July 18, 2011

In Defense Of 'Hipster'

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What is the issue?

When I was 13 years old, my friend’s older sister told me she hated some band, the name of which I have since forgotten, because they went “mainstream”. It was a term I didn’t really understand, so I pressed on – did their music get worse? “No, they’re still good.” Did they do something morally reprehensible? “No, they’re not any different. Just, too many people like them now. So I don’t.” Though I could not have known it at the time, it was my first encounter with a hipster. I made the helpless, confused face one makes when he has no idea how to make his still-contested point any clearer, a face I would not make again until several years later when my girlfriend at the time told me that she thought the Lion King was overrated. (She did not survive the week.)

I didn’t realize that hipsters were a thing, members of their own social group, until I reached college. At each debate tournament, for every three or four well-coifed, impeccably suited opponents I met, I encountered a flannel-wearing socialist who railed against the oppression of the social construct that was the debate tournament. He was apparently being oppressed by a system he chose to participate in, and my helpless, confused expression won me precious few rounds that first year.

Of course we cannot define ‘hipster’ with the precision that we can define, say, odd numbers or Homo sapiens; that doesn’t mean it has no meaning. The lack of clear boundaries around a concept hardly renders it incoherent. Classic example: how do we define ‘game’? How is it that we use the same word to describe children cooperatively imagining themselves married, the physically demanding competition between teams crashing into each other to move (or halt) a football, and the mentally exhausting individual sparring that is professional chess? After all, there has to be a finite number of games, and mercifully, there has to be a finite number of hipsters; you’d think we could clearly define a finite concept. Yet each of these ‘games’ radically differs from the next.

Does this render ‘game’ a meaningless word? Hardly; we use it to refer to a wide range of things, but not all things. Some games are competitive; some games are cooperative. Some games have incredibly high stakes, some have none at all. Most importantly, we all have a sense of what ‘game’ refers to, and what it doesn’t. Chess is definitely a game. Maybe NASCAR is a game, maybe not; fringe cases are tricky, and we love to debate them. They live right in the inherent fuzziness of words. Bananas, however, are certainly not games.

So maybe I can’t draw a circle that contains all and only hipsters, but the uncanny family resemblance among hipsters certainly points us in some helpful directions. Hipsters share a particular feeling of isolation from the world around them; they wear vintage clothing rather than spend money to look the same as everyone else; they drink PBR (or microbrews) rather than further an advertising culture which objectifies women and drinking for the sake of being ‘American’; they value obscurity for its own sake, as it reflects a willingness to find value where no one else is looking, a refusal to be told what is and isn’t cool. They love the beat generation, idolizing it as the paradigm of rejecting an oppressive culture. They value irony because it is a re-appropriation of the culture they reject, a self-aware participation, done strictly for the lulz.

These are, of course, gross oversimplifications. Not every hipster in the world drinks PBR, and not every PBR drinker in the world is a hipster. Discussing groups of people is fraught with peril, and we absolutely must treat these single-word groupings as merely convenient heuristic conventions, rather than rigid designators. Still, if you told your inquisitive grandfather that hipsters are, generally speaking, people who hang out together because of the shared feeling of mutual isolation from what they believe is an increasingly hollow and corporatized culture, you’d be off to a damned good start; toss in a couple helpful examples and a caveat that, like any social group, there will be exceptions and degrees, and you’re fucking golden.

It turns out that when non-hipsters (let’s call us ‘conformists’) hate hipsters, they have exactly the same reason as hipsters who hate conformists have: they are the Other, members of a culture which I cannot understand or blend in with, a culture that rejects precisely what I value. Does anyone want to deal with people who disdain what he values? No wonder there is so much hostility going in both directions; hipsters only get a label because there are more of us than them. Stephanie is right about one thing: calling someone a hipster is the ultimate judgmental move. But no less ultimately judgmental is the rejection of conformists by hipsters simply because we have not chosen to reject the culture you have; I happen to love my corporatized culture, thanks very much, and I assure you I’ve thought that all the way through. I see the strings that control the system, and they delight me. The assumption that I am a sheep with no personal identity or capacity for critical thinking is as unfounded as the assumption that you’re an unwashed vagabond with no real skills or useful opinions.

‘Hipster’ seems like an insult because there is nothing more insulting than, “you do not belong.” It can also be used endearingly; I appreciate the quirkiness of my hipster friends. Either way, it has a clear meaning, even if it lacks clear boundaries.

The word ‘hipster’ is alive and well, and it gets used in internet arguments because we often have the sneaking suspicion that someone is rejecting a position simply because he rejects conformists and everything about them, and no one likes to be dismissed out of hand for belonging to a group. However, at a certain point there is not much more to say to each other. If you reject my culture wholesale, then my arguments from within the culture have little weight indeed. How can you convince the man who controls the strings that the strings are bad? How can you convince someone who rejects cultural standards that gauged ears aren’t culturally acceptable? “Hipster,” they spit, the contempt leaping from the keyboard to the screen. Really, they’re just accusing you of being too different to even understand, of having prohibitively different values. However, unlike being Hitler, there’s nothing inherently bad about being a hipster; you just annoy the rest of us. So ‘hipster’ needn’t be the next Godwin word; if you want the word ‘hipster’ to go away, you should re-appropriate it as you have so many other elements of culture. Stop pretending that hipsters aren’t really a group, that it’s an unfair label, that hipsters are a mythical creature that no one actually resembles. When someone accuses you of being a hipster, accept it (if they’re right), and then explain why they too should reject the culture you’ve rejected. Or not; you could just tell them why you’re okay being that guy. Not everyone will see eye to eye with you, obviously. Be okay with that, too. Be insulted with some goddamn dignity. TC mark

image – Joshua Heller

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