A cultural history beneath the left : politics, art, and the emergence of the underground during the Cold War




Cashbaugh, Sean Francis

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When critics use “underground” to describe cultural matters today, its meaning is clear: it describes something obscure, transgressive, and opposed to the “mainstream.” This is a relatively recent understanding of the term. It was not used to describe cultural practices until after World War II. Before then, it denoted an imagined space linked to allegedly deviant ways of life. After the war, artists claimed this imagined space as one of political and creative possibility. By the mid-1960s, underground film, music, comics, literature, and newspapers were recognizable cultural forms with their own institutions of production and exchange, a multifaceted alternative culture known as “the underground.” Both the history of “the underground” as a distinct cultural formation and the history of the idea of “underground culture” have received inadequate attention by scholars. In response, this dissertation traces the cultural history of the underground, detailing its emergence, consolidation, and collapse. In chapter one, I argue its appearance must be understood as the irruption of a political-aesthetic imaginary that valued radical social exteriority and the historical agency attributed to criminality. Chapter two explains how it first appeared in the postwar era among black ex-Communists, anti-totalitarians, and amateur psychoanalysts who rejected Marxist proletarianism and celebrated the historical agency of criminals. Chapter three explores how white hipsters of the 1950s imagined the underground as an alternative nation organized around identities the Cold War imaginary rendered deviant: non-whites, queer people, and the allegedly mad. As detailed in chapter four, they inspired artists of the 1960s to reject dominant cultural institutions and aesthetic ideologies in the name of subterranean autonomy. They established independent institutions committed to exploring taboo subjects, resulting in their prosecution under various obscenity laws. This reoriented the underground around obscenity, and led many to embrace the obscene as an aesthetic principle. As explored in chapter five, by the late 1960s, underground institutions expanded so much that its claims to radical exteriority became untenable, leading many to question the notion and ultimately reject it. I conclude with a discussion of how the collapse of the underground enabled the emergence of the generic idea of underground culture.


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