Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hipster Definition

Hipster Week at The Corresponding Society Internet Presence belatedly continues, sort of. Several members of The Corresponding Society have been asked to evaluate contemporary hipster culture for the purpose of better understanding the social phenomenon we are exposed to daily.

On Why There Is No Definition of a Hipster
by Mae Saslaw

There is no static criteria for determining hipsterdom and therefore no established method for distinguishing a hipster. For this reason, an individual's hipster status may be entirely up for debate or interpretation, questionable, or at least shaky. It is easy enough to imagine a hipster denying hipster status⎯and this is common behavior⎯but is it possible to be a non-hipster and self-identify as one? If so much of one's hipster status rests upon one's identification or lack thereof as a hipster, and yet there are no rules governing who is or is not same, is anyone actually a hipster? More importantly, is anyone entering into a discourse regarding hipster status not a hipster? This is the fluid nature of hipsterdom. But why are there no criteria, why is there no litmus test? In any other counter-culture or sub-culture movement of the past thirty years, there have been concrete characteristics of members of the group. For example, the punk movement was clearly marked by dress, music, lifestyle, etc. This has served in the past as a unifying, solidifying necessity for any group: members want to establish their membership and broadcast it in a legible way. Hipsters have avoided hipster solidarity, and I propose two linked reasons: 1) they hate each other because 2) "hipster" has been a pejorative term since its inception. Hipsters typically complain about a lack of authenticity exhibited by other hipsters, and these complaints are misplaced due to a certain phenomenon my peers have described, namely, there is no such thing as an authentic hipster. How does such a "movement" founded on absolutely nothing occur, let alone persist? Given that identifying hipsters is such a slippery slope to begin with, I propose that the very existence of hipsters may be purely linguistic. One can refute or deny his or her hipsterdom, providing evidence such as dress and places of habitation or social activity, but the question will usually remain unanswered. By contrast, punk identity is significantly easier to define, if only because the punk movement produced its own culture. Hipsters produce notions of hipsterdom, but no cultural artifacts to help establish a movement. It is counterintuitive to imagine that mere notions can form identity, and yet they have. Is it not these very notions that are being discussed, and are they not substantive enough to warrant their own discussion? Despite the fact that the word "hipster" exists and has been accepted in common usage, it is barely legible; it reminds me of that historic Supreme Court opinion on pornography: I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.

1 comment:

Erich Kuersten said...

Mae, you hit the nail on the head, by, in fact, missing it and hitting the thumb of an onlooker. Thus, a hipster is defined by his or her stance against other perceived hipsters.

Punk is a good yardstick by which to measure this, as you ably do in your essay. When I was in the punk scene in the mid 1980s no one thought of themselves as punks, but rather as poseurs. In admitting that one is a poseur one is in effect a hipster, i.e. imbued with enough self-aware irony to realize that identity cannot actually be established via dress and music choices. In other words, it means nothing... and proud of it, or rather itlessness.