The Death of Authenticity and the Outsider: Consumption and Hipsters
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.
Zeynep Arsel and Craig J. Thomson
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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