A Tale of Two Hipsters
A 10,000 word essay on what the term hipster means.
“Bohemia. A desert country near the sea.”
Part I: A Tale of Two Bicycles
Around 2008, speeding down 7th Avenue from Central Park in New York City, weaving in and out of traffic I had reached my destination at 24th Street only to lift the bike to the curb and have the wheel bound away from me and down into the street. A quick-release joint on the axle had worn loose. It didn’t cost me much to replace. But the event made me afraid of something similar happening– namely, that one day, after all the hard riding, the old frame would crack or split at some critical juncture and I would be flung head first into traffic. It seemed sensible to get something new. But I didn’t have the money so the worry soon dissolved into a vague interest in new bikes I noticed on the street.
A few years later, I was on Bedford Avenue, the main drag of Williamsburg, in “South” Williamsburg, a few blocks north of the bridge (I lived ten blocks below it) outside the fin-de-siecle themed bar that didn’t have a name, or rather, as per the “speak-easy” trend, the only place you could find its secret appellation was on a tiny monographed creme-colored business card the hostess gave you which read, “Maison Premiere”, or as my girlfriend at the time affectionately called it, “First House”
Because the bar was next to my laundromat I would see the owner all the time, nervously rushing in and out. He looked like an enormous, athletic, and stylish version of R. Crumb– if one can picture that. He dressed, to match his bar and Crumb, in old timey style, adroitly tailored suits, six hundred dollar boots, carefully trimmed and parted mustache, and leather suspenders. All of his companions dressed like this as well, their heads shaved brutally close to the skull on the back and sides in an untapered straight line that left long strands on top. This was the unisex haircut that had taken Williamsburg by storm, unironically referred to as, “The Hitler Youth”. Recently, having jettisoned the name, it has entered the mainstream
It wasn’t a bad place, which is saying a lot for Williamsburg, which was and is full of bad places. I think the bar imagined itself as a place where successful people pretended to be wealthy, but in fact, like most New York City locales, it was a place where wealthy people pretended to be successful. I had parked my bike on a signpost and on the other side, I noticed, was another bike. Placing my bike alongside it created an uncanny doubling effect. The vision was slightly magical, and I paused dumbfounded. The bike was my bike– but not quite. It was like looking into an enchanted mirror, not through a glass darkly, but rather from the glass darkly out into the bright and shimmering realm on the other side. It was an idealized version of my bike, new and flawless. Though this was not just on account of paint and gloss. The design of the frame itself had been cleaned up, the lines reduced and refined. Tiny details, like the ugly little metal nubs that held my brake cables had been replaced by brushed metal clamps. The cables themselves were smaller. Holes for finicky attachments and several lesser crossbars were missing. Then there was the object as a whole. My bike, an accumulation of crooked triangles, had been subtly shifted into one smooth even fashion forward parallelogram.
I wrote down the brand naively thinking I had finally found the inexpensive replacement for my frame I had been looking for all these years. But I soon discovered my error. The copy was a $7000 custom-designed frame imported directly from Japan. The price on the internet, with all the trimmings, the rims, the gears, the pedals, the Brooks’ saddle leather seat, easily topped $10,000. Like the “minimalist” luxury lofts growing to shade my own cheaper shabby claustrophobic junk-filled apartment, all the pieces were designed so that the consumer could have physically less for some insubstantial rarified “more”. What was going on? Why would someone spend $9500 additional dollars to have a bike that looked like a slightly cleaner version of my own bike? And why was I involved? Why did I see a copy of my own bike, an object whose outward appearance, and in fact very existence, I regarded hardly as a piece of haute couture but a hard-scrabble mix of necessity and accident? It did not seem a coincidence, on the contrary, on some unconscious level I expected it. It felt only natural. But why?
In his In Defense of Lost Causes, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek describes a common but often unspoken modern belief– that the contemporary world is so complex it is impossible to apprehend and so therefore impossible to change on a grand scale. Rather, all that remains to us is the confusion of subjectivity and heightened focus on elaborate detail:Things look bad for Causes today, in a “postmodern” era when, although the ideological scene is fragmented into a panoply of positions which struggle for hegemony, there is an underlying consensus: the era of big explanations is over, we need ‘weak thought’, opposed to all foundationalism, a thought attentive to the ‘rhizomatic’ texture of reality, in politics, too, we should not longer aim at all-explaining systems and global emancipatory projects; the violent imposition of grand solutions should leave room for forms of specific resistance and intervention… If the reader feels a minimum of sympathy with these lines, she should stop reading and cast aside this volume.
The best example of Zizek’s description is your Facebook “feed” which offers an endless tangled flow of meaningless information mixed with “campaigns”, and “up worthy” causes each posted by a “friend” and reflecting their personal viewpoint. The reign of an African warlord is juxtaposed with a failing bakery, ten things only an 80s girl knows, personal complaints, an article about trending microaggressions, and so forth. How are we to pick our battles? “Well,” we concede, “the world is so complex I can never understand it and neither can anyone else so I should just focus on what I ‘like’. There is no clear unified vision about what is going on, just a jumble of stuff that I ‘like’ or don’t ‘like’. I’m just lucky to be in the position I’m in, but I certainly wouldn’t know how to change things.” However this viewpoint is an illusion, successful in part because it inspires paralysis.
Likewise in an Op-Ed in The New York Times last week entitled “ My So-Called Opinions”, an N.Y.U. student claims his generation is not “lazy” or “narcissistic” but in fact “civilly and politically” disengaged because they are all hopelessly confused by a deluge of information which is impossible to parse using the obligatory subjective toolkit of moral relativism.
