Hipsters and the New Gilded Age

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

I’d like to post a few comments on Mark Greif’s excellent essay, "What was the Hipster?" which was published in New York magazine and is part of a new book of the same name put out by the n+1 Foundation.

I.

Greif’s essay has led me to reflect on some theories I’ve been cultivating, in the darkest recesses of my academic mind, over the last year. Sometime in the middle of 2009, I became convinced that literature — and the support systems that give it life — don’t arise from a vacuum, though literary critics often treat it as if it does. This thought is, in a sense, quite elementary:  writers and readers develop within specific institutional contexts — educational, economic, and juridical, which are necessary for literature to flourish.  My own sense of literary possibility, my own love of certain writers, arose within such institutions.  As a correlary, I have become convinced that, though critics endlessly love to complain about it, the midcentury ascendence of middlebrow culture (and the authority of the literary novel in the United States) is intimately tied to the history of the middle class, which as a group has the resources, education, and leisure to produce and consume such literature.  Though these institutions, and the forms of authority they have engendered, have often excluded and marginalized nonwhites, women, nonheterosexuals, among others, our goal should be to make our institutions more egalitarian, more inclusive, more reflective of our highest aspirations for freedom and creative life.

All of this isn’t to say that the relationship between the middle class and literature is in any way simple or mechanical, nor do I mean to imply that only the middle class produces literary readers and writers — such a claim would be absurd — but I would claim that the rise of the middle class after World War II played a decisive, and in many ways positive, role in shaping contemporary reading publics and constructing an environment in which literary art could flourish on a historically unprecedented scale.

If these claims are true, then the gradual but persistent erosion of the middle class — what many, including the economist Paul Krugman, have called the "new gilded age" — foretells the coming of a "correction" — perhaps massive, perhaps middling in scope — within literary culture, a correction for the worse. This correction has been the story of American literature since the early 1970s:  the destruction of the midlist, the rise of celebrity authors, the mania of the book auction, the quiet transformation of reading publics. Though magnificent literary work continues to be be written and published — and we should have no doubt that great art will continue do be created — the conditions under which art is produced and consumed are growing more constricted, leading many creative writers to take refuge in the University, if they’re lucky. While many critics blame technology and mass media for declining mass interest in serious literature — and some critics, such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick, make the claim that the discourse of the death of the novel arises from male white anxiety about the multicultural expansion of literary culture — I think changes within our socioeconomic life since the early 1970s are a crucial and understudied part of the story.

II.

(1) It is in the context of these reflections that I think we must understand what the hipster is and what he (the hipster is almost invariably male) portends for the relationship between economic and cultural life. I should say from the outset that the sort of hipster Greif is talking about has only a glancing relationship to the midcentury hipster celebrated by Anatole Broyard, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer; there is much to say about this earlier incarnation of the hipster (in my dissertation, I wrote almost eighty pages on the midcentury hipster), but this figure bears little connection to what we mean today when we call someone a hipster.

Greif describes the contemporary hipster this way:

When we talk about the contemporary hipster, we’re talking about a subcultural figure who emerged by 1999, enjoyed a narrow but robust first phase until 2003, and then seemed about to dissipate into the primordial subcultural soup, only to undergo a reorganization and creeping spread from 2004 to the present.

The matrix from which the hipster emerged included the dimension of nineties youth culture, often called alternative or indie, that defined itself by its rejection of consumerism. Yet in an ethnography of Wicker Park, Chicago, in the nineties, the sociologist Richard Lloyd documented how what he called “neo-bohemia” unwittingly turned into something else: the seedbed for post-1999 hipsterism. Lloyd showed how a culture of aspiring artists who worked day jobs in bars and coffee shops could unintentionally provide a milieu for new, late-capitalist commerce in design, marketing, and web development. The neo-bohemian neighborhoods, near to the explosion of new wealth in city financial centers, became amusement districts for a new class of rich young people. The indie bohemians (denigrated as slackers) encountered the flannel-clad proto-businessmen and dot-com paper millionaires (denigrated as yuppies), and something unanticipated came of this friction

And, elaborating on the hipster’s relationship to oppositional culture and the avant-garde, Greif concludes:

One could say, exaggerating only slightly, that the hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists, who gained an entire generation’s arms, sternums, napes, ankles, and lower backs as their canvas. It did not produce photographers, but snapshot and party photographers: Last Night’s Party, Terry Richardson, the Cobra Snake. It did not produce painters, but graphic designers. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts. And hipsterism did not make an avant-garde; it made communities of early adopters.

Though well-observed and pleasantly cutting — as a resident of San Francisco’s Mission district, I can testify to the accuracy of this assessment — Greif misses an opportunity to decisively define the new breed of hipster, let alone find adequate grounds for critiquing this figure, and he proceeds instead through the accretion of examples and the dropping of accurate hipster brand names (showing, of course, his own critical hipness). Greif gives us a hint of a truely critical definition of the hipster in his discussion of Richard Lloyd’s terrific 2005 study, Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City, but he misses what may be Lloyd’s most startling point. The neo-bohemian enclaves of Wicker Park, Williamsburg, and the Mission are filled with aspiring artists and "creative-class" quasiprofessionals who accept disempowering, low-wage work in the creative service economy as a sign of distinction and liberation.  These new hipsters are just waiting for their big break while waiting tables.

