Kristoff Kerl on ecstasy, cultural revolution and counterculture in the 1960s-1970s

Every year, our CSMCH-IASH Fellows present their work to the Centre’s research community. This year, it was the turn of Kristoff Kerl (Koln) to discuss some of his work-in-progress on Western countercultures in the 1960s and 1970s. Rory Scothorne sends this report – and you can follow the link below to hear Kristoff discuss his work in a short interview with the Centre director, Emile Chabal.

On Tuesday evening, students packed out a basement room to explore the radical, mind-expanding possibilities of sex, music and psychoactive substances. Kristoff Kerl’s talk on “Ecstasy and Cultural Revolution” never risked turning into an impromptu rave, but it did offer some valuable insights into the ambiguous “politics of ecstasy” which suffused the western countercultures of the 1960s and ‘70s.

The structure of Kristoff’s talk

“Ecstasy” here means not the eponymous drug – not popularised until subsequent decades – so much as a type of experience, in mind and body, which countercultural theorists believed could overcome the neurosis, repression and violence of modern life. Kerl focused on West Germany, but the counterculture he described was spread across the western world, from a focal point in Berlin to London, Berkeley, Paris and even – albeit much more muted here – Edinburgh.

The various strands that made up this diverse and complex drift against an equally vague cultural and social order shared a conviction that a particularly insidious form of social power was exercised through culture, and had to be challenged there too. This included areas that had been hitherto less politicised, such as bodily and sensory experience. For theorists like Sven Reichardt, Peter Bruckner and Raymond Martin, counterculture meant the pursuit of authenticity and liberation against the “alienation of the senses” and “sensorial deformation” that resulted from repressive structures like the bourgeois family, the state and the workplace, and were reinforced through much of mainstream culture. Overcoming this could be achieved, individually and collectively, through various experiences of “ecstasy,” which was portrayed as a kind of psychic weak spot in the walls of alienated life, attained via things like sex, dancing, confrontations with the police, yoga and psychedelic substances.

Historically, psychedelics – along with other, more established mind-altering substances like alcohol – have been viewed by some radicals as a means of reinforcing the status quo, enabling temporary escape rather than emancipation. The new counterculture of the ‘sixties, however, saw ecstatic experience as a means of self-improvement, enabling the reshaping of the self by making and reflecting upon new, horizon-expanding experiences.

It was also framed as an ingredient of collective action: “have a joint, transform your hatred into energy,” as one slogan put it. Yet the old concerns remained – theorists like Bruckner argued that there was also an “ecstasy of affirmation” or “ecstasy of philistines”, whereby drugs facilitated a retreat into strictly delimited scenes that failed to challenge the wider social order. Ecstasy had, therefore, to be somewhat deliberate and political if it was to produce radical change.

“Ecstasy” is therefore politically ambiguous, and Kerl demonstrated similar concerns in its application to pop music, sexuality and transnational networks. The music producer and festival organiser Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser was also a prominent countercultural theorist, and argued that pop music risked producing an order-affirming ecstasy if it didn’t break down the barriers between performers and listeners – something that could be achieved through rhythms that “let the masses go crazy,” elaborate light shows and the heightened sensory experience enabled by psychedelics.

Psychedelics were also seen as a means of heightening sexual experiences and reducing inhibitions, allowing people to discover their authentic selves. But this radicalism was hollowed out by the often highly heteronormative and patriarchal views of its advocates: acid-evangelist Timothy Leary, for instance, saw homosexuality as a perversion to be cured by LSD.

Psychedelics also played a role in the formation of new transnational countercultural networks, with Berlin becoming an international capital of ecstasy thanks to the greater availability of substances and the localised networks that grew around them. Kerl’s account of the international “hippy trail” – travelled and promoted by figures like Allen Ginsberg – stressed the role of orientalist caricatures. Counterculturals believed that the experience of psychedelic ecstasy was heightened by the innate authenticity of places that had been reimagined from afar. In fact, such far-flung experiences often happened in places frequented by westerners, allowing expat communities of ecstasy to form at sufficient distance to preserve the exoticism of foreign cultures through closer contact.

Angela Bartie (Edinburgh) offered a short comment, which was read in her absence by Centre director Emile Chabal. Angela noted Edinburgh’s own role in the currents of transnational counterculture. Amongst other things, she pointed to the small rhino’s head sculpture on the Informatics Building that commemorates the old site of Paperback Books, established in 1959 by the American Jim Haynes, who became a key participant in international countercultural networks.

Reflecting on Haynes’ involvement in founding Suck – Europe’s first “sexpaper” – and the Wet Dream Film Festivals in 1970-71, Bartie considered the heavily gendered politics of counterculture that Kerl had also mentioned. In its celebration of sexual “ecstasy”, how far did countercultures incorporate perspectives which challenged the male gaze rather than reinforcing it? Bartie noted the testimony of Sheila Rowbotham, whose memoir stresses the immense pressure on women in the 1960s to “liberate” themselves into a (hetero)sexuality that was still defined by and for men. Bartie’s comment reinforced Kerl’s own suggestion that the countercultures of the 60s and 70s were defined by highly contradictory tendencies – ones which could incorporate alternative cultures into existing power structures even while attempting to challenge them.

Understanding that complex process of incorporation – which Kerl mostly just hinted at – would mean a longer view, and I would have liked to hear more about his sense of the broader historical context. Is there a longer tradition of the “politics of ecstasy”, going back through Walter Benjamin’s experiments with – and writing on – Hashish, into the lifeworlds and politics of interwar surrealism, and deeper still into the intoxications of Baudelaire and Dumas? How does this carry forwards, too, into the chemically-fuelled intersection between rave culture and “DIY politics” of the late 1980s and ‘90s? Answering these questions would be a much bigger project, but Kerl’s work provides a stimulating basis for further exploration.

Rory Scothorne is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of social movements, the development and contestation of the public sphere in the twentieth century, and the political thought of the radical left. His thesis focuses on the relationship between the radical left and Scottish nationalism from 1968 to 1992. He is a CSMCH steering committee member.