Monthly Archives: December 2012
In October, 2011 the undead descended on Wall Street, a visually arresting column of ashen-faced “corporate zombies” shuffling about in expensive blood-soaked suits and clutching fistfuls of money. Rather than consume the flesh of their sentient neighbors, these Occupy Wall Street performance artists aspired to illuminate corporate greed by invoking the specter of zombies in a single-minded consumption of others’ financial autonomy. A group of zombies also met in Las Vegas at the offices of banks leading in foreclosures, with similar protests in Seattle and Los Angeles as well as internationally from British Columbia to Brazil.
The zombie lumbers into the early 21st century as one of popular culture’s most pervasive symbols of anxiety, evoking apprehensions over everything from consumption to foodways to race and racism. “Zombie walks” materialize many of our most consequential social anxieties, but they do so in the counter-intuitively mundane form of walking, the most commonplace of all everyday activities. Sarah Juliet Lauro has recognized how zombie walks aspire to collectively disrupt the false unity of everyday life framed by capitalist and consumer ideologies. She is circumspect about their concrete effects, but she suggests that the collective of mass zombies—empty, directionless, yet driven—provides an interesting insurrection model for public youth politics in the early 21st century: it takes aim on the streets and public spaces of capitalism even as it situates that critique in the form of performance that may strike various observers as ironic, funny, destabilizing, or superficial.
It may be that the spectacle of zombie walks risks being reduced to its own glib event beholden to commercial interests (e.g., many zombie walks have registration and participant fees for the willing undead). Indeed, many zombie walks have become public entertainment or simply costume events, and many if not most are inseparable from any “flash mobs” that are commodified leisure events. Once viewed as symbolic re-appropriations of public spaces colonized by dominant advertising or shopping functions, many businesses now have even hired their own flash mobs (compare Rebecca Walker’s dissertation on flash mobs).
Perhaps zombie walks sometimes are shallow costume shows or predictable performances, but ideologues’ efforts to dismiss zombie walks and social protest in public space suggest that they retain some genuine power: domination always attempts to conceal itself, and in turn it always seeks to dismiss critical thought in the name of “common sense.” There is a prescient politics to elevating zombies—the trancelike shells of the living—in an activism of everyday life that focuses on walking—the most commonplace of all everyday life rhythms.
In the early 21st century one central dimension of the zombie metaphor is that it captures our apprehensions over the mass marketplace’s construction of the masses as disposable and anonymous, no different than zombies. Henry Giroux, for instance, suggests that the Wall Street zombie captures a free market corporate capitalism that has no ethics or commitment to the common good. From positions of power on Wall Street and Washington, a “hyper-dead” zombie elite single-mindedly consume the disposable masses with no compassion for the everyday plight wreaked on society. Gerry Canavan cleverly turns this zombie metaphor on its head when he suggests that the real zombies in contemporary social space may be the living and not the “undead” national elite on Wall Street: that is, where zombie capitalists have no agency and act out of single-minded desperation, the living retain reason and compassion, but the survivors in The Walking Dead and zombie movies routinely behave callously and cruelly when confronted with the undead.
The other dimension of zombie fascination revolves around the zombie’s anarchic insurgency, the revolutionary embrace of desire reflected in the literal mass movement of zombies in search of brains. Much of the Occupy Wall Street theory borrows from threads of anarchism that David Graeber calls “a democracy without a government,” so the metaphor of the zombies’ anarchic if not democratic collective is an interesting if inelegant parallel. The attraction to something dubbed “anarchy” has appeal across the political spectrum, as conservatives and liberals alike have reacted against the state’s real or perceived control of their lives. On the right, citizens wary of the state and diversity have retreated into a blogsphere and media free of critical thinking or literally abandoned public space, fleeing to home schools or into their basements prepping for doomsday; on the left, the Occupy Movement itself circumspectly views the state, seeking an unfettered experience by dismantling the broad governmental and marketing roots of 21st century zombie capitalism.
Walking itself has often been the focus of everyday life scholars. Walking resides in a mostly unexamined consciousness that is reduced to a non-productive activity traversing the spaces and time between social consequence and production itself. Michel de Certeau referred to walking as one of many “tactics” that unfold in space and time without significant intervention from domination. The cityscape is a product of power that encourages passivity, what de Certeau refers to as “places,” but de Certeau was interested in how people creatively evade discipline and redefine places. Tactics are perpetual sources of disruption to power that have no avowed goals and instead opportunistically toy with normative expectations. Walking is an utterly tactical experience that resists normative control: At various moments we feel ground surfaces through our soles, breathe in the mixed odors of cityscapes, steel ourselves against rain, wind, or chill, wander misplaced in space, or gander above the first floor façade.
