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Race and Global Subcultures: Materiality, Style, and Metal Fans in Botswana

A Botswana metal fan performs (image Frank Marshall)

A Botswana metal fan performs (image Frank Marshall)

Some observers suggest that mass culture has homogenized once-clear lines of difference, with the marketplace reducing difference to a rich range of pre-manufactured “resistant” styles.  Yet South African photographer Frank Marshall’s work on metal subcultures in Botswana provides an exceptionally compelling statement on the aesthetics of race, empire, and mass culture.  Marshall’s images of African metal fans illuminate the question of precisely what constitutes difference in a 21st-century consumer culture:  a stock of universal commodities and popular symbols circulate through a global marketplace, somewhat counter-intuitively producing social formations like the utterly multicultural and international metal subculture that includes Botswana’s metal fans. Read the rest of this entry

Consuming Geeks: Subculture and the Marketing of Doctor Who

Doctor Who cosplayers at the 2010 Chicago TARDIS convention.

Doctor Who cosplayers at the 2010 Chicago TARDIS convention.

This month the most committed Doctor Who fans descended on the Los Angeles Marriott for Gallifrey One, the 24th annual gathering of Whovians in Los Angeles.  On the one hand, these Doctor Who fans share a commonplace geek satisfaction with their sense of distinction from the mainstream.  A Who fan who grew up in Detroit noted that “As kids we loved anything Science Fiction from Star Trek to Space 1999 … we were weirdoes. But that was okay. It was a badge of honour. Really. SF was not as `popular’ then as it seems to be now, and British SF was probably deemed even odder.”  Patton Oswalt’s analysis of contemporary geeks inventories a typical range of geek obsessions confirming that “I was never going to play sports, and girls were an uncrackable code. So, yeah—I had time to collect every Star Wars action figure, learn the Three Laws of Robotics, memorize Roy Batty’s speech from the end of Blade Runner, and classify each monster’s abilities and weaknesses in TSR Hobbies’ Monster Manual.”  Oswalt admits the satisfaction he got from “quietly being tuned in to something dark, complicated, and unknown just beneath the topsoil of popularity.”

On the other hand, though, Oswalt is among the observers who have prophesied the death of that very subculture, lamenting “Fast-forward to now: Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells.  The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s.  Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun.”

The Fifth Doctor's TARDIS at the Doctor Who Experience in London.

The Fifth Doctor’s TARDIS at the Doctor Who Experience in London.

Once utterly invisible outside a circle of the most committed fans, in 2012 Entertainment Weekly heralded Doctor Who as a “global geek obsession”; this week al-Jazeera bought three seasons of Doctor Who; and in 2011 Doctor Who’s sixth season was the most downloaded television season on iTunes.  In some observers’ minds, this long-awaited ascent to mainstream popularity spells the death rites for the Doctor Who geek as a distinctive voice and identity. Contemporary Doctor Who fans risk being not marginal at all, and in this respect they share quite a lot with comic books fans, science fiction geeks, anime fans, or role-playing gamers who all have secured significant footholds in popular culture: San Diego Comic-Con is now among the most influential of all mass media and marketing events; television is littered with a variety of series that openly invoke science fiction and celebrate geeks; anime and manga aesthetics pervade popular culture; and role playing games have become a massive industry whose impression can be seen all over popular culture.  Once embracing something esoteric and disinteresting to the masses, geeks now have effected a complete reversal that witnesses them as the leading edge of style: rather than being disparaged as outcasts, geeks have become an energizing fringe fueling mass culture.

“Geek” is commonly referred to as a “subculture,” but that term is sloppily wielded in popular usage and tends to refer to nearly any distinctive social collective.  In scholarly terms a subculture reflects and expresses social contradictions through oppositional style and social practice.  Subcultures use material style and social practice to express and attempt to resolve the contradictions of mainstream culture: that is, weeping angel t-shirts,  “Bad Wolf” bumper stickers, and sonic screwdrivers are utterly politicized symbols signaling social identity and distance from mainstream social codes.  Doctor Who fans, like most members of self-identified subcultures, are energized by their self-perceived marginalization, if not the belief that they have been denied some unfettered experience by the normative values of “mainstream” society.

