Bill Kirkpatrick:  It Beats Rocks and Tear Gas (p. 1)

 
 






"It Beats Rocks and Tear Gas":
Streaking and Cultural Politics in the Post-Vietnam Era



by Bill Kirkpatrick (Denison University)




Streaking … is the latest attempt to erode and destroy convention, decency, and decorum and is primarily an act of … defiance rather than an isolated, innocuous student prank. Its precursors are long unkempt hair, dirty jeans, dirty feet, hippyism, "ups," "downs," LSD, heroin, and so-called total female liberation.

– Murray Elkins, M.D., in the journal
Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality


My gut reaction is that it makes the world safe for goldfish.

– Paul Bohannon, anthropologist, Northwestern University
(qtd. in Judith Martin B14)



    From late January through late May 1974, a wave of "streaking"—roughly defined as running naked in public—occurred in the United States, primarily on college and university campuses; the brief phenomenon eventually spread around the world. Although the exact number of streaks during this time is unknown, one group of researchers gathered data on over 1000 incidents on U.S. college campuses alone (Aguirre et al. 569). Streaking generated significant press coverage and spawned a plethora of streaker-related consumer items including coffee mugs, t-shirts, necklace pendants, "Keep On Streaking" patches, "Streak Freak" buttons, a "Nixon Streaking" wristwatch, pink underwear embroidered with "Too shy to streak," and two dozen novelty singles (one of which, Ray Stevens’ “The Streak,” became a major hit).


    Although some observers were deeply offended by streaking and saw it as (perhaps further) evidence of the breakdown of traditional society, the overwhelming consensus among mainstream social observers in 1974 was that streaking was nothing more than a silly diversion. That consensus view has stuck over the years: Today, streaking's reputation as a harmless and ultimately meaningless fad is effectively uncontested, securing its place in pop culture history next to hula-hoops and pet rocks. Isolated streaks still happen, of course, and still have the power to agitate individual authority figures and, say, producers of live television. But any potential social or political significance the 1974 streaking wave may have held has been evacuated, allowing it to serve as an innocuous marker of a "wackier" era in our cultural memory.


    This enduring trivialization presents a problem for the historian, however, since it represents an essentially anti-historical acceptance of the definitions and meanings given to events in the past by the actors involved in those events. For example, one of the key scholarly histories of the 1970s, Peter Carroll's It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, doesn't mention streaking at all, even though it does reference a host of cultural moments that are more generally agreed to have political significance. The academy's disregard of streaking is generally true of other noteworthy twentieth-century "fads" as well (hula-hoops, panty raids, etc.). In the case of streaking, the consensus view not only erases from the historical record the animated discursive struggle waged over streaking's significance at the time, but also silences streaking's small but telling role in the historical trajectory of conservative cultural hegemony. Why, we might ask, were conservative voices such as the National Review and George Will such ardent defenders of streaking as "apolitical" fun, as a "return to normalcy," while leftists like Marshall McLuhan and many campus activists were silenced or ridiculed when they attempted to ascribe political significance to streaking? Contrary to the dominant narrative from 1974 forward, the story of streaking is not the story of a meaningless fad; it is the story of how streaking was turned into a meaningless fad through extensive discursive effort. At the very least, the fact that a fairly abnormal activity—running naked in public—was widely interpreted as a "return to normalcy" is an act of social imagination whose origins and consequences are worth investigating.


    The cultural analyst seeking to take a second look at this process finds little support in the literature; to the extent that a phenomenon like streaking has been studied at all, it has usually been from a sociological or economic rather than a popular culture perspective. Sociologists—often from that subspecialty called "deviance studies"—can tell us something about how fads spread and how they interrelate with behavioral norms, but they are less successful at telling us what they might mean. Economists, for their part, provide a producer's perspective on how to create (or at least capitalize on) consumer fads; alternatively, they explore fads within their own discipline—the literature on "management fads" is surprisingly extensive. The cultural studies work that has been done on fads tends to address them through the lens of consumption and/or reception and is most interested in questions of pleasure and resistance—useful in understanding fads engineered by the culture industries (e.g. Pokemon) but less successful in coming to terms with more "organic" fads like streaking.


