Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Consider the Hipster

with 6 comments

by Luce

There is a certain joy to be found in contemplating the hipster, perhaps even universal for any who have had the dubious privilege of living in their vicinity. Figuring out where they “live” is a much easier feat than determining who they “are” — one of the more narcissistically self-effacing species of our time (and that’s saying a lot), you can get off at the Bedford stop in Williamsburg and run into someone who looks like this

and they will still deny their hipster affiliation til doomsday. Needless to say, hipsters are more prevalent in ironic urban centers on either coast, though a great many seem to have originated in and then wandered out of America’s heartland, only to find themselves a tat sleeve, an unpaid internship, and fifteen roommates in Bushwick. (Digression: Last winter I got a taste of the Los Angeles hipster lifestyle when a friend brought me to Red Lion Tavern in the Silver Lake district, a kitschy German bar with electronic organ and, it must be said, a delicious apple strudel. What was fascinating was that everyone looked as if they could have been hanging out in Bushwick, but they were all so shockingly good-looking I felt like an extra in “Hipster: The Movie.” Brooklyn is obviously to Silver Lake what Broadway is to Hollywood)

Boston is a town nearly bereft of hipsters — they’re concentrated at Berkelee College of Music and Emerson perhaps, and in Jamaica Plain. At Harvard they’re likely to be spotted in classes where they can conspicuously consume Continental philosophy, though there American hipsterdom and Euro-ness get blurred in a way I always find confusing.

Hipster haven in Los Angeles

Of course I try to do my part for Boston — not as one (and though denying being a hipster is part of being a hipster, you can trust that I’m much too earnest and take my German kitsch way too seriously to ever be mistaken for one) — but by trying to inject speculations on hipsters into as many classroom contexts as possible. Case in point: reporting on Pierre Bourdieu‘s Distinction for a class in early modern material culture this fall, I talked about how it seemed a very “French” book (which Bourdieu himself and many of his reviewers also noted), and used the idea of the New York hipster as an example of an American cultural species that seemed to undermine his claims. Mostly it was just an excuse to talk about hipsters, but it was said with some conviction.

To give a quick rundown, the heart of Bourdieu’s argument is that assertions of taste are assertions of power, by which various groups try to maintain dominance over others through the deployment not just of economic, but of cultural capital. Unlike Kant, who sees beauty, found first in nature, as something true, autonomous from human judgment, universally valid, beauty and taste are relational in Bourdieu. The subject, and hence his/her taste, is co-constituted through objects that make up the world of his or her class and educational milieu. Class and education are determinative for one’s habitus, one’s taste patterns.

Ok, let’s get back to hipsters. Mark Greif, a professor at the New School (and co-editor/founder of n+1), just wrote a NYTimes article about the hipster issue of self-denial: why is talking about and identifying hipsters often so fractious?

These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters…Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position — including their own. Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why “He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster” is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves.

So basically in calling someone a “hipster” and denying the label oneself, a member of a certain cultural community tries to undermine another’s authenticity, in part because one’s own position is so precarious, which I would argue (though he doesn’t really) is due to the fact that what constitutes accepted taste in certain American cultural communities, especially young, media-oriented ones like “hipsterdom,” changes so rapidly that it can easily appear non-serious and superficial.

For Greif, conflicts between so-sorta-called hipsters divide as they do for Bourdieu along class- and education-based lines:

Once you take the Bourdieuian view, you can see how hipster neighborhoods are crossroads where young people from different origins, all crammed together, jockey for social gain. One hipster subgroup’s strategy is to disparage others as “liberal arts college grads with too much time on their hands”; the attack is leveled at the children of the upper middle class who move to cities after college with hopes of working in the “creative professions.” These hipsters are instantly declassed, reservoired in abject internships and ignored in the urban hierarchy — but able to use college-taught skills of classification, collection and appreciation to generate a superior body of cultural “cool.”

One of Bourdieu's crazy charts. I have no idea what the hell any of it means.