Not every geek is eager to relinquish their distinctions from the mainstream.  Blogger Maryann Johanson, for instance, prophesied the underside of Doctor Who’s broader following when she lamented retailer Hot Topic’s embrace of Doctor Who merchandise: “Hot Topic is a U.S. chain store that pops up in malls to serve kids who want to buy a premanufactured notion of cool instead of developing their own personalities. If the vice president and general merchandise manager for Hot Topic is excited about Doctor Who, it can only mean that the Doctor is on the verge of tedious ubiquitousness in America.”

A Dalek does battle at Chicago TARDIS 2011

A Dalek does battle at Chicago TARDIS 2011

Johanson seems to be apprehensive that the unfeigned passion fans have invested in Doctor Who will be undone by the marketplace.  Her wariness of “premanufactured cool” suggests the marketplace will inevitably redefine consequential if not deviant symbolism and reduce it to transparently commodified edginess.  This is precisely what Dick Hebdige cautioned was the universal fate of subcultures.  Hebdige’s classic study of punk style argued that subcultural aesthetics are re-defined by marketers in ways that neutralize anxiety-invoking distinctions.  Those subcultural material forms—goth makeup, Rastafarian garb, hippie tie-dye shirts–become simply an aesthetic expressing no especially substantive social or political statement.  Indeed, Hot Topic reduces fringe symbolism to a hollow style: pre-distressed shirts featuring the likes of Black Sabbath, David Bowie, or Joy Division evoke a historical fringe; pre-shredded jeans labor to conceal their wearer’s bourgeois status; and Batman earbuds invoke all the style and none of the pathos of the Caped Crusader.

Yet Hot Topic is far from the only company to charge into Doctor Who marketing.  The founder of Her Universe—“a place for fangirls to step into the spotlight and be heard, recognized and rewarded”–told the Today show that Who merchandise was selling briskly, admitting that “`I never thought I would see it grow this much. … Girls would come up to me saying they wanted ‘Doctor Who’ shirts and I didn’t know how I could make it work logistically with the BBC in London.”  But she was approached by BBC Worldwide’s own aggressive marketers because, according to their Director, “`She has a pulse on this demographic and on knowing what girls want.’”

Consumption at London Comic Con 2011

Consumption at London Comic Con 2011

The flood of Doctor Who merchandise reaching from toys to t-shirts to aquarium Daleks may indeed confirm that Doctor Who has been reduced to an aesthetic targeted to a particular consumer “demographic.”  Doctor Who looms in this picture as an ambiguous symbol of aesthetic distinction; in contrast, geeks embrace something symbolically esoteric that is outside the mainstream.  For some nervous fans, the passion they feel for Doctor Who or any other geek symbol hazards appearing irrelevant in the face of marketers’ dedication to profit.

However, it may be exactly the opposite:  that is, perhaps the geek has now become valued by marketers precisely because geeks identify those social and stylistic niches into which people invest deep feelings.  This no longer frames the geek as a unique entity, a stereotypically obsessive fan without connections to broader popular cultural discourses or politics.  In an essay in Guerrilla Geek, Rory Purcell-Hewitt argues for something he dubs a “post-geek” that is quite along these lines.  This post-geek is an assertively hybrid identity that does not fix geeks’ position within a particular subcultural niche: “the post-geek is one who has stepped beyond the barriers of the geek subculture, openly embracing philosophies and aesthetics from a multitude of cultures.”  Contemporary geeks do indeed routinely poach on a rich range of popular cultural symbols—simply survey the cross-fertilization of symbols in Doctor Who shirts such as “Doctor Pooh,” “Gallifrey Road,” or “Doctor’s Eleven” that cannibalize other popular cultural geekery.  That symbolic hybridity includes fans’ (and marketers’) conscious references to the show’s historical canon: Doctor Who evokes a half-century of programming and a distinctive retro aesthetic that the BBC’s avalanche of Doctor Who merchandise and DVDs routinely links to the newest episodes and storylines.  This hybridity may be the geek’s elimination of their own uniqueness; that is, geeks and other subcultures are no longer isolated entities but wired hybrids thieving style and meaning from a range of discourses.