Zombie walks and impromptu encampments aspire to capture our imagination of public space more than they intend to colonize Zuccotti Park. This activism in space aspires to create consciousness that will lead to concrete structural activism, but popular observers constantly complain that Occupy has no concrete goals, which is an inelegant journalistic smokescreen that fails to recognize political efficacy with anything except strategic politics. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent captured this in October 2011 when he argued that by “painting the movement as scary and radical, critics hope to bring about a cultural reaction against it by focusing attention on its radical aura, its radical-seeming optics and tactics, rather than on what it actually stands for” (italics in original).
Nevertheless, the mechanisms of performance activism—which poaches on the fissures in domination and the politicization of surprise–break from the stereotype of goal-oriented political action. Much of the Occupy movement has unfolded in spatial protests beyond the idealized community that was planted in Zuccotti Park, instead reaching onto Brooklyn Bridge (where 700 people were arrested in October 2011) and at the New York Stock Exchange, where 185 were arrested in a September 2012 protest as Occupy members attempted to create a “human chain” around the building. The tactical politics of performance without especially clear goals or hierarchical organization wears thin on some left-wing allies. For instance, Ted Rall argued for strategic activism, complaining that “For me and other older, jaded veterans of leftist struggle, failure was a foregone conclusion. … Don’t just occupy Wall Street. Occupy Main Street. Get ordinary people interested and involved. After all, college kid, it’s not just your struggle.”
Rall launched a petty dismissal of the material aesthetics of the Occupiers, but it actually reveals some demographic complexities (and media misperceptions) when he complains that “A few hundred demonstrators, dominated by the scruffy white twentysomething college grads known as `hipsters,’ wound up at Zuccotti Park, whose private owners granted them permission to camp there. There they remain, noshing on donated pizza, talking, hanging out, hoping to replicate the magic of Cairo’s Tahrir Square while remaining committed to `absolute nonviolence in the Gandhian tradition.’ … Also, lose the clown clothes. It’s not the early 1960s; you don’t have to wear a suit like the civil rights marchers did. But how about showing up on national TV looking decent, like it’s Casual Friday?” One activist critical of zombie walks complained in a similar vein, “Remember when the civil rights protesters dressed up in stupid costumes? Neither do I.” Despite such self-righteousness, it is indeed interesting that Occupy risks appearing socially monolithic, and that may well be one of the reasons that Occupiers took to the streets as zombies: Zombies represent everybody from society, rich and poor, Black and White, yet un-dead we are all leveled.
Some archaeological research on the materiality of the Occupy movement is being done in New York, which promises a fine-grained look at Occupy camps. The material details of these camps will inevitably complicate caricatures of these camps as the province of hipster freeloaders eating organic food or selfless liberals bonding with the working masses. An analysis of the material details of camp spaces, material detritus, dress, public performance activism, and ethnography will provide a nuanced picture of Occupy Wall Street.
2006 Zombies, Epiphenomenalism, and Physicalist Theories of Consciousness. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 36(4):481-509.
Stephanie Boluk. and Wylie Lenz
2010 Infection, Media, and Capitalism: From Early Modern Plagues to Postmodern Zombies. Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 10(2): 126-147. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access)
2012 Zombie Media: Transmission, Reproduction, and the Digital Dead. Cinema Journal 52(1):66-89. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access)
2011 Fighting a war you’ve already lost: Zombies and zombis in Firefly/Serenity and Dollhouse. Science Fiction Film and Television 4(2): 173-203. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access)
2012 Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, and: Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (review). Science Fiction Film and Television 5(1):143-146. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access)
Christie, Deborah, and Sarah Juliet Lauro (editors)
2011 Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-human. Fordham University Press, New York.
Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff
2002 Alien-Nation: Zombies, Immigrants, and Millennial Capitalism. The South Atlantic Quarterly 101(4):779-805.
De Certeau, Michel
1980 On the oppositional practices of everyday life. Social Text 3: 3-43.
De Certeau, Michel
1984 The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Josué Aristides Diaz
2007 Review, The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman; Charlie Adlard. MELUS Special Issue “Coloring America: Multi-Ethnic Engagements with Graphic Narrative.” 32(3): 261-263. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30029804
2001 The Moving Ground: Locating Everyday Life. The South Atlantic Quarterly 100(2): 381-398.
2008 Dead Subjectivity: White Zombie, Black Baghdad. CR: The New Centennial Review 8(1): 81-101. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access)
2012 “Don’t Believe Your Eyes”: a review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011). Transition 109(1):130-143. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access)
2002 “Men Ain’t All”: A Reworking of Masculinity in Tales from the Hood, or, Grandma Meets the Zombie. The Journal of American Folklore , Vol. 115, No. 457/458 (Summer – Autumn, 2002), pp. 422-442. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4129188 (subscription access)
Brian Jonathan Garrett
2009 Causal Essentialism versus the Zombie Worlds. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 39(1): 93-112. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access)
Grant, Barry Keith
1990 Taking Back The Night of the Living Dead: George Romero, Feminism and the Horror Film. Wide Angle 14(1): 64-76.
2002 Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 1(2). http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/harper.htm
Garnet Hertz. and Jussi Parikka
2012 Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method. Leonardo 45(5): 424-430. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access)
2006 The network of waves: Living and acting in a hybrid space. Open 11(6): 6-16.
Sarah Juliet Lauro
2011 Playing Dead: Zombies Invade Performance Art…and Your Neighborhood. In Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-human, Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro (editors), pp.205-230. Fordham University Press, New York.
Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry
2008 A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism
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2012 Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies. Anthropological Quarterly 85(2): 457-486. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access)
2012 Fast Zombie/Slow Zombie: Food Writing, Horror Movies, and Agribusiness Apocalypse. American Literary History 24(1): 87-114. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access)
2012 The Scene of Occupation. TDR: The Drama Review 56(4): 136-149. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access)
Alan G. Phillips Jr.
2012 Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Assorted Creatures: The Apocryphal Bestiary of Chick Publications. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 24(2): 277-295. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access)
2010 Zombie Mayhem. American Book Review 31(2): 10-10. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access).
2012 It Seems As If…I Am Dead: Zombie Capitalism and Theatrical Labor. TDR: The Drama Review 56(4): 150-162. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (subscription access)
2007 Rigor/Mortis: The Industrial Life of Style in American Zombie Cinema Framework. The Journal of Cinema and Media 48(1):64-78.
Laura E. Tanner
2002 Bodies in Waiting: Representations of Medical Waiting Rooms in Contemporary American Fiction. American Literary History 14(1):115-130.
2011 Eight is not enough: A historical, cultural, and philosophical analysis of the flash mob. PhD Diss. University of North Texas.
Brazilian Zombie Walk image courtesy Grmisiti
Paris Zombie Walk image courtesy mamasuco +++ joyeux Noel a tous
Paris Zombie Walk musicians image courtesy philippe leroyer
Porto Alegre Zombie Walk image courtesy rodolpho.reis
Wall Street Killed Me image courtesy e_monk
Warsaw Zombie Walk image courtesy aeviin
A peculiar feature of contemporary life is that nearly all of us feel marginalized and alienated and seek some experience that feels truly authentic. It is generally irrelevant if a group is objectively marginalized—the Tea Party, furries, religious minorities, doomsday preppers, cosplayers, and straight-edgers all perceive themselves in the midst of an antagonistic world that denies their values and invalidates their experiences. These collectives are energized by their self-conscious sense of marginalization and the belief they have been denied an unfettered experience by mainstream society. The imaginationof alienation; belief in marginalization; affirmation in a dominating “mainstream”; and investment in something “authentic” are perhaps more significant than any objective analysis of these “outsider” collectives or their strategic political goals.
Many groups have been defined by themselves or observers as “subcultures,” which in popular use often clumsily refers to any modestly oppositional social collective. In Dick Hebdige’s influential use of the term (borrowing from scholars in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies), a subculture expresses contradictions in the social mainstream using alternative stylistic materiality. Hebdige’s study was of British punks, a subculture with spectacular material style, and it was punks’ manipulation of style on which Hebdige focused. Hebdige somewhat soberly concluded that all subcultures get “recuperated” when the marketplace neutralizes their danger and commodifies their style, transforming resistant symbolism into shallow, depoliticized commodity aesthetics. Indeed, any suburban youth can now consume punk, goth, or hippie style in mall chain stores that sell pre-torn jeans, mass-manufactured tie-dye shirts, or black nail polish alongside music that fits those commodified subcultural subjectivities. Even the term subculture itself has become a commodified subjectivity, referring to, among other things, a magazine providing edgy consumer advice, a bike shop, a musical project, and a skatepark.
Subcultures’ essential roots are constantly being monitored to ensure members are hewing to the authentic spirit of the collective (e.g., the Urban Dictionary has guidelines to identify Goth poseurs, and Uncyclopedia’s lengthy dissection of metal fans includes a whole section of the types of Metal poseurs). The persistent commitment to authenticity underscores that many of these marginalized collectives have deep emotional investment in the “real” yet are ensnared in the division between, on the one hand, emergence and being—an authentic and meaningful moment of origination among a particular self-selected group who craft a style with distinction and purity—and, on the other hand, incorporation and performance—the moment when the marketplace reduces the distinctive style to fashion accessible to anybody who will purchase and display the goods.
