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Flash mobs and deindividuation

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Tuesday, Feb 21, 2006

Everyone hates hipsters, sure. You have to hate hipsters to be a hipster. But Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper’s, decided to use his contempt and make a kind of art out of it. Figuring hipsters to be fundamentally passive joiners who nonetheless have some pretense at being artistic, Wasik knew that he could make art out of hipsters, the same way, he argues, that Milgrim made art out of science projects using humans. Wasik managed to get hipsters to show up at various locations and do vaguely symbolic things in what would be dubbed “flash mobs,” and then he tracked the media response to all this and wrote the whole thing up for this month’s Harper’s. The whole thing is brilliant and far more worth reading than Lapham’s Impeach Bush screed, which is just obvious and depressing because nothing can be done.


Wasik argues that hipsterism threatens the power of branding I was getting all alarmist about in the previous post, because hipsterism is defined by the rapid adoption and then rejection of fads for the sake of adopting and rejecting them, which negates the point of brands, which Wasik sees as concrete manifestations of long-tended and fostered reputations. Hipsters, to Wasik, are a mass of deindividuated drones who exist only to mimic each other in a narcisstic clusterfuck that affirms one another’s significance. The mimicking is perpetual, so it needs new instances to induce the imitative gesture—hence the rapid accumulation of shallow fads. “The hipsters make no pretense to divisions on principle, to forming intellectual or artistic camps; at any given moment, it is the same books, records, films that are judged au courant by all, leading to the curious spectacle of an “alternative” culture more unanimous than the mainstream it ostensibly opposes.” Wasik suggests that the Internet’s instant distribution of diverting ideas makes hipsters into “cultural receptors” rather than an avant-garde that generates ideas. But the ideas they receive ar generated in their midst; they just slip out of control and become too big too soon; they are consumed like flashpaper by the typical Internet surfer, who is looking for nothing more than a moment of capitivated distraction.


Hipster deindviduation flies in the face of postmodern theories that repudiate the notion of identity, and posit the self as a construct. Such theories suggest one would elude conformism and collaboration with the System if one shook off the notion of identity rooted in gender, nationality, religion, class, etc., and remained elusive, undefinable, escaping focus groups and marketing demographics. By ridding oneself of the subjectvity that the prevailing oppressive institutions interpolate into bodies (i.e. the Ideolgical State Apparatuses and the “hailing” activities that Althusser posits), we elude the way the system means to categorize us and keep us in predictable boundaries. But instead of escaping to the margins, and presumably more authentic and spontaneous individuality and life, such people seem instead to become whimsical joiners, willing to perform these pseudo-artistic pointless “flash mob” acts just to have the opportunity to be an insider. Hipsters don’t want to escape the mainstream really; they don’t want ever to be outsiders, certainly not the semiabject outsider you’d have to be to truly exist at the cultural margin. True outsiders experince scorn and repudiation when they make contact with the mainstream, who sees such people as derilict. Japan’s hikkikomori would be better examples of cultural outsiders (if they weren’t busy netowrking socially by computer, perhaps?). By eluding the grasp of the Man, hipsters escape not to some paradise of authenticity and freedom but to something that threatens to be worse than mainstream quotidian life, a desperate vulnerability that has one turning anywhere for validation. Turning to one’s peers for mutual support, again, sounds like a good thing, but in practice we see what it amounts to—conformism, elitism, rituals of inclusion and exclusion, ostracism, vapidity, morbid self-preoccupation, disengagement, political quietism. (Just look how quickly I rejected the idea of clamoring for impeachment.) If Wasik is right, such flights to the margin implied by hipsterist rejections of the mainstream are actually mating calls enticing the mainstream and its commercial institutions to come clamboring after them, flattering them for their uniqueness and their rebellious attitude all the way.

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