(b. 1933 in Chicago, Illinois), social philosopher, educator, and prolific writer who was a primary authority of the 1960s American counterculture (a term he coined), and a critic of techno-science society and culture.
The son of Anton Roszak, a cabinetmaker, and Blanche Roszak, a homemaker, Roszak has consistently shunned interviews and any publicity about his life and writings. Apparently, his Roman Catholic parents immigrated to Chicago, where Roszak went to public schools. He received a B.A. in history from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1955, and a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University in 1958. He taught history at Stanford University from 1959 to 1963, and during 1964 to 1965 he edited the socialist periodical Peace News in London, England. Since then he has taught at California State University, Hayward.
Roszak's prolific writing career began in 1966 when he contributed articles to the Nation, a liberal weekly, and the Atlantic, a monthly. In 1968 he edited the socially committed anthology The Dissenting Academy. This book appeared at the cusp of student protests against the Vietnam War. Its academic authors (including the linguist Noam Chomsky and S. M. Rosen) vigorously criticized the decline of educational standards and the slack social consciousness of pedantic teachers. With his wife, Betty, Roszak coedited Masculine/Feminine: Readings in Sexual Mythology and the Liberation of Women (1969), an anthology exploring American myths of sex and the women's liberation movement.
Roszak's reputation as a dissenting liberal intellectual became nationally known to the general public with his book The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (1969). A best-seller that quickly went into many printings, it distilled his previous writings and foreshadowed his subsequent fiction and nonfiction.
More than any other single book, The Making of a Counter Culture constructed a consistent and coherent map of 1960s radical sensibilities and enabled the values and lifestyles of young people to be understood by their parents. In fact, a New York Times review praised the book's reasonable tone, "scrupulous" qualifications, "prudent" reservations, and linear narrative. Although Roszak remained skeptical and ambivalent when detailing the counterculture, he nonetheless concluded his book with a visionary utopia that could be made possible only by such a culture. That is, Roszak coined the term counterculture, explained it in this book, and made a career advocating it.
Counter Culture is essentially divided into four areas of argument. The first characterizes the Establishment in its own terms. The bulk of the book describes "the still un-completed" rebels who counter that culture. A third argument describes further sources of the Establishment's unquestioning ideals: rational criticism, scientific objectivity, emotional discipline, and traditional cultural values. Roszak concludes with a description of his own potential utopia.
In his introduction Roszak characterizes the Establishment as the dominant "culture of white, western masculinity," with an unthinking and all-accepting idolatry of constructing and maintaining an urban industrialization of the world. As a modern, industrial society, Western culture is essentially repressive and destructive to the full range of human(e) thought and feeling. The Establishment is, moreover, dominated by (social) science's mystique of "reason." That is, Roszak argues, it tolerates only the "impassioned ideology handed down to us from our ancestors of the Enlightenment."
Here, "reason" was seen by the counterculture as itself unreasonable. Because of generations of dominance of the Establishment, "reason" became a repressive rationality. It was now a mystique or "single vision" mindset that was "a total cultural and political program." The only sane reality in the Establishment is the one created by intellectual and technocratic elites and bureaucrats. Thinking individuals lived such absurd, dehumanized lives that their chronic natural and spiritual alienation—"the ideology of objective consciousness," the ideal and method of science—now felt normal.
It was the distinct and separate, or "counter," culture that rebelled against the Establishment's instrumental use of "reason." Roszak presented what he called "the leading mentors of our youthful counter culture," who have "called into question the conventional scientific world view, and in so doing have set about undermining the foundations of the technocracy." The bulk of the book provides narrative sketches of dissenters' intellectual, spiritual, and artistic achievements, including the fractured utopianism of Paul Goodman, the poetic mysticism of Allen Ginsberg, the glossed Buddhism of Alan Watts, among many others.
Roszak admired Beat generation poets like Ginsberg for their roles as mystics, but not their writings per se. He found rock music "too brutally loud and/or electronically gimmicked up." The drug culture of the hippies and of LSD guru Timothy Leary was too decadent for Roszak because a "psychedelic crusade" ended in the absurdity "that personal salvation and the social revolution can be packed in a capsule." He noted, though, that such dissidence provided the only actual social revolution.
Ultimately for Roszak, a countercultural revolution "will free us from our alienation" because essentially it is "therapeutic in character and not institutional." The counterculture of the young was forging new lifestyles and developing a new consciousness that rejected repressive rationality in favor of a new visionary wholeness.
Roszak concluded his book with his own renewing utopia based on the shaman. For Roszak it was the shaman "who enters wholly into the grand symbiotic system of nature, letting its currents and nuances flow through him." This mystical utopia would allow an environmentally friendly new tribe of individuals to live a more simple and free lifestyle. The countercultural fringes of America become central.
Roszak's book became a classic sourcebook and guide to 1960s radical sensibilities. His subsequent fiction and nonfiction repudiated the Establishment and advocated the mystical. Where the Wasteland Ends (1972) describes how "the essential religious impulse was exiled from our culture, what effect this has had on the quality of our life and course of politics, and what part the energies of transcendence must now play in saving urban-industrial society from self-annihilation." The Unfinished Animal (1976) examines mysticism and occultism as cures for a sick society. Fiction works like Pontifex (1974) and Bugs (1981) are morality plays of science fiction in which the magic of an individual battles against the terror of the computer age. Roszak became a leading proponent of mysticism and one of the foremost opponents of techno-science.
Roszak's The Making of a Counter Culture was the best known of his sustained critiques of American technocratic society, an authoritative primer of alternative living styles. Its title brought the term counterculture into the popular consciousness. It is still useful as a barometer of the period, indicating also the beginning of what today's academics call a postmodern approach to cultural studies. For Roszak himself, his book encapsulates his preoccupations of dissention against rational techno-science and cultural values.
There is no biography of Roszak. For the full text of the review of Counter Culture referred to in the essay, see the New York Times Book Review (7 Sept. 1969). Reviews are also in the Village Voice (30 Oct. 1969) and the (London) Times Literary Supplement (16 Apr. 1970). See also James Hitchcock, "A Short Course in the Three Types of Radical Professors," New York Times Magazine (21 Feb. 1971).
Patrick S. Smith