Tuesday 1 May 2012, 14:11

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

Tagged with:

This Thursday Londoners will vote to elect a new city mayor, and I thought it would be a good moment to put up a great documentary about how Norman Mailer stood for Mayor of New York in 1969.

It is a lovely film - directed by a brilliant documentary maker called Dick Fontaine, and beautifully shot in the fluid way of cine-verite back then. But more than that it captures the rise of a phenomenon that has come to dominate (and possibly strangle) western metropolitan society today. It is the rise of the hipster. By this I don't mean the present cliche of the ironic moustaches that live in Hoxton and Hoboken - but a new cultural elite that was beginning to emerge at that time, the rebellious, stroppy bohemians who looked to culture rather than politics to define their identity - and above all their difference from others.

In the film you can see them peeking through in the backdrop of many of the scenes, for Mailer attracts them. In his perverse individualism and rebelliousness - one of his slogans is "We're no good, and we can prove it" - Mailer captured a new sensibility. This was because he combined a revulsion against a tired old culture together with a distrust of the political system, and the hipsters loved it.

But Mailer was a complicated man - and as well as embodying many of the hipster values he was also a perceptive and vocal critic of the new sensibility. Back in 1957 he had written an essay for Dissent magazine called The White Negro. In it he had described how fears of nuclear annihilation had begun to produce a new kind of young alienated being in America. These hyper-individualists trusted only their own feelings and desires and refused to be part of any group or organisation. And in black culture, Mailer said, they found their identity - the culture of the dangerous outsider.

This outsider culture had originally been created, Mailer wrote, by blacks in response to racial oppression and violence. But for the "white negroes" that culture was then co-opted in order to give a meaning and grandeur to their psychopathic narcissism:

"In such places as Greenwich Village a menage-a-trois was completed - the bohemian and the 'juvenile delinquent' came face to face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip. And in the wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry.

So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man's code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro."

Mailer also pointed out that this new breed of "psychic outlaw" could be equally a candidate for the most reactionary or the most radical of political movements. And in the film there is a fascinating scene where Mailer takes on the trades unions on one of the avenues in New York. He tells them that in the past they were a heroic movement - but that now they have become a repressive, stultifying force in society - in particular in the way they are refusing to allow blacks and hispanics to move up society. It is an odd moment because as you watch you realise that it was elements of this rebellious individualism that both Thatcher and Reagan would later harness. And that possibly, if the left had got hold of it earlier, then the history of the West might have been very different.

In the 1970s the phenomenon that Mailer had identified grew massively. And as it did the new cultural bohemians co-opted another outsider culture to give themselves further identity - the gay culture that had risen up in response to homosexual discrimination. Then in the 1980s that bohemian individualism became the driving force that permitted consumer capitalism to reinvent itself - because it offered the ever-multiplying hipsters the objects through which to express their rebellious difference.

Today it is possible to argue that we have all become gay white negroes. We all listen to "edgy urban" music, spend our time in the gym, go shopping and groom ourselves, take lots of drugs, have sex and then spend the rest of the time talking to our friends about the impossibility of finding real love and connection in the world.

Far from an expression of rebellion it has become the conformity of our age. And if Mailer was right - that it was a sensibility originally born out of the existential fears of nuclear holocaust - then it lost its real radical purpose when the cold war ended.

Instead the white negro hipster has actually become one of the central conservative pillars of our time - because their real function is now simply to prop up an increasingly shaky system of credit and rolling consumption.

And one wonders where are the real outsiders of out time? Who are the new "white negroes" of our age?

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Tagged with:


Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 21.


    Ive been trying to look on the net for the 'real' Mailer as you've said in your post. Are there any books or articles out there that document the person you really knew?

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I'm glad that intellectual discourse has moved more towards plain clarity instead of the poetic pseudomysticism everything was washed in back then. I don't even know whether Norman Mailer is right or wrong about a White Negro - it's a powerful image that people will be impressed to strongly agree or disagree with, but it's unlikely that many will do so because they've followed and understood his exposition.

    Again: 15:45 - WHAT THE HELL.

    It's not a joke, it's not a story, it's speaker and audience believing that schizophrenic stoner word-salad is a new system of thought and language for hip people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I watched the documentary and its fly-on-the-wall style was quite an ordeal to follow. Basically what I got out of it was Mailer's political opposition was a well-oiled and slick machine financed by huge amounts of money.

