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"Hipster on food stamps"

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Tuesday, Nov 2, 2010

I haven’t posted for a while, so I thought something with an SEO-friendly title would be a good idea. And I thought this was a pretty interesting essay by the Jacobin‘s Peter Frase, about misguided hatred for the “hipster on food stamps” discussed in this Salon piece from March. He points out how that phraseology invites contempt, because it trades on the idea that anyone who is arty and “creative” obviously has cultural capital and other ideological resources that should prevent him from being poor. Therefore the impoverished hipster must simply be a slacker (to reference a 90s-era proto-hipster archetype) who is voluntarily destitute, slumming it for hipster cred, thereby abusing a system designed to help the deserving poor, i.e. those social disadvantaged folks who, as Neil Young put it, “never go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool”.


Frase thinks working-class people who were enraged by “hipsters on food stamps” should stop scapegoating them and start, like Duke in Repo Man, blaming society. Frase writes:


People see others whom they perceive to have lives that are easier, cooler or more fun than theirs, and instead of questioning the society that gave them their lot, they demand conformity and misery out of others. But why? ... Even if creative and enjoyable lives are only accessible to the privileged, that’s not a damning fact about them so much as it is an indictment of a society that has so much wealth and yet only allows a select few to take advantage of it, while others are forced to waste their lives chained to their useless jobs and bloated mortgages.


The working-class Joe’s hatred for the hipster, Frase argues, stems from an ideology that perverts the work ethic and regards art-making as worthless and working-class drudgery as a heroic embrace of duty or something. Maybe so. The working class suspicion toward the would-be bohemian fringe certainly has a long history. For example, check out the end of this clip from the 1968 film Psych Out, where the hippies are mocked and menaced by Reagan Democrat types. And as Mark Greif of n+1 reminds us in this essay, the 2000s vintage hipster began by appropriating motifs from poor-white culture. “Let me recall a string of keywords: trucker hats; undershirts called ‘wifebeaters,’ worn alone; the aesthetic of basement rec-room pornography, flash-lit Polaroids, and fake-wood paneling; Pabst Blue Ribbon; ‘porno’ or ‘pedophile’ mustaches; aviator glasses; Americana T-shirts from church socials and pig roasts; tube socks; the late albums of Johnny Cash; tattoos.” No wonder there’s some skepticism toward the “hipster on food stamps,” who can be understood as merely taking this appropriational logic to its endpoint.


Obviously, those thefts belittle and caricature an entire social group’s lived experience, ironizing it, cutting away whatever integrity members of that group might feel about what they do from beneath their feet. Not only do hipsters seem to be playing at being poor (which may or may not be true) but they add insult to injury by seeming to make fun of working class culture, treating it like a costume. At play in such appropriations is the kind of capital that allows various folk practices (for lack of a better term) to become suddenly recognized as creative or hip when a non-native adopts them and exports them out of the ignored niche and into “society”—the realm recognized by the media. The culture is then understood as a fashion choice, not the product of social realities.


What that process does is make “creativity” something that by definition is not accessible to the working class. The appropriators are lauded as “creative” (that is, they seize upon the symbolic usefulness of deracinated practices and bring that meaning value to a broader public), not the poor whites, who are treated as though they are some anthropological artifact, as though they fundamentally lack the ability to be reflexive about what they do. They are, as workers always are, a resource to be exploited. As a result of that, hipsters and the working class are mutually exclusive; by definition, you can’t belong to both sets. Starving artists are not proles. The very ability to be recognized as “creative” already sets one apart and above. Rich or poor, hipsters everywhere are a sign of social expropriation, of the semiotic value of denying full humanity to certain social groups.


Frase wants to resolve the opposition between artists and proles by positing a sort of post-work future beyond the alienation of wages, where all will receive a social wage: “Against the invidious politics of the work ethic, it’s time to argue that some things should be granted to everyone, simply by virtue of their humanity. Even hipsters.”


Interestingly, he doesn’t take this argument to the next level: free from having to do work that is necessary merely for capital’s valorization, workers are liberated to pursue meaningful, socially necessary work, which all will appreciate and understand as a kind of social art. In such conditions, with no basis for connoisseurial superiority in how one lives and works (which would become synonymous), hipsters would necessarily cease to exist.


(A better title for this post, I think, would be “Artists only.”)

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