On the Hipster Aesthetic in Four Acts
I. Introducing Hipster
After going over the syllabus and explaining in general what the course would be about a hand shot into the air when I asked if any clarification was needed. “Yes?”, I said. “Are you a hipster?,” a student in the front of the class asked. Having fielded this question a few dozen times in the past I have come to regard it as a sort of comedic interjection. These days I simply answer in the affirmative, “Yes, I am...” I certainly dress the part. I fit an aesthetic archetype that may be appropriately, in a superficial sense, labeled as hipster. My pants hug sufficiently to my body such that I often have difficulty retrieving my keys if I mistakenly place them in the same pocket containing my phone. I prefer to wear v-necks and black plastic framed glasses sit upon my face – both ubiquitous staples of the hipster aesthetic. I always keep some sort of facial hair. I prefer to drink in dive bars where the clientele dress in a similar fashion to me. I ride a road bike, if not a fixed gear variety. My OKCupid matches are disproportionately a collection of pale women with bangs, tattoos and an affinity for thrift shopping I fit in with those walking the Mission District of San Francisco, drinking at the bars in East Austin, or cycling the streets of the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn. If I committed a crime, say punched a hipster for calling me one, a recently gentrified area is the place where I could best blend in to find safe harbor.
Yet, though I have today relegated my response to the question of hipster identity to one of affirmation, I certainly do not think of myself as one. The irony is that this properly fits within the archetype of the hipster. The hipster never identifies with the label. To claim the label is to acknowledge a sort of inauthenticity. At bottom, there is a fear within the hipster community to take ownership of their identity as such. It is largely a pejorative term. Yet, for better or worse, it has come to be the dominant label for a subculture that, while elusive in precise definition, can be described as millennials who populate urban centers and, to borrow Thomas Frank's terminology, are rebel consumers who adopt elements of counterculture movements devoid of their political substance (Grief, 3, Oct. 2010). The hipster is quick to bring in elements of punk, hip-hop, and the icons of political subversives while leaving their cultural and emancipatory significance behind. Perhaps this is why the term hipster is evaded by those within the subgroup. To take ownership of the identity, an identity that is used to “out” one in the subgroup as not belonging, is to acknowledge their values as comprised of a vacuous set of commodified signifiers that are supposed to represent cool rather than be it. For hipsters, representation is enough. In the era of hipster, cool is not created but purchased before the rest of society has become attuned to it. Cool comes in ready made packages that make ownership of it a difficulty precisely because the only value attached to it is that of capital hiding behind a faux ethic of interchangeable flavors of the day such as individuality, DIY, green transportation, indie music and working class symbols. Because these flavors are mere means to cool, and not values that are taken as important in and of themselves, they are able to be tossed aside at a moments notice as soon as they become too mainstream. Moreover, their vacuous nature allows them to be coopted by forces of capital in a fashion that serves cool to an eager youthful demographic always looking for validation from their peers in the form of conformity disguised as rebellion and difference.
In the critique of the hipster we have the framework for a larger examination of how societal values are appropriated by the forces of commodity, stripped of any subversiveness and packaged neatly for sale. Thus, while an examination of the hipster will be appropriate to bring forth the complications of vacuous aesthetics, I do not intend the findings of it to be exclusive to the subgroup of the hipster. Any subgroup can be afflicted by having within its ranks those who are drawn to it by its identification with cool rather than its organic origins that set it in opposition to dominant ideological forms. Still, I claim that in the hipster subculture the form of an empty aesthetic reaches its apex. While punks in the authentic form proudly protest state authority, existing social hierarchy and live a working class lifestyle, the hipster is aloof when it comes to firm commitment of such ideals. In the hipster we have the greatest victory of the forces of capital insofar as the subgroup is one that does not organically create political ideals but seeks them in the marketplace of cool. Such makes the work of capital easier in that it must simply identify cool and not aggressively strip it of political significance. The hipster is, after all, afraid of significance. While other subgroups may aggressively resist appropriation of their ideals for the purpose of profit, the hipster largely has no firm commitment to such ideals in the first place. If all one must do is observe what signifiers are “in” without fear that the cultural and political importance of them will be taken seriously by the consumer half the work has already been done. This is what Theodor Adorno disparagingly referred to as the great success of the culture industry – those institutions of marketing that executes the revolutionary potential of counterculture by reproducing it endlessly and making it available to all. Hipsters are allies to the culture industry insofar as they are, once stripped of their aesthetic pretensions, raw consumers, and thus aid the devaluation of politically significant content of other subcultures by acting as the purchasers of its reproduction resulting in the slow death of its meaning by mass dilution.
