Hipster Essay

Posted on by Kern

“Distinction,” published in 1979, was an undisputed masterwork. In it, Bourdieu set out to show the social logic of taste: how admiration for art, appreciation of music, even taste in food, came about for different groups, and how “superior” taste was not the result of an enchanted superiority in scattered individuals.

This may seem a long way from Wellington-booted and trucker-hatted American youth in gentrifying neighborhoods. But Bourdieu’s innovation, applicable here, was to look beyond the traditional trappings of rich or poor to see battles of symbols (like those boots and hats) traversing all society, reinforcing the class structure just as money did.

Over several years in the 1960s, Bourdieu and his researchers surveyed 1,200 people of all classes and mined government data on aspects of French domestic life. They asked, for instance, Which of the following subjects would be most likely to make a beautiful photograph? and offered such choices as a sunset, a girl with a cat or a car crash. From government dietary research, they took data on the classic question: Do you think French people eat too much? The statistical results were striking. The things you prefer — tastes that you like to think of as personal, unique, justified only by sensibility — correspond tightly to defining measures of social class: your profession, your highest degree and your father’s profession.

The power of Bourdieu’s statistics was to show how rigid and arbitrary the local conformities were. In American terms, he was like an updater of Thorstein Veblen, who gave us the idea of “conspicuous consumption.” College teachers and artists, unusual in believing that a beautiful photo could be made from a car crash, began to look conditioned to that taste, rather than sophisticated or deep. White-collar workers who defined themselves by their proclivity to eat only light foods — as opposed to farmworkers, who weren’t ashamed to treat themselves to “both cheese and a dessert” — seemed not more refined, but merely more conventional.

Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up. These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters.

Once you take the Bourdieuian view, you can see how hipster neighborhoods are crossroads where young people from different origins, all crammed together, jockey for social gain. One hipster subgroup’s strategy is to disparage others as “liberal arts college grads with too much time on their hands”; the attack is leveled at the children of the upper middle class who move to cities after college with hopes of working in the “creative professions.” These hipsters are instantly declassed, reservoired in abject internships and ignored in the urban hierarchy — but able to use college-taught skills of classification, collection and appreciation to generate a superior body of cultural “cool.”

They, in turn, may malign the “trust fund hipsters.” This challenges the philistine wealthy who, possessed of money but not the nose for culture, convert real capital into “cultural capital” (Bourdieu’s most famous coinage), acquiring subculture as if it were ready-to-wear. (Think of Paris Hilton in her trucker hat.)

Both groups, meanwhile, look down on the couch-­surfing, old-clothes-wearing hipsters who seem most authentic but are also often the most socially precarious — the lower-middle-class young, moving up through style, but with no backstop of parental culture or family capital. They are the bartenders and boutique clerks who wait on their well-to-do peers and wealthy tourists. Only on the basis of their cool clothes can they be “superior”: hipster knowledge compensates for economic immobility.

All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world. Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position — including their own. Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why “He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster” is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves.

The attempt to analyze the hipster provokes such universal anxiety because it calls everyone’s bluff. And hipsters aren’t the only ones unnerved. Many of us try to justify our privileges by pretending that our superb tastes and intellect prove we deserve them, reflecting our inner superiority. Those below us economically, the reasoning goes, don’t appreciate what we do; similarly, they couldn’t fill our jobs, handle our wealth or survive our difficulties. Of course this is a terrible lie. And Bourdieu devoted his life to exposing it. Those who read him in effect become responsible to him — forced to admit a failure to examine our own lives, down to the seeming trivialities of clothes and distinction that, as Bourdieu revealed, also structure our world.

Continue reading the main story

Nov 3 2010

What Was The Hipster? A Sociological Investigation, edited by n+1

Phoebe Connelly

web exclusive

"There should be no shame ever surrounding the love of or identification with a place, a way of life, a band, or a pair of glasses."

—Maria Bustillos, from The Awl's "Being a Hipster Is An Excellent and Wonderful Thing!"

It's difficult to get a grasp on What Was The Hipster? This is due in part to the very structure of the book: Divided into three sections, it includes a transcript of an April 2009 panel on the death of the hipster, five responses to the panel (two published at other media outlets, three elicited by n +1), and a final section of four essays loosely taking up the volume's titular question. For the reviewer it's a bit of an ouroboros—panel leads to critique to defense. People are still talking about hipsters—UCLA hosted a panel on them just last month—but the topic seems to be increasingly self-referential. Is there anything left to say?

n+1, a New York-based literature and culture journal, called the 2009 panel on the notion that hipsters (whose official birth as a subculture the authors date in 1999—based on, at various moments, Richard Lloyd's ethnography of Chicago's Wicker Park in the late 1990s, the WTO protests in Seattle, and jokingly, the high school graduation date of one of the panelists) have now had their 10-year run. Yes, this work sounds suspiciously in the wheelhouse of sociologists, of whom, the editors are quick to note, the volume contains none. But never mind that. Let's look at this fucking hipster.

