Zoilus by Carl Wilson

A Spectre is Haunting Culture -
The Spectre of the Hipster

April 30th, 2009


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.

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  2. Matos W.K. says:

    Here’s the short version: if you liked Pavement (or whoever) in the ’90s, it wasn’t cool to try to appear sexy. If you like the Strokes (or whoever) in the ’00s, it is. Cue rage. Or, basically, Sean Nelson’s EMP paper (its concept, anyway; didn’t see, though I should try to get a copy).

  3. Chris says:

    Man, even by tumblr standards that’s a remarkably lazy and mercenary bid for a book deal. He’s already got the “submit content” widget so he can “crowdsource” all the work!

  4. Matos W.K. says:

    haha at first I thought you meant Carl and was all “what?!”

  5. Matt Collins says:

    I second Matos’ glib but correct assessment, but I wanted to add that not only is there no productive thesis in The Rebel Sell, there is no valid evidence in the book, which uses terms like “skater” with the kind of joyless abandon that “hipster” is used. Surely, the “authors” of Look At This Fucking Hipster are more deserving of a book deal on the basis of their commentary alone, whereas the authors of The Rebel Sell only managed to aggravate lower-year university discussions and help the customers of Mountain Equipment Co-Op to justify their fairly pitiful half-jock faux-environmentalist pseudo-anti-capitalist ugly-waterproof-clothing support of North America’s most quietly successful tax shelter.

    Man, I hated that fucking book. Especially all the times they mixed up subculture and counterculture. And their basically homophobic rejection of Jackass.

  6. Jody says:

    Right on, Carl. You nailed it, I think, with “the resentment of youthful self-possession and good looks.” There’s a very old story here about the (sexual) jealousy triggered by the rise of a “freer” generation. Philip Larkin captured this in one of his best poems:


  7. Steve says:

    Wow, Look at this Fucking Hipster is fucking terrible and embarrassing. It’s like Vice’s Dos/Don’ts written by actual homophobes and gender-weirdness-phobes. Russell says Vice’s comments are “violently misogynist and racist,” but they’re actually post-misogynist and post-racist. Whatever you think of post-bigotry, it’s not the same as actual bigotry. At least Vice has the balls to joke about only not being a fag for image-consciousness reasons. LATFH would never be that vulnerable/progressive, which is what makes Vice so funny.

  8. dave m. says:

    i agree with you about how young people have always been like this to some extent, and also about the anti-hipster’s suspect motivations, but surely there’s some truth in the hipster caricature — just because no single person is the perfect stereotype doesn’t mean they don’t represent a certain norm. poll 30 kids at wrongbar tonight whether they like animal collective and whether they know who the federal finance minister is.

    (also, the vice do’s and don’ts book is ~8 billion times funnier than that tumblr site.)

  9. zoilus says:

    Poll 30 kids at CBGB’s in 1977 about whether they liked Television and who the head of the Federal Reserve was.

    Also ask 30 kids at a Scarborough dance club about who the federal finance minister is.

    These are not things that most people start paying attention to until they’re older. If ever. And while there’s a certain citizenship-duty there, sure, on the other hand can you really blame people for not caring who the federal finance minister is? I just had to think for about three minutes to remember Jim Flaherty myself.

    Check that info against the fact that overall involvement in voluntarism and altruistic causes is much higher in the current college-age cohort than in many years. Not sure how you automatically know from people’s sideburns who they spent their summer working for.

  10. Tomorrow Museum » Archive » The Hipster as a 21c Dandy says:

    [...] to anti-Satanists during the heavy-metal and Goth panics of the 1980s and 1990s” — Carl Wilson commenting on this article: “The hip game of mocking the hipsters.” (Previously: What [...]

  11. JD Considine says:

    Not to be picky, but the proper analog for minister of finance would be secretary of the treasury, not head of the federal reserve.

