“(It was) the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle 60’s was a very special time and place to be a part of, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time in the world. Whatever it meant. -Hunter. S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The Tunnels events that took place in Grahamstown up until 2013 were a particular and profound phenomenon for those that truly experienced them.
The earthly, fast and thudding pulse of electronic trance music, the subversive and celebratory culture of irresponsible drug use and the dirty and unapologetic attitude with which the self-acclaimed vagrants of popular culture brought to these events created a banner under which the self-imagined anti-culture children could identify and dance into the early hours of the morning.
And for a year, I was alive and dancing in this corner of time in the world.
And only now is it clear what it meant.
Like most, and I think this is an important consideration, I didn’t approach the culture ideologically. I was interested in psychedelics, but I was a far cry away from spouting on about the spiritual significance of crystals.
Most people within this culture I think started out similarly, with a set of common interests that soon put them in contact with a plethora of associated nonsense. The only thing that inhibited some from continuing with this culture while others dove deep into it, in my opinion, was a natural sensitivity to bullshit. And bullshit much of the culture was.
Just like any toxic sub-culture, the Tunnels phenomenon can only romantically described from the inside, and criticized from a healthy distance. What from within seemed like a celebration of individuality, a testament to the potential of marginalized social identities to find a place in modern society, now seems an ugly and immature testament to thoughtless escapism and childish, self-destructive tendencies.
And yes, many of us may have been 19 at the time, but many people at these events were bordering 30 years of age, and we were all doing the same thing while pretending to do something else. And in this I think is the core hypocrisy of the Tunnels phenomenon and it’s associated ‘Hippie’ culture.
Although it may be more clearly defined for some, most people consider as an imperative their own journey of personal growth, refinement and emotional maturity. The apparent consideration of this journey in the very culture of Tunnels and the modern Hippies supposedly set it apart from other cultural groups in the small University town of Grahamstown.
It was, if not personally relevant, a space where personal relevance was considered important, and that for me was enough.
But this culture and its proponents perpetually failed to marry these considerations with an equally, if not more important one; a healthy skepticism and a disposition against delusion and superstition.
‘Be whoever you are, celebrate life and its often-unconsidered blessings and appreciate the diversity of thought and opinion.’ These tenants were often colored by an utter disregard for what was fundamentally knowable, and what was clear-cut delusion.
The hypocrisy of the modern hippie culture is that it is so conceptually a friend of individuality, while so actively undermining individualism. It is so anti-intellectual, so culturally normative and so painfully insubstantial when compared to the universal aims and beliefs it aligns itself with that when these people speak to each other about crystals, the power of the moon and fucking chakras, it perceptively cringes under the weight of its own conceited hypocrisy.
Why can being a good person not have anything to do with your arbitrary spirituality? Why do we have to reduce the complexity and nuance of our natural world to nonsensical, unqualified statements like ‘everything happens for a reason’ and ruminating glassy-eyed on the innate beauty of the human soul?
The immaturity, the intellectual laziness, is just astonishing, especially in a University environment.
The reason high school was so restrictive and irrelevant for so many people is that it celebrated uniformity. There were six or seven archetypes everyone aspired to, and most people ended up placing themselves on a spectrum of how successfully they reflected the attributes of these archetypes. These identity-markers of Jock, Nerd, Slut, Poppie and the like are supposedly done away with in University, made irrelevant in the face of the great potential for individuality in different people seeking out their own relevant interests within the context of personal growth, intellectualism and emotional maturity.
And yet, despite this more mature and subjective environment for self-identification, the hippie culture celebrates the uniformity of thought and identity that is the hallmark of high school’s immaturity and the need to fit in. The normative social influence, the influence of social pressures to inform and adopt normative behavior, is a concept I keep finding myself coming back to when thinking about this community.
This, then, is my analysis of the hippie culture as it appears at Rhodes University, but is mirrored as far as the thoughtless appropriation of dreadlocks has penetrated into the world.
Your ‘spirituality’ is in fact your psychological development. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this. I know it feels profound when you use a belief system rather than an education to inform your identity and sense of self, but it’s true. Even if all the unqualified statements you confidently gurgle into what moments ago were perfectly rational and adult conversations were true, objective natural truths need not have anything to do with your identity.
I believe in gravity and I am grateful for it, but gravity has nothing to do with me and I don’t celebrate the reality of gravity because of how much it means to my life. That’s considering the fact that we actually know that gravity exists, unlike chakras, the healing power of crystals or water remembering a drop of tomato juice from years ago while also managing to forget all the shit it’s had in it.
If you aggrandize life and your experience of it too much, you will begin connecting dots that don’t exist. Soon, those nonsense dots will from a great constellation of bullshit that you will use, just as a ship does, to navigate the waters of your personal experience. To you, using only these reference points to guide you, you will appear to be sailing smoothly, but will in fact be hopelessly lost, far from shore and without any realistic means to check your progress.
The Tunnels and Hippie movement is supposedly, and I emphasise the word ‘supposedly’ very strongly here, informed by a reaction to modern consumerism, and the same thing could be said about the original hippies.
But that is where the similarity ends.
The hippies left the economic safety and comfort of their supportive families to create a new, radical culture that fore grounded individualism and a return to a simple (albeit chemically altered) reality.
In a massive contrast, the modern hippies have an economic barrier of entry, requiring a degree of support from their families in order to afford the aesthetic and the drugs that constitute their ‘anti-consumerist’ culture.
The hippies of the 1960’s were considered a scourge, a socially regressive and dangerous community that were given the full derision of the 1940’s -1950’s conservatism that raised them. The shifty eyes you get when refusing to wash your hair or wear shoes indoors does not equate, and associating this experience with that of the actual love revolution is a profoundly callous, inaccurate and downright ignorant move on the part of children who buy drugs with Mommy and Daddy’s money.
The 60’s that Thompson described may never have existed, a nostalgic fantasy marrying the desire for an imagined past with the narrative formation every person goes through as the future starts becomes less exciting and the past more appealing. At least he was speaking about a real movement, a real culture that even if unrealistic was a response to a real social crises. The same thing cannot be said about the Tunnels era, and much less can be said about the hippie culture that exists today.
So good riddance to Tunnels. If only the Hippies went with it.
To read a less biased and more objective article, have a look at this take on the history of Tunnels; http://oppidanpress.com/a-tunnel-full-of-history/