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  • "Fun Actually Was Becoming Quite Subversive":Herbert Marcuse, the Yippies, and the Value System of Gravity's Rainbow
  • Molly Hite (bio)

The title quotation, "fun actually was becoming quite subversive," is not from Gravity's Rainbow, although I would argue that Thomas Pynchon's great novel takes it for granted. The observation is part of Abbie Hoffman's testimony during the 1969 trial of the Chicago Seven, young men from various antiwar and revolutionary groups who were accused of disrupting the 1968 Democratic Convention. In statements carefully scripted to be cued by his attorney, Leonard Weinglass, often with unintentionally hilarious interruptions by prosecutor Richard Schultz and judge Julius Hoffman, Abbie observed, "fun was very important … it was a direct rebuttal of the kind of ethics and morals that were being put forth in the country to keep people working in a rat race." Furthermore, he added, the rat race, the nine-to-five, five-day-a-week workload at the center of the lives of most middle-class Americans even during the economic boom of the late 1960s, "didn't make any sense because in a few years … machines would do all the work anyway" (Hoffman).

Hoffman's point, familiar at the time to sociologists and cultural theorists as well as members of the counterculture, was that the work ethic had lost its economic rationale.1 It persisted [End Page 677] because it served the disciplinary aims of social control, not because it was necessary for anyone's survival or even relative prosperity. Developments in technology, especially, had drastically reduced the need for human labor and could be expected to reduce this need more drastically in the near future. The 1968 Yippie manifesto from which Hoffman quoted near the end of his testimony called for "[a] society which works towards and actively promotes the concept of full unemployment, a society in which people are free from the drudgery of work, adoption of the concept 'Let the machines do it.'"

In our current situation, the 1968 call for full unemployment seems ironically prophetic, while Hoffman's announcement that "there was a whole system of values that people were taught to postpone their pleasure, to put all their money in the bank, to buy life insurance, a whole bunch of things that didn't make any sense to our generation at all" foreshadows all the aging baby boomers (and other U.S. citizens as well) in unprecedented personal debt, without savings, many without retirement benefits or health care. This fall from the ideal of a benign technology enabling a benignly truncated but still nurturant welfare state is one of the reasons new readers are increasingly puzzled by the themes and even the narrative tones of Gravity's Rainbow. Through most of its apocalyptic chronicle of the trajectory of the V–2 Rocket—for Pynchon, the leading edge of Western technological development—the novel still sustains an alternative vision of technology as redemption, notably in its account of Rocket-Manichaeans, "who see two Rockets, good and evil … Enzian and Blicero[:] a good Rocket to take us to the stars, an evil Rocket for the World's suicide" (727).

So the notion of fun as subversive is connected to a particular vision of a society served by laboring machines. It also has a larger and more comprehensive theoretical elaboration in radical political, social, and psychological writings of the 1950s and [End Page 678] 1960s. In particular, it draws on Herbert Marcuse's 1955 cultural synthesis Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, republished in 1966 with an important "political preface" and by that time one of the core texts of the New Left. Although generations of Pynchon critics have filtered the novel through philosophers and social and political thinkers—from Machiavelli to Nietzsche to Max Weber to Norman O. Brown to Gilles Deleuze and Fe´lix Guattari—and especially through important movements in academic theory since the mid-1970s, surprisingly little work considers seriously the social, economic, and political writing that was new and widely discussed in the 1950s and 1960s, the period of Pynchon's life in which he conceived and wrote Gravity's Rainbow.2 This is only to point...


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