To lead us out of N.Y.U’s fog let’s reverse this analysis as Zizek does by flipping the proverbial notion of “Ablata causa tolluntur effectua: when the cause is absent, the effects thrive” into “When the cause intervenes, the effects are dispelled”. Let us suppose, for a moment, that the world is not inherently rhizomatic, (that is to say, like Facebook, infinitely-pronged, ever in flux, continually in the process of creation and destruction, unsourced, unknowable) but in fact, fundamentally apprehensible. Moreover, we need not be blinded by a cloud of effects behind which are indistinct lattices of causes. We can just suppose that the cloud of effects has one simple cause– to confuse what has traditionally been the most radical element in society since the enlightenment– young, liberal, educated, university students. That is to say, we can dismiss the objective precept of subjectivity by considering it ideology in the classical Marxist sense– a prevailing paradigm of ideas and values masquerading as patent truth though in fact it is merely the means by which the ruling class perpetuates the status quo. In this sense, the paralysis of subjectivity is no more correct than the divine right of kings or the inherent slavishness of a group of people that happen to be your slaves. Here of course, we can recognize the irony. The analytical tool invented by Marx– the comparative study of the subjectivity of different societies ideologies– is agglomerated together to create our own.
This essay is an effort to use critical analysis to unravel the term “hipster” into a lattice of ideas that is clear, makes plain sense, and so therefore explains things which before to us seemed hopelessly tangled. Most articles on this topic claim the term is unknowable. This is because the word, like the entire notion of indefinable rhizomic culture movements, is ideology. It is the means by which an outside group has defined, divided, and de-legitimized the radical in our present generation.
I had moved to New York City in the mid-2000s for a mixture of economic and artistic reasons. The economy was bigger in New York so I reasoned I was more likely to find steady work. I also thought I would find a large arts community in which to participate. However, calling myself an “artist” was difficult and confusing in New York City because it referred to two groups of people. One group was more or less like myself, people working minimum wage day jobs or selling artistic services piecemeal as 1099-MISC contractors. The other group of people where folks who were faced with the same quandary– work an unfulfilling middle (or more likely lower) class job or become a “successful” artist. However, this second group of people were wealthy enough to buy their own reality. Wealthy New York people made up a number of careers using this method, however some form of artistic career was the most popular choice, possibly second only to being the director of a vague Non-Profit organization. All the trappings of an artist, “exposure”, studios, leisure time to work, Masters Degrees, and so forth could be bought. Money had nothing to do with the term. The label was not a “career” since no artists made a significant amount of money.
This may seem bizarre, but it is in fact a very natural consequence of the economic landscape of our generation. Most of us do not have real jobs. Most of us do not personally accumulate any wealth. The recession continues. However, our parents generation presided over the largest accumulation of personal wealth in all of human history. Our impoverished landscape is distorted by their wealth and influence.
Already the tangle does indeed seem complex and it is. But it’s not impossibly complex. It would be so nice and tidy if the hereditarily poor artists in New York City frequented the laundromat and not the fin-de-siecle bar next door and the hereditarily rich artists frequented the fin-de-siecle bar and not the laundromat.But it turns out both groups of people frequented both places. However, it’s as good as place as any to start. To begin to unravel this knot in which two classes each pretend they are one another and both claim to have illusory careers that don’t make any money and possibly don’t exist at all let’s return to the bikes and the highrises and the landscape. Let’s look at the idea of Williamsburg’s “gentrification” and work our way outward from there.
I offer the following analysis of the phenomenon:
- A manufacturing boom lasts 30 years or so in a particular city but then moves on elsewhere. The nature of capitalism mines out short term gain while sacrificing long term stability.
- A creative class of impoverished (and generally socialist) artists move to an economically depressed urban area devastated by the process described in step 1 (an old factory district where there is infrastructure but no longer jobs so the housing is cheap). Often times, they live among minorities because (if they are not minorities themselves), unlike others in the housing market, these generally liberal people do not regard this idea as a negative.
- Young urban professionals collect the avant garde ideas and art generated by the creative class and commodify them into marketable products to sell to the upper class and other middle class professionals.
- Their efforts convince their fellow middle class professionals to spend their excess income on conspicuous consumption– a continually moving target called “style”. In this system, “style” can be defined as avant garde ideas and works of art generated by the creative class which are then transformed into marketable commodities by other middle class professionals (marketers). Style is cheap to sell because it is intangible. Moreover, it is always in demand because it is defined by its novelty.
- The original area where the artists settle itself becomes “stylish” and is no longer a place where art is made but a place where artistic and cutting edge products and food are sold. The bombed out factory studios themselves undergo this commodification– transforming “artists lofts” in to “luxury lofts” sold at exorbitant rates (because they are soaked in intangible “style”) to middle class professionals with nine to five jobs.
- The artists flee to a new location. The people who lived in the area prior to the gentrification are also driven out, or, if they are lucky enough to have owned their property, benefit from the rise in housing prices. The area becomes chintzy, boring, and ugly. The same insatiable swarming market forces have now chewed it over twice, once as a factory district, then as a fashionable factory district.
- The artists settle in a new location soon pursued by the marketers looking to collect their new ideas and sell them as the latest form of style. The nature of capitalism mines out short term gain while sacrificing long term stability.
Looking at gentrification from this perspective clears up all sorts of small mysteries. For example, we can now decode why Whole Foods are always located in ancient factories in which they lovingly preserve the machinery and artifacts of that era. It also clues us in to a lot of the imagery in rock n’roll. We can understand why Morrissey is always singing about the iron bridges, mouldering infrastructure, and “ugly new houses” of Manchester– a city which was the first example of a large scale industrial boom and bust in human history. It sheds light on why the Mod and Punk youth counter-culture centered around Joy Division in the late 70s and early 80s sprung from that landscape of all places. It even explains why the Beatles moved to the post-industrial and economically devastated port town of Hamburg to start their career in rock n’roll. The Fab Four arrived in an industrial slum, dressed in skinny trousers, put on raybans, starting playing rock shows for the art students there, then had themselves photographed among crumbling iron and brick wrought by a century of commerce. Sound familiar?
This process is most evident in New York, where all New Yorkers regard it as a plain fact of life or a pattern in which to anticipate real estate prices and invest in property. Bohemia has moved steadily east across the lower half of Manhattan Island– beginning in the 50s and 60s in Greenwich Village, meandering with Warhol to the Flat Iron and Chelsea, then to the East Village in the 60s and 70s, Soho and Noho in the 80s, the Lower East Side in the 90s, and at last jumping over the river in desperation to land in Williamsburg in the 90s and early 2000s. Now that Williamsburg is more or less “over”, the front has moved to Bushwick and pushed upwards to Greenpoint. Bushwick used to be called “East Williamsburg”, a fictional name to market apartments. Since Williamsburg is no longer trendy and Bushwick is cool, the appellation has fallen out of favor among developers.
