The Seventh Seal of Smug

by Erik Hinton

6 October 2008

If hipsters really are the harbingers of cultural end-times, then what sort of apocalypse have they wrought?
Photo (partial) © 

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”—H.P. Lovecraft

Recently, the well-respected pop cultural watchdog Adbusters ran a cover story dubbing hipsters as “the dead end of Western civilization.” As the article’s author, Douglas Haddow, defines it, hipsterdom is an amorphous region of modern culture defined by insignificant affectations: drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, wearing jersey and lamé fabrics (exclusively), listening to Animal Collective. Hipsters are obsessed with their own images; in their vanity and madcap assimilation of cultural detritus, they are more concerned with “consuming cool rather that creating it,” as Haddow puts it. The hipster’s self-involved and isolated maintenance does nothing to feed the dialectic of culture; it doesn’t even rise to the level of being reactionary.

Unlike past social movements, which pretended to bear a social message, hipsters don’t have a philosophy. The hipster seeks only to pose as chic without sacrificing ironic distance. Haddow suggests that the future of a world dominated by hipsterdom is empty, trafficking in pale sketches of culture rather than any true culture: a Baudrillardian dystopia. (Baudrillard, the author of Simulation and Simulacra, described how our symbols detached from stable meaning and posited that society may be primarily composed of such simulacra.)

But is hipsterdom really the disease Haddow would have us believe? Hipsters may instead be the garishly colored and pseudo-nostalgic spawn of a more profound social crisis: The rise of the hipster signals our waning ability to experience the other. The world at large is quickly losing touch with alterity. As a result, we are losing the capacity to create meaning. The shallow virtual reality of hipsterdom—the world remade as simply an empty aggregate of trendy bands and silly clothing—is merely the first indication of this.

When we encounter something which disturbs our casual experience of the world, we must work to understand it; we must try to incorporate the new idea into our previous conceptual construct. We must strive to make the other into the same. We fit foreign ideas into our premade models of the world; we interpolate new acquaintances into our already formed social hierarchies; we look at strange objects in terms of their similaraties with things we already know. This process is eternally frustrated by our limited perspective and, even more fundamentally, by the trace of absolute alterity in other people. Although we can generally understand fellow humans, there remains a germ of irreconcilable difference. This may be termed the trace of radical alterity.

The notion of radical alterity is explored in the philosophy of French theorist Emmanuel Levinas. In Otherwise Than Being, he writes, “Subjectivity…obliged with regard to the neighbor, is the breaking point where essence is exceeded by the infinite”. Whereas we can see a hammer as essentially just a tool, according to Levinas, there’s something about other people that never allows us to just see them as just human beings. Even when we are incredibly close and “know” another person well, something falls outside that forces us to regard them as sui generis. Consequently, we have a necessary responsibility to them—consider how we relate to people as opposed to animals—that stretches infinitely back into history. This unique difference, and the infinite responsibility we bear toward it, is what Levinas calls radical alterity.

As our efforts to understand others continually fall short, the engine of meaning creation is continually driven on as we strive to assimilate. To refer back to Lovecraft, the wellspring of meaning is infinite because of the “inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Not being able to understand, to sufficiently fit otherness into our models, to make otherness into sameness creates meaning. Why? To condense an elaborate argument into inadequate sentences: Because meaning is awarded when otherness intrudes into sameness. On boundaries, meaning is created. In having to strive to make otherness into the same, things become significant.

An illustration may help here: A hammer has meaning different from that of a chair because it not only looks different but has a different use. They have meaning in the context of each other. “If everything was a hammer, wouldn’t there still be the meaning of ‘hammer’?” you may ask. Well, no. We only have a meaning for hammers because there are non-hammers in the world. In a completely uniform world (a void, a spherical white container, etc.), there is no meaning because there is no difference. 

But as our world becomes more thoroughly suffused with wikiality, social networking, and blogs, these tools threaten to endanger our experience of otherness. Social networks and other Web 2.0 phenomena work to integrate vast groups of people across all social and geographic borders, assembling them into neat profiles that are then thoroughly linked through shared interests, schools, communities, and practices. This linking and flattening of experience to items on a digital checklist evaporates otherness or, rather, creates a false, appearance of otherness. Reduced to a list of particulars (age, music, books) and an avatar, we begin to lose the trace of absolutely alterity. We cannot go “beyond essence” because profiles cannot go beyond essence. If something can be presented as data, it has already been reduced to essence. By virtue of our activity online, we are conflated into one large coalescence of sameness in which there are no others, only other profiles.

Although we are keenly aware of the differences between ourselves and other personalities as they manifest themselves in Web profiles—“he likes completely different bands”, “she prefers New Wave films”—such difference is encountered only as differentiated similarity, dictated by those common boxes on our profiles. The social-networking platforms are constructed in such a way as to capture all the facts it has deemed relevant and present that collection as the totality of facts to be known.

They thereby perpetrate an ersatz omniscience that inhibits spontaneity and the creation of unanticipated meaning. Individual consciousness becomes consciousness of data, and otherness becomes an awareness of statistics unifying this data. The fact that social networks presume that we can all be delimited by same set of criteria denies the opportunity of experiencing true otherness, leaving no room for that intangible trace of absolute alterity. In its place is mere permutation: We become assemblages of tastes and facts. Faces are replaced by avatars, all cut from the same pixilated cloth.

The philosophical development that underscores these technological moves is, paradoxically, an aggressive multiculturalism. In order to recognize cultural difference, we endlessly multiply cultural labels with the assumption that a complete social taxonomy is on the horizon. But this simply replaces of inappropriately indiscriminate groupings with no less inappropriate smaller groupings. Either no two individuals share enough common characteristics to constitute a culture, in which case individuals are doomed to isolation by the itemized lists of particulars on their social-networking profiles, or the “more refined” cultural distinctions invented to group them work all too well and thematize away an individual’s particularity. Either way, otherness is lost and meaning suffocates.

As a result of this conundrum, we have hipsters. As authentic difference is supplanted by token variation and otherness is reduced to variations within a fixed templates for identity, our lists of particulars become the whole of our personalities. This is why we see that kid at parties dressed like Hunter S. Thompson and break-dancing with gold chains around his neck, the girl reading Byron, wearing a Siouxsie T-shirt and hanging out at the bike shop. Social networks convince us we can construct our selves exclusively out of our interests and appearances.

The hipster is no more than a conscious manipulation of the freedom to live these piecemeal identities, comfortable in the awareness that identity can be constructed out of any bands, clothing, cheap, regionally esoteric beer, and inane micro-fiction that pleases. The hipster is a pastiche of old and new culture, free from the limits of meaning or the constraints of authentic identity.

The black-hole model of hipsterdom that Adbusters presents is an effect, not a cause, of our loss of otherness and meaning. Hipsters are not the dead end of Western Civilization, they are merely the road signs which smugly announce “No thru traffic.” As technology and modern philosophy fuse us ever more in a collective consciousness, we tread dangerously close to what Lovecraft feared, the reduction of everything we experience to a never-ending flow of the same. Thanks to social networks, we no longer have to throw our hands up and confess that we don’t quite get someone. Their profile is there for us to parse and it is continually being updated. In the end, Lovecraft’s horror will be realized not as an enormous cephalopod deity, but as an equally awe-inspiring mess of Facebook, YouTube, and American Apparel.

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