Dogs in Space: The Bewildered Hipster

So, we’re in the midst, again, of another salvo of assessment of this whole Hipster thing. The occasion this time is the publication of What Was the Hipster?, an anthology of essays assembled by the editors of the literary journal n+1. New York Magazine adapted an article by n+1 founder Mark Greif from the collection a week or two ago… it was, eh, ok, useful mostly in it’s classification of the growth rings of the phenomena overall. Another offshoot was published this weekend in the New York Times Book Review.  The essay, again by Greif, focused on the timelessness of the artificiality & class stratification of supposedly “authentic” regimes of taste and connoisseurship. Anyway… in light of all this it seemed a fine moment to dig up an old sketch I wrote about two years ago – for my nickel it all goes back to that Marshall McLuhan chestnut about the medium being message… for your consideration, then:

[originally posted October 22, 2008]

These hipster zombies… are the idols of the style pages, the darlings of viral marketers and the marks of predatory real-estate agents, – And they must be buried for cool to be reborn. – Time Out New York

We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new. – ADBUSTERS

Ultimately I don’t even really care if people call me a hipster. I especially don’t care if they say that hipsters are lacking any meaning behind their lifestyle/wardrobe, I thought I was just dressing a certain way, I didn’t realize “we” were supposed to be saying something with our clothes or facial hair. – Adam Flanagan, Hipster

The phenomenon of the hipster has lately generated a great deal of heated chit-chat and brouhaha. Condescending bile from earlier generations of cool cats (They must die for cool to be reborn…) flabbergasted ire from anti-consumerist pick-noses (oh the vapidity! oh the shopping!), awkward sniffing by curious marketing organs (mmmm, yummy…. tastemakers….) topped off by the defensive wail of the misunderstood hipster himself (What, what, what?… I’m not even a hipster) – more than half of it is nonsense on stilts and all of it misses the forces at work by a country mile.

I think it’s like this…

There are two fundamental dynamics of any subculture. One is the acquisition of coveted emblems. That emblem can take the form of exclusive knowledge and connoisseurship (perhaps you know Ronnie James Dio’s first band, Elf?), an object (at last!  Elf’s rare 1972 debut record), or a badge (check out these pencil thin burgundy and orange corduroy trousers.)

The second is the binding of subcultures into regional scenes or tribes with distinct inflections and takes on the larger subculture.

The progress of these dynamics once proceeded at an “analog” pace. While admittedly stretching the formal definition, by “analog” I  mean the pace determined by the limits of physical space and human interaction.

So, for example, back in the day you might spend the better part of a year locating Prince’s infamous Black Album, The Anarchists Cookbook, or the aforementioned debut Elf album. That is, if you even even knew about any of those things. Chances are only the alpha-heshers in your high school had Pushead art on their sneakers, a brushed steel Proto-Pipe, and knew where to get angel dust. Most importantly, the rarity of these emblems, and the time and friction incurred during their acquisition, imbued these objects with great meaning and significance. Especially the angel dust.

The same “analog” pace holds for the dynamics of regional scenes. The rate of the promiscuous transmission and swapping of trends and codes was determined by distance, exclusivity and insularity. Sure, certain things would catch fire and sweep an entire subculture, but for the most part subcultures evolved methodically over time.

Enter the Internet – Look. If you can, in the course of an hour, see a DJ at a electro_sex_coke_jam wearing an immaculate pair of vintage British Nation Health eyeglass frames; go home; buy them on ebay; and have lenses ground for them at, well, rad… now what’s next? Perhaps a t-shirt with a wolf riding a unicorn across a rainbow… If you can download the 10 rarest records from a single blog, are they rare anymore? What do they really mean? Anything? If you accumulate 32,000 songs (are you kidding me?), how many of them can mean the world to you? If you can instantly parse fashion quirks from the most insular and far flung scenes, how quickly do they become common? How temporary, how fleeting, eventually, how meaningless? Of course the fixed gear bike and the keffiyeh have become meaningless cliches. They’ve had no time to acquire any meaning.

And hey, before you judge… consider. If there was a magic store, run by punk rock unicorns, that had every obscurity from both the hazy mists of time and the tiniest backwater scene, I would’ve grabbed records as fast as my wallet and the magic unicorns would allow. So, I’d bet, would you….

See, the hipster is nothing more that then the natural terminus of a subculture evolving at a “digital” pace. It’s what everyone misses when they say the hipster is a shallow monster of consumption and meaninglessness. Yes! Yes! But, it’s because of the distortion of the natural dynamics of subcultures. That’s why the hipster is so bewildered when cornered. It’s like yelling at a leaf in a river rapid. “Hey man, I’m just floating,” it protests. Well yes, leaf, you might say, but tell me about the scenery. A blur cannot mean as much as a rolling landscapes.

This is the fundamental distorting effect of the internet: It takes existing social dynamics and removes the regulating “analog” pace and metastasizes the whole magilla. This metastasis is responsible for great innovations, sure, like open source computing, as well as abyss-peering developments, like teenage girls loosing their marbles in an endless frenzy of round the clock multi-platform gossiping. In a few short years, it has redefined the very idea of privacy. It has transformed the making of mix tapes for your girlfriend into a force that reformatted the entire record industry.

And so it is with the hipster. A member of a subculture evolving so fast, and spread so wide, that meaning and reference detach completely, and the acquisition of emblems happens so quickly that it is indistinguishable from shopping, and happening so publicly that commercial culture would be retarded not to peer down and say: “Hey, look at this guys, this looks delicious!”

Is this a bad thing? Yes. Bad, bad, bad…Discarding the human and physical pace of life has massive consequences… All prior civilization evolved, fundamentally, at this pace… and in terms of magnitude, smoke signals, biplanes, telephones, cable, and home video pornography are small beer compared to the greased skids of the digital medium.

But spare the hipster directly… rather than the ridiculous, shallow, consumerist dupe of considered opinion, picture him more like Laika, the first dog shot into space. Innocent, bewildered, wanting a yummy treat, all the while moving faster than she can possibly imagine.