What remains in the wake of this wandering “coast of bohemia”? Much lamented, potent, pure, and undiluted consumerism. Fancy restaurants, expensive stores, shopping districts, and “luxury artist loft” apartments for those who want to pay a premium to have this catalog of rarefied delicacies at their fingertips. In the film Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) one can see the bohemian intellectual characters ambling through a Soho so blighted it looks exactly like Bushwick. Today, those same streets are shopping malls. But that term does not do the area justice since it can’t express how those streets are now the most splendid luxury item shopping zone in all the nation where corporations vie for power with fleets of “flagship stores”.
This phenomenon is not unique to New York. The same thing is happening in Baltimore, where I currently live, and probably in many other cities all over the world. About ten or fifteen years ago, my generation moved into a crumbling warehouse district in another blighted area of Baltimore City. The DIY artist warehouse district is now labelled “The Arts & Entertainment District”, housing prices are on the rise and everywhere there are signs advertising “elegant urban living” and “artists luxury lofts” to people who are obviously not artists but rather middle class professionals.
However, these are all minor points. What this view of gentrification really provides us with is a clear vantage point to look at a very big and unjust misunderstanding: why artists as “hipsters” are hated.
We have been misidentified. Specifically, two species have been conflated together under one label.
We are confused with the people who spend their money to look, dress, and talk exactly like us for the purpose of showing off their conspicuous wealth and status.
This causes different groups of people to hate us for different reasons.To those who lived in the impoverished neighborhoods before we arrived, we are harbingers of this race of locusts. Or perhaps a better metaphor: It’s like hating the sight of rabbits because you know they will soon attract wolves and foxes so rapacious they will make the land uninhabitable. Except in our case, after the wolves kill the rabbits they wear their skin in a grotesque masquerade.
To the middle class who are not interested in style, we are confused with the ultra-consumerist middle class who emulate us. For example, I once invited two of my middle class professional friends, a husband and wife, to a performance at a DIY art space in Baltimore. The husband said sure, but the wife felt uncomfortable. “I’m coming from work” she said. “All the hipsters there would judge me because of how I’m dressed.” I was astonished. “They’re freaks!” I objected. “They look and dress in a totally crazy way because they are genuinely crazy and eccentric and cannot help it! The last thing I’ve ever seen them do is take any sort of interest in how someone else is dressed or looks! In fact, because they’re all such weirdos they’re the most accepting group of people I’ve ever met except possibly for Star Trek nerds and most of them are Star Trek nerds!” No, she insisted saying she wasn’t coming. “Hipsters are snooty and judgmental.” I knew she was wrong but I also knew where she had gotten that impression. She was confusing the artists with the people who buy the image of the artist in hipster costume shops like American Apparel and Urban Outfitters to feel superior to other people– to chase the ever retreating sea coast of Bohemia.
Lastly, the hipster is the means by which we might hate ourselves. He is the “other” in our society, the only stereotype, the only class slur which is not only socially acceptable to say but in fact celebrated. When a comedian in a skinny suit, or an artist at a party, or a middle class professional out for a cocktail at someplace like “Maison Premiere”, or really anyone anytime utters, “I hate hipsters”, heads nod in assent. The declaration of hatred is affirmed. We condemn as a group. But who are we condemning? Some hypothetical agglomeration of character traits? Or some of those traits chopped up into pieces and sprinkled in ourselves? We utter hipster’s name as a magical incantation to separate him from us, to assure us that we in fact are not infected by the taint of his intangible, elusive, and strange presence.
Part II: Why (God) is it happening?
i. The First Counter Culture
To understand this last form of hatred– which is the most prevalent and complex– we must understand why counter-culture is aped by the middle class via capitalism and so we must look more closely at what exactly bohemian counterculture is, how it emerged, and why this nexus formed between it and factories/industrialization. Luckily, modern society is a relatively recent invention so these roots are easy to trace. Only a few generations separate us from mid-19th century Europe, when the factory first appeared, and with it industrialized society and the first modern counter-class of intellectuals and artists called “romantics”. Romantics wanted to radically transform Europe into a more liberal, tolerant and egalitarian society. They were the first modern socialists, anarchists, and feminists. They were also the first to offer a cogent expression of the most common and persistent popular objections to capitalism– that it is ugly, impersonal, anti-artistic (in the sense that it deprives the worker of the satisfaction of work), and worst of all– it suffers (to borrow the term) from “a failure of imagination”. It myopically focuses on the practical and quantifiable while ignoring or marginalizing the humanities and with them, larger, more difficult, societal goals. (Think, for example, of the hideous 19th century landscape of iron factories or today’s indifferent corporate sculptures, strip malls, and highways. Think of President Obama [channelling Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind] groping for lighthearted economic advice to graduates, and having his joke settle on the usual grim and cold calculation, “I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”)
Likewise, from Rousseau onwards the romantics offered the first alternative arguments to the Lockean notion that political freedom and equality was somehow linked with the freedom to conduct business. Recall that the grand fallacy of the Iraq War was not that of fact (the missing W.M.D.s) but of political philosophy. George W. Bush had reasoned from first principles that once he brought economic “freedom” to Iraq, democracy would soon follow as night follows day. Just this past month, with the invasion of Crimea, American foreign policy was once again startled to the same rude ideological awakening. The introduction of capitalism in Russia has not brought democracy. Rather, in fact, as many Russian poets and intellectuals have pointed out– quite the opposite. Capitalism created and supports the tyranny of Putin and his “oligarchs”, the solution should have been functional socialism, they argued. (Note, how we politely disguise this unpalatable idea in our terms. We do not say Putin and his “business men”.)
