Hipsters at the End of the World

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In the latest Adbusters, Douglas Haddow gives us his takedown of modern-day hipsters, a popular activity in hip glossy magazines and journals of opinion. 

It may be unfair to critique this article, which doesn’t pretend to be a profound explication on the origins and meaning of hipsterdom, but stuff like this irritates me.  The reasoning of this article is quite muddled, and it subscribes all the usual countercultural myths, which any careful reader of Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool ought not subscribe to.

Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society.

Here for example we have very predictably conventional nostalgia for a sort of countercultural rebellion that never really took place, for an unrealizable ideal of “authenticity” that has somehow magically been co-opted. 

The original hipsters–zoot suiters, “tea” smokers, bebop lovers–were so subversive, so utterly explosively status-quo smashing, so rebelliously “hep” to life in the “underground,” that they were praised to no end (Cab Calloway’s “Hepster” Dictionary went through six editions, it sold so well) and investigated by major figures in the literary establishment (like Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison) and prominently profiled in highbrow magazines (like Partisan Review). 

In short, there was never an “authentic” countercultural rebellion which in any way threatened anyone or anything, which was not already “sold out” from birth, not that Haddow explains what it is he and the hipsters he derides think they’re rebelling against. 

Even the much-fabled punk was around for about thirty seconds before British academics–like Dick Hebdige–began to write scholarly treatises on how punk irony would subvert middle class conventionalism and how Western imperial hegemonic mega-capitalism would come crashing down before the might of the craftily-repurposed safety-pin.  How did that turn out, guys?

When will people finally learn that rebellion through “subversive” style was and will always be a dead end, if the goal of such rebellion was anything more than making middle America slightly uncomfortable, if such subversive style isn’t also accompanied by serious organizing and sustained collective political action.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as against imperial hegemonic mega-capitalism as the next guy, but Noam Chomsky seems not to need to wear skinny pants or make his hair into a red mohawk to attack it.  Participants in the civil rights movement were about as conservative and suit-wearingly conformist as they come.

Haddow regards style far more seriously than he should.

Ten years ago, a man wearing a plain V-neck tee and drinking a Pabst would never be accused of being a trend-follower.  But in 2008, such things have become shameless clichés of a class of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class.

I mean, what’s the argument here? Is it “I was into these now-cool things before they were cool and am therefore more authentically cool than you”?  Who cares if people like to wear plain V-neck tees and prefer to drink Pabst?  Whether you love or hate hipsters, what harm do they cause?  Is it not perfectly plausible for a hipster also to be authentically politically engaged, regardless of the sorts of banal parties and after-parties he or she may attend after hours?

Finally, the biggest howler in the short article:

Hipsterdom is the first “counterculture” to be born under the advertising industry’s microscope, leaving it open to constant manipulation but also forcing its participants to continually shift their interests and affiliations.

Does this guy know anything at all about the history of “counterculture”? 

It was not long after Jack Kerouac published On the Road, that Rent-a-Beat services allowed you to hire your very own Beat for your very own hip Beat parties.  The Beat was perhaps the biggest media and marketing darling of the century, in whose “rebellious” shadow we all still live.

And it was Malcolm Cowley who noted–in his 1934 Exile’s Return, well before the Allies bombed the Axis into submission–that the Bohemian ethic of Greenwich Village was, at root, an ethic of consumption.  Living for the moment meant consuming stupid lifestyle products now and worrying about the consequences of that consumption… never.

If you think the way you dress or the music you listen to or parties you attend will help you buck the System, stop the Man, or overturn the Machine, you are destined to be sorely disappointed, again and again.

Which isn’t to say hipsters aren’t odious human beings.  They are, I agree.  But they’re also largely politically irrelevant, as far as I can tell.