The contemporary hipster looms in this discussion as a contested authenticity, an association that has long been attached to hipster subjectivity. In 1957, Norman Mailer used the term hipster to refer to White youth alienated to a mainstream that had delivered depression, global war, and personal conformity. These dismayed hipsters, according to Mailer, concluded that “if the fate of twentieth century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.” Mailer dubbed the hipster “the White Negro”, because these disaffected White youth appropriated African-American dress, music, and style, finding something “real” in African America. Mailer suggested that “in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk.”
This “authenticity” risked reducing African-American culture to a stylistic ideal stolen by disaffected White middle class youth, and Ned Polsky criticized Mailer when he wrote that “in the world of the hipster the Negro remains essentially what Ralph Ellison called him–an invisible man.” Polsky ironically saw the Cold War hipster much as contemporary hipsters are portrayed, arguing that beats saw the hipster as “an `operator’” who “has a more consciously patterned lifestyle (such as a concern to dress well) and makes more frequent economic raids on the frontiers of the square world–but [the beats] emphasized their social bonds with hipsters, such as their liking for drugs, for jazz music, and above all, their common scorn for bourgeois career orientations. Among Village beats today, however, `hipster’ usually has a pejorative connotation: one who is a mannered showoff regarding his hipness, who `comes on’ too strongly in hiptalk, etc.”
The beat disdain for hipsters in 1960 captures how many observers see hipsters today, but contemporary hipsters may have won a special vitriol. In 2008, for instance, adbusters’ Douglas Haddow lamented that “An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the `hipster’ – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.”
Haddow’s acidic hyperbole takes aim on the hipster pattern of consuming styles crafted by other groups across time and space: for instance, the stereotype is that hipsters wear retro clothes from thrift shops or chains like Urban Outfitters and American Apparel that cater to manufactured patina, accented by Chuck Taylors, Wayfarers, and tight jeans; they are attracted to “low-brow” materiality like drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, wearing truckers’ baseball caps, or smoking European cigarettes; hipsters embrace technologies like fixed gear bikes alongside cell phones; hipsters have embraced wired social commentary, blogging, and marketing; and like all subcultures they are fervent music consumers (e.g., see Pitchfork and Spotify Best of Hipster playlists).
For many critical observers, hipsters’ apparent desire to rob other styles is the core of the inauthentic hipster personality, with these styles emptied of their historicity and instead placed in what Fredric Jameson referred to as a “perpetual present.” Time Out New York’s Christian Lorentzen launched an especially damning attack when he declared that “the Hipster Must Die,” complaining that “under the guise of `irony,’ hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity.” Both Lorentzen and the scathing Haddow attack are guilty of their own romanticism for a counter-culture steeped in creativity, strategic politics, and authenticity. Haddow, for instance, shallowly laments hipsters’ creative void and their pathetic yearning for something authentic, concluding that hipsters are “a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.” This is less a comment on hipsters than it is a lament for the inauthenticity of consumer culture and an effort to blame its ascent on hipsters taken in by consumer ideology.
The ensemble of retro clothes appear to many observers simply as thieved styles that have been commodified and turned into their own mainstream style that is superficially alternative. In 2008, for instance, Julia Plevin complained that hipsters “all dress the same and act the same and conform in their non-conformity. … Hipsters are supposed to hate anything mainstream or trendy. But the look has gone mainstream — tweens all over America, from the suburbs to cities, from public schools to prep schools are trying hard to be hipsters …with that iconic carefully created sloppy vintage look.” Any distance hipsters perceive from the mainstream may simply be illusory, but this assembly of styles is interpreted less as creativity and more as parasitism. For instance, Jake Kinzey argues that “hipsters are, in a way, infiltrators and spies. Not only that, but there has never been an `authentic’ or `original’ hipster. What gets lost in this notion is that selling out is practically programmed into the hipster.”
A 2009 conference sponsored by n+1 contemplated the demise of hipster culture, dubbing the proceedings “What was the Hipster?” In the wake of the conference, n+1 polemicized that “When we talk about the contemporary hipster, we’re talking about a kind of cross-subcultural figure who emerges by 1999 and enjoys a fairly narrow but robust first phase of existence from 1999 to 2003. At which point the category of hipster seemed about to dissipate and return to the primordial subcultural soup, for something else to take over.” Rob Horning’s analysis of the conference in PopMatters concluded that these death rites were preliminary, yet he was frustrated that “The sputtering confusion of the group discussion at the panel may have been inevitable. It’s impossible to obtain objective distance from hipsterism. … We all had a stake in defining `hipster’ as `not me.’”