The push for democracy in 19th century Europe was often an intellectual push, an artistic movement full of young writers and painters. They ultimately lost and for the most part the merchant class replaced the nobility. Or if those that took up their cause won, their efforts to create a society founded on certain rigid ideals of equality and beauty tipped into Fascism. The populist dictator Napoleon wrote an unsuccessful romantic novel before he tried his hand at being Emperor. Beethoven almost dedicated his third symphony to him and Byron his poems– until it became evident their hero had betrayed his democratic ideals. According to conservative theorists, the Bohemian working class socialism of artists, writers, and musicians will always tip into authoritarianism. In his History of Western Philosophy the mathematician Bertrand Russell states flatly, as if it were a logical proof, that the socialist Rousseau and the romantics will always evolve into dictators like Napoleon and (failed painter) Hitler. This notion caused G. K. Chesterton to ironically propose the creation of a “philosopher policeman” who goes to “artistic tea parties to detect pessimists” and investigate “books of sonnets”.
And it is true that the creative class have always been at the center of radical philosophy. Since the birth of modern democracy, there has been a consistent countervailing socialist argument that a different sort of fair system can be created that does not allow industrialized capitalism to run rampant. Because the romantics lost the political struggle, they are not remembered so much for their politics as for their art. They were obsessed with fantasy, fairy tales, personal introspection, emotion, beauty, the transcendent, and tying those ideals up in unparalleled paintings, novels, and musical compositions. This is, of course, how we use the term “romantic” today. But this description can also just as easily apply to all the artistic counter-culture movements which followed theirs, including the current one. The romantics’ politics were likewise idealistic. They were a creative class and so were not satisfied with the idea that a new better form of society could not be created. Today in urban centers, there is a similar group of people– intellectuals and artists who want to live their life in search of some transcendent ideal expressed through the perfection of their art. These people are generally liberal and socialist and hold similar ideals for change. They are called “hipsters” and confused with their very opposite– the middle class workers who most ardently embrace the status quo. This uncanny middle class “hipster” dedicates his or her life to acquiring capital and then uses that capital to acquire material possessions in an effort to conform. Middle class hipster buys what he is expected to buy, just as he is living the life society expects him to live– that of a wage earner. And yet these two sorts of people who are polar opposites are grouped under the same term. How that is possible is a unique historical product of American ideology.
ii. American Counter Culture
In her books of essays, The Hearts of Men, Barbara Ehrenreich sets out to create a feminist theory by looking past the narrow strictures of gender norms and societal expectations that hemmed in women in the latter half of the 20th century to instead study the ones that confined the men. She finds that in the 50s and 60s American men married early, (the average age in the late 50s was 23) and only remained childless bachelors at the risk of being labelled psychologically aberrant, or as she quotes Philip Roth’s in My Life as a Man (1974)…a young college-educated bourgeois male of my generation who scoffed at the idea of marriage for himself, who would just as soon eat out of cans or in a cafeteria, sweep his own floor, make his own bed, come and go with no binding legal attachments, finding female friendship and sexual adventure when he could and for no longer than he liked, laid himself open the charge of “immaturity” if not “latent” or blatant “homosexuality”. Or he was just plain “selfish.” or was “frightened of responsibility.” or he could not “commit himself” (nice institutional phrase, that) to a “permanent relationship.”
The psychiatric establishment understood man to only reach his full potential when he became “mature”, that is to say when he married, fathered children, and began providing for them. Books like The Mature Mind, whose thesis was that all human progress was accomplished through “maturity”, propelled this idea into the popular culture. Other modes of behavior were aberrant and, because they fell short of attaining true manhood, ultimately effeminate. The unmarried man had stopped along the road somewhere and dithered. Perhaps, in the Freudian schema, he had been so overly-mothered and focused on his boyhood he had become homosexual. But more often than not, he had simply failed to assume his role and became vaguely de-masculated like Noel, the bohemian Greenwich Village dwelling hero of the novel Marjorie Morningstar. At the end of the novel, Noel eschews marriage, only to end his freewheeling odyssey as a kept pet of an older woman, who, in obscene reversal of roles, provides him with financial support. The heroine of the book, Marjorie, who has pursued Noel through all it’s pages, becomes disgusted at the sight of Noel in an apron preparing dishes, and goes home to marry a stable breadwinner. In short, there was no real contemporary social alternative for men who did not want to marry and father children. This forced most men to accept economic and societal conformity or as Gore Vidal said, “Once a man has a wife and two young children, he will do what you tell him to. He will obey you. And that is the aim of the entire masculine role.” Life outside this role in mid-20th century America was to be something less than a man.
In fiction, men chafed at this idea, but could not find a way out. In Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, an accidental pregnancy forces the protagonist Frank Wheeler to abandon bachelorhood, Greenwich Village, and his dreams of becoming a writer. Soon ensconced in a salaried job at an IBM-like computer company and a suburban tract house in Connecticut, Wheeler mocks the shallowness of his existence situated on the ironically named “Revolutionary Road” but cannot escape it. Plans are made to abscond to Paris, but ultimately, afraid of the uncertainty of an alternative lifestyle, Wheeler accepts a raise at his corporate job and remains unhappily in place. Likewise, in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, the teenage Rabbit Angstrom cannot see a way out of an unwanted pregnancy and the resultant marriage and can only make a mad hopeless dash for the horizon.
Interestingly enough, the first real alternative for men outside of Greenwich Village was not articulated by a popular counter-culture movement, but, Ehrenreich shows us, by Hugh Hefner. Playboy Magazine sold a lifestyle in which men would not waste the excess income generated by the corporate jobs on wife and children, but rather on bachelor pads equipped with every item advertised in the pages of the magazine, all denoting and defining a particular rarefied mixture or modernity and masculinity. High end razors, liquors, cameras, sporting goods, sports cars, hi-fi stereo equipment, cologne, watches, stylish clothes, and the sleek modern apartments themselves, all denoted a new different way of living that made a clean break from the past. Moreover, they were meant to be used as tools of seduction, a means by which a man could display his wealth and status to convince women to sleep with him. Prior to Playboy, what defined and created a man was his wife and child and, as a corollary, his ability to earn a wage to support them. If a man did not have these things, he was most likely not a man at all and a sort of effeminized homosexual, like Noel cooking in the kitchen, relying on a woman for his support. Hefner crafted a much needed alternative vision, a man was defined by the items he possessed. He still earned a wage, but instead of using this wage to support and wife a child, he bought a sort of negative space called a “bachelor pad” which, once filled with all the latest gadgets and accoutrements could attract and fit an endless procession of young and beautiful women. Just like the last ideal of masculinity, however, this system created a damning corollary— if one did not earn enough money to acquire all the symbols of manhood displayed for sale in the magazine, one was not really a man. In this schema, poor men were unmanly men, thus forcing them to conform, in a different way, to societal and capitalist requirements.
