The Accursed Sovereign

The Hipster: Revisited

Posted in Criticism by bradishn on December 14, 2009

A friend sent me an article that I had read once before, and I found myself reconsidering: is the hipster really the ‘end of civilization’?  It seems that the hipster is at once both the lowest common element of society, and yet it’s presence as a new phenomenon marks it as some sort of avant-garde form.  Some uncollected thoughts:

1)  The floating hipster accusation seems much like the floating terrorist enemy in today’s age.  It is both everything and nothing; its power as a concept lies in its nebulousness.  As Adbusters puts it,

is set to consume the very core of Western counterculture. Most critics make a point of attacking the hipster’s lack of individuality, but it is this stubborn obfuscation that distinguishes them from their predecessors, while allowing hipsterdom to easily blend in and mutate other social movements, sub-cultures and lifestyles. (Link previously embedded)

The hipster is almost ephemeral; they “blend in and mutate” like a virus, “consume” as though they are malignant organism, and generally exist as phantoms in today’s society.  Though they lack violent potential, hipsters resemble terrorists in essence; they can be anywhere, strike anytime.  That Adbusters employs an organic metaphor in their use of the term ‘mutation’ is significant, but not in the sensationalist fashion that the Adbusters staff intends it to be.  Basic evolutionary theory reminds us that not all mutations are bad; in fact, evolution is a process of selecting for desired mutations.  Mutations are different, strange, unpredictable.  Adbusters embraces a type of conservativism in singling out the hipster as Enemy.  However, even Adbusters is unclear as to what exactly defines this Enemy.  The nebulous nature of the hipster comes again to the forefront.  Hipsters pose an omnipresent threat, a fact which is no doubt informed by their nebulousness.  Even more strikingly, they are the “Dead End of Western Civilization,” much like the Axis of Evil would, if unabated, end the Western world.  When we take up an enemy, we should be wary if we choose that enemy in a similar manner to that which conservatives use to choose the terrorist.

1.5)  To speak of a “Dead End of Western Civilization” begins the long march towards neocolonialism and xenophobia, as well as ignorance.  Lamenting the death of a civilization that has dominated so many others is nothing more than conservative nostalgia, like Russians reminiscing on the days of the U.S.S.R. or the British’s strange desire to have a queen.  In addition, Western Civilization is surely more the sum of its counter-cultural movements, as this article would have us believe.  Countercultural movements could never determine the content of a civilization, since they are by nature always in some sort of flux, and in addition opposed to many of the prevalent themes of the society in which they define themselves.  The 1950’s in America were certainly not determined by the beat generation, nor could they be encapsulated in the childish whims of that substratum of society.

2)  The idea that hipsters are evacuating countercultural icons of all their meaning is ridiculous; those icons are already devoid of meaning because they are historical items and not part of significant contemporaneous counter-movements.  There are very few symbols these days that point towards countercultural sentiments short of gang signs.

2.5)  What if the hipsters is, in fact, the avant-garde form in today’s society?  We hear these judgments about the hipster, but all of these judgments are founded upon criteria which were established (supposedly) from past countercultural movements.  Isn’t the point to do away with some of the past if we’re going to truly make a change?  Shouldn’t we be evacuating a little bit of history in order to change the world?  We can’t expect countercultural movements (if those even exist anymore) to continue to unproblematically use the same icons and symbols.  That stagnation leads to the corporatization that we’ve witnessed these movements fall prey to time and time again.  Perhaps the hipster could care less about living up to the standards of the past, his parents’ generations.  And is this indifference in the face of the past not the same orientation which previous counter-cultural movements have taken in some regard?

3)  I think it is a mistake to criticize the hipster movement (if it can be called such) by the supposed ideals of all countercultural movements of the past.  To assume that these idealized countercultural movements of the past are so easily grouped falls prey to the same ‘mistake’ that this article claims hipsters themselves make.

4)  “Ten years ago, a man wearing a plain V-neck tee and drinking a Pabst would never be accused of being a trend-follower. But in 2008, such things have become shameless clichés…”  Why wouldn’t that man be a trend-follower?  Is it because he bought a cheap shirt?  Or because he drank an American light lager that was advertised as being better than the other American light lagers when in fact it’s the same horse piss?  This man is surely not aware of his class consciousness; what more does it take to be a trend-follower?

5)  Again with the organicist nature of the hipster threat.  I am reminded of a Zizek passage:

On the ‘Celestial Seasonings’ green tea packet there is a short explanation of its benefits: ‘Green tea is a natural source of antioxidants, which neutralize harmful molecules in the body known as free radicals.  By taming free radicals, antioxidants help the body maintain its natural good health.’  Mutatis mutandis, is not the notion of totalitarianism one of the main ideological antioxidants, whose function throughout its career was to tame free radicals, and thus to help the social body to maintain its politico-ideological good health? (Slavoj Zizek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, Verso Press, 2001: New York, pp 1)

Maybe we should take this lesson and apply it to the use of the hipster as a notion.  What ideological work does this notion do?  The questions we should be raising are not ‘what has society done to have created such an abomination?’ but rather, ‘what does this notion of hipsterdom cause us to do?’  A question for another day.

6)  Perhaps what the hipster does as a notion is to do away with such sentiments as Adbusters’ (that is, the nostalgic desire for a “genuine” countercultural movement).  It is not the missing hippies or beatnicks or civil rights movement that is lost, but struggle that is lost.  In a society that finds itself completely satiated, the only thing left to struggle for is desire itself.  In rejecting the desire-less hipster, those that share the view of Adbusters embrace an empty desire; there’s no content to that which is ‘countercultural’ when it is merely it’s place as ‘countercultural’ that is significant.  The hipster throws this empty desire out the window, taking up a decentered approach, unhindered by history.  In turn, the response of society is to condemn this as lacking authenticity.  The proper retort from the young hipster should be, “This is precisely the point!”

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