    One of the more productive concepts within cultural studies to help explain these phenomena is John Fiske's notion of the "media event." Widely credited to Daniel Boorstin, the term was brought to greater prominence in the 1990s by Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, who theorized the production of spectacle in the creation of events for mediated consumption. Fiske's contribution was to move beyond a definition of media events as top-down public-relations orchestrations in order to address the role of the popular in their emergence, emphasizing the cultural dimensions of such moments. Certain events capture the public's attention and imagination, he argues, because they provide a discursive site at which societal tensions can be examined and negotiated. Fiske rejects easy distinctions between media events and non-media events:  "We can no longer rely on a stable relationship or clear distinction between a 'real' event and its mediated representation" (2). He sees media events as points of maximum turbulence and visibility for ongoing social struggles that might otherwise remain hidden, "useful to the analyst because their turbulence brings so much to the surface, even if it can be glimpsed only momentarily" (7). Subsequent work has refined Fiske's notion of the media event.  In particular, James Carey, drawing on Benedict Anderson, has connected media events to nationalism in a spatial sense:  media events help construct the symbolic borders of the nation and serve as rituals of inclusion and exclusion for the imagined national community (45).


    This article seeks to expand on Fiske and Carey's work by concentrating on the ways that media events—despite the disembodied and deterritorialized flows of media themselves—are nonetheless anchored to spatial referents that they both depend upon for their legibility and transform through the process of mediation. In other words, media events are capable of reconfiguring spatial relations and remapping social geographies in culturally significant ways, even if these can be "glimpsed only momentarily." In this specific case, streaking rearticulated—however fleetingly—the relationship between the college campus and the broader society at a particularly volatile moment in American history. The university was a problematic social space at the time of the streaking wave: in the American imaginary of the early 1970s, the campus had become a dangerously politicized space, ground zero for the Generation Gap and a place that increasingly appeared to threaten established gender and racial hierarchies with the rise of feminism and civil rights. At the same time, the campus had also become the symbolic locus of national decline, since many Americans blamed this alien specter— an oppositional and confrontational student body—for a host of challenges to "traditional" culture as well as military defeat in Vietnam. Within this socio-spatial context, streaking temporarily effected a dual "reterritorialization" of the American campus, with mainstream and conservative forces asserting primacy and control over the university as a social space against formations representing the political left. On the one hand, streakers themselves reterritorialized the physical campus, cloaking themselves in nostalgia and a discourse of apolitical "student-ness" in order to deploy an assertive semiotics of white masculinity in the face of direct and indirect threats to white male hegemony within the university setting. On the other hand, mainstream observers used streaking to reterritorialize the symbolic campus, constructing streaking as a "return to normalcy" that fit particularly easily into a conservative backlash politics of nostalgia.  Of course such reterritorializations, like all acts of hegemonic struggle, were necessarily partial, temporary, and contingent.  I emphatically do not claim that streaking was anything more than a small but telling episode within a larger cultural struggle whose political effects mostly played out elsewhere. However, the racialized and sexualized politics of nostalgia within which streaking was made to fit—the rhetorical move that reasserted an imagined 1950s American innocence predicated on white patriarchy following the upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s—has been anything but trivial. Streaking did not launch that political movement, but it did briefly embody it and cannot be fully understood apart from that context. In other words, streaking didn't do, but it does show.  Its social construction as a "return to normalcy" thus represents one of the early manifestations of a project that culminated culturally and politically in a conservative populism whose repercussions continue to be felt today.


Note

This paper is provided under a Creative Commons for-attribution, non-commercial, share-alike license.  For all other uses, contact the author at mwkirkpa@gmail.com.  The article will be appearing in the Journal of Popular Culture in 2008. 


Please cite as:


Kirkpatrick, Bill. "'It Beats Rocks and Tear Gas': Streaking and Cultural Politics in the Post-Vietnam Era." Journal of Popular Culture (forthcoming, 2008).

 



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