Yet, I do not seek an unyielding critique on the subculture that is hipster. I seek its aletheia, whatever this may be. Indeed, I claim that within this culture lie the very tools needed to dismantle cultural appropriation on the part of a mass marketing industry. Irony and cynicism exist within the subgroup but in a perverse way that allows the group to continue to consume, not unwittingly but with full view to the contradictions such consumption creates. At bottom the hipster knows the cheap beer he drinks and v-neck shirts he dons are synonymous with the working class. The working class are drawn to these cheap forms of intoxication and attire because of their economic standing while the hipster merely appropriates them as an empty pathway to cool. Thus, part of the project will be to examine how the attitudinal features – irony and cynicism – of the hipster can be recalibrated to encourage not passivity and indifference in the contradictions elicited by consumption, but to examine the mechanisms by which products deemed cool are delivered to them. However, in order for this to occur seriousness must assert itself. Seriousness is what has eluded the hipster in all but a faux form that clings to a vacuous notion of cool and the pursuit of it. I claim that in bringing a robust sense of seriousness with recalibrated senses of irony and cynicism we can potentially transform what is now a shallow rebel consumer that acts as ally to the culture industry into a politically conscious agent.
II. Birth of a Hipster
My introduction to the culture of hipster is one that perhaps defines it aptly. Nineteen at the time, and without many friends of my own, I ran into an old classmate from my high school one night in a parking lot frequented by youth. I had not seen him in sometime. I didn't know him too well either, though these things did not matter. His pupils were heavily dilated, the result of a binge of ecstasy chased with alcohol. He recognized me. Fueled by a dose of false fraternity he welcomed me to join him with his friends who were drinking in a distal corner of the lot. Fueled by a recent breakup puerile in nature and a mild urge to end my hermitude I obliged. I soon joined a small band of late teens to early twenty somethings who were passing around a bottle of alcohol that would at best be served as a well. Today, such booze makes me gag. Then, I was grateful just to be drinking it in the presence of these people. Their disheveled aesthetic showed an indifference for what society demanded of them. Their interests were artistic – photography and music were common topics of conversation as were troublesome personal lives. I had, it seemed, something in common with hipsters. These people spoke vaguely of art and culture, had a community, what seemed like storied histories and, on top of it all, had “cool.” In short, they seemed appropriately divorced from a mundane middle class lifestyle.
Having come from a fractured, poor, working class family I momentarily found identification here. I sincerely took these people for outsiders. Due to my background, I had grown up disaffected with a social structure that did not serve me. It was this very background that led me to my earliest questioning of society, turning to the work of Chomsky, Marx, and authors of dirty realism in high school. In short, my interests were of vital importance to me and not fashionable accessories. Yet, in these pursuits I found few companions. Little wonder why I was so attracted to those who were ostensibly separate from the herd but in actuality were, in hindsight, mere pretenders. I should have recognized them as fraudsters who had been on vacation for too long. I should have recognized it all as a charade that they all assented to as soon as one girl who mentioned something about getting a political degree was befuddled by the term “proletariat.” The deep sense of stylized glamour that was on display was not grounded by any sort of substance in these people. Yet, even when I realized this I still hung around – why?
