I try to resist arguing about this every time it comes up, which is several times a day, but the hipster as bogeyman of the age raises his shaggy head again in today’s Russell Smith column in the Globe, which is inspired by the (admittedly funny) Look at this Fucking Hipster tumblr.
While I often enjoy Russell’s column, and he certainly tries to nuance his case later in the piece, his method is still a prime example of the bogus ethnography that hipster-bashers indulge - from merely looking at the 20-somethings wearing the clothes that are fashionable on certain scenes right now, and with no further discernible research or investigation (there’s no evidence he spoke to any of them, for instance), he draws the conclusion that they hypocritically pretend they don’t want to be looked at and also have a complete “lack of interest in any cause or intellectual issue, other than possibly environmentalism (the default cause of the sensitive dropout).”
The resentment of youthful self-possession and good looks couldn’t be writ larger - as a guy nearly Russell’s age (and height), I share that envy, but such extreme reactions to the existence of college-aged kids who dress fashionably and may, big shock, sometimes be supported by well-off parents, only reflects back unflatteringly on us. I’m sure some of them are douchebags. But is getting dressed up to go dancing such a heinous and remarkable act? As the blog Boredom is Always Counter-Revolutionary wrote last summer, “the revelation that young people dress similarly and seem apathetic and politically or morally vacuous” can be tracked back decades if not centuries (a nice example there, a polemic against the “spiritual dry-rot” of milk-bar-going “jukebox boys” from 1957); it is never entirely untrue and never entirely true; and yet it’s a meme that seems to carry its own inbuilt compulsion to yammering repetition, a mania of denunciation.
Why then do hipster-bashers so painfully need the hipster-zombie phantasm? Russell makes the common admission that in part it’s a self-hating thing, that those who point fingers at “hipsters” are almost by definition “hipsters” themselves (which indeed may be the only valid definition) (btw, check out the Globe’s comment section for some enjoyable bafflement from genuine total non-hipsters, many of whom never knew before today that “that’s what they’re called”). The hipster is a projection of the hipster-hater’s own status anxiety. There’s also a self-serving decadence narrative where the hipster serves as the negative exaggeration of one’s own apathy, helping to exonerate it. The hipster serves as a locus for fears of lost control, of social disconnection. Yet it’s a hysteria to focus that anxiety on these kids personally rather than on, say, the system of cool and cultural capital, and what’s more the genuine lack of control you have over hypercapitalism, of which their look uncomfortably reminds you. The hipster-monster is the face of a cultural death wish, along the vector of a snarling circle jerk hurtling towards social atomization and collapse.
(As an aside, I’m surprised that Russell, as a defender of fashion-as-aesthetic, didn’t at least note that hipster-bashing is also a tribal rejoinder against deliberately standing out, looking, however trivially, conspicuously deviant, especially in some way people find hard to “read.” Obviously subcultures have their own peer-pressure counter-hierarchies, and as Revolutionary Boredom mentioned in the above post, the hipster thing is more an outcropping of the mainstream (American Apparel division) than a functional subculture. But for all its internal conformism it’s still a mode of flamboyant aesthetic display and that still makes a lot of people uncomfortable and resentful in itself. At its best the hipster is the new Dandy, the semi-subversive who overloads the system by over-subscribing to it (conspicuously consuming) and yet undermines it by seeming as if the real source of their cooperation is that they can’t take the system seriously enough to bother to oppose it. Sites like “Look at this Fucking Hipster” reek of a paranoid craving for a restoration of social order. You could make an argument for the positive or progressive element of that craving, as Joe Heath and Andrew Potter do in their counter-counterculture book The Rebel Sell, but I’m not sure if that critique holds if the engine of your anti-anti-conformity is revenge, which makes it just counterculturalism in camouflage, no?) (Or maybe camouflage works?)
I’m not particularly concerned to defend the hipster, in the sense of the class fragment vaguely gestured at there. But for any anti-hipster screed to qualify as anything but a full-on strawman-torching session providing a smokescreen for a riot of unprocessed anxieties, I’d like to find a writer able to identify, say, three so-called hipsters by name and provide some minimal grounding of generalizations in fact. Even anecdotally. If you actually ask almost anyone five or six questions, I bet they’d soon complicate the stereotype beyond recognition. (As Margaux Williamson’s Teenager Hamlet film in many ways shows.) There are no hipsters, only anti-hipsters - or at least the ratio is approximately the same as that of actually existing Satanists to anti-Satanists during the heavy-metal and Goth panics of the 1980s and 1990s. The question is what in turn the hipster allows the anti-hipster to deny, and what’s being lost in that continuing deferral.