Consider The Hipster: The Last Days (?)

One of my favorite memes at the moment has to be, for a lack of a better word, the Hipster X meme. Basically, take a previously unhipster thing and turn it into a hipster by attaching various hipster signifiers: clothes, argot, and a general sense of elitism.

For example: Hipster Ariel

It’s funny for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s irreverent, which is obvious enough. But, secondly, which I find interesting, is how it takes the piss out of “hipster” culture. The Hipster has become a much maligned yet simultaneously embraced figure recently. On the one hand, everyone, including people many would deem as hipsters, point their fingers accusingly, labeling each other as hipsters. But what is a hipster, exactly? And why is it such a faux pas to be considered as such? Last year, when American Apparel was facing financial difficulties many exclaimed – with varying degrees of glee – that the “hipster was dead.” But the hipster is not dead, the hipster is alive and well. Why? Because the hipster is a by-product of the question of identity in post-modern capitalism.

(Hipster Timeline: click to enlarge)

People may place the origin of the hipster to the late 90s post-grunge era and the rise of emo. This makes sense considering the development of the internet and the different forums for media, which contributed in different ways to the current forms of indie music. The internet has a been a great equalizer for the music industry as it has wrested much of the means of production from major record labels. It liquified the previous model of the music industry and really dispersed the consumption of music and its products. And not only music, but also film, journalism, the list goes on. Why is this important? Well because the internet has “flattened the earth,” as Thomas Friedman would say and has helped develop the whole global village trend. This, as I will hopefully develop further, has given the hipster a greater pool to draw from in order to forge a new “culture” or “image.” More on this later.

While this may account for the current strands of hipsterdom, the term hipster actually dates all the way back to the 40s, when it was used to describe people, mostly white, who followed the Jazz scene. Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer were notable commentators on the burgeoning movement. They discussed existential malaise that came after two World Wars and the current generation of youths searching for an identity, eschewing mainstream society and embracing various sub/countercultures. Such is our existential milieu in the post-modern, capitalist world. Society and culture is so dispersed and fragmented that traditional discourses rarely satisfy and when they do it’s only a matter of time before you scratch the surface to see the worms and maggots crawling around the decaying flesh. What differentiates the Hipster from legit counter-cultural leaders and innovators is that sense of inauthenticity. Hipsters enter the movement carrying their bourgeois baggage and try though they may, they never manage to shed it. Hipsters reduce the elements of a movement to list of signifiers and predicates that can be transformed into social capital.

The current trend of environmentalism, or the “green movement,” is an appropriate example. Many consumers grew sick of the current models of production and sought alternative products as a response. Biking and organic food markets were on the rise. Is there anything wrong with this? Absolutely not and I am very sympathetic to these goals. However, the Hipster sees this as an opportunity to acquire social capital. What do I mean by this? Basically, the Hipster co-ops a particular, anti-mainstream phenomena, and then turns around and shows it to the mainstream, claiming, “Look! Behold my Particularity!” It’s a double movement that strips the originally individualistic mainstream of its authenticity. The Hipster’s identity construction has nothing to do with pragmatism or personal conviction and is entirely with evaluating the self in the gaze of the Other. While this isn’t bad in itself (I imagine there are many who would argue that the construction of identity is exactly that), there is certain elitist twist to the Hipster move. It’s all a jockeying for position. Hipsters compete with each other – all in the gaze of the mainstream – for social capital. A pissing contest for a supposed sense of authenticity. Identity: more authentic than thou.

(for the record, I’m a huge TV On The Radio fan)

There are many ironies at work here. Firstly, Hipsters must necessarily deny the monicker and divert the title elsewhere. If someone’s sense of identity is predicated upon a sense of superlative authenticity then s/he cannot possibly withstand the accusation of inauthenticity. This leads to the myriad formulations of the Hipster and the general inability to speak of the Hipster qua Hipster. Hipsters are constantly accusing other Hipster of being Hipsters, as The Onion observed. Moreover, any discussion of Hipsters and attempts to identify the Hipster as a discrete entity or phenomena is tainted by an inherent anxiety of Hipstersdom. Anyone trying to define a Hipster will try to distance him/herself from the subject in question.