Ehrenreich explains hows America’s first real modern counter-culture movement, that of the Beats, emerged as both a reaction to the “bread winners and losers” conformist ideal of the 50s and the Playboy lifestyle. It forced a third way, rejecting both these visions of what defined a “real man”. It was a masculine movement, one which, at its core, like Hefner’s, was a rejection of the burden of domesticity, of wife and child. On the Road’s main character, Dean, abandons his wife and newborn child. Boroughs accidentally shoots his wife. Then for them, life begins. The Beats were iconoclastic in a very literal sense; they were symbol breaking. A man was allowed to leave his wife, leave his job, become a shiftless “Dharma Bum” and still, despite his impecuniousness, get laid. In fact, he could even sleep with men and still sleep with many beautiful women. Sex was decoupled from money. Masculinity was decoupled from sexual preference. They created a totally new self-image of manhood, an image that was a total and infuriating rejection of Playboy’s vision: a man could be a bum and still have plenty of sex. Why? Because his virtues, if he had any, were internal, artistic, and intellectual.
Ehrenreich’s shows, quite brilliantly, how this idea enraged the essayists and editorialists in Playboy. It also horrified those who clung to the more traditional vision of a man as a breadwinner. To those who saw the Beat lifestyle as a threat, the Beat became the diminutive “Beatnik” parodied in television and mass media. The Beatnik was spacy substanceless, always “vibing” out, and focused on trifles. He was in essence a ditz. Like any ideological attack, this hollowed out vision of him mirrored his persecutors who themselves were insecure about the Beats critique of the middle class breadwinner and the striving, all-buying, Playboy ladies’ men. To the Beats, record players, cologne, razors, pants, shirts, and all the junk Playboy required of you was trifling trash that got in the way of real legitimate desires, some over-the-horizon, untrammelled, immanence. The notion of raising children in middle class suburbia felt to them, even more patently hollow and unfulfilling. The Beats were depicted as having ridiculously silly priorities because those who depicted them, when they regarded the Beats, secretly felt that way about themselves.
Previously, I referred to the wage earners who emulated Artist Hipsters as “middle class hipsters”, but this is an inaccurate term. Some Artist Hipsters are middle class. Some “middle class” hipsters are upper class or striving working class. “Middle class hipsters” are better defined as “Hefner Hipsters”. The key difference is inside their heads. They hold in their minds some mixture of the ideal of the old conservative status quo (“settle down, raise a family”) and the newer version invented by Heffner et al. in the 1950s (“your manhood, your womanhood, your personhood is defined by what you own, by the items you buy, by your "individual style”). Being a man or woman in this schema depends on owning certain essential products. Artist Hipsters, like their many counter-culture progenitors, offer one of the few viable alternative modes of thinking and being– define yourself by the art you make or other intellectual pursuits.
The Beats were not so easily transformed into an image that could be hollowed out and sold by mainstream capitalist society (or perhaps, simply, the machinery just wasn’t yet fully in place). But the successive generations of American counter-culture intellectual/artist movements were not so lucky. Capitalism learned to hoover up counter-culture as quickly as possible and eject it as airy and insubstantial Playboy-style dander. By the magic alchemy of marketing, capitalism took the motive force in counter-culture movements (dissatisfaction in people’s heart about the way society is structured and their place in the structure) and transmuted it, quite literally, into balms, oils, and potions you can buy to feel better.
The term “Hippie” began as a derisive 1950s corruption of “hipster” which itself was another pejorative term for a shallow, style, obsessed “Beatnik”. Ehrenreich writes of how the new focus of the nascent Hippie movement on enjoyment, permission, and self-discovery was an easy target for consumerism, which at it’s core is about the place where pleasure meets permission. As I discussed in my previous essay on Batman, at the heart of capitalist marketing is the idea of enjoyment. Zizek asks us to think about what the Coke can means when it commands you to “Enjoy!”. It is an invitation, yes, but, like with Playboy, the polite suggestion also comes with a darker corollary. It assumes the authority of a gatekeeper, giving you permission to enjoy and telling you when enjoyment is appropriate. In short, the product usurps the role that to you is quite burdensome, that of your super-ego. If you a buy a coke, you have worked to find the means to buy the coke. If you now possess the can because you have bought it, go ahead, “Enjoy!”. If you do not possess the can you will not/should not “Enjoy!”. If we do not have the can to tell us when to enjoy, and more importantly, when to stop enjoying, the question becomes very difficult. Should we live like the Beat or the Hippie? Staring at the beauty of the flower and humping all day for free forever? When do we stop enjoying and conform to the expectations of society?
We recognize this same bag of tricks in the Playboy scheme, setting sexual enjoyment behind the goalpost of certain products and necessitating hard work and salary to be able to partake of its delights. Likewise, as the marketer skims the surface appearance of the Artist Hipster, his manner of dress, his habits, his mode of transportation, and sells them to the Hefner Hipster as the most current and so necessary item, he also imports the idea that the item he is selling is the gateway to a particular luxury or lifestyle discovered by Artist Hipster in his creative free-thinking studies. But of course to those on the other side of this, what is going on is clear– someone is painting with the colors of our generation in order to hawk sandwiches, coffee, and cocktails.
The Hippie exists, if anywhere today, in food marketing. His bloody radical ghost haunts all of high-end Whole Foods pointing like Banquo at yogurt cups, tiny cartons of designer ice cream, seven dollar juices, lip balm, herbal remedies or really anything that is supposed to “naturally” support your “whole body”. The yoga mat toted by the young urban professional is another old guard Hippie product. The soul-seeking boundlessness of the Hippie’s imported yogis and yoga slips (the whole body’s wellness penetrating the fourth and fifth dimension) very easily into a system in which physical and mental well-being is chopped up into discrete segments you can buy by the hour.
