More than just aesthetics – ‘An Investigation of Hipsters’

Article @ Anticapitalist Initiative, published on 8 June 2012

Somewhere on the wide and gaudy world that is the internet there is a forum dedicated to George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” Displaying the contemptuous attitude of the 21st century Zeitgeist, one of the first comments criticises Shaw’s epigram as mediocre whilst replying with a sardonic “Cliché”. Hidden in its username no one can find out the age of this unforgiving self-made literary critic, but their comment feeds into the ironic nature of today’s youth ‘culture’ – a movement which aspires to nothing but authenticity, and yet scorns all those hailing such an attribute. One wonders if the mystery commentator is a ‘hipster’.

The much talked about ‘hipster’  is this new brand of youth counterculture. Submerged in the superficiality of recycling and in pastiches of iconography that once meant something but are today merely used for their ironic properties. It’s all American Apparel neon leotards and fake prescription glasses, it’s recreational slumming and absolute, almost painful, self-awareness. The hipster is the child of the postmodern – a mixture of cynicism and rebellion, buried under  conformism and apathy – everything taken at face value and rolled into one. In its self-centric dynamic it is obsessed with its own identity, yet it is defined by what it is not (hipsters deny being hipsters). Speaking philosophically hipsterdom raises a glass to the Lacanian lack, and it is good this way, for the hipster is the epitome of the marketing age, the ravaging consumerism and the celebration of desire.  They are the product of marketing and also the source of it, they set trends and have trends fed back to them in a loop of fashion, obscure bands and indie clubs.

Jake Kinzey’s pamphlet The Sacred and The Profane – An Investigation of Hipsters (Zero Books, 2012) tries to tackle the origins of the phenomenon while drawing comparisons with the cultural (and countercultural) predecessors of hipsterdom. It spans a timeline of socio-artistic movements, from the bohemians to the avant-gardes, linking them to the socio-economic changes that were happening at the time, and in particular to the new trends that emerged under capitalism after the second world war.  Kinzey argues that the hipster is the offspring of the yuppie, dwelling in the urban jungle, eschewing the pristine, but invariably and unapologetically middle-class. Hipsterism is conspicuously white, too, despite a handful of exceptions (which in turn are equally spun into their own ironic status as ‘the non-white friends’ – a sort of soft-core racism allowed to those far too aware of their racial and class advantage, meticulously criticized elsewhere by the always acute Lindy West).

However, as a sustained argument, The Sacred and The Profane leaves much to be desired. It lacks a conducting line between the first, introductory chapter, and the two proceeding sections. Divided into the history of hipsterism and the philosophical and ontological underpinnings of the hipster, chapters two and three are arguably longer than necessary. The content is partly analytical and partly (and admittedly) Kinzey’s indulgence for high- and pop-culture cross-referencing. A structural approach that emulates the hipster’s modus operandi, for, according to Kinzey, “to critique and understand a certain zeitgeist (or worldview), one must think withagainst, and through the dominant forms of thought”. However, the result is rather a string of sub-chapters and a series of sometimes slapdash arguments, that are at times brilliant, but occassionally somewhat rambling. Maybe a result of his postmodern writing, Kinzey falls victim of too many counterposing hypothesis and gets lost in the dialectics of his own work.

Take Kinzey’s argument that hipsters embody Alain Badiou’s concept of the passion for the Real, by negating commodified “new” products and raiding granny’s closet for cardigans and bobble hats. However, he often points out how there was nothing left of authenticity in the so called “originals” of the past (be it fashions, music, art or else). So how can the hipster – a species that “lives for the scene”, as someone put it to Adbusters’ Douglas Haddow – be truly and genuinely thriving for authenticity? One is left in doubt over the ambiguities in Kinzey’s work – is it to blame on his own shallow approach to the topic at hand, or is it a projection of the hipster’s very nature? A longer piece would have possibly cleared these issues. Perhaps a long essay is not the way to go when you are trying to depict the ins and outs of the most prolific, heterogenous and heterodox youth culture today.

It makes for one of those ‘short ‘n’ sweet’ readings, though it often throws in questionable analogies (Nero: The Proto-Hipster?), but poignant in some of its socio-political and political economy utterings. In fact, if anything, Jake Kinzey pulls off this pamphlet on the basis of his economic take on the hipster. A big part of the works produced critiquing, praising or simply analyzing the phenomenon, have engaged with the social and/or cultural aspects prevalent in hipsterism. Is it the end of Western culture, unable to truly reinvent itself, now stuck to collages and reproductions? Is it a consequence of multiculturalism? Of the end of national identity? Of  the end of classed-society? Kinzey dodges all these irrelevant questions and goes straight into the reproductory grounds of the hipster phenomenon: Capitalism Realism (Mark Fisher), and its quasi-moribund way of reproducing, regulating and restraining every aspect of society. Hence, the hipster being the ultimate product and consumer of its own lifestyle. Or, as the 2001 PBS Frontline episode Merchants of Cool called it, a Giant Feedback Loop, a self perpetuating chain of events.

So where does it leave us? Where and how do we get to understand and, more importantly, overcome this loop and its social reproduction? Is Hipsterism bound to be dethroned by an expression of “something new and world changing” as Kinzey believes? Or are we to forever dwell in a sea of kodachromatic photography, Aztec-prints, self-knitted jumpers and the obnoxiously ubiquitous, extra large, black horn-rimmed glasses? What about our music, our art, and, by the looks of Kinzey’s work itself, our books? Will they too be mere pastiches and shrines to sarcasm and dilettantism?

The answers to these questions are not in The Sacred and The Profane, and are possibly not available immediately anyway. One thing, however, is sure: there is a dire need for the politicized side of our society (especially the Left, now that we are at it), to produce not only more exciting cultural events, but also a more in-depth critique of postmodernity both in its philosophical as in its socio-cultural variety. Guy Debord was right, “boredom is always counter-revolutionary”, and since it is clear that our youth is bored, it is no surprise that is is equally increasingly obscurantist, pessimist and stale. To decipher the hipster (and the subsequent emergence of the politically active negation of hipster apathy) is a revolutionary task.