But no matter how hard you look at this book, there’s something missing. For one thing, the panel's transcript doesn't offer any sense of the audience's reaction. (I read most of Christian Lorentzen's essay wondering if he was getting laughs). The editors acknowledge a "persistent inability … to place the ‘hipster feminine,’” but the attempt to correct this sorely misses the mark. And finally, the book as a whole—with some exceptions—asks, but doesn't answer, questions of class and entitlement. It's this last point that rankles, not only because n + 1 has shown itself to be a journal that capably takes up such questions, but ultimately because this would have offered actual answers to the question of why hipsters are so easy to disdain.

To wit: n+1 editor Mark Greif, who edited the book (with Kathleen Ross and Dayna Tortorici), observes in his introduction that "the hipster represents what can happen to middle class whites, particularly, and to all elites generally, when they focus on the struggles for their own pleasures and luxuries […] rather than asking what makes their sort of people entitled to them." In a response essay, Patrice Evans, creator of the blog The Assimilated Negro, concurs:

Hipsterism strikes me as what happens when white folks become aware of power and inequity—but then say, 'Well, what are we supposed to do: Throw our hands up and mug for the camera?' Any relinquishing of power is inevitably an aesthetic gesture.

Evans runs with that premise—contrasting hipsters with the conversation about "Us and Them" that occurs within hip-hop. Manifesta co-author Jennifer Baumgardner similarly offers a self-reflective take on where she fits into the hipster taxonomy, but I wish she'd discussed how hipsterism fits in with her role as a feminist writer and activist.

I was utterly puzzled by the inclusion of Robert Moor's essay on douchebags as the opposite of the hipster (Hot tip for Moor: Nothing makes you more of a douchebag than a story involving yourself traveling to India. See also: Elizabeth Gilbert). And given the reasoned thoroughness of most of the essays, and the assertion that n +1 intended to go beyond the cliché of skinny jeans, Dayna Tortorici's essay is baffling. If the hipster is about appearances and consumption, she argues, identifying the female hipster is more difficult because society already reduces women to eye candy. Somehow this leads Tortorici to conclude that to understand the "hipster feminine" we should consider the "presentation" of the female hipster appearance via party-snapshots and self-photography. Hipster women are photographed women. I fail to see how this is any less insulting than just leaving women out of the conversation altogether.

Tortorici’s essay is also marred by an uneven survey of visual hipster culture. She name-checks the collaboration between conceptual artist Jenny Holzer and the sneaker line Keds announced in June 2010, but fails, oddly, to note that while Polaroid film was discontinued in 2008, it was back in production again by March 2010, thanks to a private company formed by ex-Polaroid employees. The reissued film retails for approximately twice the cost of the original. Or make it easy on yourself and download the Hipstamatic iPhone app ($1.99) on your $299 iPhone, which allows you to produce images with that blown-out, square-framed allure. Once again, the most interesting analysis of the hipster surfaces from the simplest calculations.

For all its failings, the volume gives a recorded history to a decade that has largely been chronicled—until any given site goes dark—online. I was asked by a friend while reading the book if Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes had always been "kind of crazy rightwing." And, yes, thanks to Mark Greif's "Epitaph for the White Hipster," I was reminded of Vanessa Grigoriadas's investigation of the same back in 2003 for the New York Times. (McInnes, incidentally, was a panelist on the L.A. restaging.)

The true gem of the book is the final essay, Christopher Glazek's look at conflict between Hasidism and hipsters in South Williamsburg over a bike lane. As usual, hipsters come off as entitled brats, but then, so do the anti-bike-lane Hasidic Jews, who complain about what is ultimately an improvement to transportation safety. "At their most extreme," he writes "hipsters and Hasids present rival heresies, dueling rejections of bourgeois modernity." Like Evans, Glazek wisely uses an actual conflict and examples to ground his piece.

The volume raises plenty of questions I wish it had answered. Why are all the women writers relegated to the response essays? Why are we debating hipsters, when we could be talking about the growing levels of inequality in the United States? Why has n + 1 published this as a book, when everyone knows hipsters <3 the internetz? (Something I would love to see: a Carles/n+1 collaboration.) As Jace Clayton asked on the panel, "What are we not talking about when we're talking about the hipster?"

Let's be honest: The only thing easier than hating the hipster is discussing him. And god knows making a profit in the magazine industry is an uphill battle. I hope this book sells piles of copies. And that n+1 uses that profit to put out an issue on something really overlooked. Like, say, the structures that enforce inequality. They could get a woman to edit it.

Phoebe Connelly is web editor for the American Prospect.

What Was The Hipster?:

A Sociological Investigation

by n+1 and Mark Greif

n+1 Foundation

$10.00 List Price

For more info visit:
Amazon • IndieBound • Barnes & Noble

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