    Mailer's platform was idealistic enough: devolve power to neighbourhoods and boroughs so they can select their own police depts, education depts, fire-fighting services and so on. I didn't see much in the film to suggest it had much voter support. I checked other sources about Mailer's platform and interestingly it was supported by an economist Murray Rothbard whose political / economic philosophy might be described as libertarian capitalist; Rothbard was an absolute believer in self-ownership and loathed the idea of taxation, believed government was intrinsically evil and was hostile to socialism. Were he alive today he might fit into the Ron Paul camp though he might have had to be brow-beaten into accepting the US Constitution.

    Mailer was no angel either: at the time the documentary was made, he was well into his fourth marriage and might have had a mistress on the side. He was known to have been violent to his second wife. He was married six times in total and 1980 was a particularly busy year for him: in that year, he divorced his 4th wife, married his 5th wife on 7 November 1980 and divorced her the next day (this was to legitimise her daughter by him), and then married his last wife the same year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    "All in all these things may not look like much, but ive got a feeling we are all in the eye of the storm of something. Perhaps "the on-rush of history" is closer than we think."

    I think that's quite likely too. Though I also think it might possibly have to do with something that's not been discussed, I'm thinking of generations. Politics has been possibly since the 60s and definately since the 80s been dominated by one 'group' of people, the baby boomers. Now that generation is recceding from power, and with it their right-wing consumerist ideals. That in turn changes all the instutions that grew up around these ideas as well.

    That's not to say the whole thing is dead and buried - there are some in the generations that just preceeded the boomers who tend to stick with some of their ideas; let's call them "baby-boomer groupies" for want of a better expression. But as you go down through the age list and further away from that 60s generation the change becomes a lot more noticable.

    I know it dosen't seem like it as these things can take years to complete - the movement of people takes a lot longer than (say) the movement of computer data. Where this leads us to in the years to come I have no idea, however definately some degree of change is on its way.


  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    If I tried my hardest I couldn't think of a better lead-in to my recommendation of "Stuff White People Like" by Christian Lander. In it and in subsequent writing at the identically named website, Lander identifies and lampoons the hypocrisy pretentiousness and narcissism of the current professional class. It will make you laugh out loud. I'm writing from USA but the book should be available world wide. It is more than a humor book but Lander doesn't really call it ridicule. Ridicule is a word *I* like. But here's the news: recent views of the site and Lander's work has become tepid since he has gotten speaking gigs at places like Google HQ. Thomas Frank has noted in "The Conquest Of Cool" that the corporate world will co-opt anything and everything.

    Still, in the little book called "Stuff White People Like" there's plenty of ammunition for writers like Owen Jones (recent author of "CHAVS, the demonization of the working class.") Jones is British but his analysis of the demonization of the working class I could identify with across the board.

    Also of note for AC readers. There's a new documentary called "Paul Goodman Changed My Life" the only documentary on Goodman to my awareness. Here, as with the hip Occupy movement, the question "where are the women?" is apparent. It's no different with Mailer. The punk movement in US had a word borrowed from the French language to identify Mailers's so-called hip white negroes in the new era. That word is "poser." And the hypocrisy of being a poseur with the $1000 (USD) chief petty officer coats and Greek fisherman caps and other regalia simply identifies them that much more quickly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I was speaking to a priest recently. He wasn't at all bothered when I told him I was an Atheist. But he was very concerned when I told him that I didn't believe in romantic love either.

    I can't help feeling as if 'love' is the new Religion for our age. People no longer care if you don't believe in God. But they get freaked out when you start questioning recieved ideas about love...

    I know people 'feel in love' from time to time. But in my opinion it is a mass delusion promoted by the elite to keep society tied together. That might seem a silly thing to say - but mass delusions are common and powerful. Take the 'vanishing penis epidemics' we see today in Africa:


    Personally. A society where every TV show, movie and song is (often) devoted to promoting the ideal of love (and it's triumphs and disasters) is alot like North Korea where the masses are brainwashed into adoring their Dear Leader.