    As for the satanist metal panics, you’re dead on. About a decade ago I read an historical study of devil worship which essentially concluded that satanism was actually just a construct devised by christians to provide themselves with an adversary analogous to Satan himself. Talk about straw-man burning…

  12. zoilus says:

    In strict parallel you’re right JD, but the Fed chief in the U.S. usually gets the kind of media attention that’s reserved for the finance minister here - the treasury secretary a little less so. (Though obviously in the current climate that’s reversed and Geithner is getting more play than Bernanke.) Whereas I don’t even know who’s the current governor of the Bank of Canada.

  13. dave m. says:

    zoilus, i agree with you 100%. all i’m saying is that no matter what you think of them, hipsters do exist as an identifiable tribe.

    (bank of canada = david dodge, i believe. *googles* yep. and seriously, based on an informal poll i did last night, non-hipsters don’t know who jim flaherty is either. but i do think we can and should blame people — everybody, non-hipsters included — for not knowing who the federal finance minister is, given how his actions over the next couple of years will have a big impact on the economy, and by extension, our lives.)

  14. zoilus says:

    Actually, Dave, Dodge was replaced in Feb. 2008 by Mark Carney.

  15. zoilus says:

    I think “tribe” is a big exaggeration. I’d say almost anyone who reads this site is pretty much a “hipster,” but that doesn’t mean you or I share a lot of the supposed traits of the stereotype. The term basically is defined by whatever traits the user finds negative in order to distinguish him/herself from them. So it obscures more than it illuminates.

  16. Mike W. says:

    >Carl: There are dance clubs in Scarborough? I honestly did not know this.

  17. zoilus says:

    Well, to be honest I mostly know this from headlines like “Man shot outside Scarborough nightclub.”

  18. andrew says:

    Great post. So true about hipster bashing.

    I think it’s interesting that comment about tribes. I agree that hipsters really don’t constitute much of a tribe (although maybe they did a little more at a certain time and place before hipster fashion was so thoroughly mass-marketed). But I think it’s interesting to compare that state of affairs with other music subcultures which have been described that way. I’m specifically thinking of early 90s ravers/junglists, who probably constituted much more of a tribe than hipsters do nowadays. Or so movies and Simon Reynolds would have me believe.

    As for Scarborough clubs, Google sez: http://www.google.ca/search?hl=en&q=scarborough+nightclub&btnG=Search

  19. john says:

    The resistance to the hipster label is just an instance of the common human anxiety of being labeled at all — speaking as someone much more likely to be labeled a hippie than a hipster. Long hair — yup. Likes folk music — yup. Tries to eat organically-grown food — yup. Goes barefoot when possible — yup. Must be a hippie! You’ve even labeled me hippie, Carl, and you like me! (Or so I had thought . . . ) I’d say for sure there’s a tribal element to hipsterism — isn’t your book a critique of hipsterism’s xenophobia? (I’m OK with being labeled hippie, by the way. Otherwise I’d cut my hair.)

    Thanks for the rockin’ Larkin poem, Jody. For the perpetually-renewing trampling of the generations and the resentment of the older-trampled, see also: Sinatra’s denunciation of Elvis, Armstrong’s denunciation of Gillespie . . .

  20. Erik Rutherford says:

    Great stuff Carl! You masterfully haul the anti-hipster over the coals, but I worry that in the process you end up proclaiming that hipsters really are hip (at least to the extent you’ll admit hipsters exist). But how is it not politically and morally vacuous to embrace the system of cool (cynically promoted and appropriated by the hyper-capitalist mainstream), believing you’ve somehow trumped it by doubling up on its tribal colours? Over-subscribing ironically is still subscribing, and it seems less admirable a position than actually fighting the system, as some other tribes attempt to do (they are also caricatures and hypocrites of course; there is no pure, irreproachable pose out there to adopt).

    As you say, every generation has its version of youth hipster rebels, some more convincing and more relevant than others. What is comical about today’s hipsterism is the anti-adult strain that runs through it—the posture against responsibility, engagement, heritage, reverence, discernment. Dressing like kids is not innocent. Apathy as a pose does actually engender apathy, and surely apathy merits scorn, all the more if it’s an “outcropping of the mainstream”-division American Apparel and Vice. Really, why blame marketing when we can blame the people who cede so eagerly or so calculatedly to its dictates?

