What if Chicago had been an orgy?

Notions of play interact ceaselessly with efforts focused on emancipation, pleasure, social protest and pluralistic democracy. [1] While the Yippies and the rock band MC5 offered a bit of playful spectacle in Lincoln Park during the Chicago riots of 1968, it is difficult to confirm they had anything to do with shifting the predominant story line of the streets. Yet storylines were changing everywhere. By 1968, the war was starting to feel interminable. Years of peaceful protests, escalating to angry marches and clashes were not achieving anything significant. And many were contemplating more controversial tactics, including abandoning principles of non-violence.
Tom Hayden and several members of the old SDS leadership called for activists to expose the violence of American democracy at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. Bring out the monster, Hayden suggested. Riots followed yet a phase of movement ended. Much of the counterculture departed demoralized; supporters distanced themselves. Nixon was elected, the Vietnam war continued, and the secret domestic war by the U.S. secret police forces, both FBI and CIA, moved into high gear.
However, many questioned the tenor of the protests. They wondered whether the outcome would have been different if protesters had launched a loving spectacle, rather than a rioting body to be beaten down. What if activists had strived to bring out the best in the police, rather than torment them? What if they had shifted the polemic of protest from confrontation toward joy? Could the dynamics of protest and community building have resulted in a more effective resolution? Shortly after the raucous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Allen Ginsberg was invited to conduct an interview about the counterculture for Playboy Magazine. The poet, a veteran of protests, ruminated about a different outcome in Chicago, had collective energies focused on creating an orgy of activism rather than on a riot. For Ginsberg, there had to be an alternative to Hayden’s bringing out the monster.
Ginsberg described the ways dance and play, yoga and street theater, chanting and singing, could serve as alternatives to the riots and street violence that accompanied the a “Festival of Life” of Chicago 1968 and possibly shift power dynamics.[2] In the face of mass police repression, Ginsberg envisioned, “Organized chanting and organized massive rhythmic behavior on the streets, shamanistic white magic, ghost dance rituals, massive nakedness and distribution of flowers might have broken through the police-state hallucination-politics theater wall.” Ginsberg regretted that there was less of an effort on the part of activists to speak to a generative spirit. “Now, nobody got naked in Chicago, but the few times there was communal chanting of mantras, that proved helpful.” Ginsberg hoped the chanting minimized what could have been a much more dangerous confrontation. “[I]t did stop the violence; it really calmed several scenes where police didn’t have remote-control orders to attack. But it didn’t stop all the violence…”
Rather than a “morbid” uniformity, which most youth groups were rebelling against, Ginsberg called for a reinvigorating “theatricality of disorder” and pleasure capable of cultivating a truly pluralistic democracy, built on a respect for both difference and pleasure. The aim would be to unleash a politics of joy which truly honored the possibility of pleasure and social connection rather than the every day experience of ruthless competition, greed, and war.
Asked by an interviewer if he was kidding, Ginsberg replied that he was quite serious. “Life should be ecstasy,” he explained. “We need life styles of ecstasy and social forms appropriate to whatever ecstasy is available for whoever wants it.” In the months and years to come, the nation would learn more and more about what Ginsberg was talking about with the ascendance of Gay Liberation. Ginsberg’s flights of fancy offer a narrative trajectory for what gay liberation activism would look like. Here, a form of community building would emerge that focused on affect rather than rational ends, with an aim toward a new democracy of pleasure. Herein, democratic ideals including pursuit of happiness found their expression in a movement built on both respect multiple forms of eros and queer difference.
Ginsberg’s musings reflected a growing movement at the time, involving a new cohort of social actors looking to the politics of play as an alternative to both violent confrontation and boring politics. This was a politics which rejected the ruthless use of technology to spread war, the application of logic to condemn sexuality, and the application of rationality of reject personal freedom and liberation. For Ginsberg, playing with power would be far more appealing than overwhelming others or violating Gandhi’s principle of non-violence. In contrast to the violence of the Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany, the Weather Underground in the U.S., the Red Brigades in Italy, and other groups which utilized violence as a lever for social change, non-violent play is compelling. Only months after his 1969 interview with Playboy, Ginsberg stumbled upon the riots which put Gay Liberation on the national stage. ‘They’ve lost that sad look,” Ginsberg would declare exultantly of the newly-liberated protesters.
Out of the ashes of the New Left, Gay Liberation would stress the defense of pleasure as a valid aspect of its agenda. For Ginsberg, whose breakthrough 1955 poem Howl celebrated those who “screamed for joy” while “being fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists,” queer politics offered a rejection of the politics of prohibition in favor of the politics of pleasure, authenticity, and social connection.[3] Play and pleasure, resulting in the connection of performance, would be central to the gatherings of a new tribe which shaped the gay liberation movement in the 1970’s.
While Gay Liberationists embraced the politics of pleasure and play, the practice and philosophy behind it was nothing new. Herbert Marcuse wrote about it; Beat Movement writers as well as the Yippies and Situationists famously practiced it—turning pranks into a work of art.[4] The Yippies made use of absurdist parodies and humor as a tactic to stop the Vietnam War. Rejecting notions of work and social hierarchy, the Situationists put a premium on free expression, play, and sexual liberation. The philosophy was best embodied within the calls for the exhaltation of imagination and desire during the mass strikes in Paris in 1968. Two U.S. journalists witnessed the scene first hand. “This very widespread revolt against the old forms of established authority was accompanied by an acute and profoundly enjoyable sense of liberation,” Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville wrote in Research #11: Pranks! “All sorts of people felt it in all walks of life. A great gust of fresh air blew through dusty minds and offices and bureaucratic structures.”
Building on these traditions, Gay Liberationists were to fashion an entire movement based on the political efficacy of play in action. Many of those who had been involved with anti-war and Civil Rights organizing helped make such a notion a reality.
This spirit helped propel the culture of both New York and San Francisco queer organizing circles. The highly participatory theatrics of San Francisco’s Cockettes thrived in this unofficial fun. Play is always anything but work. As the decades proceeded, this spirit overlapped with the do-it-yourself ethos of punk, AIDS activism and the global justice convergence actions of recent years. These movements embodied the boundary transgressing politics of play. Play vs. work, sex vs. war, pleasure vs. inhibition, if play is anything it is about the dialectics which make pursuit of happiness an authentic dynamic of democratic politics. ◊

1. This piece is excerpted and adapted from a two-volume study on play and social movements (full references will be available in the book version).
2. Citations from Allen Ginsberg in this and the following two paragraphs are from Ginsberg, A. 1969/ 2001. Interview with Paul Carroll. spontaneous mind. Selected Interviews 1958-1996. New York: Perennial/HarperCollins: New York.
3. From Ginsberg, A. 1973/78. Interviewed by Allen Young. Gay Sunshine Interviews. Edited by Winston Leyland. Volume One. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press.
4. Research #11: Pranks! (1987). San Francisco, CA: Re/Search Publications.