We see now why Hefner Hipster does what he does. To him, everything is behind this gate-keeper, all enjoyment, regulated by permissible norms and appropriate standards which are dictated to him. He is ever-striving, ever-earning, ever-buying to glean this permission, and from that permission, his appropriate amount of pleasure. Manhattan and Williamsburg are now filled with these people, who just like Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road sixty years ago, work at growing technology companies and their other corporate equivalents. Those who do not spend their excess salary on a wife and child in Connecticut remain in the city, chasing Hefner’s ideal of buying the latest items and defining their personhood by their possessions. But of course, in a sort of grand capitalist tradition, this is a moving goalpost, a horizon which, however quickly Hefner Hipster travels he will never truly surmount. The line moves as he chases it. Just like the pictures of the naked ladies sitting behind the gloss of their pages, having them is somehow, at that very instant, not having them. There is a gap in attainment, at the heart of consumption a dissatisfaction which consumes, a void.
Part III: (Behind the) Counter Counter Culture
Is this divide between Artist Hipster and Hefner Hipster always neat and tidy? No, of course not. Like the term “style” or “class”, “hipster” is designed to deny itself. It is a vague entangled quantum, which, if ever reduced from a cloud of possibility to a certain figure, will wink out of existence because its real raison d’etre is confusion. Perhaps the most distorting element, is the upper class, who can become anyone they want by spending money. Some wealthy people, as has always been the case, become artists and pursue the ideals of the romantics and the counter-culture. Many wealthy people use their capital to live in Williamsburg as perfect Hefner Hipsters, buying every item that seems necessary for them to be living a narrowly cultivated life. Artists who make work want and need to be successful to make money. This means that artists actively sell their work to marketers, though they are the bottom of this system of exploitation. And of course, there are also bad artists, who believe art is making something that will sell among Hefner Hipsters. Now, at least, we see the color of the threads and can untangle the fin-de-siecle bar and the laundromat, where upper, middle, and lower classes of artists and urban professionals all pretend to be one another. It makes sense now why kids aspiring to be tech millionaires in San Francisco are called hipsters as much as young homeless hippie artists sleeping in bathtubs at Occupy Wall Street.
It is easy to blame and mock Hefner Hipster as he scoots around town on his $10,000 bicycle (obviously, here, someone from the upper class!). But we should not. We think we see it clearly! Not, as I first regarded it, as the other side of a dark mirror, not an idealization at all, but a hilarious, grotesque, and ignorant aping. He has come to roost in Williamsburg like he came to roost in the Lower East Side, the East Village, Soho, and the West Village before, turning what once were thriving artists communities into shopping malls where customers go to access haute couture of “flagship stores” rubbed up against the faded sparkle of what was once the firmament of something new– artistic creation. If an artist wears plaid, he wears plaid, if an artist lives in concrete factories divided up among other artists as a cheap way to live and paint, well then he must live in factories rehabbed by real estate developers into a “luxury lofts” and sold at a premium. If the artist wants to fall off the grid as a means of dissociating himself from the grotesque values of his nation by growing his own food and raising his own livestock. Well, Hefner Hipster must eat “locally” and at a “locavore” restaurant. (Why? Well, say the marketers, it is the most delicious way to eat!) And there is someone willing to sell it to him, to clothe him in Artist Hipster cloth for the shill and to hire Artist Hipsters to wait the tables, brew the coffee, and serve the martinis. So we get good looking R. Crumb and his “Maison Premiere”. We get an adroit un-nerdy, version of a brilliant subversive artist who was so disgusted by American consumer culture that he pulled up stakes and moved to France. Counter culture becomes behind the counter counter culture– where we the jobless generation serve the hereditarily wealthy, the baby boomers, and the urban professionals who mirror us. At Whole Foods or Trader Joes, we artist hipsters supplement the dead radical hippies on all the packages as real new live radicals with studs in our ears and punk bands selling yuppies nuts and balms as the corporate channel blares The Clash and other fuck you classics over the loudspeakers. It is not a coincidence. It is part of a marketing strategy. We, the image of the radical are your mediators to products, pleasures, and delights. We are also your confessors, selling you false absolution for your greedy habits by representing the radical forgiveness encoded into the products (“green”, “local”, “fair trade”, “post-consumer”, “recycled”, etc.). We are literally hired to sit with you in “locavore” Diner “Diner” underneath the Williamsburg bridge, look deep into your eyes, and tell you about delights and happy provenance of the items on the menu, drawing it all on disposable butcher paper. That is actually a thing that happens.
We can also now see what the term “Hipster” actually means: a mirrored chamber used to deflect radical criticism away from capitalism and consumer culture. It is a more sophisticated, successful version of the transformation of the “Beat” into the “Beatnik”. Recall that Beatnik changed the Beat into everything their critics were themselves– shallow, comical, and focused on unimportant trifles. “Hipster” works the same way. The agglomeration of two opposites, the radical and the consumerist yuppie, into one acceptable slur simultaneously de-claws the radical by making him complicit in the system he is trying to destroy while allowing those who are actually complicit in that system (the working middle class) to freely hate the radical and whatever they don’t like about themselves. This is why we cannot blame poor Hefner Hipster. He is equally deceived. To middle class consumers the hipster is the obscene strange “other” middle class consumer– everything they dislike about their own behavior and self-image shed into a mythical “other person” which represents their own capitulated dissatisfaction with society and the shallow materialism from which none of us can escape even the most radical. He is a Juju man, or if one wants a more modern comparison and is ST:TNG fan, an Armus.