    Put the other way: That “internal conformism” we see in the hipsters is an adolescent impulse, and there are no greater conformists than adolescents, no human beings more preoccupied with recognition and acceptance by way of surfaces. Fashion accessories—the huge, plastic sunglasses for example—are all the anecdotal evidence hipsters need to recognize each other; why should that evidence not suffice for anti-hipsters?

    You’re absolutely right that hipsters raise anxieties, processed and unprocessed alike. Question is, are these anxieties valid, defensible? I don’t really see why not. Who wants a new Dandy in the neighbourhood? The Dandy is one of the most distasteful characters of the 18th/19th century, posturing around town, feigning the airs of a higher class, militating against social equality, deriding aspiration, celebrating idleness and self-regard (though, admittedly, throwing good parties and sometimes writing good poetry).

    Of course, hipsters are so often, as you point out, whatever traits the anti-hipster finds negative in order to distinguish him/herself from them. Probably the most virulent anti-hipsters are the “almost hipsters,” people like me who see that hipsters are among my closest kin, but who find them too potent a reminder of my own powerlessness. When I see them dread fills my body and I think, “though I may feel free and autonomous, I am determined and contingent.” Suddenly any critique of state, class, mode of production, economic justice seems much less commanding than a tattoo.

    Which is just to say that, having misgivings about hipsters seems quite fair to me. And as Kenneth Clarke says of civilization—“I can’t tell you what it is but I know it when I see it”—I say of hipsterism.

    None of us escapes the fashion and spirit of our age, granted. Disapproval is always a little suspicious, yes. But still, some hierarchies of identity and pursuit are simply more worthy than others.

  21. marco says:

    Very thoughtful and articulate post as always.

    I am OK with hipsters except I do have a problem with a few stoic, soft-spoken bearded dudes who have this wise, grandfatherly look on their faces even though they are only about 30. those guys clearly do think they are better than you. of course, they will never say it to your face. You usually see them on brisk autumn nights, having a smoke on the street-corner with a couple friends, chuckling gently, ostensibly minding their own business and causing no harm to anybody; if you look carefully, however, you will see a certain, knowing twinkle in their eyes, and it says pure contempt.

    Not sure what this has to do with hipsters, but I’ll throw it out there.

  22. mw says:

    Carl - thanks for the post - I enjoy reading your site and I can usually get through an entire entry with some work. But why some many big words? Can’t you find a simpler way to put things? “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.” I mean, I think I understand that - but is it really necessary? You might be excluding people who might otherwise tune in regularly.

  23. Sasha says:

    This was a very good post. But my favorite response to look at this fucking hipster is probably still http://lookatthislovelyhamster.tumblr.com/

  24. Chris says:

    read this: http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/79/hipster.html

    it was like, the biggest article of last summer, can’t beleive people are still talking about this bullshit a year later.

  25. Julia says:

    Erik, your note on internal conformism seems to hit the nail on the head. I’m all for flamboyant aesthetic display (it’s fun to be around those who turn themselves into walking works of art), but signature hipster style functions regularly as a ticket of admission rather than an attempt at a new sort of beauty (of course, those two possibilities are hardly mutually exclusive).

    But who of us are innocent of this sort of superficial boundary-drawing? Knowing the name of the Federal Finance Minister, though perhaps less visible, has the potential of becoming exactly the same sort of condition of acceptance as the newest oversized plastic shades. We all think we know who ‘our’ people are: they studied philosophy or they own every Talking Heads album or they wear gold lame tights. Can we really presume that some of these in-groups are more acceptable than others? Of course, life would be less than it could be if we couldn’t revel in shared cultural paradigms every once in awhile (for example, having always been a Joss Whedon fan, I have recently fallen into the habit of using an embarrassing amount of Firefly slang and I know my day would be much better if someone would but notice that I just said “no rutting way”). But although we should heartily enjoy our own shared style and culture, we should also be willing to question it. We don’t question the internal conformism of the hipster by taking up the call of the anti-hipster. In fact, the more we bandy about the word ‘hipster’ the more we are engaged in exactly the sort of social border patrolling as the chick who, without ever paying it much mind, somehow has no friends who aren’t clad head to toe in American Apparel (let’s call her Summer).