The response to this question gets at the root of the hipster per se. I fell into contradiction. I realized the vacuous nature of the group and yet remained. I remained for cool – whatever that happened to be. I was allured by the feeling that recognition coupled with shallow validation within an “in” group could have. The paradox is that one who takes delight in the pleasure of recognition cannot explicitly proclaim as such. Critical to the pursuit of recognition for the hipster is that it is both a sort of subconscious desire as well as being a desire for recognition qua recognition. Hipsters seek not recognition for something but recognition in itself. The hipster defines himself based upon what is recognized. He is always willing to change for the pursuit of cool.
However, a proper distance must always be kept from the fact that recognition and validation is what is sought lest one risk making the desire too explicit. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan labeled such an explicit pursuit of pleasure that is not readily acceptable by society jouissance, and it is this very mechanism that inverses pleasure into a sort of psychotic pain. Thus, the subject will always seek to mask unacceptable pleasures she seeks by way of obfuscation. Slavoj Zizek describes the process of the unconscious desire for hollow recognition on the part of the hipster as being rationalized and sublimated by taking the stance of a “not me” (1, State of Hipster). The stance of “not me” allows a more acceptable reason to spring forth as a cover for more intimate desires. The hipster always has at access the guise of art by which to veil the shallow drive for recognition. In the hipster's pursuit of art he always claims authenticity while using the term hipster to out others within the group as being pretenders chasing mere recognition. The hipster projects upon the mainstream the idea that his cheap means of expression are under assault.
My personal veil involved holding on to some distant idea that within this group there might be a person I could identify with a bit more closely, with whom I did not have to feign interest in an intricate ruse. It is this ruse that punctuates the social sphere of hipsters. Hipsters do not become friends in any sort of meaningful way. In Aristotelian terminology, the hipster social sphere is largely one comprised of friendships of utility and pleasure where a friend's value is not intrinsic. What is called friendship in the hipster social scene is largely a slightly more intimate form of networking in which parties exchange and display cultural and social capital.
Of course, this is not to say that such forms of friendship and exchange are the only form that emerges. Nor do I mean to say that those within the hipster subgroup necessarily engage in culture only as a signifier of importance. As Grief points out, there are artists within the community that pursue their craft in itself and for aspects of subversion, expression and transgression it represents. This attitude can be counterposed with hipsters who seek art merely as a marker of being culturally attuned in an effort to expand social capital by increasing relations with those of status in the group. Still, he largely defines the artistic tendencies of the group in a negative light that vacates it of meaning.
One could say, exaggerating only slightly, that the hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists, who gained an entire generation’s arms, sternums, napes, ankles, and lower backs as their canvas. It did not produce photographers, but snapshot and party photographers: Last Night’s Party, Terry Richardson, the Cobra Snake. It did not produce painters, but graphic designers. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts. And hipsterism did not make an avant-garde; it made communities of early adopters. (Grief, 4, Oct. 2010)
Following Grief, we may thus characterize the art that arises out of the movement, if we risk calling it one, as being an empty form without content. In short, it is a richly commercialized aesthetic. The critical question will be to ask why the aesthetic scene of hipster sociality is, predominantly, a vacuous one that is able to be readily commodified in a reciprocal fashion – cool is sold to hipsters and hipsters themselves signify what needs further commodfying. Further, we must ask what values are hidden beneath the ostensibly empty form that punctuates hipster sensibility. While most work on hipsterism has suggested that it is a culturally shallow subgroup without values, I claim that such vacuity can act as a vehicle for the reproduction of other values that are antithetical to the movements from which hipsters appropriate. Thus, vacuity shall not necessarily mean ideological neutrality but ideological availability.