Part IV: The Hipster in Review
To offer an example, why was my alma mater, Bard College, recently declared The Number One Most Hipster College? Was it because it caters to my demographic– white and (formerly) middle class? Obviously no. There are thousands more private schools and colleges for the white middle and upper classes which that do not produce “hipsters”. These places do not draw down the slur of “hipster” because they do not create liberal, intellectual, radicals, but rather more conformist, conservative, middle class citizens– that is to say, people who are more likely to propagate white middle class privilege. I am surrounded by the slur of “hipster” because I’ve put myself in places where I could study art, philosophy, history, and literature– the toolkit of the radical who wants to change society for the better, or at least, level criticism against it. The same subjects of course, are those capitalism considers to be economically impractical, the “art history” the President warns young undergraduates to eschew in “this” economy, implying they must adapt to the present, modern, circumstances. However if ever a millennial opened a copy of Hard Times, they would only need to tl;dr the first page to realize Obama’s advice about “this” economy is a century and a half old.
As another example, we can look at New York Times articles such as “How Hipsters ruined Paris”. (Please just set aside the maddening fact that the “Bohemia” the author is looking for vanished a century ago.) To convince the reader of his title assertion, the author states, “People say you had to be in Paris in the ’20s or New York in the ’80s. The sad truth of our contemporary moment seems to be only that you no longer need to be anywhere in particular anymore. The brunch is the same.” The statement paints a strange picture– that of the author wandering the earth sampling disappointing brunches but somehow failing to ever blame himself for the problem. Passing over the obvious culprit (his own desire for high end-brunches), insanely, he considers someone called a “Hipster” responsible for “the same pleasant and invisible force that puts kale frittata, steel-cut oats and burrata salad on brunch tables from Stockholm to San Francisco.” There is indeed, a name for that “force”, and it is not “Hipster”. The author is an inch away from blaming the homogenous crass force of American capitalism for the woes of the neighborhood, like most French people do. But it is much easier for that author to use a term that is inherently confusing because to paraphrase George Orwell, imprecise language makes for imprecise thinking which makes for bad politics. If the author is a sloppy enough writer, who uses sloppy enough terms, he does not need to blame himself for the problem, though it is hilariously obvious to the reader. (viz. “The places I tour are ruined by tourists”). It is much easier for him to blame a personless “other” who exemplifies all the problems with our society. And stranger still, unless this mysterious miscreant is maybe somehow yourself, one of these poltergeists can never actually be found to be held accountable for his crimes.
Similarly, two years ago The New York Times ran an article entitled, “Montauk feels the Effects of Too Many Hipsters”. The headline might have been more accurately rendered, “Local Working Class Beach Town Residents Despise Yuppies and Trust Fund Kids in Fashionable Clothing”. But this would of course signal to the reader that the story is not new, rather as old as the Renoir paintings depicting the first vacationing middle class “weekenders” wrought by the Industrial Revolution (Thanks
ObamaArt History!). The only thing new in the story is the term hipster which serves to deflect the blame away from what is obviously a class struggle towards a implied unique (though in reality fictional) fault in the character of our generation– decadent capitulation to consumerist materialism. This lies in stark contrast to the hard-scrabble full-blooded economized capitulation of the local working class residents. The locals, we learn, love to drink too, but the Hefner Hipsters leave trash behind, like young bratty Gatsbys littering West Egg with orange rinds.
And we can study “How I Became a Hipster”, another Times story about a baby-boomer who travels to Brooklyn to discover what being a “hipster” means by going on a shopping spree. He delights in all “this generation of young folk” have to offer, that is to say the items we sell him: designer pizza, a fancy shave, alcohol, more alcohol, pants, lifestyle classes, and of course (as pictured) a bicycle. The immense ignorant tragedy of it all is not that the author treats our generation as servants purveying luxury goods to his generation. (That part is sad but at least true.) It’s that he actually thinks the message our generation is sending him is that of some sort of volunteer holistic lifestyle butler– “grow rosemary and thyme in [your] kitchen”. This evil lie is the work of the term hipster, which wants to melt the radical spirit of our generation into the conformist consumer economy by confusing the people who consume with the people who are oppressed by consumerism.
The name of the generation preceding mine (or depending on how you count it, my generation) does not have a spiteful pejorative slur associated with it. “Generation X”, accurate or not, was simply benignly dismissive, as if these young people, were a sort of mystery substance floating darkly in the shadow of the self-absorbed warp holes of the “Me Generation”. “What do they want?” the label seemed to say, “We can’t really say. Scientifically, we looked and the material of which they are made and objectively it is a mystery.” In the 90s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there seemed no alternative to the hegemonic worldview of modern capitalism. Generation X, of course, had similar values to all the counter-cultures that had come before it, a rejection of traditional middle class values, liberal or leftist ideas, a strong anti-consumerist bent. But neither Generation X or the society it challenged ever thought for one minute it would win out over mainstream society, or in fact, win anything at all. It was not a threat. The Generation X figurehead, Kurt Cobain, wrote songs attacking the same consumerist nonsense hipsters do today, then blew his brains out in despair floating atop a media empire he disdained. There was no way, it seemed, not to be complicit, to offer a real “alternative”. The only channel, it appeared, for Cobain was MTV, or whatever other corporation picked up what was trendy and sold it to children.
Perhaps the most contemptible form of criticism of anti-corporate, anti-consumerist movement Occupy Wall Street was the idea that it was hypocritical of middle class white people to express solidarity with minorities who also want to challenge the status quo. Look for example at this National Review story, Study: OWS Was Disproportionately Rich, and Overwhelmingly White. The first sentence of the article informs us, “more than a third of activists in the Occupy movement in New York City had household incomes above $100,000”, that is to say, more accurately (if one reads the study), the reality is the exact opposite of what the headline contends– most people at OWS were not rich– two thirds of them had household incomes below 100,000. Furthermore we learn from the study (which concludes that the movement was genuine, diverse, and mainly young people in their 20s and early 30s), “Many OWS activists and supporters were under-employed and/or had recently experienced layoffs or job loss.” Why would the National Review reporter distort the evidence like this? The reason is the same reason the term hipster exists. The idea is to bloody the hands of the radical, to make him complicit in the crimes of the society he is trying to condemn. The virulence in the slur “hipster”, represents the fact that we are winning, or at least, unlike Generation X, a viable threat. We merit an attack.
