakahari, in Carlton). “Are you hungry and tired of reading recipe books?” asked the figure in the poster.

I had little sense of where that hunger would lead me, but it seemed to promise a fulfilment in ways that the fractious politics of the APG offered little nourishment. So, while many of my peers in the cities chose to pursue direct political action, and others experimented with cooperative living in rural communes, I chose the communal lifestyle of the ashram.

In these different forms, then, the conscious raising meme persisted when other challenges raised by the counterculture either faded or were absorbed in the mainstream.

I finally came to realise that the intense disillusionment process I had been through (“dis-illusionment” as the stripping away of illusions) was the beginning of awakening, in effect a “spiritual initiation” into a new way of seeing myself and my “place” in the world. Buddhist teachers might encourage this very kind of stripping away of false notions as part of their teaching, so the aspiration towards the “true liberation” of the mind expressed in the Aquarian visioning might be—and in my case, actually has been and continues to be—fulfilled to a very real extent.

Gurus and the entire turn towards Eastern mysticism were part of the New Age meme cluster prevailing during the early 1970s, but I was fortunate to connect with an enduring set of empirical practices that haven’t faded with the fashions of the counterculture.

A good guitarist would never want to play in public without first tuning her instrument. In a similar way, it is now possible for me to tune my mind back to a deeper, more original source of being than the socially constructed sense of self, which had been so fraught with conflicts for me. I have discovered that before gender, and before sexuality, in fact, pulsing away behind the thicket of everyday associations, there is an original, unconditioned state of beingness, the awareness of which can be reclaimed through focused meditation practices, tested in a wide variety of “real world” settings. For quite a significant period of time I worked as an instructor in the method on behalf of my guru, or mentor, travelling through a dozen or so countries, and it was through this exposure that I was able to observe that the practices worked independently of culture and that “mind’s true liberation” was in many ways a de-programming of cultural indoctrinations (see Marsh, 2014, 2013, 2011 and 2007 for testimony of this process).

In Japan, Zen roshi might challenge their students with the koan: “Show me your original face, before you were born!” While that might seem to be an absurd proposal, I am finding that there is a potential, if unexpected, liberation in following through such an inquiry. As “hokey” as the Aquarian meme-set might have been, it was a reflection of the idealistic hope that characterised the cluster of memes that aggregated within the counterculture, a yearning for healthier life choices than those offered by the toxicity of the military-industrial complex, the grossly exploitative effects of rampant Capitalism and a politics of cynicism and domination. The meme of the “true liberation” of the mind, then, promised by the heady lyrics of a 1970s hippie musical, has continued to bear fruit in ways that I could not have imagined.

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Keywords


meme; replicator; consciousness-raising; New Age; Age of Aquarius; LSD; guru; meditation; ashram; 'gay liberation'



Copyright (c) 2014 Victor Marsh

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