OCTOBER 11, 2020
MONTHS INTO THE PANDEMIC and adapting to the challenges of working and parenting while “sheltering in place,” I began to read Matthew Ingram’s Retreat, an eerily pertinent exploration of wellness and the counterculture. By the time I reached its conclusion, my hometown, among so many others on the West Coast, was facing mandatory fire evacuations. Emails and text messages were pouring in from friends and co-workers who’d lost their homes, looking for places to stay and wondering how to navigate these overlapping crises, grappling with the pressures to evacuate and quarantine. Meanwhile, friends across the country who’d already endured mass layoffs were being threatened by mass evictions. And it was somewhere between these crises that Ingram’s concept of retreat struck me as increasingly urgent — bound up in the idea of shelter, troubled by the conditions of evacuation and eviction — yet at the same time, unbearably distant.
Beyond the fatalities and suffering caused by the coronavirus itself, this pandemic includes a dramatic surge of “deaths of despair” caused by alcohol, drug overdose, and suicide. Substance abuse, more generally, is on the rise. And there has been a spike in domestic violence, including sexual abuse and child abuse. Imagined as shelter, households have absorbed much of the shock, rendering this never-ending series of catastrophes private, while becoming more and more precarious.
What does it mean to retreat under these conditions?
Unenviably, after years of research, Ingram’s book invokes this question for us today, in the midst of circumstances that could not have been anticipated. In rich interview-based accounts of countercultural practices and theories of wellness, Ingram’s writing is at its strongest — whether focused on macrobiotics, Buddhism, psychedelia, or more — when particularizing the counterculture’s history of collectivism, often overshadowed by the individualism of its libertarian and liberal tendencies, and their neoliberal recuperation. This communal dimension of wellness, he explains, is grounded in “the principle that in fixing yourself, in working at the personal axis, you played an important role in the transformation of society.” Through the “sometimes-terrifying psychic experiments of the counterculture,” Ingram conceptualizes wellness most clearly, and persuasively, as a practice of “intense integration, from overwhelming encounters with the self” that is “not simply on a personal level, but one which [must be] forged on a communal and often international scale.”
Ingram’s sweeping, often captivating narrative scratches open different questions about the self and the communal — grazing, but letting slip, some of the key dynamics of our conjuncture. It finds itself in a moment as much defined by social distance and quarantine as by mutual aid and historic uprisings, caught between the demand to retreat and longings for revolution. These dynamics are worth thinking about. But how? And with the use of what histories and concepts? These may not be the questions foreseen by this book, but they will certainly be asked of it.
Ingram’s version of “the counterculture” should be approached with caution. It’s a version that boomer children like myself became suspicious of throughout the ’90s, and that turned farcical as we watched romantic antiwar protestors mutate into reluctant Bush supporters before nightfall on 9/11. This is a counterculture prefigured by the Beats, actualized by the hippies, eclipsed by figures like Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, featuring songs by The Grateful Dead and places like the Haight-Ashbury, then bastardized by Steve Jobs and so on.
At the same time, Ingram does much to assure his more skeptical readers. “[It is easy] to be cynical about it,” he explains: the counterculture’s “vital energy and psychic explorations” were sold by the music industry, “its use of psychedelics rapidly sheared into phantasmal entertainment and poly-drug addiction, and the methodologies of wellness it espoused degraded from transformative potentialities into mere salves.” To Ingram’s credit, Retreat usually avoids the romanticism for which there are plenty of opportunities, already taken by so many books of this sort. Although he hardly questions who the counterculture was, inheriting this historical imaginary in familiar and problematic ways, he facilitates a process of questioning what the counterculture meant — and what it would become.
As indicated by Retreat’s subtitle, “How the Counterculture Invented Wellness,” invention is among Ingram’s primary concerns. This is perhaps why Retreat’s overall aspiration with the counterculture is not theoretical, but devoutly genealogical. This is never quite explicitly stated, but it becomes apparent in early chapters, which examine the forefathers and leading men of the counterculture. Whitman, Nietzsche, Gandhi, Hesse, Jung, Reich, Marcuse, among others, are brought into this constellation with the Beat Generation and the hip ’60s. “No […] single individual defines the counterculture more completely than Allen Ginsberg,” Ingram claims at one point. Unmistakably, this is a genealogy of great men, mostly white — which was, of course, always the problem with that counterculture.
It remains ambiguous, however, what it means to locate from this history a narrative of inventors specifically. The allure of invention — and the business of inventing — was, after all, among the counterculture major shortcomings, as the story of its seamless uptake by venture capitalism has certainly corroborated. Pre-pandemic, the Wellness Industry was valued at $4.5 trillion.
Ingram’s impulse toward invention, disappointingly, comes to dominate Retreat, jeopardizing the most well-intentioned elements of his project. The logic of invention becomes a way of mapping out the counterculture against its own utopianism — as a vision of white masculinity, down to its very desire to claim ownership over this history and its ideas. Another counterculture is possible, however, and with no need for invention.