    I am sure the love we feel for friends and family would remain the same even if they were never portrayed by the media. But - to me - romantic love is something learned and programmed into us by society. We have a very decadent take on this compared to most other periods in history - and most other places on Earth (where arranged marriages are still common).

    Love is a placebo. The belief in it makes it self-fulfilling. I have trained as a hypnotist - and a similar thing takes place in those environments as well. If a person 'thinks' he is hypnotised - then he will act out as if he is. Even though he is not actually hypnotised. He trips himself up into acting hypnotised because he - at an earlier stage implicitly accepted that hypnosis is 'real'. When it fact hypnosis is no more 'real' than the concept of 'ghosts'. The very concept of hypnosis (much like Keyser Soze in 'The Usual Suspects') which he may have first come across decades earlier is the thing with the power. It is the concept - and not the person using it on stage which does the work of 'hypnotising' someone.

    Anyway - I think this moment is an interesting one for society. We have cast away our beliefs in god and politics. And we now worship at the altar of 'love'.

    What will happen when that goes as well? The idea (and it is an idea) of Romantic Love is only about 600 years old. Funnily enough - it first gained prominence here in England - when poems and stories first started to explore the idea of love over-powering the hearts and minds of men and women. Who then rebelled against the arranged marriages which were then prominent throughout Europe.

    And from that - to today. We have an idea which is very useful for a stable consumerist society. More than helping Hollywood sell movie tickets - the idea of love distracts people from higher goals. And keeps them busily being busy worker bees producing economic value which is then extracted by their loving wife and the government.

    Or something like that...

    I am no opera fan. But from what I can tell - Mozart addressed a smiliar point in his work 'Idomeneo'.

    Joe Mckay

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.


    Interesting read.

    I'd question your statement that "the idea of Romantic Love is only about 600 years old," since examples of what you might be describing can be found in many classical texts -- Penelope perhaps being an archetype for this kitsch love you speak of.

    At least for me there is a logical dilemma inherent in questioning the objective reality of something which is admittedly abstract and subjective, like love and even God (depending on one's definition, taking any religion literally allows for that "god" to be objectively questioned). Love exists only as symbols, the word 'love' of course being one of them, and these symbols are evidently real things. Therefor to say "I don't believe in romantic love" you must inevitably acknowledge romantic love. Even the rejection of an idea or symbol is a form of belief.

    Without claiming that love is fabricated i think your argument still stands, modern media uses the whole concert of human 'emotions' and the ideas surrounding them as a 'placebo.' Perhaps this isn't a conscious act of oppression, but merely a reflection of how these things function on a personal level for many people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    To quote John Gray "behaviour is more important than values".

    I never liked Mailer - some of his ideas may have been interesting but his wrting never appealed and his behaviour - as outlined in some of the comments above - was on occasion appalling.

    Not everyone in the metropolitan elite behaves like a metrosexual. I don't like shopping, don't take lots of drugs and don't over groom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    @joe_mckay, @Dubsalenty:

    If you haven't already read this, you may want to take a look at Adam's post on 'Learning to Hug' from October last year. It relates quite well to what you are discussing, I think.


  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I am, sort of, in agreement with the first post. I'd modify that agreement with reference to the post that mentions poseurs.

    Being an 'outsider' has become largely about striking a pose ... whether ideological, aesthetic, based in identity politics, etc. One shows one's commitment by displaying the requisite symbols, and by a sense of outrage.

    Ok, maybe that's too harsh. Or maybe not.

    I'd suggest the outsiders of today need less Ginsberg, and a whole lot more Gramsci. Which is not to say that I don't appreciate the power of the Beats' cultural critique. But without some notion of engagement, of organic intellectuals building a historical bloc in Gramsci's language, the critique is ever doomed to become simply fashion.

    Engage, engage, engage. High youth unemployment. A disillusioned middle class. Environmental crises. Spiritual zerrissenheit. The linkages are there to be made. But what the unifying force?

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Sedgley I only knew two of the girls who talked about Mailer's sex operation and King Sized. I was not a client. One of the girls was living in Paris. She was close to my ex there who runs The Musee Roy Adzug. We have not conversed in years. There was a strong political presence,so handle with care.

  • Comment number 32.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.