Doctor Who’s ascent to mass popularity certainly was fueled by the collapse of once-formidable barriers to Doctor Who access: much of Doctor Who’s run came in the context of a pre-cable TV world, the absence of mass-produced VHS tapes or VHS players, divides between the UK and US programming, and fandom organized around communities communicating through local clubs, modest conventions, and fanzines.  Today, in contrast, a vast range of programming and linked marketing are accessible to nearly anybody with computer and/or cable access; BBC is systematically releasing every shred of Doctor Who programming on DVDs alongside branded books, audiobooks, and magazines; Who fans gather at massive conventions like Chicago TARDIS, Lords of Time (Australia), Regenerations (Swansea), and the official convention in Cardiff; fan communities are exceptionally well-connected online in sites like Gallifrey Base; and an enormous volume of online retailers specialize in commodities that are somehow cast as “geek.”

Subultures are not resisting any clearly defined mainstream, because normative social and stylistic codes are simply too dynamic and reside in ideology more than practice.  Many geeks, though, hold onto the caricature of a normative mainstream to rationalize zealously guarding their unique identities, castigating newcomers as poseurs and warily patrolling the boundaries of the authentic canon.  Perhaps the flood of Doctor Who DIY-er goods are the vanguard of material authenticity, or seeing the original Doctor Who late at night on a fuzzy black-and-white TV grants some fans some experiential privileges.  But there was of course never a moment of “authenticity” untouched by the media, since Who fandom is based on a mass media product.  Contemporary consumer culture is perhaps no longer populated by distinct collectives crafting individual styles in isolation; rather, we live in a world of heterogeneous styles in which appearances of resistance, deviance, and rebellion are simply a fashion.  Geeks may be the preeminent creative spirits in such a moment, distinctive for their capacity to find the symbolically rich niches in mass culture like superheroes, Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who.

Piers D. Britton and Simon J. Barker

2003 Reading Between Designs: Design and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner, and Doctor Who.  University of Texas Press, Austin.
Dick Hebdige

1979 Subculture: The Meaning of Style.  Methuen, New York.

Matt Hills

2010 Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-First Century.  I.B. Tauris, London.

David Layton
2012 Humanism of Doctor Who: A Critical Study in Science Fiction and Philosophy.  McFarland
Jefferson, North Carolina.

David Muggleton

2000 Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style.  Berg, New York.

Steve Redhead, Derek Wynne, Justin O’Connor (eds.)

1998 The Clubcultures Reader:  Readings in Popular Cultural StudiesBlackwell, New York.
John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins (eds)
1995 Science Fiction Audiences : Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Their Fans.  Routledge, New York.

Peter Wright

2011 Expatriate! Expatriate!: Doctor Who: The Movie and Commercial Exploitation of a Multiple Text.  In British Science Fiction Film and Television: Critical Essays, eds. Tobias Hochscherf, James Leggott, and Donald E. Palumbo, pp. 128-142. McFarland and Company, Jefferson, North Carolina.

The Death of Authenticity and the Outsider: Consumption and Hipsters

Hipsters relaxing in Helsinki (courtesy Marko M. Marila).

Hipsters relaxing in Helsinki (courtesy Marko M. Marila).

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.

A Goth couple poses at Wave Gotik Treffen 2008 Leipzig Germany (image courtesy fluffy_steve).

A Goth couple poses at Wave Gotik Treffen 2008 Leipzig Germany (image courtesy fluffy_steve).

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.

Metal fans in Oslo (image courtesy mithrandir3).

Metal fans in Oslo (image courtesy mithrandir3).

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.

A Brazilian artist's take on the hipster (image courtesy ciscai).

A Brazilian artist’s take on the hipster (image courtesy ciscai).

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.”

Hipster girls at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas (image courtesy Todd Dwyer).

Hipster girls at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas (image courtesy Todd Dwyer).

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.”

Street art heralding the 2012 Hipster Hunt (image courtesy id-iom).

