I had been meaning to read Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization on Adbusters all weekend, but only just finished it. The article points to the rise of the hipster and, therefore, the end of the counter culture. If you haven’t read it, I HIGHLY recommend the article (and the additional comments). It was one of the funniest, yet most tragic, things I’ve read all month. The closing paragraph sums up the article well:
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.
While hipsters aren’t exactly a unique phenomenon, being part of our rich tradition of commodified counter cultures, I am tempted to think that hipsters are, perhaps, the mostly highly evolved form of pseudo radical.
What, pray tell, is a “hipster?”
There isn’t an authoritative defintion for “hipster.” But most sources tend to agree with this basic defintion (as found on wikipedia):
…young, well-educated urban middle class and upper class adults with leftist and/or liberal social and political views and interests in a non-mainstream fashion and cultural aesthetics. Actually defining what a hipster is can be a difficult task considering the idea that hipsters are thought to exist as a “mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior[s].” Nonetheless hipsters are often associated with non-mainstream music and film and other products such as second-hand and or vintage clothing. But there are many different hipster scenes throughout the world and some incorporate influences that others might not. Hipster identity is generally always in flux.
Under the guise of “irony,” hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity. Those 18-to-34-year-olds called hipsters have defanged, skinned and consumed the fringe movements of the postwar era—Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge. Hungry for more, and sick with the anxiety of influence, they feed as well from the trough of the uncool, turning white trash chic, and gouging the husks of long-expired subcultures—vaudeville, burlesque, cowboys and pirates…these aesthetics are assimilated—cannibalized—into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod.
It doesn’t take much imagination to notice the strong hipsterist vein among emerging church and new monastic circles.
Hipsters, Punk Monks, And Pseudo-Alterity
Earlier this summer, when I was at PAPA fest, I was confronted with a profound sense of cognitive dissonance. You see, I came of age in the mid 90s. The commodification of the counter-culture was well under way, but it could hardly be called mainstream yet. Because of this, most of the “alternative” folks that I knew were social outcasts, or at least were socially akward. Like me. To put it indelicately, most of the counter cultural types I knew weren’t academic enough to be nerds, weren’t athletic enough to be jocks, and weren’t attractive enough to be popular. The counter cultural types tended to hang out together with all the other lower-order social groupings. And since I was unpopular (in fact, one poll that the girls did in junior high put me as the 3rd from the bottom in the social pecking order).
So, my brain was confounded by what I saw at PAPA Fest. Most of the 20 something crowd was attractive. There were young men aplenty with chiseled, shirtless, chest throwing footballs in a perfect spiral to other young men with similarly perfectly chiseled chests. In fact, if it weren’t for their dreads, I would swear that they were jocks.
And the women were similarly attractive…and, for the most part, cutely dressed. In my day, counter cultural women dressed in defiance to popular expectations of what constitutes femininity. These young women, in contrast, seemed, for the most part, to be wearing clothing that accentuated the female form.
I’m not saying that everyone at PAPA Fest was young and attractive. Or am I saying that everyone there were poseurs. I’m not sure I would even say that anyone there was a poseur. But when socially mainstream (or even socially popular) people are begining to connect with events that, a generation ago, would have been populated with social outcasts, we should pause to reflect the social dynamics at play.
It would be easy to dismiss my observations as the jealous musings of a once-unpopular chubby 32 year old. It would be easy, because I’m convinced that my inner junior higher is coming out as I write this article. My primary goal in writing this, however, isn’t to condemn PAPA Fest attendees for being too attractive. Rather, it is to demonstrate that subversiveness and counter-culturality is no longer a provocative choice.
One way of understanding this phenomenon is to be happily excited that so many young people are beginning to join arms in solidarity with social outcasts, with the poor, and the downtrodden. We should be excited about the growing number of radicals are rising up to challenge the status quo.
Another way of understanding this phenomenon is to be a little concerned at how easy it is for young people to take up pseudo alterity.
Alterity is the quality of being an “other.” Pseudo alterity is what happens when someone tries to “other” themselves in a way that isn’t real. It is what happens when someone claims the status of “other” for one’s self as they, for example, attempt to acheive solidarity with a marginalized group in a way that is superficial or trite or inauthentic. Another way that pseudo alterity happens is when someone considers themselves to be “othered” by the dominant group when, in reality, they are still members of the dominant group.
Members of a majority or dominant group may (perhaps) achieve alterity by being ostracized as a subversive or deviant. However, we live in a culture where it is easy for mainstream twenty-somethings (and younger) to embrace the style of subversion. And because they speak a certain lingo, wear certain clothes, and use certain products, it is socially understood that these stylish subversives care about social outcasts, the poor, and the downtrodden, even if no tangible evidence exists of that care. In other words: it is great when people begin to challenge the status quo as they pursue justice and mercy, but how excited should we be when it is very easy in our society to look, sound, and act radical without it costing anything?
Even more, what happens when hipsterism gets so tied into consumer capitalism (you know: Messenger Bags, Hot Topic, Ipod, Apple, Moleskine, American Apparel…) that you become a radical in appearance, but a profound reinforcer of the status quo in your way of life?
I’ve gotta wonder, how much of the current radical turn is simply hipsterism? How much is an actual flesh-and-blood movement away from an unsustainable, soul-toxic way of life into a more hopeful way of life grounded on simplicity and the tangible fostering of a creative alternative? Is there any way to separate the two?
No. I’m convinced that the line between radical and hipster is harder to discern than I would like. Futhermore, it is hard to determine, even in my own self, just where I land in the spectrum between radical and hipster.
Besides, figuring out who is a hipster and who is not isn’t a helpful exercise. Rather, our energy should be focused on how we can resist the tendency towards pseudo alterity in our own hearts as we create a meaningful, flesh-and-blood, alternative to the snazzy consumer capitalist Empire that so quickly permeates our imaginations.
Mark Van Steenwyk is a co-founder of the Mennonite Worker (an intentional community in Minneapolis). Mark is a writer, speaker, and grassroots educator working with radical Christian communities around North America. He is one of the facilitators of JesusRadicals.com and co-host/producer of the Iconocast podcast. Mark has contributed to several books, is the author of That Holy Anarchist and the unKingdom of God. He likes building pirate ships out of cardboard with is four year old son, cooking whatever strikes his fancy, and singing karaoke (badly).