“It took me a little while to understand how much nastiness people generally intended when they used the word hipster. It just sounds sort of attractive to me, a hipster. I thought yeah, I guess that is sort of my culture. Those are my people and I was just about able to go on thinking that it was a perfectly nice thing to be until someone pointed out to me or it finally sank in that it was meant contemptuously and I really I’m not sure I accept the premise that I think it’s a self-loathing term and I’ve come to be very alert to this self-loathing propensity that surrounds certain kinds of cultures of what are essentially connoisseurship, generational affiliation.”
—Jonathan Lethem, in answer to the question “Are hipsters ruining Brooklyn?“
The things that hipsters such as Jonathan Lethem value and embody are worthy things—surprisingly so, in view of all the mockery the hipsters come in for. I agree with him that a hipster is “a perfectly nice thing to be.” It is a pity that anyone should be made to suffer so much, and so needlessly.
If it were really such a contemptible thing to be a hipster, you’d think that nobody would want to live in Echo Park or Williamsburg or Shoreditch or the Haut Marais; you’d think nobody would want to be caught dead wearing skinny trousers or the colored Ray-Bans or listening to WHY?. And yet people in search of the like-minded flock to those places, to those things. So why this “self-loathing propensity,” the doubtless real and widespread thing of which Lethem speaks?
It isn’t really self-loathing at all. People don’t hate hipsters, and hipsters don’t hate themselves. What people hate so much is the faux-hipsters: they hate poseurs. And because it’s such an irritating thing to be having to tell the real from the fake (exactly as in the matter of overpriced European handbags), the easiest way out is simply to deny any involvement in the whole business. That is why nobody, not even someone who fervently embraces hipster culture, wants to call himself a hipster.
But there are good reasons to validate the legitimate aspect of hipster culture, the aspect that is fun and has real charm and elegance to it; that tries, the way every social group tries, to form bonds between the like-minded using all these signals like haircuts and cardigans and bicycles and magazines.
It’s easy to tell the difference between a hipster and a poseur, because while the former are mainly enjoying, the latter are mainly judging. The poseur is an aesthetic snob without aesthetic discernment; he sneers but has no understanding of standards. So instead of having fun sharing their arcane things together, the poseurs are having zero fun pretending to not like anything. As Nietzsche put it most memorably: The man who despises himself nevertheless esteems himself as one who despises. These two kinds of people really are just worlds apart, even though they may find themselves living in the same neighborhood and going to the same rock show.
The tastes and habits of the world’s bohemias are real symbols of a certain way of life and way of thinking; there’s fidelity to a certain truth in the underlying reality, and that is how a Tokyo hipster can quickly recognize what might prove to be a kindred spirit in Buenos Aires or Austin. This kind of symbolism has been around since at least the time of Oscar Wilde, when the greenery-yallery aesthetes drifted about carrying “a poppy or a lily” (q.v. Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience.) In the age of the Internet, though, that symbolic force has become just hugely magnified, because new symbols can penetrate the hive mind so quickly, and so deeply.
So today’s bohemians get in a big gang and live together, as they have for over a century at least; almost every city of any size in the Western world has at least one such neighborhood, and the big cities have many, each with its own flavor. In effect, though, all these places are the same place, like Solzhenitsyn’s “archipelago” (except not a prison camp for political dissidents): a series of far-flung islands but really one place, invisibly linked. In this case, residents of the archipelago value inventiveness, intelligence and taste over wealth and conformity; what Lethem is calling “connoisseurship.” There is lots of artwork and music and clothing being made in these places, experiments of all sorts, an atmosphere of discovery. There is generally “more dash than cash.” It is fun to have lunch or buy records there, more fun than having lunch in the rich neighborhood; people from “outside” come along to see the foreign movie, to have coffee. The hipsters live there, and the poseurs who follow them do, too.
The widespread vilification of hipsters has entirely failed to distinguish between the hipster and the poseur. Maybe that is the very reason why people never seem to tire of the constant ragging, even though it’s all been done to death; the irresistible “Being a Dickhead’s Cool” had millions of YouTube views only a matter of weeks ago. But please note that what is being mocked in every case, from “Dickhead” to “Hipster Olympics,” is not really hipsters! It is poseurs. Nobody is ever mocking anyone who is having fun. The mockery is reserved for those scowling, affected types who are in such a hurry to be the first to know the New New Thing before anyone else does, not out of real curiosity or scholarship, but just out of anxiety and a cold, sterile competitiveness, a kind of pushing other people out of the way. It’s the ignorance and fakery that are being mocked, not the actual hipster culture: “We’re puttin’ on this rave, and there’s a band in the mosque? And all the proceeds are going to that thing that happened in the Middle East or Africa or whatever?”
So what are these alleged good reasons for praising the hipsters? There are two. One is to decrease suffering among the youngs, because 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. There could be so much more happiness (and inventiveness, and liberty) if people were just free to just love what they love without having to worry about whether or not they are going to be crucified for being a hipster.
When you are around young people who have ambition and taste, and who long to enter an imagined world full of gloriously attractive and brilliant cognoscenti, it can break your heart to see their fear and insecurity—which is very natural and really, almost inescapable for the young—manifested in distrust and an assumed arrogance, in a pretense at more knowledge than they really have. The way they pretend to know about this or that band, or the way they suddenly up and say that Pitchfork itself is “too mainstream,” or they pretend to read a book that they haven’t read. They literally twitch with grief and fear. They are suffering! And this suffering stifles their natural curiosity and pleasure, imprisons them in an airless chamber of embarrassment and insecurity. How many lofty, jaded teenagers are out there right now, too bored and cynical to enjoy anything freely? When they should be having fun instead. So that is why it is a good idea to say, go ahead and be a hipster, if you want to! That is very charming and delightful, and please tell us when you find another band as good as WHY?.
An aside: I am one of the ancients, myself, but I can still remember something of that fear; wanting to prove I was smart, fit to participate, things like this. Nervous that I might not really be as worthy as I hoped, no matter how hard I worked. A common paradox, I think: it’s a strange thing, but as an ancient I feel far less informed, less well-read than I did at eighteen, when I thought it was such a big deal to have read (a tiny bit of) Dostoevsky (in English.) Maybe this is partly a question of making friends with your own inescapable ignorance? So that you go in the library and can fully, absolutely realize that you’re only ever going to absorb the tiniest particle of what there is. I can remember, too, how liberating it was to be able to admit freely and even with pleasure, “I don’t know!” and to view saying so as an opportunity to learn something, rather than as an admission of inferiority. Ignorance is Liberty! Haha, God, now I sound like Orwell, whatever.
The other and equally good reason for encouraging the hipsters is that bohemian values of inventiveness and not-so-much-materialism are particularly helpful to have just now in the U.S. Because there has been way too much materialism over the last fifty years, new ways of looking at “success” and so on are badly needed. It would be great if, instead of excoriating the hipsters, people took a serious look at how they like to live, and maybe tried some of the things they like, for example riding a bicycle instead of driving a fancy car, or trying a vegan diet, or learning to play music. If we could broaden the idea of excellence to include more than wealth and power-to include cultural fluency, invention and new experiences—it could be such a good thing.
Photo from Flickr by Fred Benenson.