Robert Lanham’s sympathetic and clever assessment of hipster identity agrees that the hipster funeral has come prematurely, arguing that hipsterism is at its heart about materiality and self-consciously superior taste and distinctive style. Hipster consumption is distinguished by its mining of pop cultural styles across time, what theorists often refer to as pastiche. It is a style deeply invested in an inflated sense of “cool” that is expressed in unfazed detachment and ironic judgments of style; the hipster self appears confident and “in control.” Rob Horning is wary of the constant pursuit of cool, arguing that the “problem with hipsters seems to me the way in which they reduce the particularity of anything you might be curious about or invested in into the same dreary common denominator of how `cool’ it is perceived to be. Everything becomes just another signifier of personal identity. Thus hipsterism forces on us a sense of the burden of identity, of constantly having to curate it if only to avoid seeming like a hipster.” In that assessment, “cool” hazards becoming a monolithic standard, a genuine mainstream ideal against which we are all measured in a way that rejects our own individual experience of things and style. Ingrid Tolstad’s thorough and rich Thesis on cool and hipsterism frames cool as a fluid ambiguity that loses much of its appeal once a particular thing is recognized as “cool.”
Jake Kinzey reduces that search for hipness to a market-induced consumer desire in which the experience of distinction and creativity is simply constructed by mass culture. He suggests that “hipsters’ quest for perpetual cool is sustained by endless cultural imperialism: everything is potentially for the taking. In typical postmodern fashion, it seems as if nothing they do is really new, it’s all about sampling, bricolage, remixing, or, usually, just stealing wholesale from the past.” In this picture, hipsters believe they can secure something authentic from the detritus of past social groups and discarded styles, but Kinzey argues that “This need for uniqueness and pure authenticity usually has the peculiar effect of making their `aesthetic lives’ into … a copy of a copy, mass-produced and unoriginal. In their attempt to achieve absolute individuality, hipsters somehow overlook the fact that they are doing the exact same thing in the same exact ways as everyone around them.”
This stereotype of judgmental hipsters may illuminate why society has taken aim on hipsters. Horning’s analysis suggests that in public discourse the hipster is a subject that negotiates consumer anxieties, suggesting that “Hipster hatred may actually precede hipsters themselves. … Late capitalism makes us all fear being hipsters and thus makes us all into one, to some degree. The hipster, then, is the boogeyman who keeps us from becoming too settled in our identity, keeps us moving forward into new fashions, keep us consuming more `creatively’ and discovering new things that haven’t become lame and hipster. We keep consuming more, and more cravenly, yet this always seems to us to be the hipster’s fault, not our own.” That analysis suggests that the hipster is not only not a subculture but that it is an ideological mechanism of marketing and media, a clear niche that drives style and consumption and shapes discussion of both.
Clearly one dimension of hipster loathing is the reading of it as ethically and stylistically hollow. David Brooks’ “bourgeois bohemians” are cut from similar cloth to the hipsters in their embrace of materiality, and in the case of bourgeois bohemians that materiality is pervaded by bohemian ethics of social and environmental responsibility that have typically run counter to marketplace economics. In Hebdige’s terms we might argue that bourgeois bohemians captured the social values and material style of bohemians and made it less an expression of resistance than a commodity representing mainstream respectability. Yet another reading might look at such consumption as dynamic and constructed creativity that is focused less on authenticity and bounded subcultural identity than on a fluidity that Andy Bennett has referred to as neo-tribal identity.
Rob Horning outlines a provocative analysis of the hipster as a social subject with a concrete and important role in contemporary consumer society, describing the hipster as “a kind of permanent cultural middleman in hypermediated late capitalism, selling out alternative sources of social power developed by outsider groups. … Hipsters are the infiltrators who spoil the resistance—the coolhunting collaborators and spies.” In that reading, hipsters serve as the foot soldiers for marketers and mass culture, ferreting out desirable style and providing barometers of style for an especially lucrative range of consumers.
Hipsters stand in a distinctive position, in reach of outliers even as they have a secure foothold in mainstream culture. Horning wonders “Is it that outsider groups are the only ones that make possible new forms of cultural capital? And thus hipsters are always necessary to the powers that be, that in an endlessly repeating pattern of co-optation hipsters serve as agents for the stakeholders in the established cultural hegemony, appropriating the new cultural capital forms, delivering them to mainstream media in a commercial form and stripping their inventors groups (if not the inventors themselves, in the best case scenario) of the power and the glory and the unification and the mode of resistance.”
