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Pirate Radio: British Counterculture and the Hegelian Dialectic

Pirate radio

After the darker novelty of World War II, the postwar era in Britain generally seems to have consisted of a cultural contraction, a retreat into rationalized conformity, a step back from the destructive abyss witnessed by a generation, with the countercultural impulse simmering underground. However, no cultural moment lasts for long, though its effects can be felt long after it is gone. The generally conservative reaction to the horrors of the war, actualized in rationing of food and supplies, which linguistically and archetypally echoes the generally rationalized quality of this era (in Weber’s sense), was itself followed by a seemingly inevitable corrective reaction, embodied in the counterculture, towards freedom, novelty, and the rejection of the privileging of rationality to mediate the reintegration of repressed intuitive, affective, and somatic modes of experience with the predominant modes.


One concrete expression of the impulse towards integrative novelty was the “pirate radio” that sprung up in 1966. As Bob Spitz writes in The Beatles:

Beginning that Easter, a fleet of ‘pirate’ radio ships moored offshore to the east of Essex or Kent, just outside the twelve-mile international-waters limit, and began broadcasting rock ‘n roll on its own terms. Radio Caroline, and later Radio London, showcased the latest records, describing what was fashionable and delivering a new language, sprinkled with words like fab and gear and dig. British kids of every class could agree, in the abstract at least, that music cut through all the bullshit and eloquently expressed all the feelings—frustration, fear, rage, and passion—they’d suppressed for so long (545).

The counterculture’s rebellious attitude, framed in the outlaw image of the “pirate,” generated a new avenue by which the often conservative and repressive forces of British media, controlled largely by the government, could be circumvented. Rather than lobbying, in the conventional manner, for the inclusion of more rock and roll in the BBC’s programs, the counterculture took matters into its own hands and created an alternate medium through which to communicate its emerging world view. This liminal enterprise, just on the edges of the legislative, political, and geographical structures of Britain, served as a venue for the dialectical return of the repressed as G.W.F. Hegel describes it in The Phenomenology of Spirit:

It is the whole which, having traversed its content in time and space, has returned into itself . . . the mediation of its self-othering with itself. . . . It is the doubling which sets up opposition. . . . It is the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as its beginning; and only by being worked out to its end, is it actual. . . . But this result is simple immediacy, for it is self-conscious freedom at peace with itself, which has not set the antithesis on one side and left it lying there, but has been reconciled with it. (7, 10, 12)

Interpreted as a semiotic system, the postwar structure of British media literally went outside itself in a process of “self-othering” to look back upon itself in the form of the pirate radio ships, operated primarily by English people, broadcasting back a “doubling” reflection of English culture to itself, which was then synthesized with the “mainland” culture in the form of what came to be known as the counterculture. Thus, the rising counterculture was given a voice through music and the novel language of the hipster cognoscenti that ultimately transformed British culture by being “reconciled with it” in the locus of every young person who participated in the counterculture, eventually to become the next generation enacting the emergent, synthetic “simple immediacy” as the new main stream of British culture. And, as Spitz suggests, the primary factor that the predominant culture had “suppressed for so long,” at least in one of its inflections, was “feelings,” gesturing towards the affective quality of experience that was the “antithesis” to the rationalized quality largely characteristic of postwar Britain.


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