In his well-researched 2010 article in New York Magazine, Mark Grief starts off defining the hipster by getting it completely backwards:The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual—the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skatepunk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twentysomething, the starving artist or graduate student—who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.
We now see we need only invert this definition for it to make sense. Hipster is a slur which “aligns the rebel subculture” with “the dominant class” opening up a “poisonous conduit” by which he can be attacked. A crust-punk does not become a “hipster” when he buys a car to get to work or shops at Walmart knowing they don’t pay a fair wage, or like Cobain sells their video to MTV. Everyone, in some way, must “align themselves with the dominant class”. That is why, by definition, they are called “dominant”. it is not a valid critique of a radical viewpoint, it is only an attempt to invalidate it. Unlike most words, the term “hipster” is useful because it is unclear. Its function is to spread a vague indistinct miasma in which, under the intoxicating spell of contempt for a nameless “other”, class hatred and privilege is mingled with intellectualism and radicalism. The examples are endless, but what is, say, 22 Foods Hipsters Need to Calm Down About if not subsumed hatred misdirected at a specific group of people instead of the actual target– food marketers?
Part V: Animal Bands
It’s now easy to decode much of hipster imagery. The hipster’s oft-resented insincere irony is a defense mechanism against the way corporations usurp and then hollow out the counter culture’s ideals and imagery, as it has been since the 90s. His Wes Anderson/Holden Caulfield preciousness is the means by which an entire generation can be infantilized through its romanticism. This explains to the hipster’s parents why he would want to live in a manner that is so radically different from their own screwed up existence, or as the self-obsessed baby-boomer parents understand it (in classic “Mature Mind” style), why he “refuses to grow up”
We can see Rousseau’s idealization of unspoiled wilderness, fantasy, the noble savage, and socialism in the animal band names ruled by the socialist “Animal Collective”. Other band names also have socialists or anti-consumerists bents. “Nirvana” mocks the older baby boomer yoga mat notion of consumer transcendence. Beach House, who actively fought off corporate usurpation, evoke an ironic symbol of “jouissance” harkening back to MTV’s 90s televised “Beach Houses” of youthful decadence and abandon (themselves re-incarnations of the Playboy Mansion) and also the economic absurdity (so apparent to our generation) of owning two houses one of which is specifically dedicated to fun (whether in Montauk or France). Newer band name trends will probably move from Rousseau’s “noble savage” straight to wild landscapes and sword & sorcery fairy tales popularized by the romantics. The images mean the same thing to us as they did to them– a wish to escape a deeply flawed society and create something entirely new from our imagination.
When I read about Animal Collective in the early 2000s as a “Brooklyn-based Band” I wondered about the word “based”. It was always there– not “Brooklyn Band” or “Baltimore Band” but “Brooklyn-based” band. Why this imposition of “based”? What was this word doing in the sentence? Why not “Brooklyn band”? Well, because everyone knew they weren’t from Brooklyn. They (well, technically 2/3rds of them) were from the suburbs of Baltimore County. In fact, they went to school with me in the lush green sprawling suburbs only accessible by car that sits on top of the moldering scowling countenance of Baltimore City like a big fun hat. Our parents fled the urban environment and we remember it abandoned and forbidden and suffering in the 80s and 90s when “white flight” hit its zenith (or really, nadir). And so Baltimore County remains only accessible by car, with anemic bus lines and public transportation, in part, on purpose. Poor people who cannot afford cars cannot access it. My generation, chafing at this whole mode of living, wanted to leave it as soon as we were able. We wanted to move to places like Williamsburg where the landscape had not been totally transformed by the hegemony of cars– places with robust public transportation that were still condensed enough that we could walk or bike to our destination. “Brooklyn-based” was code for people of my generation to say they were ashamed of where they were from, a vaguely racist, materialistic, wasteful suburb. We wanted to define ourselves by a different sort of place, one which was cosmopolitan, diverse, and accessible, even though, being very young, we had just moved there from somewhere else.
The bike, then is at the center of this idea, the anti-car, a rejection of a materialistic and consumerist lifestyle in which one must work consistently 9-5 for a salary to pay for all the items that each person must have to be a person in our society. It is hard to remember the opprobrium of owning just a bicycle had in the 80s or 90s– thankfully our generation has done away with a lot of it– but there is some vestige of it left in, for example, the film, The 40 Year Old Virgin. The eponymous hero only owns a bicycle, and in true Hefner style, cannot get laid because he cannot sweep women back to his bachelor pad and fuck them on so inadequate a vessel. Limply, he tells the girl who wishes to go home with him, “I hope you have a big trunk… because I’m putting my bike in it.”, effeminizing himself by suggesting his effete possessions would be carried by her traditional symbol of masculinity, the car.
The bike also represents the modest, hard-scrabble, determination of our generation, who is disenfranchised, who will never part the power, influence, and wealth from the generation that preceded them, but insists on living in a way that they deem ethical. Occupy Wall Street was very much about how our generation sees a way forward, a better way of living than the grim, minable, parsimonious future envisioned for us by corporations and the status quo. This is nothing new. Ever since modern society has been created, romantics, artists, and radicals have been insisting on a polity which embraces a broader social responsibility and a more robust and expansive view of human purpose– even if we are powerless to prevent the drab march of its opposite and often feel as though some of the dynamics are so entrenched they are impossible to escape– Where do we place our money if not banks? How do we sell our art if not by marketing it? But just because we are outnumbered and do not and probably will not ever hold the power to uproot the system and build a more ethical one in it’s place, and so must live inside the taint of it, does not mean you will not see us, on the side of the road, in a gutter generally reserved for waste, in neighborhoods the boomers feared to tread, huffing away on a modest instrument of transportation which we build and repair ourselves, trying our best to live a way that is true to our values.
 I refer to myself as “hipster” because I fall in the target area the term draws. Also, obviously the best way to disarm a pejorative slur for a class of people is for that class to to adopt and co-opt the slur for themselves.
 “They have not yet tempered their idealistic visions of what awaits. ‘The dreary, dead-end jobs, the bitter divorces, the disappointing and disrespectful children … none of them imagine that this is what the future holds for them,’” Quo Vadis?