III. Further Theorizing on Hipster
Yuriko Saito suggests that an aesthetic scene can be perceived in an ethical sense that gives us a view of what may be problematic about it. We may, following this, have two different senses of aesthetic judgment. One approves of an aesthetic scene while the other perceives the aesthetic scene in a way that may evoke a negative emotive response. In Saito's words, “we attend to and understand the way in which human tragedy or social injustice is dramatically expressed in the sensory qualities of the environment” (142-3). Indeed, aesthetic judgment is not simply about appreciation but also negative reactions of affect such as disgust. Saito uses an example of a ghetto to give rise to the idea that an aesthetic scene can convey what is wrong with it just as much as it can convey what is appreciable in it (140). The problem will be in deciphering cues that we must pick up on when the aesthetic scene is ostensibly an appreciable one. While we may readily grasp a ghetto as that place that reifies social ills into an identifiable scene there is theoretical work to be done to incorporate this ugliness into a gestalt that appreciates the interconnectedness of the parts. Without doing so we might unwittingly take delight in an affluent area of town that is home to beautiful parks and boutiques while at the same time failing to see that this delight is intricately connected with the ugliness we perceive in the ghetto. After all, hipsters are the pioneers of gentrification, being the first to inhabit up and coming neighborhoods while marginalizing their former working class inhabitants into further obscurity.
Thus, our understanding of the hipster aesthetic will most assuredly require what Saito describes as the ethical aesthetic. Yet, it will also necessitate the proper theoretical framework to understand precisely what to pick out in a scene that may, on a surface level, be perceptually appealing. After all, without theoretical interrogation, what could be so objectionable about a hip district dotted with chic restaurants, fashion boutiques, and dimly lit drinking establishments? Or, for that matter, an attractive girl signifying all the markers of hipster desirability – bangs, black framed glasses, intelligent dress, and a tote carrying an acid free journal coupled with French literature? We thus must seek a deeper sense of aletheia in order to show the reality that pervades beneath the cloak of cool donned by hipster sociality.
The common view that the prototypical hipster's place of economic standing begins in the upper-middle class, thus enabling her to pursue a life free of labor, is one filled with naivety. The hipster aesthetic expresses itself in a full range of economic class. Pierre Bourdeiu tells us that taste is habituated in us via the social class we inhabit which itself is populated by members of multiple economic classes. One does not necessarily freely choose their social class. Rather, they are largely, but not deterministically, guided into it via the childhood signifers they are presented with from an early age. Thus, taste, as an aesthetic tool, is a conditioned vehicle that reflects the preferences of a particular social class. The social class may further be broken down into, and analyzed by, its constituent economic classes who have varying access to forms of capital – economic, social, and cultural. These economic backgrounds limit or broaden the access one has to capital. Those who come from wealth may convert their economic capital into the two other forms of it. We respect to hipster sociality, these types can be characterized as those who come from affluent means, perhaps funded by a trust, and can purchase cultural outlets such as cafes, bars, and musical venues. One step below the economic ladder are those able to access cultural capital due to their education in well respected, private, liberal arts colleges. These hipsters authoritatively define and demarcate cool with theoretical backgrounds from known institutions confirming their legitimacy. Beneath these two are those within the social class at the bottom of their own economic class who are only able to assert themselves within the social group by reference to authenticity. This final group works the in the cultural outlets owned and defined by the groups at the top. The two groups at the top will in-fight for recognition of superiority in the group as a whole while both will disparage those populating the bottom of the social (and economic) class as being beneath them (Grief, 2, Nov. 2010).
