Counterculture, Counterpower? "Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation"

Harma, Tanguy. 2021. 'Counterculture, Counterpower? "Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation"'. In: The Present and Future of Beat Studies 2021: Tenth Anniversary Conference of the European Beat Studies Network, The Present and Future of Beat Studies. Online 29 - 31 October 2021. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

Through their works, the Beats articulated the clear perception that the contemporaneous conditions of reality in America, right there and right then – the Cold War and the restrictive policies that stemmed from it but also heteronormativity, domestic comfort, social conformism as well as artistic and literary conventions – constituted an essential menace for the creative self. Kenneth Rexroth, prolific poet, essayist and spokesman for the Beat generation, declared in 'Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation' (1957) that 'it is impossible for an artist to remain true to himself as a man [or a woman], let alone an artist, and work within the context of this society'.

In this short presentation, I will unravel the dialectical interplay brought forward by Rexroth in his essay between dominant power – a power ingrained in the sociohistorical and cultural environment of the post-war moment – and the strategies for resistance deployed by the Beat movement, conceived as a major countercultural force of the 1950s.

The Beat collective response to the post-war status quo was interpreted by Rexroth as a strategy of disengagement: taking the form of a disaffiliation from social reality and from its main institutional relays, a seditious revolt aspiring to self-liberation which remains highly ambivalent. While this disaffiliation may constitute a privileged position of autonomy and even a source of artistic serenity, its most radical form cultivates a deliberate alienation from contemporaneity, an alienation so extreme that it borders on a solipsistic condition largely detrimental both for the self and for the collective. It is this balancing act between power and the (in)capacity to subvert its sway without running the risk of self-collapse that I will seek to trace in this paper, a reflection initiating a broader discussion of the politics of resistance of the Beat counterculture.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)

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Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


29 October 2021Completed

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Date range:

29 - 31 October 2021

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Date Deposited:

09 Aug 2022 15:55

Last Modified:

10 Aug 2022 15:23


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