Hipsters. Are you annoyed yet? I’m aware this word generally brings a flurry of scorn. But, please, bear with me. We’re going to revisit the case of the hipster one last time — well, hopefully.
n + 1, a semiannual politics, arts and culture journal in New York City, recently released a well-constructed “sociological investigation” of the hipster after its symposium, entitled “What was the Hipster,” left many questions unanswered.
The title itself is a point of contention. One only needs to walk a few blocks through certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn to glimpse the hobo-chic uniforms that prove this group is alive and well. Even in New Haven, drain pipe skinny jeans are a wardrobe staple. But are Yalies even hipsters? Are the non-homeless hobos of Brooklyn hipsters anymore? Oh, I digress.
We might still be in the midst of hipsterdom, but in these post-Bush years, things have certainly changed since hipsters rose to prominence at the close of the 20th century.
The book opens with remarks from n + 1 editor Mark Greif ’04 GRD ’07, who cites 1999 as the fateful year the subculture (that’s not really a subculture) began. Remember trucker hats and “wife beaters”? I recall wearing one at the tender age of 12, though I’m not sure if I wore it ironically (I still try to give myself the benefit of the doubt).
While the book’s title may be controversial, it still poses a valid question: how do we define a hipster, and what exactly is the hipster’s social relevance? Greif offers three definitions: (1) “the white hipster” who hit the Lower East Side scene in 1999 donning aviators and a “porno” mustache, (2) the Dave Eggers/Wes Anderson hipster whose work revolves around the tension between childhood naïveté and adulthood, and (3) the “hip consumer” who never creates his own art, but raises consumption itself to an art form.
Though these diverse interpretations of the hipster leave much unsaid, it would be impossible to define the hipster in narrower terms, as hipsters have never failed to reinvent themselves over the past decade.
Greif follows his hipster sketch with a transcript of the symposium itself, which ironically (?) takes place at the New School, in which a variety of writers weigh in on the debate. As one might expect, the discussion never quite gets anywhere. At one point, Christian Lorentzen of the New York Observer rejects a hipster culture entirely: “The truth was that there was no culture worth speaking of, and the people called hipsters just happened to be young, and more often than not, funny-looking.”
The rest of this small book is dedicated to responses and essays, which cover an array of topics, including hip-hop as a foil to hipsterdom, feminine identity in hipster enclaves, and the “douchebag” as the hipster other. All are essential to n + 1’s investigation, and each offers an enlightening analysis of a facet of the culture in which we live.
But, why should we even care? We use the word “hipster” so often it’s become relatively meaningless (it was even banned from this section of the newspaper, at least for a time). In the end, while “What was the Hipster” fails to come to a consensus as to what the hipster actually was (or is), it succeeds in putting meaning back into the word in its variant and competing visions of the meaning of modern culture.
So, if you think you can stomach a few more mentions of the dirty h-word (and for this book, you should be able to), give “What Was the Hipster” a read. Don’t worry, no one will call you a hipster for just reading it.