Pratiques et Discours de la Contreculture au Québec by Jean-Philippe Warren and Andrée Fortin (review)
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Warren, Jean-Philippe and Andrée Fortin – Pratiques et Discours de la Contreculture au Québec. Québec: Les éditions du Septentrion, 2015. Pp. 266.

In their new book on counter-culture in Quebec, Jean-Philippe Warren and Andrée Fortin introduce a welcome layer to the story of Quebec’s New Left in the 1960s and 1970s. To date, most writing on the period by both insiders and academics (including Warren) has focussed on waves of political activism or the organized bodies that sustained a radical critique of society for most of the 1970s. Warren and Fortin add to our intellectual understanding of the new left through their description of an ambiguous counter-culture that at times provided linkages between feminist, environmental, cooperative, nationalist, and even communist movements, and at other times delineated the differences between them. The ways that counter-cultural practices and discourses facilitated everyday connections between groups and individuals in 1970s Quebec help explain the rapidly fluctuating landscape of the new left as well as its relationship with the commoditized mass counter-culture of the 1980s.

Warren and Fortin are primarily concerned with understanding the intellectual contours of the counter-culture scene. How did those people who lived by the principles of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” find commonality with more structured groups who promoted a specific political program? How did counterculture intellectuals reconcile the desire for personal freedom with their collective goals? Why was it so easy for the capitalist class to appropriate the symbols of the cultural “underground” and market them to a mass audience? To answer these questions, the authors deconstruct the intellectual production of some of the more prominent figures in the movement, locating these actors in both a local and global context. We learn that many Quebeckers discovered counter-culture through their travels to places like Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, or after listening to Sgt. Pepper on one of the rapidly growing community radio stations. In Montreal, locals interacted with American draft dodgers who introduced them to the thriving counter culture south of the border. Quebeckers were, however, not simply passive consumers of an American phenomenon, but articulated a uniquely local version through underground journals like Mainmise and Logos. One influential counterculture intellectual, for example, combined the aspirations of nationalists and hippies through the search for a global village, playfully referred to as Kébèk, in which individuals would find community through their connections to the earth. Warren and Fortin also demonstrate how many hippies drifted in and out of other political organizations that were particularly prominent in Montreal, explaining how their turn to living otherwise was a reaction to these other groups’ increasingly rigid vision of collective struggle.

The authors conclude their study at the end of the 1970s, which they contend marked the decline of a counter-culture as a marginal phenomenon and its appropriation into a broader popular culture. One of the strengths of this book, however, is that the authors do not depict this shift as an inevitable transition driven only by market forces. Instead, they describe the internal struggles that plagued different wings of the counter-culture movement. Founders of collective [End Page 728] living situations, for example, often quickly abandoned their projects after discovering that residents chose to pursue personal fulfilment over contributing to the collective. The failure of these utopian projects reflected a more general fragmentation and demobilization of the new left at the end of the 1970s, contributing to an intense sadness that permeated Montreal’s activist communities into the 1980s.

What makes Pratiques et Discours original is that it is based on archived materials that intellectuals within the Quebec counter-culture produced themselves, chronicling the evolution of the scene (at least partially) as internally constituted. Compared with books that have depicted hippies as naïve or drug addled, this is a breath of fresh air. There are also, however, disadvantages to this approach. Most of the excerpts that the authors include from memoirs, interviews, and periodicals tend to speak in universal terms, and do not reference specific times or places, making it difficult to understand the scale or specifics of the scene they are...