However, what is contiguous within all three groups of the social class is what must be critiqued. What is contiguous, I claim, hides the grand delusion and conceals the harm done by ascribing to the hipster in-group. The danger of the hipster aesthetic lies not only in appropriating the authentic form of cool that arose organically from punks, hip hop artists and Eastern spirituality, but also in the vacating of its revolutionary and ethical principle. Hipsters, in fetishizing the working class by adopting its symbols of poverty – cheap beer, cigarettes, and dress – have made the abolition of that class all the more difficult by making the aesthetic perception of it an attractive one. But, as Georg Lukacs writes, “the proletariat cannot liberate itself as a class without simultaneously abolishing class society as such,” and this includes destroying its own class as well in reaching maximum liberation (21). Saito's notion that aesthetic perception can allow us to appropriately judge an aesthetic scene as a deplorable one is thus problematized by a hipster aesthetic that renarrativizes elements of these deplorable scenes as cool. At the other end of the spectrum we may examine the Western appropriation of yoga and eastern spirituality in which hipsters participate. Here, these forms of expression are robbed of their ethical components in order to function as servants of capital that allow those who participate in them to reinvigorate themselves precisely in order to return to the field of capital accumulation, of which the chief form is always economic. These forms of expression, once pillaged of their ethical principle, become the latest incarnation of what Adorno described as a “medicinal bath” prescribed by the pleasure industry to keep its workers and consumers conforming, politically docile agents (15).
At bottom what the hipster seeks is a form of recognition vacated of substance. They are afraid to commit to ideals precisely because it would render them unable to identify what is new in the realm of cool. This sets them up, as told earlier, to be a rebel consumer – a curious paradox that folds into conformity as dictated by a culture industry that observes what is in and sells it back to hipsters. Adorno writes, “In the culture industry imitation finally becomes absolute. Having ceased to be anything but style, it reveals the latter's secret: obedience to the social hierarchy” (9). Thus, while hipsters may always be on the cusp of cool, they are nonetheless reproducing and imitating the ethic of consumerism that demands cool must necessarily change in order to provoke the purchase of new products. The culture industry will always be ready and waiting as their willing participants, hipsters, purchase the commodified signifiers of what they have identified as cool. Last week it was analogue cameras, but today iPhone photography posted on Instagram has provided the next transition to a consumerist form of cool. With hipsters as their unpaid mascots of cool, the culture industry can advance its products to a broader audience. As these products become widely accepted hipsters will abandon it for something more obscure, ever afraid that they might risk being subsumed by the mainstream. What is needed is a return to organic creativity and a lack of fear to commit to the ideals and values that such creativity is spawned from. In a word, what hipsters need is a bit of seriousness.
IV. Conclusion – To Wither or Redeem Hipster?
I have so far put forth a negative account of the hipster, arguing that they are paradoxical rebel consumers who rabidly seek cool for purposes of recognition and validation. The cool that is accumulated by hipsters serves as the sublimated form into which their shallow desire for recognition is deposited. Further, I have argued that the appropriation of cool on the part of the hipster is one that vacates it of oppositional value to the establishment and, per Adorno, aids in reproducing the capitalist values of the dominant social order.
However, I claim that the attitudinal features of the hipster, cynicism and irony, that prevent him from proudly labeling himself as such highlight a possibility for escape from vacuous obsession with cool. The hipster denies the label precisely because he is aware that his status is one punctuated by meaninglessness. Of course, to continue in this charade he must sublimate his desire into something more acceptable. Thus arises the cheap, hollowed-out varieties of art that litter the hipster landscape. He on the one hand is meaningless and on the other constructs a life full of an eclectic mix of cultural symbols devoid of substance in order to deny his futility.. He is in this sense an ironist. If only he had the courage to direct his irony at the very institutions that sell him his meaningless life – the culture industry – in order to examine it for what it is. But this too he is able to do. He knows the products he buys are appropriated ones sold back to him. Popular shows such as New Girl, Girls, and Portlandia highlight hipster contradictions and allow them to live on by cloaking them in humor. It is little wonder why these shows are met with rave reviews. But these shows tell us something more. We often use humor to make ugly realities more tolerable or even pleasant. In this sense the hipster is a cynic insofar as he sees no possibility for an alternative outside of his existing state of affairs. He may only laugh at it. If only he could be cynical about the possibility for a commodified life to produce a substantial form of meaning. But the hipster cannot assent to the ideals of those subgroups who organically create their forms of expression in a manner that demands a sense of seriousness to the values that arise out of them.
