[13 April 2009]
I went to n+1‘s “What Was the Hipster?” panel discussion at the New School on Saturday, but went away a bit unfulfilled. There was little evidence presented that hipsterism is over, that it was a concrete product of specific historic moment, and no coherent theories for what might supplant hipsters. The participants never really made much of an effort to establish a stable definition of what a hipster is, despite n+1 editor Mark Greif’s valiant effort in his opening remarks. He wondered if the white-trash-worshipping 1999 model of the hispter (the one that wore trucker hats, listened to redneck music, and oozed an aesthetic derived from a largely hypothetical and imaginatively reconstructed 1970s rec-room amateur porn) was the hipster qua hipster, the only one deserving of the title, the way those from the late 1950s and early 1960s who fit the Maynard G. Krebs caricature were the only actual beatniks, and the San Francisco arrivistes in the 1967 were the only true hippies.
Or is the hipster a kind of permanent cultural middleman in hypermediated late capitalism, selling out alternative sources of social power developed by outsider groups, just as the original “white negros” evinced by Norman Mailer did to the original, pre-pejorative “hipsters”—blacks looking for modes of social expression that could serve as a source of pride, power, unification, and emblems of resistance. Hipsters are the infiltrators who spoil the resistance—the coolhunting collaborators and spies.
This struck me as a really interesting question: Is it that outsider groups are the only ones that make possible new forms of cultural capital? And thus hipsters are always necessary to the powers that be, that in an endlessly repeating pattern of co-optation hipsters serve as agents for the stakeholders in the established cultural hegemony, appropriating the new cultural capital forms, delivering them to mainstream media in a commercial form and stripping their inventors groups (if not the inventors themselves, in the best case scenario) of the power and the glory and the unification and the mode of resistance.
As Greif mentioned in his talk, hipsters function as a “poison” conduit between the marketing machine and the street. Does the internet jeopardize this cozy relation between power groups and their hipster minions, or does it assure the circuit will always be completed, forcing resistance further underground, perhaps into a region where it cannot be expressed publicly in any form without always already being co-opted? (Can you perform a significant act of rebellion on Facebook?) Jace Clayton, another of the panel speakers, discussed how the internet seemed to foster a globalized hipster brand that obviated organic local scenes or made them seem passe. As I understood it, his point was that the internet has made international recognition the standard of relevance for cultures that once were detached from and unrecognized by Anglo-American media. Those who revel in and facilitate that recognition are the hipsters of places like Peru.
I was all ready for a more thorough exploration of the ideas the panelists opened with, but that conversation never materialized. The sputtering confusion of the group discussion at the panel may have been inevitable. It’s impossible to obtain objective distance from hipsterism; if you are concerned enough about the phenomenon to analyze it and discuss it, you are already somewhere on the continuum of hipsterism and are in the process of trying to rid yourself of its “taint”—as n+1‘s announcement of the event noted. We all had a stake in defining “hipster” as “not me.” I thought that would be the core of the discussion, the paradoxes of that apparent truth. In always pushing ourselves to repudiate hipsterism, we may drive ourselves to new ways to conceive of our identity—but what good are these if these are always ripe for becoming the new modes of hipsterdom? What good is it to stay a few steps ahead if you always remain on the hipster path? How do we stop running that race, stop worrying about the degree to which we are “hip”, the degree to which our treasured self-conceptions can be made into cliches against our will?
The problem with hipsters seems to me the way in which they reduce the particularity of anything you might be curious about or invested in into the same dreary common denominator of how “cool” it is perceived to be. Everything becomes just another signifier of personal identity. Thus hipsterism forces on us a sense of the burden of identity, of constantly having to curate it if only to avoid seeming like a hipster. But are there hipsters, actual hipsters, or just a pervasive fear of hipsters? Hipster hatred may actually precede hipsters themselves. Maybe that collective fear and contempt conjures them into being, just as the Red Scare saw communists everywhere, or how the Stasi made spies of everyone. Late capitalism makes us all fear being hipsters and thus makes us all into one, to some degree.
The hipster, then, is the boogeyman who keeps us from becoming too settled in our identity, keeps us moving forward into new fashions, keep us consuming more “creatively” and discovering new things that haven’t become lame and hipster. We keep consuming more, and more cravenly, yet this always seems to us to be the hipster’s fault, not our own.
One must start with the premise that the hipster is defined by a lack of authenticity, by a sense of lateness to the scene, or by the fact that his arrival fashions the scene—transforms people who are doing their thing into a self-conscious scene, something others can scrutinize and exploit. The hipster is that person who shows up and seems to ruin things—then you can begin to ask why this person exists, whether he is inevitable, whether he can be stopped, and what it will take. The hipster’s presence specifically forms the illusion of inside and outside, and the idea that others will pay for the privilege of being shown through the gate.
The audience didn’t regard the quest for a stable position from which to critique hipsterism as a challenge; ignoring it, it did not rise above postures of self-defense and projection. Instead, when audience members began to contribute to the discussion, it began to feel factional and accusatory, as if many had gathered to accuse everyone else of being hipsters, or at least to mock n+1 itself for presuming it had somehow escaped hipsterism and insult its editors to their faces and show them what pretentious hipsters they themselves are. They seemed to want to peg n+1 as a hipster vehicle, as failing to escape the trap it sometimes seems to wish to spring on others. (One audience member asked the n+1 editor if he was afraid the magazine would get too many readers, because presumably there are some readers who shouldn’t be allowed to subscribe, who would tarnish the brand.
Somewhat inexplicably, these “wrong” sort of readers were associated in the questioner’s mind with Slavoj Žižek, his trendiness among philosophical name-droppers, and his alleged nihilism. Perhaps his question was whether n+1 feared becoming trendy and then thereby vulnerable to the nonsensical and non-comprehending attacks and dismissals that Žižek himself is subjected to by the likes of this questioner.) The faint air of self-satisfaction inherent in the premise of a post-hipster conference grew thicker and thicker, and the tacit and necessary agreement to use terminology in the same way to move forward was increasingly ignored. Some even seemed to confuse hipsterism with an artistic avant-garde when they are in fact opposites by definition (by my definition anyway, and by any that would make the hipster a discrete object of analysis).
There was some discussion of the hipster as the embodiment of postmodernism as a spent force, revealing what happens when pastiche and irony exhaust themselves as aesthetics. But one could hear mutterings in the crowd that no one had the right to judge what cultural products were better than others, and it was clear that this audience was not ready to surrender cultural relativism and subjectivism, that they still wanted to remain mired in that endless fight. (Statement actually overheard in the lecture hall: “What gives you the right to say that Charles in Charge is not important!”) The tenor of the discussion made me wonder if n+1 wouldn’t eventually take a New Criterion turn in its future and try to escape hipsterism and pop-tart relativism by hewing to a conservative ethic. I hope not, but it seems latent in the air of arrogant fustiness it sometimes projects. The more its would-be audience reviles it for its unrepentant intellectualism, the more it may steer toward a weary elitism.