Perhaps, then, we should start with Audre Lorde — one of many notably absent figures in Retreat. Since her death in 1992, Lorde has remained a vital political force of the long ’60s, while much of her writing has been extricated and memified. The decontextualization of Lorde’s key concepts, such as “self-care,” are among the many harms done to her work posthumously. By now, “self-care” — conjuring a consumerist vision of spa treatments, yoga pants, and the latest CBD-infused cream or beverage — is none other than a capitalist work ethic: an ideology that imagines care as an indulgence, earned by productivity (e.g., “treat yourself because you’re worth it!”), at the same time as rendering care itself as a matter of being productive (e.g., daily step counts). All of this strays devastatingly far from Lorde’s assertion — however it has been cast across the memescapes of the last decade — that “[c]aring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
“We’re still learning to read Audre Lorde,” Nick Mitchell explains. “We’re still learning to become the collectivity, the ‘we,’ that would make reading Audre Lorde possible.” In their reading of Lorde’s legacy, among broader lessons of Black feminism, Mitchell argues against the “language that Lorde’s name is marshaled to co-sign,” in a series of powerful questions:
[W]hat is the self that we’re talking about when we’re talking about self-care? What is the community that we’re talking about when we move toward the language of community care? And what is the nature of the selves and communities that we invoke in order to politicize care, that necessary work that makes survival and flourishing possible?
Care — that is, the care which is inexorably collective, binding us to each other, invisibly or not — could be imagined as the counterpart to wellness. And what these concepts hold in common also pulls them apart. One cannot be thought without the other, yet, in many ways, this is the attempt of Retreat.
Throughout Retreat, questions of care are everywhere lurking. The most compelling chapters, concerning anti-psychiatry and the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, make the greatest progress toward addressing them. Here and elsewhere, Ingram examines the limit points to wellness, critiquing the ways that this concept today “concerns the maximising of the individual’s potential in a capitalist economy,” which, unlike other elements of the counterculture’s legacy today, “succeeds because while its ambitions are sometimes wrongheaded, confused and feeble, it has made a better fist at realizing them.”
The counterculture “asked profound questions and accordingly received profound answers,” he argues, and “its research results [were] freighted with more possibilities than it could meaningfully implement.” But where wellness has failed, Ingram sees a problem of integration, not a damaged epistemology. Gendered and racialized, care and healing are ways of knowing — everyday practices with deep histories of autonomous experimentation and criminalization, from which another political horizon could be imagined and articulated, whether or not in terms of wellness, whether or not included in the counterculture and its history.
We are, as Ingram’s final chapter suggests, living in a sick world, and the pandemic has only intensified this illness. Diagnostically, Retreat provides frequent insights into the “toxic miasma that today envelops us,” and the ways that wellness, as a potentiality, could be antithetical to capitalist life. But what’s at stake in the idea of wellness in this political moment? And what’s to differentiate this idea, if at all, from whiteness?
Lorde’s death, as Mitchell reminds us, was not a natural death but “an institutionally produced one, a death that was generated at the level of social infrastructure […] an effect of racial capitalism.” During the last years of her life, Lorde wrote constantly of her health, reflecting that the “struggle with cancer now informs all my days, but it is only another face of that continuing battle for self-determination and survival that Black women fight daily, often in triumph.” In a journal entry from November 1986, she describes the way that time has been crucial to her — having the time, and taking the time, despite the requests for medical leave that she was denied in years of treatment. Whether it is called “retreat” or something else, this taking time, as she conveys it, is about healing inasmuch as struggling, and about surviving insofar as being together. “Most of all I think of how important it is,” she writes, “for us to share with each other the powers buried within the breaking of silence about our bodies and our health.”
Focusing on issues of collective well-being seems now, more clearly than ever in my lifetime, to be integral to how people are approaching revolutionary struggle. So often political work (like all work) is imagined through self-imposed austerity, stoicism, and sacrifice. But out of everything that the pandemic has brought with it, this radical confrontation with care is quite remarkable, and utopian.
The backlash to the counterculture “gave us the Eighties,” Ingram writes, “a decade it seems we still occupy.” In this regard, Retreat is a narrative firmly, even stubbornly situated in the post-’60s — at its most generative, expanding on Fredric Jameson’s long ’60s against the “nostalgic commemorations of the glories” or “abject public confession of the decade’s many failures and missed opportunities.” The ’60s, as Jameson suggested in his 1984 essay “Periodizing the ‘60s,” is a juncture of “immense freeing or unbinding of social energies, a prodigious release of untheorized new forces” coinciding with the “enlargement of capitalism on a global scale.” This dialectic at work in Jameson’s text is vibrant throughout Retreat, while also in desperate need of its own periodization.
The question of how to engage with the ’60s, after the post-’60s, is by no means a recent problem, but one which has evolved against a long process of capitalist recuperation. We could speculate about when the end of the ’60s ended, just as many have speculated about when it began. But these questions no longer do us much service, if they ever did, and that’s because we are not, despite Ingram’s suggestion, at yet another interval of the long neoliberal ’80s, so defined by its gutting of a ’60s that could have been. By now, we are somewhere else entirely.
In September, the sky was bright orange. Ash fell like snowflakes, covering the ground. A strange sense of relief came when the air quality finally dropped below 500 — still well into the by now limitless level of “extremely hazardous.” And rumors spread with the wildfires of an Antifa conspiracy, bringing white militia out to patrol evacuation zones fully armed. There isn’t something in the air — there’re so many things in the air. Revolution? Apocalypse? Civil war? The sky, I keep thinking, is everywhere. There is no retreat.