Street art heralding the 2012 Hipster Hunt (image courtesy id-iom).

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).

Urban Outfitters is perhaps the most prominent retailer targeting a hipster demographic (image courtesy Malingering).

Urban Outfitters is perhaps the most prominent retailer targeting a hipster demographic (image courtesy Malingering).

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.

A pastiche of hipster symbols (image courtesy salman javed).

A pastiche of hipster symbols (image courtesy salman javed).

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.”

Hipsters gather at a car boot sale in Berlin with music (image courtesy cucchiaio).

Hipsters gather at a car boot sale in Berlin with music (image courtesy cucchiaio).

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.’”

A poster for the Hipster's Expo (image courtesy  Zellaby).

A poster for the Hipster’s Expo (image courtesy Zellaby).

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.”

Washington D.C. wall art of hipsters (image courtesy liquidsunshine49).

Washington D.C. wall art of hipsters (image courtesy liquidsunshine49).

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.

The hipster may have become an aesthetic object (image courtesy Jack Newton).

The hipster may have become an aesthetic object (image courtesy Jack Newton).

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.

Hipster Obama (image courtesy caffeina).

Hipster Obama (image courtesy caffeina).

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.”

Apparently even rental notices now specify "No Hipsters" (image courtesy i_zimbra).

Apparently even rental notices now specify “No Hipsters” (image courtesy i_zimbra).

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.

A San Francisco stencil lamenting hipster gentrification (image courtesy ClockworkGrue).

A San Francisco stencil lamenting hipster gentrification (and ironically borrowing its critique from an advertisement) (image courtesy ClockworkGrue).

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.”

Hipsters in Iceland (image courtesy Karl Gunnarsson).

Hipsters in Iceland (image courtesy Karl Gunnarsson).

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.

References

Zeynep Arsel and Craig J. Thomson

2011  Demythologizing Consumption Practices: How Consumers Protect Their Field- Dependent Identity Investments From Devaluing Marketplace Myths.  Journal Of Consumer Research 37(5): 791-806. (subscription access)

Andy Bennett

1999 Subcultures or neo-tribes? Rethinking the relationship between youth, style and musical taste. Sociology 33(3): 599-617. (subscription access)

Andy Bennett

2005 In Defence of Neo-tribes: A Response to Blackman and HesmondhalghJournal of Youth Studies 8(2):255-259.  (subscription access)

Andy Bennett and Keith Kahn-Harris, eds.

2004 After Subculture: Critical Studies in Contemporary Youth Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Cab Calloway

1938 A Hepster’s Dictionary.  http://www.cabcalloway.com/jive_dictionary.htm

Roy Grundmann

2003 Andy Warhol’s Blow Job.  Temple University Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Douglas Haddow

2008 Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.  Adbusters online.

Hebdige, Dick

1979 Subculture: The Meaning of Style.  Routledge, London.

Rob Horning

2009 The Death of the HipsterPopMatters online.

Fredric Jameson

1998 Postmodernism and Consumer Society.  In The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster, pp. 111-125. New Press, New York.

Jake Kinzey

2010 The Sacred and the Profane: An Investigation of Hipsters.  Zero Books, Alresford, UK.

Robert Lanham

2009 Look at this Fucking Hipster BasherThe Morning News online.

Richard Lacayo and Ginia Bellafante

2012 If Everyone Is Hip… …Is Anyone Hip? Time 144(6): 48.

Christian Lorentzen

2007 Why the Hipster Must DieTime Out New York online.

Norman Mailer

1957 The White Negro.  Reprinted in Dissent, June 2007.

Ilie Mitaru

2009 Reconsidering the Hipster: An Acknowledgement of PotentialityAdbusters online.

David Muggleton

2002 Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style. Berg Publishers, London.

David Muggleton and Rupert Weinzierl (editors)

2004 The Post-Subcultures Reader.  Berg, New York.

Ned Polsky

1967 Hustlers, Beats, and Others. Aldine Publishing Company, Chicago.

Steve Redhead

1997 Subculture to Clubcultures: An Introduction to Popular Cultural Studies. Blackwell Publishers, London.

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.

Images

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