In my own work, which builds on Lloyd’s study, I define the contemporary hipster as a type of person who is intensely focused on a process of self-making by means of strategic consumption. That is, the hipster constructs an identity by becoming something like a professional shopper, an "early adopter" of trends and fashions, as Greif rightly points out. What the hipster disavows is, quite specifically, an awareness of his class situation. What is the hipster’s class situation? Fundamentally, I would argue, the hipster is a child of the middle class, typically college educated, who — as Lloyd points out — has abandoned the project of reproducing his class status in order to enter the perpetual carnival of the lifestyle service industry. College degree in hand, the hipster works in coffee shops, in bars, as a permanent intern, aspires to artistic greatness, and is enjoying his relative penury, which is convenient because during the "new gilded age" there simply aren’t enough jobs to reproduce the hipster’s class, even if he wanted to.

(2) This leads me to a second critique of Greif’s argument. Perhaps inadvertently, "What was the hipster?" reproduces the authenticity-seeking imperative of hipness. In his important books, The Conquest of Cool and One Market Under God, Thomas Frank’s point isn’t that rebel consumers constitute a "fake" counterculture but rather that counterculture is, and has always been, completely harmonious with the ethic of consumption. Malcolm Cowley got it right when he diagnosed the bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village as, at root, a "consumption ethic," observing in 1934 that "self-expression and paganism encouraged a demand for all sorts of products — modern furniture, beach pajamas, cosmetics, colored bathrooms with toilet paper to match," that "[l]iving for the moment meant buying an automobile, radio or house, using it now and paying for it tomorrow." The notion that hipsters ought, like "real" counterculturalists — by Greif’s account, "bike messengers, straight-edge skaters, Lesbian Avengers, freegans, enviro-anarchists, and interracial hip-hoppers who live as they please" — raise "a spiritual middle finger" in the face of authority misses the salient point that (like Broyard’s midcentury hipsters) the middle finger in question is only ever spiritual or symbolic. Is a middle-finger-waving Lesbian Avenger, who feel spiritually good, but has no political power, in any better situation than the ever vilified hipster?

(3) I would thus emphasize that what is missing from Greif’s analysis of the new hipster is a robust notion of class as well as a critique of the way in which the imaginative life of the hipster is premised on certain kinds of obfuscations and short-term magical thinking. The hipster is a person who is convinced he is going to be a Great Artist — even if his art is a form of lifestyle or brand management — and he tells himself that he will keep working that bartending job another year, keep working as a barista until his band, his brand, his novel takes flight. There will, of course, come a time of reckoning — what I have sometimes described to friends as a Great Sucking Sound — as the college-educated aesthetes of the middle class find themselves unable to reproduce their class status. Some would-be hipsters will find salvation in grad school, some will make their way into elite law schools, and some will rediscover their inner management consultant, but not all of them will, not enough.  After the reckoning to come, the pool of the middle class will have shrunk, and the children of hipsters will, when taken as a group, find themselves unable to reproduce the neo-bohemian folkways of their fathers and mothers. Unless, of course, the middle finger they raise ceases to be symbolic or spiritual.

III.

I write all of this not to counsel despair or cynicism. Quite the opposite. I think that the seeds of genuine opposition to authority — of an art-loving coalition committed to unmaking the new gilded age — might need to find grounds other than the symbolic or the spiritual. My premise is that by understanding our situation, we can work to change it. Am I wrong to think so?

One Comment

  1. I think your critique is far better than NY Mag’s, but I think there’s a larger point to be made.

    e.g., from NY Mag:

    “Let me recall a string of keywords: trucker hats; undershirts called “wifebeaters,” worn alone; the aesthetic of basement rec-room pornography, flash-lit Polaroids, and fake-wood paneling; Pabst Blue Ribbon; “porno” or “pedophile” mustaches; aviator glasses; Americana T-shirts from church socials and pig roasts; tube socks; the late albums of Johnny Cash; tattoos. Key institutions were the fashion magazine Vice, which moved to New York from Montreal in 1999 and drew on casual racism and porn to refresh traditional women’s-magazine features (“It Happened,” “Dos and Don’ts”) and overcome the stigma of boys looking at photos of clothes…”

    and from you:

    “I define the contemporary hipster as a type of person who is intensely focused on a process of self-making by means of strategic consumption. That is, the hipster constructs an identity by becoming something like a professional shopper, an “early adopter” of trends and fashions, as Greif rightly points out. What the hipster disavows is, quite specifically, an awareness of his class situation.”

    Both of these perspectives do to the hipster exactly what the hipster is doing to himself, which is defining himself by externalities, by brands, and not something specific or unique to his own psychology. You could maintain the integrity of those paragraphs and merely change the proper nouns and you would be defining some other group, e.g. rap wannabes, or geeks, or whatever.

    This shows that the hipster isn’t any different than any other self-branding type, only the store he shops in differs. But the mechanism is the same.

    So to try and understand what the hipster “is” is an act of bad faith. It’s a self-defense. Defining him allows you/me/us the ability to pretend we are doing something different than he is. We get to pretend our identity is somehow more legitimate than his is.

    That the hipster drinks PBR is absolutely no different than the yuppie buying a Subzero refrigerator, or someone’s need to have a MacBook Pro instead of a Windows 7. We convince ourselves that these consumptive experiences are important in their own right (“I need if for graphic design”) but they are always and everywhere ways of broadcasting an artificial identity we want others to accept.

    There’s a word for that, but I can’t remember what it is.

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