Monday, August 11, 2008

The Hipster in Context

It’s Hipster Week at The Corresponding Society Internet Presence. 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. This project may be read as a response to writerly communities developing simultaneously with but separate from ours that embrace values associated with contemporary hipster culture, though the focus is often broader.

The Hipster in Context
by Greg Afinogenov

All previous countercultures since you could really begin to speak of a counterculture⎯I would say, since the Romantics⎯have been fundamentally grounded in an appeal to authenticity. The Romantics prided themselves on their ability to express pure emotion. The Symbolists⎯Rimbaud most of all⎯constantly sought the link to Being, the limit-experiences that break through the surface of daily life. The Surrealists attempted to realize art by using the unconscious (maybe the ultimate appeal to authenticity). The Beats followed the Symbolists, sometimes. The hippies, of course, were a paradigm case: the return to Rousseau, the emphasis on the purity of agriculture. (You could say that the New Left, too, was searching for authenticity in a kind of Frantz Fanonian revolutionary self-realization.) The punks ditched society's rules, exposing its shallowness by bringing forth an animalistic brutality; “Evolution is a process too slow to save my soul,” sang Darby Crash. And what is hip-hop but a constant return to the true and real life of the streets from the obfuscation of the white man's tricknology? (Listen to Brand Nubian for the way this process interacts with Nation of Islam imagery.)

A relatively new trend in Western thought⎯and culture⎯changed this familiar pattern, even before the hipsters. The idea of authenticity, after Derrida (after Nietzsche), became a dirty word. Authenticity was exposed as an ideological abstraction, an unachievable origin point that generates an endless chain of "supplements" which bring us farther and farther away from it. There was no more defending the concept of unmediated experience.

Hipsterdom is the first counterculture to arise with and take into account the condition that we, for better or worse, call “postmodernity.” As such, it cannot appeal to authenticity; it plays with surface, with collage, with costume⎯with everything “superficial.” But of course this could never be innocent while capitalism was around to sell it everything it needed. Thus hipsterdom stopped being a “counter” culture on any substantive level at all: there has almost never been a group of non-mainstream youth so invested in the preservation of the system, for all their Naomi Klein platitudes.

Hipster self-hatred is the return of the repressed appeal to authenticity. After all, hipsterdom incorporated into itself all of its predecessors. The self-hatred, then, is the condemnation of everything it stands for by the value systems it inherited⎯which provide the only semblance of a normative content hipsterdom can ever manifest. This means hipsterdom is constantly at odds with itself, unable to resolve the contradiction between its countercultural heritage and its thoroughly capitalized rejection of authenticity. Authenticity, within hipsterdom, is a zombie⎯dead, yet unkillable, and always threatening.

This contradiction lies behind the most familiar elements of hipster culture. Pabst, high-school sports T-shirts (until recently?), Bruce Springsteen, old vinyl, trucker hats⎯all these are the paraphernalia of a world where authenticity could be easily and unproblematically assumed, the earnest and unpretentious vanished world of the blue-collar male. Of course, this is ironic: in searching for authenticity hipsterdom once more encounters only its superficial, external expressions. (This was Derrida's point, in a way. The hipsters are looking for authenticity, “presence,” but can only seem to reach it by constructing a “supplement,” which seems like a pretty good facsimile of the real thing until you realize that it never resolves the aporia, the gap between the authentic and the fake, which made it necessary to begin with.)

Is there a future for the counterculture as a social formation? I don't think so. The hipsters mark the point where rebels stop selling out and start buying in.

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