    These social factions may be the bread and butter of the critic, but does that not make the critic just as guilty as the 20-something with the ironic moustache on College Street? (Wait, the critic IS that guy on College Street…)

    What’s my point? Carl, you offer us a different sort of criticism, one for which I am extremely grateful. Your book and your many insightful posts on Zoilus typically serve to challenge our innate need for internal conformism. Although because of you there are many more young people out there who can reference Odetta, or even Max Tundra (me being one of them), hopefully there are also those who are willing to actually talk to that person who cries every time they hear Celine Dion, or (more to the theme of this post) to that 19 year old in the purple spandex bodysuit. The more people who are willing to have a conversation with someone outside of their social demographic, the less likely it will be that Summer will manage to only know people who shop at the same stores she does.

  26. Matt Collins says:

    I would say that the hipster debate is the epicentre of that conformism- everybody does it. Hip Hoppers complain about “Hipster Hop”,Metalheads express suspicion about “Hipster Metal”, that adbusters article was clearly written by a hipster, as far as I was concerned, and now we find agonizing hand-wringing a la baby boomers writing about Generation X or the war generation writing about baby boomers- it’s only a matter of tie before people in the suburbs can hire a real, live “hipster” to liven up their parties. At the centre of this conformity is a certain fog surrounding the term hipster, which everyone seems to distance themselves from without qualifying.

  27. Paul M says:

    The adbusters critique puts me in mind of that Harper’s article on flash mobs from 2006- I vaguely remember you writing about it at the time … In any case, I like the invitation to avoid the torching of strawmen (a/k/a the old Philosophy 101 admonition to lay off the ad hominems, which I think Russell Smith routinely forgets in his columns).

  28. Colonel Tom says:

    “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.”
    Carl, this is fantastic. It made me laugh and nod in agreement at the same time.
    You should go out & get yerself an Adorno tattoo for that one! Hell, I’ll even pay for it.

  29. K Connolly says:

    I thought Russell’s piece was funny in parts too, but I completely agree with you Carl. The problem with young people is they’re almost all beautiful, and that makes older people sad to be old. Too bad, you had your chance, so stop whining about it. About the only thing I miss about being young is my looks (well, and my hair, and that sense of immortality that disappears right quick once you turn 30). It’s really not the free ride everyone pretends it is. If you actually talk to young people about it, in fact, there’s plenty about it that sucks (like 40 grand in student debt, for starters).

    Funny thing about the hipster look these days is that if you add a thin leather tie to it, it’s basically what people were wearing when I was 23. It makes a little unsettling walking through Kensington Market and almost expecting to see yourself on the other side of the street.

  30. MJH says:

    Agreed, Carl. I like your criticism, here and in Journey to the End of Taste. It’s a kind and generous kinda thoughtfulness; it shows sincere interest in learning and understanding. This is absent from hipster bashing, although hipster bashing can be fun, in a wanky way.

    Jody, you have posted a link to my all-time desert-island favourite Philip Larkin poem. I’ve always thought of “High Windows” as describing something more glorious than jealousy, though. Some sense of being dazzled, blinded by the sun. “Sad Steps” describes a more self-consciously pathetic scene:


  31. Andrew Korell says:

    The message I gleamed from the Adbuster’s article was “dressing up fashionably is a right reserved for the poetically interesting revolutionary and doing it for fun is just plain wrong.” I’ve always seen hipsters as fashionable interlopers. People who identify more with the ‘cool’ of something than the substance.

  32. Phil says:

    Speaking from a glass cathedral of self-denial…this is exactly why I’ve never like Russell’s style column…it represents everything I hated about Queen Street West between 1987 and 1991 when I lived there. It might be fun, but in the end it’s shallow, rude and unkind…like most guilty pleasures found on the world wide web…burn baby burn.

