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A Historical Note on the Hipster

Five or six years ago a commenter suggested I read Hal Niedzviecki, a Canadian journalist who writes about pop culture and consumerism. I went ahead and ordered his 2000 book We Want Some Too: Underground Desire and the Reinvention of Mass Culture and when it arrived, I promptly filed it into the nether regions of my bookshelves and forgot all about it. Yesterday, in the midst of a sweep for a bag of books I was putting together to take to the Goodwill store, I came across it again and started reading it.

I don't agree with everything in his argument -- he dismisses the Adornoesque view of popular culture and tends to champion cultural consumerism as an integral, inevitable mode of identity production -- and much of it seems to have been rendered obsolete by the emergence of Web 2.0 and social networking and the like. (He has to explain what an MP3 is and spends a chapter explaining the concept that listening to one Girl Talk song conveys much more thoroughly.)

What is interesting though is who he means by "we": a generational cohort he sees as obliged to define their identities solely in terms of pop culture: he calls this "lifestyle culture" and he seems to regard it as inescapable. "To negate pop culture is to negate the very foundation of our lives -- a foundation that is no longer found in religious instruction, in the moral precepts of the state, in the bosom of the family, but in the frantic embrace of a pop emancipation we crave despite, and because of, who we are." (No wonder he hates Adorno -- he rejects and argues for the "negation" of the very basis of identity as Niedzviecki is willing to conceive it.) Since we define ourselves in terms of our tastes and our familiarity with pop culture, we can't admit that it is trivial. Instead we inflate its importance even more as we prolong our adolescence and nostalgize over Saturday morning cartoons.

"Lifestyle culture," he claims, "is our last, desperate, pervasive attempt to rebel against those who seek to reduce us to cogs in the machine." If that was the point of lifestyle culture, it has failed spectacularly; our everyday lives are more integrated with the machine than ever; social networks are harvesting and reselling the details of our cultural cry of self, conveniently translated already by our volunteer labor into terms of brands and trademarks already on the market. (After all, Facebook's founder has declared the end of privacy. Everything we do is fair game for corporate exploitation.) We continually need to assert our own coolness, and our efforts fuel the evolution of new cool signifiers. We work the lifestyle treadmill.

It's shocking that this seemed a new phenomenon in 2000. By 2010, that cohort had become generally known as "hipsters," and everyone was coming around to agreeing that their moment had passed. Not because anything they did has gone definitively out of fashion, but because they truly have become a "we" -- the mode of identity-fashioning through pop culture has become too ordinary a thing to demand a special label. People who behave like hipsters did back then are just normal now.

But when Niedzviecki was writing, there was still such as a thing as a consumer "underground" in which devotion to pop obscurities was expressed in hand-mimeographed fanzines and home-taped mix cassettes and other arduous analog means. That culture was just beginning to die its digital death, and outlines of hipsterism -- the zine mentality without the trouble of zines, the proud consumerism without the effort of digging up trivia and the sacrifice of marginalizing oneself -- was just beginning to become recognizable. Hipsterism is born when the cultural underground dies. It stems from the "crisis in authenticity" -- which is to say, it emerges when authenticity becomes a commodity. The mainstream expands and flattens out, lulls us with promises of mass participation: The internet was basically a build-out of the mainstream, and a way for it to incorporate all the stuff that once was considered outre or unmarketable.

Though often prescient about the incipient dilemmas of consumerist identity, Niedzviecki at times seems blind to how the proto-hipsterism he celebrates ("This process -- in which passive consumers become semi-active hobbyists and then, finally, full-blown creators -- challenges the gatekeepers of culture by asserting the power of the everyperson to be hos or her own critic and creator") would metastasize. He is hopeful about what would become the definitive hipster strategy, what he calls "noncompliant compliance" -- "intelligent, meaningful creative actions that nevertheless acknowledge the primacy of pop culture." Without an underground, there is no other choice, he argues. Maybe he's right about that, but that still sounds like a Baudrillardian fatal strategy to me. I see no upside to the "collapse of the underground" -- what the Frankfurt schoolers talk about as the negation of negation.

I wish I had Niedzviecki's optimism. But he is able to sustain it because he hadn't anticipated how mainstream media companies and culture industries would be able to adapt to the long-tailing and nichefication of audiences, how our identity seeking becomes free immaterial labor for corporations -- no matter how small-scale or insular it may seem. Piracy and peer-to-peer sharing has hurt their profits, but the amateur culture and brand co-creation Niedzviecki sees as somewhat subversive and hopeful has more or less been a boon for businesses and hasn't proven a haven from the hegemonic ideologies of consumerism. Alienation endures. Niedzviecki recognizes that lifestyle culture leads to apolitical narcissism: "cogent political activism" is difficult, he notes, "in an age where everybody wants to be their own personal cause, their own undergound myth, subject of their own fan club." That sounds like a description of Facebook to me.

With hindsight, it's easy to see how Niedzviecki misdiagnosed the problem. He was concerned that inundated with culture, we would lose our identity. He imagines us all as desperate to do something that "can't be decoded and marketed back" to us. We never receded into the mass; instead mass culture mutated to cater to us as individuals and we thrived on the way it could decode us. Identity, as that kind of decoding, has become ubiquitous, a compulsion. Our identity is at once more palpable and more fragile that it has perhaps ever been -- we have a rich and subtle language of objects with which to express it, yet no one seems to understand who we really are, and we keep trying to understand ourselves. We can't escape turning ourselves inside out and signing over our desire to consumerism to try to ease the dislocation, solve the riddle.

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