Zeynep Arsel and Craig J. Thompson reach essentially the same conclusion in their 2011 study of hipsters as a commercial subjectivity. Arsel and Thompson examined “indie” consumer patterns, focusing on consumption outside the mass marketplace such as DIY art, local non-chain retailers, independent movie theaters, and local servicescapes of small cafes, restaurants, and bars. They characterize countercultural or subcultural consumption patterns as multifaceted and highly contextualized, but mass cultural industries identify the groups’ signatory symbols, prototypical practices, and aesthetic style to craft a homogenous identity. In the case of hipster identity, the caricature has become strongly stigmatized by outsiders as well as people who might be called hipsters, and Arsel and Thompson found in interviews with an indie musician community that many interview subjects reacted against the hipster stereotype. Arsel and Thompson trace the emergence of the contemporary hipster subjectivity to 1994, when a range of media sources like Time magazine heralded the arrival of the new hipster. Time wondered in August, 1994 “If everyone is hip, is anyone hip?,” casting cool and stylishness as ambiguities significant not for being secured but for being pursued. At this moment, Arsel and Thompson argue, the hipster was becoming a consumer subjectivity, yet they argue that people who might socially and aesthetically be labeled hipsters attempt to escape the stereotype and distance themselves from the caricatures as well as the very term itself. This picture paints hipsters as an ideologically laden subjectivity crafted by mass culture even as a concrete collective shares a social experience and aesthetics rooted in material consumption style, aspiring to remain distinct from becoming the mainstream it is reacting against.
In 2009 Adbusters’ Ilie Mitaru returned to the hipster apparently hoping to temper Douglas Haddow’s rejection of hipsters and perhaps recognizing that Haddow’s self-superiority risked alienating potential allies and utterly misinterpreting hipsters. Mitaru acknowledged that even if hipster style and consumption did not hew to Haddow’s notion of “radical ideals,” that “does not automatically exclude hipsters from holding such inclinations. The authenticity of revolutionary symbolism is increasingly threatened by a pervasive commercialism, which seeks profit on the back of authenticity. And while hipsters may indulge in a broad sampling of styles, their social potential should not be evaluated by these increasingly vulnerable externalities. When the present consumption/growth paradigm has so thoroughly degraded our social environments and clouded our futures, the natural reaction is to search for meaning in those narratives still offering promise: technology, sustainability, relationships, aesthetics, the self.”
The caricature of hipsters in tight jeans drinking PBR while dispensing ironic critiques of MacGuyver risks ignoring all the genuine material, artistic, and musical creativity that comes from hipsters. As post-subcultural theorists have argued, there is perhaps no such thing as a “mainstream” to react against, in which case hipsters’ fabrication of style from the shreds of popular culture and contemporary life may be what we are all doing: we all fancy ourselves marginalized and “indie.” Attacking hipsters provides an easy target to isolate, implying that hipster consumption is uniquely anti-social, parasitic, inauthentic, restricted to a fringe element in Williamsburg, has some substantive difference from the shopping the rest of us are doing, and thwarts the activism many of us hope to wage against consumer capitalism. Symbolicum’s Jessie Beier questioned specifically what constitutes a social movement and activism when she argued in March, 2012 that “We blind ourselves to possibility if we expect future movements to resemble those of the past. The hipster movement has been criticized for its lack of cohesiveness and authenticity, but it may be the case that hipsterdom presents a new understanding of the idea of subculture itself, one that is more relevant for the twenty-first century.” Indeed, hipsters have embraced bike culture, resisted corporate media culture, heralded environmental ethics, and cannot be utterly de-politicized: hipsters simply must have been part of the demographic that delivered Obama to the White House. Activists who trivialize such a broad swath of the community simply impose their own moral righteousness: the Occupy movement, for instance, has fashioned 99% of us as the marginalized masses, yet the movement seems to remain befuddled by our magnetic attraction to materiality and things. We can think critically about our research subjects and be firm and fair in our assessments of the implications of PBR consumption or the ways that consumer immersion disempowers people, but loathing and distaste for our neighbors and research subjects is a terrible position for anthropologists or activists.
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Ingrid M. Tolstad
2006 “Hey Hipster! You are a Hipster!”: An Examination into the Negotiation of Cool Identities. Master of Philosophy Thesis, Department of Social Sciences, University of Oslo.
Goth couple image courtesy fluffy_steve
Hipster artistic image courtesy Jack Newton
Helsinki Hipsters image courtesy Marko M. Marila
Hipster Brazilian art image courtesy ciscai
Hipster hunt image courtesy id-iom
Hipsters Iceland image courtesy Karl Gunnarsson
Hipster Obama image courtesy caffeina
Hipster rental notice courtesy i-zimbra
Hipsters car boot sale image courtesy cucchiaio
Hipster stencil image courtesy ClockworkGrue
Hipster symbols image courtesy salman javed
Hipsters Expo poster image courtesy Zellaby
Metal fans in Oslo image courtesy mithrandir3
South by Southwest hipsters image courtesy Todd Dwyer
Urban Outfitters image courtesy Malingering
Washington DC hipster wall art image courtesy liquidsunshine49
Each year Americans charge into the mall the morning after Thanksgiving, securing a bounty of $2 waffle makers and deeply discounted cell phones after all-night camp-outs. The overnight queues are often followed by frenzied Santas crashing store doors in the pre-dawn hours and stepping over their vanquished neighbor (or even abandoning their infants) in the pursuit of prized goods like bath towels. The spectacle of shopping riots in the name of the holiday spirit provides the media and blogosphere vicarious visuals to launch an annual wave of self-conscious moralizing over consumer gratification. Press coverage of Black Friday riots is predictably shallow, and internet commentaries fixate on the theatre of consumer frenzy, shallow psychologizing over consumers’ herd mentality, and doomsday predictions about the state of humanity. There are some reflective commentaries on Black Friday and consumption, but even they often fail to grasp the meaningfulness—and genuine politicization–of material desire, and many of them make Black Friday appear to be radically unlike the desires consumers experience the remainder of our lives.