What the hipster has are attitudinal dispositions that, when inverted to look towards the forces that cause them, show a way out. But what the hipster lacks is a sense of seriousness. Thus, we should not chastise the hipster too eagerly. In a certain sense he is well aware of the intricate functioning of society in a way that many others are not. He simply chooses to look away out of a belief that events cannot seriously be altered – and perhaps because he resides in a place where he does not need events to change for the better because events are materially good for him. But this is a view of false-consciousness, and one that submits to alienation. Cynicism and Irony, so long as they keep a proper distance, have becomes allies of ignorance as the mechanisms the culture industry depends on in order to keep it smooth operation. Hipsters thus require a notion of seriousness that is divorced from commodity and inheres in ethical principle. This may prove a difficulty insofar as seriousness is precisely what largely defines hipster insofar as it is a lack. If this is a possibility, authentic creative and subversive potential may lie within this subgroup, however, if it is not it surely marks the necessity for death of the hipster if only, as Christian Lorentzen puts it, to allow cool to be reborn (1).
Adorno, Theodor & Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment, chapter 1. accessed at http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1944/culture-industry.htm
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics trans by Robert Bartlett & Susan Collins. University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Baime, David & Mullin, Christopher. Promoting Educational Opportunity: The Pell Grant Program at Community Colleges. American Association of Community Colleges. July, 2011.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinctions: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. by Richard Nice. Harvard University Press. 1984. pp. 466-484.
_________. "The forms of capital." Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. 1986
Greif, Mark.“What Was the Hipster?". New York Mag. Oct, 24 2010.
_________. “The Sociology of Hipster”. New York Times. Nov, 15 2010.
Haddow, Douglas. “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization”. Adbusters. Aug, 29 2008
Lorentzen, Christian. "Kill the hipster: Why the hipster must die: A modest proposal to save New York cool". Time Out New York. May, 30 2007.
Lukacs, Georg. History and Class Consciousness, “Class Consciousness”.Trans by Rodney Livingstone. Merlin Press. 1967. accessed at http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/lukacs3.htm
Saito, Yuriko. Everyday Aesthetics. OUP Oxford. 2007.
Weigel, Moira & Ahern, Mal. “Further Materials Towards a Theory of the Man-Child”. The New Inquiry. Jul, 9 2013.
Zizek, Slavoj. “The State of Hipster” trans by Henry Brulard. Rhinocerotique. Sep. 2009. accessed at http://www.generationbubble.com/2009/10/21/apoc-ellipsis-slavoj-zizek-on-hipsters-a-translation/
 It has been an odd reality for me when discussing my status as a poor student with peers to find that, invariably, every other student is also poor – an odd circumstance when considering that college, while more accessible today than in previous eras, still largely remains an institution of privilege. While the phenomenon of all students claiming poverty may be attributable to the injustice of student loans that shackle students to debt it is certainly a separate circumstance than those who arose from poverty at birth. Thus, my own poverty arose not out of an inability to qualify for financial aid due to having the support of a middle to upper middle class family but by being born into a working class one. I was able to qualify for the full amount of the annual pell grant which is typically reserved for students from family's with a maximum income of 20,000 dollars per annum (Baime & Mullin, 4) – a working class income if there ever were one.
 On conversion of capital, see The Forms of Capital by Bourdeiu, esp pg. 256 in which he states “economic capital is at the root of all the other types of capital and that these transformed, disguised forms of economic capital, never entirely reducible to that definition, produce their most specific effects only to the extent that they conceal (not least from their possessors) the fact that economic capital is at their root, in other words – but only in the last analysis – at the root of their effects.”
 Logically enough, films such as The Comedy and Somewhere which show the real dimensions vacuity have been largely panned by critics precisely for portraying lives devoid of meaning. Perhaps the real, without a gloss of humor, gets just a bit too close for comfort.
 Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern, for example, define the hipster, who is a subspecies of the man-child, by his desire not to be taken too seriously and fear of commitment in “Further Materials Towards a Theory of the Man-Child”
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