But really, I don’t think you can take a French sociologist studying a very specifically 1960s French society (though published in France in 1979, its research was carried out 1963 to 1967/68 — i.e. before 1968) and apply it to the hipster conundrum today. To name just one very French thing about class/education and cultural capital at that time (and today): the French have a completely centralized education system. A schoolchild in Metz learns the same thing as a schoolchild in Paris; the higher one goes in education the more comprehensive tests one takes to verify a certain body of knowledge mandated by a state body which everyone else at that level of education will also have mastered. There is a coherence of cultural capital in direct alignment with education that I think is not at all replicated in the United States — the closest you get are the Great Books programs at universities like the University of Chicago or Columbia. The worth of cultural capital is also more blatant in France: intellectuals are held in much higher esteem than in the U.S. (often without necessarily deserving it: here’s looking at you Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of an astoundingly inane musing in The Atlantic on “America” — I dare you to read it in full. Quick brainstorm: perhaps a comparison of Sarah Palin’s Alaska! to Lévy’s America! is in order. By the way, I consider it a PSA to direct your attention to a few clips from Alaska now up at Gawker).

The reason I immediately thought of hipsters as a contradictory example to Bourdieu’s ideas on taste is that they seem to represent both how American society allows and encourages one to break out of learned taste patterns (fake it ’til you make it) and also how decentralized and non-hierarchized American taste and taste arbiters can be. Not that class is unimportant — take a look at who’s working for 25k as an editorial assistant at one of the New York publishing houses, and you’ll capture a contained socioeconomic milieu. But there is no central, dominant arbiter of taste — the Upper East Side embraces charity balls, while hipsters embrace dive bars. Each involves social boundary-making but hipsters wouldn’t want to be at those balls (a predominant trait of the hipster is efforts to reject historical social norms), nor UESiders at those dive bars. Further, what seems most important for Bourdieu is that certain taste patterns are internalized from a young age and restrain a person from being able to leave one’s social milieu. But isn’t hipsterdom (as is New York and LA) chock full of people who have left the social milieus they grew up in and self-consciously assumed a new habitus? Now I haven’t published a whole book on “the hipster” as Greif has, and I’ll allow that Greif is surely right that socioeconomic background is important in some way for the residents of Hipsterburg:

Both groups, meanwhile, look down on the couch-­surfing, old-clothes-wearing hipsters who seem most authentic but are also often the most socially precarious — the lower-middle-class young, moving up through style, but with no backstop of parental culture or family capital. They are the bartenders and boutique clerks who wait on their well-to-do peers and wealthy tourists. Only on the basis of their cool clothes can they be “superior”: hipster knowledge compensates for economic immobility.

But I do think hipster culture contests more than confirms Bourdieu’s Distinction, and illustrates why the idea of determinative, internalized taste patterns can’t be applied to a country with vast geographic mobility, decentralized cultural and educational structures, cities like New York and LA which give the opportunity to immerse in and learn a new habitus, which consciously tell you that this is your opportunity to leave pieces of that old one behind, and a national ethos that cheerfully if inaccurately says that, with enough elbow grease, you can remake yourself as something entirely different (Hello, Don Draper?). For Bourdieu the mental and the material are co-constitutive — and America has a very different mentality than France.

A little etymology never hurts. According to the OED, the word hipster first appeared in 1941, meaning “a know-it-all.” In the 1967 the medical journal Lancet claimed that the hipster movement “seemed to be an outright rejection of accepted standards and values.” This rejection of standards and values, of the norms of one’s social arena or one’s own habitus, still seems at least superficially important to hipsters today. So does the “know-it-all” status — it’s part of the hipster mystique: “How many hipsters does it take to change a lightbulb? It’s a really obscure number, you probably haven’t heard of it.”

Which gets us back to why hipster identifications can be so fractious. I really haven’t thought too long and hard about this, but the term connotes a lack of seriousness, dirtiness, bed-bugness, “posing” (can we bring back that great ’90s term, ‘poser,’ please?), self-absorption, insufferable know-it-all-ness, and I mean have you seen them? But “hipster” is broad and vague enough a category, yet one that is based on a recognizable appearance, location, and culture, that many bright young neurotic things have been given to wonder from time to time: “Am I that name?”


Written by Kristen Loveland

November 15, 2010 at 23:25

6 Responses

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  1. So, back to Keith Richards, he then must be a hipster.


    November 15, 2010 at 23:56

  2. I’m not trying to be a dick here, but my issue with the whole hipster hating thing is: even if this thing The Hipster really exists, of all things to care about…like (david foster wallace!) why bother? In other words, complaints about seem petty. The guy in your picture…who cares? What would you rather him be doing? Is he worse than a suit in manhattan? Can he do the things he does and listen to the music he likes and go to dive bars, would that all be OK if he dressed like you? Or, could he dress like you, and be a PhD student at an Ivy League school and then be OK? Whenever I see or hear people complain about this Hipster creature, there’s usually this underlying sense of insecurity (by the accuser), like (david foster wallace!) do you see this Hipster and – suddenly – discover your opportunity to shit on?


