PRINT May 2008

MAY ’68


Spread from Suck 8 (June 1974). Editorial staff during an office break on the beach.

PERHAPS THE GREATEST promise of May ’68 arose with an eruption of spontaneity that, as it interrupted the dreary process of national politics, suggested it might indeed be possible to live differently. But could this difference arise over the course of time without the tempestuous cycle of action and reaction? For when the barricades were dismantled, the fabric of daily life remained largely unchanged. As Dutch Fluxus artist Willem de Ridder said of his postwar generation in a 2005 interview with the Los Angeles–based magazine Tease, “Our upbringing was death. Father was the boss. Strict rules. The word ‘sex’ alone was enough to give you a red face.” Not surprisingly, then, after 1968 the word liberation would have to migrate from a term used to describe anticolonial struggles to include almost all aspects of daily life. In the ensuing half decade, sexuality became central to these investigations, as it was seen less as a key to the individual psyche than as a line of flight from the inevitable “productive” boredom of monogamous hetero life. “Liberated” sexuality was a means of disrupting the social order, of rearranging the power dynamic at the heart of the nuclear family and forging new forms of alliance.

Reflecting this emerging perspective were a number of publications, from grassroots to academic, that began in the late 1960s. Perhaps the most daring among these was the Amsterdam-based underground newspaper Suck—The First European Sex Paper, of which De Ridder was one of the publishers. Founded in London in 1969 by veteran underground publishers Jim Haynes and Bill Levy, Heathcote Williams, Jean Shrimpton, and Germaine Greer, Suck celebrated hippie free love and gay and lesbian sex as nonprivatized forms of sexuality, a way of transporting people from the confines of the self into new, shared realms of pleasure and friendship. Immediately after its creation, the magazine moved its production to Amsterdam to circumvent English censorship and obscenity laws. (De Ridder, who was already involved with the Fluxus-influenced underground magazine Image Storm, became the copublisher at that time.)

Over the course of the publication’s intermittent production until 1974, the editorial group’s location rotated among cities in Europe and the United States, during short, intense periods when the group lived together; Suck also produced the Wet Dream Film Festival of banned erotic and pornographic films in Amsterdam, which took place in 1970 and 1971, and published a book (Wet Dreams: Films and Adventures) commemorating the festivals in 1973. “Everyone was lovely,” Williams recalls of the era in Haynes’s 1984 autobiography, Thanks for Coming! “Suddenly the vision of everyone Coming Together could only be physical . . . no longer intellectual. The sex politics of Reich, the belief of Auden that we must love one another or die, the holy orgiastics of Willie Blake, God’s Rake, had to burst through. . . . Suck was a display of pantheistic and revolutionary Schtupping. You cannot fuck everyone in the world, but at least you can try.” As Suck lore has it, the magazine’s first editorial meeting took place in the London offices of the Transatlantic Review, during which Williams and Shrimpton excused themselves to make love in an adjoining room. “Later,” Haynes wryly writes, “I looked back on this meeting as our first mistake. We should all five have made love together.”

It’s a curious fact that nearly all sexual libertarian movements are historically viewed with a wink and a chastising sneer. For example, in her biography of the nineteenth-century sexual pioneer Havelock Ellis, Phyllis Grosskurth concludes that his nonmonogamous marriage to bisexual writer Edith Ellis was proof that he “simply could not stand the intimacy of a married relationship”; besides, Grosskurth states, Ellis was probably impotent. Underlying such remarks is not a belief that sex itself is disturbing—after all, American pornography is a $12-billion-a-year industry, outgrossing professional sports—but rather the shock that an otherwise credible intellectual would propose new models of sexuality by using his or her own life as an example. Even as recently as 2003, cultural critic Laura Kipnis avoided the first person when discussing monogamy and its discontents in her cogent polemic Against Love (2003), precisely to evade such censure.

And yet, it is nearly impossible to talk about sexuality without somehow implicating yourself. We are all sexual beings, after all, and to put yourself into the equation is to forgo false dignity even if it is also to risk being seen as ridiculous. Suck’s founders faced this risk head-on, in a spirit of serious play, placing themselves at the center of every debate. “My reason for joining the editorial board,” Greer later wrote, “was that we needed an antidote to the exploitative pornography of papers like Screw and Hustler. I tried to insist on using male bodies as often as female, invading the privacy of the editors, naming names in sex news, and developing a new kind of erotic art.”