Anti-consumer movements have been part of the material landscape since the earliest moments of American mass marketing: colonial Non-Importation agreements, antebellum “free labor” stores, 20th century African-American “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns, and present-day “buy local” movements all share the long heritage of withholding consumption to leverage social and political goals. Anti-consumerism movements in the contemporary world embrace a wide range of strategies and political goals including targeted boycotts, responsible consumption advocacy, and material frugality, but much of the popular attention focuses on the public theater of “culture jammers.” Culture jamming aspires to illuminate the contradictions of mass culture; that is, industries like advertising, television news, and internet corporations that aspire to systematically shape consumer knowledge in ways that sell goods and reproduce a “consumer culture.” The notion that we are a consumer culture implies that our most commonly held values, practices, and beliefs are invested in consumption and materiality itself, as opposed to the conventional lynchpin dimensions of culture such as faith, art, kinship, or language: In this picture of society, our contemporary identities are more firmly invested in commodity brands, consumed leisure (e.g., movies), and professional sports teams than in worship, family, or artistic representation.
Black Friday is a classic example of what culture jammers refer to as a capitalist “spectacle”; a spectacle in Guy Debord’s terms refers to seductive, mass media-manufactured representations of the world that stand opposed to (or even replace) authentic everyday lived experience. A society of spectacle supports commodity consumption through increasingly effective media representation mechanisms reaching from television to YouTube to cell phones, all of which represent the world in ways that encourage consumption.
Culture jammers have dented popular consciousness in large part because they use theatrical irony, sarcasm, and humor to illuminate the ways media shape our social and material experiences and disrupt dominant representations. The best-known example competing with Black Friday is Buy Nothing day, which takes aims in Adbusters’ words at “the entrenched values of capitalism–that the economy must always keep growing, that consumer wants must always be satisfied, that immediate gratification is imperative.” One of the most prominent culture jammer voices, Adbusters has been the most vocal champion of Buy Nothing day, which has a presence in over 60 countries including the UK, Sweden, Finland, and Japan. The UK Buy Nothing campaign stresses the negative social, political, and environmental impacts of consumption, arguing that “It’s a day where you challenge yourself, your family and friends to switch off from shopping and tune into life. … The developed countries–only 20% of the world population are consuming over 80% of the earth’s natural resources, causing a disproportionate level of environmental damage, and an unfair distribution of wealth.” Indeed, Buy Nothing day breaks from targeted boycotts in its more ambitious assault on capitalism and mass marketing itself, but it ultimately seems to see curbing consumer excess as its genuine goal.
The Buy Nothing movement advocates the sheer economic sway of a mass of consumers actually buying nothing, but it attempts to illuminate the ideological contradictions of marketing discourses and the irrationality of consumption by holding public events like zombie walks amidst holiday shoppers or “whirl mart” performances in which streams of shoppers push empty carts about a store. Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping practice a similar sort of anti-consumer theater that appropriates the language of faith and parodies the religious implications of shopping and our deep investment in material things. The encyclopedic sniggles page inventories a broad range of culture jamming ranging from vandalism to “billboard liberation.”
That irony and sarcasm is often wasted on sound-bite media observers who fail to accept their own position shaping opinion and speaking for corporate interests. For instance, the Huffington Post’s Nathalie Rothschild recognizes that much of the rhetoric about mass culture embraced by activists like the Occupy Movement risks appearing arrogant by suggesting that the masses have simply accepted elite deceptions and mass marketing lies. Yet she then caricatures anti-consumer movements when she laments that the “message of Buy Nothing Day … is essentially promulgation for mass austerity … and it is an elaborate way of telling people they are stupid, irresponsible, greedy and shallow. For this year’s Black Friday, Adbusters promised ‘flash mobs, consumer fasts, mall sit-ins, community events, credit card-ups, whirly-marts and jams, jams, jams!’”