Consequently, this causes the Hipster to search out new fields to plow, so to speak. Once a model of counter-culture has been depleted of its social capital, the Hipster must seek out a new series to consume. And this is why the Internet and the development of modern technology over the last generation has really thrown the Hipster into the spotlight. With access to so much material from sites such as Pitchfork, torrents, and peer-to-peer networking, there is nowhere to hide from the Eyes Of The Hipsters. Technology contributes to the auto-catalytic quality of the Hipster. Things are consumed are higher speeds now. While it’s never been easier to be a Hipster these days, it’s also harder to keep up with the trends, and the game of searching out ever more obscure subcultures keeps getting ratcheted up. Hipsters are basically Culture Zombies. They consume original material, but cannot create anything new themselves.

Well, to be more precise, they cannot create anything new that’s authentic. In fact, Hipsters may be Capitalism’s last hope. There’s a war going on right now between technology and culture. On the one hand, technology can be seen as the Great Equalizer, liberating people from under the tyrannical control of the elite by loosening their grasp on the means of production. Conversely, technology leaves nowhere else to hide. Everything is getting gobbled up and spat out with a price tag attached. And Hipsters are the Elite’s field officers. As I said, Hipsters seek out the authentic and transform it into social capital. They fetishize objects. Once something has been fetishized, it can be assigned a monetary value and put on the market to be bought and sold. Remember the Green Movement that started out with environmentalists disenfranchised with the current model of production. Well, now Ford is “Going Green.” (Insert your own bailout joke here.)

(“Dude, this Starbucks is so lame.” “I prefer the one across the street. The people here probably never even heard of it.”)

But, maybe this is a good thing after all. Maybe the elite superstructure can only absorb so much until it is finally forced to change for the good. Perhaps the Hipster is a necessary evil. One could argue that they are the bridge between the subculture and the hoi polloi. By maiming the subculture of its sting, the Hipster allows mainstream society to embrace what is perceived as a toxin and use it as a anti-body to cure current ills. In what way could one argue that the “White Negros” that Mailer described helped desegregate America? The Hipster is thus a pharmacon. It proclaims to be counter-culture, when in fact it is helping society “progress,” if we can use such a word.

Mostly, I want to stress the fact that there is no way to create a list or criteria that can be used to idenify a Hipster. There are no specific clothes, bands, movies, books, etc. that are necessarily Hipster products. Just because you wear a cardigan, smoke, and listen to Santigold doesn’t mean you’re Hipster. Anyone can be labeled a Hipster if you try hard enough. Besides, there are things about the Hipster culture that are great. This snobby article outlines “6 Must-Haves for Every Hipster Apartment”: 1)Record player with record collection, 2)Indie Rock/old school band show poster, 3)Vintage furnishings, 4)Bookcase filled with “classics,” 5)Electric guitar with small amplifier, 6)Taxidermy. With the exception of maybe the last, all of these things kick ass, depending on your taste in music and literature.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I myself was labelled a Hipster by others. I have thick rimmed glasses, I wear cardigans, I have extensive tattoos, I have an Arts degree, blah blah blah. Who the fuck cares?! The Hipster is a specter of inauthenticity, not a material entity(ies). Most importantly, the only person that can label you as a Hipster or as inauthentic is yourself. Whenever you’re behaving such that you’re evaluating yourself according to how authentic the Other perceives you to be, you’re being a Hipster, and only you can know that.

(well, my laptop anyway.)

I got a lot of this from Wikipedia’s entry on Hipster and this piece by Rob Horning.  I found these pictures on Reddit, as well.




~ by braddunne on June 5, 2011.

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