Indeed, Suck’s editors regularly invaded their own, and one another’s, privacy to brilliant effect. They often appeared nude in the magazine and commented freely on their sexual encounters, including those with each other. As Haynes writes of a similar experience working on an earlier publication, It, which he founded in London in 1966, “It was almost the policy of the paper that while we would report news, it was far more interesting to make news—to create events for the underground community, give those events a great deal of advance publicity and then report on them after they had happened.” Influenced by Situationism and Fluxus, both It and Suck delivered high art’s cultural visions and strategies to a non–art world audience. The proliferation of the underground press during these years made it possible to create a sensational impact with meager financial resources. Cultural intervention was cheap—but in another sense, very costly, because it required a tremendous commitment of personal energy and time.

In the wake of her celebrity after the 1970 publication of The Female Eunuch, Greer refused the “exceptional woman” status accorded by past generations to their pitifully few prominent intellectual women and instead sought total democracy: “I’m sick of being treated differently because I have more intellectual credentials than a girl who sleeps around without the credentials,” she asserted. “My feeling is if there is a whore in the world, then call me a whore.” Like Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke, Greer used her own body as the site of gender polemics. In Suck 6, she condemned monogamy less for the sake of variety than as a means of freeing women from sexual jealousy and the notion of the female body as precious but quickly devalued, diminishing capital. “Ideally,” she states, “you’ve got [to get] to the stage where you could really ball everyone—the fat, the blind, the foolish, the impotent, the dishonest. . . . Everything we do is erotic. . . . People despise their sexuality so much.”

Clockwise from top left: Cover of Suck 8 (June 1974). Page from Suck 6 (October 1971). Germaine Greer, “I Am a Whore.”Page from Recherches 12 (March 1973). Page from Suck 4 (November 1970).

Suck shunned soft porn’s sexual-fantasy storybook style, and nearly all the texts were, strategically, written in the first person. Produced in the context of a larger underground community, the issues contained a large number of contributions written by readers. Texts by William S. Burroughs, Maurice Girodias, Jean-Jacques Lebel, and Roland Topor appeared alongside musings of readers like “Mrs. A.R. of London,” who observed, “Your lovely name Suck . . . is proving to men and showing women that their cunts no longer have to be dominated by a hard thrusting cock.” Sexual practices were described matter-of-factly. In “Ass Fucking Can Be a Lot of Fun,” one female contributor explained: “The first time I was fucked in the ass it didn’t turn me off. The guy asked me how it felt and I said it was like going to the bathroom backwards. Sometimes I really dig it and sometimes I don’t. It’s different each time. What angers me is to be told that it is debasing to me as a woman. My body is my own. . . . No one can tell me what to do with my ass.” Compared with Toni Bentley’s 2004 erotic memoir, The Surrender, on the same practice—“I see his cock as a therapeutic instrument. . . . He fucks me into my femininity”—the Suck essay is refreshing in its attempt to wrest female sexuality from the realm of confession and psychoanalysis.

Total disclosure about all forms of sexual experience not only demystified the sex acts themselves but undermined any mythologizing of the individual speakers. Ideas were always in motion, and no one took him- or herself terribly seriously. Suck’s writers and editors argued constantly and publicly among themselves in the paper; there was never any “last word.” While in our decade the “personal” has become so debased by its confessional-therapeutic connotations that numerous artists choose to anonymize their production, Suck’s authors viewed disclosure not as personal narcissism but as a means of escaping the limits of “self.” Liberated sexuality was an exchange of information: “Confrontation,” writes Greer in Wet Dreams, “is political awareness.”