    A fine statement on Obama and his enablers over the past four years. Yes we've strayed away from Mailer but for those interested in EJK's post, there is a very good transcript of a speech given at the Left Forum recently by Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report blog. It quashes the "lesser of two evils'' argument often given by the enablers:


    It's waaaay better to hear Ford deliver this speech and for that there is an archive program of Five O'Clock Shadow from WBAI in New York City.


    (The Glen Ford segment begins about a third of the way into the stream audio.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I love being a Metrosexual. And Mailer was right, the unions did discriminate against blacks and hispanics, as well as supporting backwards macho social issues, and have been a marginalised political force ever since.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Interesting for sure - but really how relevant to the London mayoral elections? I think not. You are loosing it Adam. Starkey, Mailer and Curtis are all similar in the sense that when they observe the perceived deterioration of a culture they blame it on outsiders - the 'whites have become black', or the 'new white negro' and 'gay white negro'.
    Seriously Adam, who is the gay white negro?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.


    Yeah a lot of unionists are still socialists who like steel toecapped boots and The Clash and dislike anything effete, and they chafe against those who want to emphasise tolerance and minority interests. This antipathy is not all for obviously wrong reasons though: the metrosexuals really do tend to be atomised self-regarding individualists and the socialists really do have a vision of something greater than themselves. The socialist unionists think that the socialist utopia is a goal that subsumes this or that group wanting its own practices fully accepted.

    It's interesting how you summarise their view as 'backwards macho social issues' - are you referring to a strong manufacturing base under worker control? Is that macho? What macho views do unions support?

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    New York unions are most definitely not socialists. The only tolerance and minority interests they have ever empahsasised with are those of the white male working class. They are atomised self-regarding clans, who have little interest in social justice for anyone but their families. That has prevented them from being taken seriously in their own backyard. Remember the Hard Hat Riot: during a Vietnam war protest in NYC's financial sector in 1970, it was the crew doing construction on the World Trade Center attacked the protestors. It was no spur of the moment act (although I could easily see how it could be), but was deliberately planned by union leaders. And that's 42 years ago - I suspect they are even more socially conservative now. They certainly were Reagan's biggest fans.


    Seriously, I've seen these groups up close and they are the shock troops for any kind of socially progressive movement. Nobody in the urban left trusts them one bit. God help one of their kids if he turns out Metrosexual!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I meant shock troops AGAINST any kind of socially progressive movement. Wishful thinking meets Freudian slip.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    " At five minutes to noon, about 200 construction workers
    converged on the student rally at Federal Hall from four directions.
    Nearly all the construction workers carried American flags
    and signs that read "All the way, USA," and
    "America, Love it or Leave it." "

    Oh dear...

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    @ Agent00Soul: Trade unions reflect the values of their dominant member groups that founded them. Since most trade unions here in Australia were founded by white working class men, it follows that their stand on most political, social and economic issues has tended to be conservative. In the past, the unions refused to admit women as members and were early supporters of the White Australia policy (which restricted non-white immigration) as far back as the 1890s.

    As in the US, union membership in Australia has fallen due in part to the negative blanket stereotyping unions receive in the media as hives of socialist activity (when the majority of them are actually politically conservative) and to general economic changes and restructuring which has meant the collapse of manufacturing in both countries and a greater dependence on resources and service industries.

    The only really militant left-wing union we had here that fit the popular stereotype was the Builders Labourers Federation which supported rights for indigenous peoples, opposed Australian participation in the Vietnam war and conducted green bans around inner-city Sydney to preserve heritage and environmentally sensitive areas that are now major tourist attractions. The BLF was deregistered in the 1980s due to corruption charges and now only exists in Queensland. Currently the most militant union in Australia is the Electrical Trades Union of Australia whose Victorian branch left the Australian Labor Party in 2010.

    I believe that most if not all unions in the US including the Teamsters (who used to support Reagan and George H W Bush) now support the Democrats so they have changed over the years since the Hard Hat Riot.


Page 2 of 3

This entry is now closed for comments

Share this page

More Posts


Wednesday 25 April 2012, 11:06


Friday 11 May 2012, 13:02

About this Blog

This is a website expressing my personal views – through a selection of opinionated observations and arguments. I’ll be including stories I like, ideas I find fascinating, work in progress and a selection of material from the BBC archives.

Blog Updates

Stay updated with the latest posts from the blog.

Subscribe using:

What are feeds?