What was the Hipster?

For Mark Greif,one of the founding editors of the literary and political journal n+1, the modern-day hipster was rebornaround 1999. His dating accords with my own perception. During my senior yearat Vassar, before I became consciously aware of the name by which to designatethe trend, I wondered at why some of my smartest Caucasian friends spurnedhigh-gloss refinement, why they stoppedreading French theorists and started watching TV, forsook microbrews orGuinness in favor of cheap beers like Pabst Blue Ribbon, and began wearingtrucker hats. As a black guy, from a genuinely middle-class background, I wasmystified by these déclassé affectations.I remained in a muddle about all of this, after financial obligation sent meback to the predominantly black suburbs of northeastern Maryland wherestyles had remained more or less consistent with those that I’d known since highschool.

In 2005, I got an office job in Manhattan. Through a coworker I learned howto name the trend that I’d brushed up against intermittently, when I’d drop inon friends in Williamsburg. I can still recall her surprise that I wasunfamiliar with hipster accoutrements like Vice magazine or websitesthat posted party photos, such as the Cobra Snake. Aside from feeling removed from what was supposedly the vitalpresent, what struck me in talking to her was the hypocrisy she wore as lightly as a chiffon scarf when speaking contemptuouslyabout the hipsters of her Williamsburg neighborhoodor about the pretentiousness exhibited by some of the Vice editorialstaff, to whom she’dapplied for an internship. As ifall-knowing (the very definition of a hipster) she personified the lamebut telling quip, “What’s the easiest way for a hipster to offend anotherhipster? By calling him a hipster!”

There is a history to this sort of outsider-insiderexceptionalism. In his primordial incarnation, as memorably anatomized inAnatole Broyard’s 1948 essay for PartisanReview, “A Portrait of the Hipster” this dean of the streets wasassumed to be of African-American descent. Broyard—a Creole who in part madehis name by trading on his intimate familiarity with black culture, but passedhimself off as white—advanced the claim that the hipster sauntered out of the muckof institutionalized racism. The savvier-than-thou posturing, which became hiscalling card, was predicated on inverting the power structure that conspired tokeep blacks on the periphery of tony society. Philosophic legerdemain assistedhim in this feat; he concealed his ignorance by contriving to make others feeltheirs. In this way, the hipster charmed or chafed the squares around him withhis persona which radiated what Broyard refers to as a priorism: “[This quality] arose out of a desperate, unquenchableneed to know the score; it was a great projection, a primary self-preservingpostulate. It meant ‘it Is given to us to understand…’ Carrying his languageand his new philosophy like concealed weapons, the hipster set out to conquerthe world. He took his stand on the corner and began to direct human traffic.”

This patented cool—a supposed flower of his racialheritage—would not remain solely at his disposal for long. White kids wanted toaggrandize themselves, too. As Norman Mailer wrote in his controversial 1957essay for Dissent, “The WhiteNegro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” “there was a newbreed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking foraction with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed theexistentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could beconsidered a white Negro.” The assurance with which Mailer defines thelineaments of black identity, and suggests how easily it can be appropriated,should give one pause.

The aftermath of the civil rights and Vietnamera witnessed the rise of punk, which in turn spurred the emergence of ’80sindie culture. These countercultures flowed out of a rejection of what manyyoung people saw as an increasingly corporatized world. On the heels of thesemovements (which eventually became co-opted by the mainstream, as thedocumentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke attests), neighborhoods likeWilliamsburg in Brooklyn and Wicker Park in Chicago rose to prominence asplaces that were connected with bohemia and artists. But by the late ’90s theselocales seemed less identified with a community and more with attitude, primereal estate, or even the brands associated with them. Out of the nexus of theseevents the hipster regained his strut.

In the spring of 2009, the editorial board of n+1 convened a group of intellectuals todeliver papers and participate in a dialogue with an audience at the New Schoolin Manhattan. What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation presentsa record of these proceedings as well as responses and reflections occasionedby them. “For once,” Grief writes in his introduction, “here isanalysis of a cultural phenomenon not learned from TV, or pre-digested.”The book’s kaleidoscopic mapping of the (typically white) hipster, in his orher many guises (e.g., “the poison conduit” between the “rebelsubculture” and “the dominant class” or, in the case of thefemale hipster, one beholden to the photographic lens), feels so of-the-momentthat it may make you cringe at your online profile.

Returning to the subject of hypocrisy, one of the virtuesof the book is how the contributors inscribe themselves in the topic of investigation.Thus, with no small display of wit, Christian Lorentzen in his essay, “IWas Wrong,” confesses to having profited from “a massive fraud…[that] held that there were people called hipsters who followed a creed calledhipsterism and existed in a realm known as hipsterdom. The truth was that therewas no culture worth speaking of, and the people called hipsters just happenedto be young and, more often than not, funny-looking.” Or Rob Horning, whowrites:

Hipsters…reduce the particularity of anything you might becurious about or invested in into the same dreary common denominator of how ‘cool’it is perceived to be…. Thus hipsterism forces on us a sense of the burden ofidentity, of constantly having to curate it if only to avoid seeming like ahipster….We keep consuming more, and more cravenly, yet this always seems to usto be the hipster’s fault, not our own.

As with almost any book composed by various contributors,there is a range of quality in the offerings—sometimes within the piecesthemselves. Given the recurring motif, which runs throughout a number of thearticles, of the hipster as the beneficiary of gentrification, JeniferBaumgardner’s “Williamsburg: Year Zero” seems a tad redundant in itsevocation of the author’s ambivalence as a participant in, and observer of,gentrification. Yet it remains interesting inasmuch as it broaches the topic ofwhether all the fuss over stylish men in skinny jeans conceals a latenthomophobia.

One of the salient questions that linger in the mind afterone emerges from all of this self-reflection is whether, in the panoptic age ofthe Internet, a counterculture can thrive without corporate interference. I’llleave it to you to ponder this conundrum that apparently entraps us all.