    November 16, 2010 at 01:22

    • I think you’re presuming that I’m hating on some sort of “hipster creature” in a way I don’t see myself doing in this post (perhaps I should have put quotes around “hipster” throughout, but I’m lazy). The reference is admittedly a bit below the belt, since the website has pictures of real live “hipster” people, and rather flippant, so apologies if that offended. But I only list a bunch of negative stereotypes at the end to try to indicate certain connotations I think are embedded in our contemporary idea of “hipster,” — not necessarily characteristics of hipsters (whoever they may be) themselves — which might help us understand why people who might be perceived as hipsters play hot potato with the term (which is the whole question behind Greif’s essay, which initially sparked this post), not to trod an imagined class of people into the dirt.

      Let’s see, I’m not convinced that this “Hipster creature” actually exists either, except in a certain cultural mind as a useful reference point for a whole bunch of practices and ideas that get bunched under that label. I’m not sure why you see me as “shitting” all over even the idea of hipsterness. I may not have been stone cold serious about them at all points, but I think mostly I’ve shitted over Levy, obviously Palin (and I’m sorry, but that’s a given), and, really, the brunt of my critique is implicitly for a French educational system and mentality that defines and constrains one’s social position way too concretely and much too early in life. This may surprise you, but I find a culture in which one’s upbringing in theory isn’t supposed to constrain one’s future (an idea that the hipster embodies in some ways), and in which patterns of taste are decentralized and non-hierarchical to be a positive good. When I brought up hipsters in class, it was as an example of something that throws a wrench in a theory that I think takes a rather dark view of society and social movement. Though I don’t think the American dream always materializes, I like the idea of it.

      But maybe these perspectives would have been much more apparent if I had begun, like a good Ivy League snob ought, with some sort of philosophical statement about who my favorite philosophers are and how I value human becoming over being. Or perhaps I should have admitted that, having moved to New York at age 18, I obviously had to come to terms with my relative lack of hipness—let insecurities abound and rear their ugly head 9 years later! I can’t even tell you what working for two years near a bunch of modeling agencies around Union Square did to my psyche, but I’ll save shitting all over models for a future post. Bourdieu would definitely encourage you to sociologize even psychoanalyze the author of this post, though he might also encourage you to get more information and sources first. To help you out, I really adore dive bars, have certain overlaps with hipster music taste (though always seem to be four years behind the crowd), and despite my predilection for long tweed skirts, fitted blazers, broaches, and poofy hair (as befits a Cambridge lady scholar), I really like fashion and what it can do to challenge social expectations, especially for women. I may think American Apparel leotards make too many people look like aliens, but that’s a personal bias. Also there is no question in my mind that a manhattan suit is infinitely worse than a brooklyn hipster.

      For the record, I also think that “hipster” picture is a “she” not a “he,” but that’s just one more feather in hipsterdom’s cap for its willingness to play around with gender norms. Is s/he actually a hipster? Your average New Yorker would identify hir as such; s/he might not. It’s hard to say. These categories—such funny things.


      November 16, 2010 at 02:59

  3. I am nitpicking here, but Jamaica Plain has gone the way of the “yipsters” – hipsters who have aged into yuppies but wil not admit it.

    And a benefit of living in a hipster-filled area (which I currently don’t) is excellent radio stations. Clearly this is more of a correlation than a causation, but it is a benefit nonetheless.


    November 16, 2010 at 04:22

  4. Great post, especially for the points about the differing sociological contexts for struggles over cultural capital in the US and in France (let alone in 1960s France vs contemporary America)! When I taught Bourdieu in section for Judith’s course in ’08, I tried to energize the students by comparing “Distinction”‘s insights to how pop sociology about red-state vs blue-state culture has functioned in the US.

    Greif’s New York magazine essay is interesting because it departs from Bourdieu as such (structuralist arguments) and, in its substantive interpretation about the 2000-2008 ‘homo hipsterus’, makes a highly psychological argument about what the actual tastes-patterns of hipsters (the succession of trends from twee to suburban juvenalia to primitivist motifs) reveal about their consciousness and desires, and their relationship to consumer capitalism.


    November 16, 2010 at 11:40

  5. […] we’ve been considering the hipster here at PhD Octopus, I thought it might be fitting to analyze the interesting case of Brooklyn-based rap […]

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