Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, has served as his online home.

On Hipsters

I’ve been in the challenging position of having to describe what a hipster is more than once. Describing punk, goth, rave: piece of cake compared to hipster subculture. I’ve almost come to relish the conversational opportunity just to hone my verbal illustration skills. If you can describe a hipster, you can describe most any complex sociocultural phenomenon.

I loathe Adbusters, but I have to hand it to them for “”Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization“”: Sure, it’s up to their usual standards of doomy hysterics, but if you ignore the bit at the end it’s the best damn portrait of hipster culture I’ve yet seen.

What distinguishes hipsters for me is that they believe in nothing, but unconsciously so. It’s not nihilism, because nihilism is well-considered position. Hipsters are, to my mind, the first utterly apolitical, a-philosolphical subculture of the postwar era.

Even the slacker generation believed in, well, slacking: they valued an opposition to the competitive mindset of the preceding generation. That may be a shallow thing to value, but it provides the groundwork for some sort of political/cultural stance. Hipsters have no such political or philosophical foundation. I’d go on to argue that they lack even the cultural foundation to contribute meaningfully to the arts.

As a child, I observed the trends each year when I went to buy clothes for school: the ’60s were back, then the ’70s, then the ’80s. I wondered what would happen when the oroborus of retro-cultural appropriation finally consumed its tail. What’s left when every identifiable era has been mined to provide sigils and significance to a time without substance? Hipsters, I think are the answer.

Hipster music, art, and fashion is tapped from gnarled, post-postmodern roots. When hip-hop artists first appropriated the sampling techniques of the avant-garde Futurist movement for popular music, the result was deeply meaningful; in their borrowing, a message, a heritage, a narrative. When punk designers like Vivienne Westwood destroyed high street English fashions with rips and safety pins, a wearable criticism of class emerged. Layer remixes upon samples upon riffs upon outright theft, though, and nothing of substance remains. Hipster art is strictly for entertainment, valuing not even the purely aesthetic.

The question, though: does any of the above matter? Adbusters seems to think that because a portion of youth culture subscribes to this meaningless lifestyle that Western civilization as we know it is doomed. Their mistake is to assume that those who choose hipsterdom had the potential to be meaningful cultural contributors in the first place. If you’ll allow the analogy, hipsters are the thieves that would never be customers. If they valued anything in the first place, they wouldn’t have made the unconscious choice to value nothing.

Adbusters noted the signature peculiarity of hipster culture: hipsters refuse to identify as hipsters. They failed, however, to explain this phenomenon. The explanation is that hipsters are the mainstream, and the mainstream is incapable of identifying itself as such.

Nobody places the sort of political demands on mainstream culture that are placed on subcultures. The majority is too big, too lumbering, and too anonymous to politicize. Extract hipsters from the species of subculture and move them one higher in the cultural taxonomy. Their political burden is lifted.

Western civilization isn’t doomed because it’s never depended on the majority culture for forward progress. Progress emerges on the fringes and gradually impacts the majority. Hipsters will continue to be the young reflections of the dull majority culture and it doesn’t matter. Put your hope into that which hasn’t yet emerged.


Elsewhereblogging, Mid-July 2008 Edition