On the one hand, Adbusters’ “subvertisements” (i.e., spoof ads) and public theater hazard over-simplifying desire and consumers’ reception of media messages, and Adbusters risks providing no concrete alternatives to shopping and materialism beyond deconstructive asceticism. Yet on the other hand, Rothschild evades any discussion of consumption or the concrete inequalities reproduced in mass culture, instead launching into an attack on the activist mechanism of the Occupy Movement and Buy Nothing day. She launches a transparently populist caricature of activism, suggesting that “On the one side are the Occupiers, ready to deploy every thinkable kind of shenanigan to bring the message home to those on the other side — i.e. vast numbers of ordinary Americans — that they are ‘rabid consumers’ hooked on ‘conspicuous consumption,’ that they are acting like zombies by pigging out and destroying the planet with their addiction to cheap electronics and videogames…. In short, Adbusters and their fellow Occupiers see Americans — or, in their own lingo, ‘the 99%’ — as gluttonous, obese pigs. What a joyful holiday message.”
Irony and theater are intellectually interesting mechanisms for consciousness-raising, but in everyday experience they are inconsistent and may even raise the ire of observers like Rothschild, who rejected the movement on the basis of what she experienced as a personal attack on her decision-making. Christine Harold’s study OurSpace : Resisting the Corporate Control of Culture argues that Adbusters’ parody risks simply replacing mass marketing’s authority voice with the moralizing authoritative voice of Adbusters, Buy Nothing advocates, or Occupy Wall Street. What Buy Nothing risks misunderstanding is that Black Friday and everyday consumption are profoundly consequential emotional experiences; rather than even unintentionally imply that consumers’ emotional desires invested in shopping and things are “lies” or fetishized symbolisms provided by marketers, critical anthropological thinking accepts peoples’ professed experiences and feelings, even if they are deeply shaped by ideology. Marketing works because it impacts us emotionally, but approaching consumption as “false desires” opposed to “authentic experiences” existing outside mass culture over-simplifies materialism and mass cultural symbolism. Culture jammers often suggest that such desire is manufactured by mass media and can be dismantled through rational, self-reflective critique. Subverting advertisements can be politically effective, because it reveals the distortions of media representations, but even then it launches the parody in the very form of ads that we all know already. Buy Nothing day attacks our deepest consumer desires and labels them false, meaningless, and even dangerous, so it hazards being heeded only by those who were already uncomfortable with materiality and consumption.
This year Buy Nothing Day has been greeted by its own ironic response in Buy More Stuff. Buy More Stuff rejects moralism and instead appears to embrace an intentionally shallow philosophical position that places agency back in the hands of consumers. Like Buy Nothing day and the broader culture-jamming movement, the Buy More Stuff champions wield public theater tactics, but their pickets encouraging shoppers to “buy more stuff” do not preach to consumers as much as they trust others to make sound decisions; sarcastically, they accept that for some people such decisions may involve buying and wanting more things. Their intentionally shallow agenda is actually quite complicated in its aim at the moralistic positions of cultural critics like Buy Nothing advocates, who appear to be rejecting meaningful desires and imposing a new set of moral codes. Buy More Stuff may actually be a surprisingly effective anti-consumption tool, because it is absurd to counsel shoppers to buy still more things in the midst of a busy shopping mall. The consumer response is to simply be confused: Buy Nothing Day, in contrast, provides a rational response that is a retreat from “excessive” consumption.
Black Friday is often implicitly framed in the media as a bizarre break from everyday normal consumption, a maneuver that in effect prevents us from contemplating the ideological contradictions of everyday consumption outside the frenzied morning hours of Black Friday. Most popular observers and the media itself reduce the Friday morning rush to a psychological commentary on a handful of transparently materialistic neighbors clearly distinguished from the rest of shoppers whose desires do not reduce them to the status of anti-social. That shallow assessment simply reduces Black Friday riots to the breakdown of a few individual consumers and evades the concrete ways desire is collectively accented and exploited by marketers, media observers, and moralizing observers on all sides of consumer politics.
2006 Culture Jamming: A Sociological Perspective. Journal of Consumer Culture 6(1):116–138.
James J. Farrell
1998 Shopping: The Moral Ecology of Consumption. American Studies 39(3): 153-173.
2007 OurSpace : Resisting the Corporate Control of Culture. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Carmen L. McClish
2009 Activism Based in Embarrassment: The Anti-Consumption Spirituality of the Reverend Billy. Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 5(2):1-20.
Jennifer A. Sandlin and Jennifer L. Milam
2008 “Mixing Pop (Culture) and Politics”: Cultural Resistance, Culture Jamming, and Anti-Consumption Activism as Critical Public Pedagogy. Curriculum Inquiry 38(3):323-350.
2012 Anti-consumption as tactical resistance: Anarchists, subculture, and activist strategy. Journal of Consumer Culture 12(1) 87–105. (subscription access)
Buy Nothing 2007 image courtesy Steve Rhodes
Buy Nothing poster image courtesy Toban Black
Target image courtesy Jacob.jose