  33. Matt Collins says:

    Wait a minute, did someone say substance? You poor, naive wretch.

  34. john says:

    “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.”

    I like the snarling group-masturbaters; I like it that they’re hurtling towards anything — sounds awkward! That they’re hurtling towards atomization reminds one that an atomizer is a sprayer, as is a masturbater, whether social or not; and a circle-jerker is a social masturbater; so a circle jerk hurtling toward social atomization is almost redundant, since social atomization is the *goal* of a circle jerk, and collapse is not uncommon after climax (spraying). It’s the snarling and the hurtling that make the image poetic.

    Masturbation aside, I do agree that the hipster is not at all a stable category, as last decade’s hipster is this decade’s resentful old fart, brushed aside by the younger generation. Also very much agree that focusing ire on the new generation of hipsters is embarrassing and misses the point.

  35. john says:

    One group that claims the “hipster” mantle — no doubt with a hint of irony and chagrin, but not completely without pride, even tribal pride: Hipster parents.


  36. brinnjob says:

    what a stupid fucking article. i love it when brits attempt to write about hipsters or youth culture (wtf is a dandy?) - especially since they’re about 5 years behind in fashion anyway.

    some of the people pictured in LATFH need a punch in the face or more. defending them and saying that they might actually have a reason for the way they dress is laughable. keep on keepin’ on.

  37. Mike W. says:

    >Carl: “Well, to be honest I mostly know this from headlines like “Man shot outside Scarborough nightclub.””

    When I was a kid in the 80’s, musical tribalism was much more robust than it is today. If you went around in a concert shirt or had backpatch on your jean jacket, the older metallers would stop you outside the convenience store and say, “Name ten songs” to test whether you were a true head or just some worthless poseur. Woe to he who could not Name Ten Songs.

    I remembered this when I saw your Scarborough danceclub comment. As a proud Scarberian, I reflexively wanted to say, “Name ten Scarborough danceclubs” to see if you actually knew anything about them, or were just using Scarborough in its usual role as Place of The Other. I appreciate your honesty that it was mostly the latter.

    Of course, I could get all sanctimonious and tsk tsk you for the lazy characterization. No doubt if you had written something similar in Now Magazine, you’d get plenty of letters doing just that.

    But my experience with actual Scarborough danceclubs supports your characterization. Any time I tried to go to one, it was made very clear that I ought not try. I remember going to The Roof Garden in Cedarbrae, when the bouncer asked, as he was wanding us down with the metal detector, “Do you really want to go inside? There’s no one like you in there.”. No one like who, right? We’re all the same, right? It’s a free country, right?

    Well, not really, not actually. Which brings us back to the whole hipster thing. As many have already pointed out, to even use the term is to claim allegience to it. NO ONE at a “Scarborough danceclub”
    knows or cares about the precise meaning of “hipster”. It’s a meaningless label in Scarbs, because long before they get to parsing the semiotics of your taste preferences, they’ve already dismissed you as “White”, the only label that really matters.

  38. Leave the Hipster Alone « Tape Noise Diary says:

    [...] leave a comment » A Spectre Is Haunting Culture - The Spectre Of The Hipster [...]

  39. She says:

    “Hip” has an etymology (heroin user) and an accepted academic definition (lofty bourgeois intellection meets strict rejection of bourgeois aesthetics; e.g., we cite Vilem Flusser in saying terribly clever things about pimps). However, since bourgeois aesthetics rejects ethical content in favor of form anyway and the bourgeoisie have been reading with pleasure about pimps for the last 500 years, as middle-class people are sadly not aware, naively believing the bourgeoisie somehow resembles their parents, hipsterism fails as a social-climbing strategy and becomes ludicrous. FYI.

  40. Matt Collins says:

    I just threw up in my mouth when I read that.

  41. “There are no hipsters, only anti-hipsters.” « like a muffin or a beet says:

    [...] 14, 2009 in Uncategorized | Tags: hipsters | by moneycitymaniac Carl Wilson offers some thoughts on Russell Smith’s recent Globe and Mail article, “The hip game of mocking the [...]

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