Considering Greer’s statement, it’s interesting to note that in Paris, the immediate cultural repercussions of May ’68 were drawn in narrower terms. The New Left continued its critique of institutions, targeting the university in particular; for years, the influential Tel Quel group’s tepid response to the luminous notion that the personal is political was to simply conflate Marxism and psychoanalysis. It was not until 1971, when gay activists and lesbian feminists joined to form the Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire (FHAR, Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action), that sexuality and daily life were seen in this context as the locus of politics. In an April 1971 manifesto published in the leftist newspaper Tout!, the group outrageously proclaimed:

We are more than 343 sluts
We have been buggered by Arabs
We are proud of it and we will do it again

Supported by Tout!’s director of publications, Jean-Paul Sartre, FHAR’s activities also drew the attention of Félix Guattari, who, with Gilles Deleuze, had just finished writing L’Anti-Oedipe: capitalisme et schizophrénie (Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1972). Wasn’t FHAR’s demand for visibility, the group’s scathing contempt for family life and the received ideas of the New Left (“Workers of the World, Fondle Yourselves!” was one of FHAR’s slogans), a live demonstration of the theories of social deterritorialization Guattari and Deleuze strove to elaborate? “Making love,” they famously wrote in Anti-Oedipus, “is not just becoming as one, or even two, but becoming as a hundred thousand.”

In March 1973, Guattari coproduced with FHAR a special issue of Recherches, the house journal of the government-funded sociological research institute he directed, Centre d’Études, de Recherches et de Formations Institutionnelles (CERFI, Center for Institutional Study, Research, and Training). Titled “Trois milliards de pervers: Grande Encyclopédie des Homosexualités” (Three Billion Perverts: The Great Encyclopedia of Homosexualities), the issue had profound intellectual and legal repercussions. The following month, the issues were seized by police and destroyed; nevertheless, a handful of copies of this extraordinary document continue to circulate. Guattari appeared in court to face obscenity charges and was fined six hundred francs. Beyond the amusing diversion of Guattari’s trial (which he played to the Kafkaesque hilt, questioning the very notion of representation), the Recherches issue was a landmark in the evolution of French cultural politics. The normally staid compendium of academic articles was transformed into a zine, with cartoons and snapshots, personal testimony, erotic drawings, and diary excerpts presented alongside theoretical texts. Numerous revered intellectuals contributed to the issue (their names were on the masthead), but all the work was anonymous, making it impossible to know with any certainty if the drawing of a penis wrapped in a turban was made by Sartre, Michel Foucault, Fanny Deleuze, Jean Genet, Guy Hocquenghem, or one of the issue’s lesser-known contributors.

In his unsigned introduction, Guattari argued that homosexuality could no longer be considered within sociology’s current methodological framework. “It’s not enough to merely ‘give the subject a voice,’” he wrote, “we must create the conditions that make this possible”; not only should homosexuality be depathologized, but gay-rights organizations should stop mimicking heterosexual values in their bid for civil rights. Even then, Guattari anticipated the trend among gay-rights groups to “normalize” homosexuality by replicating heterosexual nuclear “family values.” “May ’68 taught us to read the writing on the walls,” Guattari concluded, “and since then we have started to decipher the graffiti in prisons, asylums, and now, in public toilets.” Recherches 12 was light-years beyond bland institutional critique; in one sentence, Guattari succeeded in equating one of France’s most revered intellectual journals with a urinal.

Thirty-five years later, as Guattari predicted, homosexuality has been largely absorbed into the mainstream only so long as it mirrors heterosexual life. The radical implications of gay lifestyles as discussed in the ’70s, such as in Hocquenghem’s Homosexual Desire (1972), remain marginal. And perhaps even the most “advanced” spheres of cultural discussion have lately demonstrated their timid adherence to convention in this vein—underscoring the real provocativeness and importance of endeavors like Suck and FHAR. The outrage provoked by Andrea Fraser’s video Untitled, 2003, in which she has sex with a collector, further illustrates that while sex may be addressed in high-art practice, it should never be demonstrated by the artist herself, if she wishes to be taken seriously. As Greer wrote in The Whole Woman, her 1999 sequel to The Female Eunuch, “In 1970 the [women’s] movement was called ‘Women’s Liberation’ or, contemptuously, ‘Women’s Lib.’ When the name ‘Libbers’ was dropped for ‘Feminists’ we were all relieved. What none of us noticed was that the ideal of liberation was fading out with the word.”

Chris Kraus is a writer and art critic based in Los Angeles.