Howl of a Reluctant Hipster
Maybe you’ve been accused; I was first accused in 2008. Denial was already a tired cliche of it before I’d ever heard the word. To be accused was to deny. You’re a hipster, my Californian friend roundly insisted as we settled down to board game and micro-brewed stouts in my London flat. I was studying cabinet-making and joinery in East London. I played accordion in a folk band and I had the moustache of a Tennessee small town cop from the seventies. The more I denied it the more I became one. I know nothing of style; I go nowhere cool; I get my clothes passed down from my ex. Protestations made me hipster.
Of course the word alienated me. When I became aware of all the photos and memes and things on Facebook I experienced an intense alienation: hipsters dragging their semi-portable record players into cafes; parking penny-farthing bicycles outside Apple stores; spending time in queue at the BMW service centre spinning wool with their very own portable wooden spinning wheel. Hipsterism seemed crass, narcissistic, juvenile.
Denial was futile. Hipsterism was whatever the drunk blogosphere said it was; it was defined by everyone who was not a hipster, especially when they really looked like hipsters. The worst thing I could do, certainly, would be to spend a great deal of time fixated on the question and so while I was doing my best to ignore whether I was or was not a hipster the incidentals of my life continued coinciding magnificently with it. I fell in love with a handsome and colourfully dressed fella who lived in a warehouse on Fish Island in Hackney Wick, a London community quickly losing its artists to gentrification (which had formerly lost its industry to artists.) He had just finished setting up a local organic food coop when we fell in love and decided to run away to Galiza to live on a mountain side and grow all of our own food.
Hipsterism was whatever the drunk blogosphere said it was; it was defined by everyone who was not a hipster, especially when they really looked like hipsters.
I didn’t run far enough. Like many modern memes, this one mutated quickly, generalised broadly and become yet more elusive and diffused. It’s here, in Galiza, of course. A very dear Galizan friend of mine loves to jab me in the ribs and call me a hipster. Whats more hipster than two London lads pretending to be woodsmen in the wild with our 1970’s style self-sufficient garden? And I still have the moustache.
But then he also calls Podemos, the new Spanish political party, hipster because, well, you can call anything hipster now. His generation was on the streets before the occupy movement, indignant, angry at a system that denied them a future and participation. And now that Podemos exists, the street activity has diminished; the activism has diminished; we’ve returned to the faith of a few saviours who will sweep in and build heaven on earth for us without our needing to lift a finger to help. All you need do is vote. Style over substance, the cultural and political regurgitation of yesteryear’s cheap political packages in hipster wrappings.
The less hipster means the more it seems determined to insinuate itself culturally. The Hipster just won’t go away. Even the blogs grows weary, desperately seeking to replace it, to be amongst the first to identify the next hipster. Is it the cutester or some other outrageously culturally authoritarian trendy namester. Not caring is what makes me a hipster. Or am I supposed to appear to not care, carefully cultivating my not caring image? Because I do care. Somewhere beneath the hyped up hyperbolic delirium obsessing over appearances lies the craving for authenticity that we are supposedly chasing and I do care about that. If the search for authenticity becomes culturally linked with hipsterism which in turn becomes another generational trend then with the generational velocity ever increasing, that trend may quickly hurl over the horizon of our short attention spans.
And I care because I think that the stunted impulse for authenticity comes not as a package of trends but as an unarticulated and deeply buried instinct dormant in the breast of modern culture. Old school furniture making, pottery and leather working, these things aren’t pretentious, if well done.
What’s pretentious are the mountains of mass produced imitations pretending to be these things. Capitalism is pretentious. The products of capitalism are pretentious. Our economic system has wrapped us in paper packages full of lies to hush our awkward unquiet, our ancient hearts full of angst for something real. Boxes of chocolates depict gourmet hatted chefs with chocolate dripping off their fingers. Biscuits, bread, cereals, milk, cheese and just about everything on the supermarket shelves come wrapped in pastoral scenes of old-timey rolling fields boxed in by ancient hedgerows and stubby stone walls. We’re never shown the lines of factory workers backs bent over the lines of commodities, nor are we ever shown any of the industrial horrors that deliver us our daily milk, butter and cheese. The fundamental basis of our lives (how we eat, what we wear, the things we use) is so alien to us because if they did show us how our things were made we probably wouldn’t buy them. Capitalism survives on lies: paper printed lies.
Its enough to drive us all to hipsterism, weaving our own wool in queue. I care because I think the disconnect between our economy and our somewhat wild monkey natures gives birth to this craving for authenticity. But authenticity is, as an idea, as slippery as the best of them. Like wildness itself or justice or love, these rich ideas play around the edges of language. As with most elusive concepts it is much easier to define them by what they are not than by what they are. Inauthenticity is palpable and recognisable. Conformity with the pressure to adopt accepted modes of living; ignoring personal authentic moral and aesthetic objections for comfort and other forms of bad faith are the bogey men that pepper Sartrian existentialism; the philosophy that hand-held nicely the original hipsters Kerouac and Ginsberg who gave us, “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”. This frenetic screech for authenticity is passed down from the genetics of our existentialist fathers.
We inherited their strain of authenticity, the individualistic strain. If they’re our fathers then Nietzsche is our grandfather. Nietzsche dared us to transcend, individually, the absurd constrains of our social mores and achieve a stunning, superhuman, level of authenticity. Authenticity fused with the ego to make western culture megalomaniacal and only capable, once the cultural logic devolved through sufficient waves of postmodernism, of eating itself inside out.
Non conformism, as a philosophy, very quickly becomes a totalitarian parody just as grotesque as the multiplying number of websites detailing the hipster dress code and where each item can be purchased. By filling the ache for authenticity with individualism we’ve hurled ourselves into a cul-de-sac: a stunted and immature culture that idealises eternal immaturity and eternal irony. We’ll crawl into our graves intellectual babies. We’ll have no hipster sages, no hipster prophets; being far too weak to believe in them. We can’t make culture anymore. Cycling through endless regurgitations of past flashes of creativity seeking every higher, more eccentric, doses of authenticity in a culture which bleaches all true instances of meaningfulness. See how easy it is to slip into a critique of hipsterism? I’ve joined the vacuous barking bay of denunciator’s howling at the emptiness of the hipster night.
But the accusations are serious,
“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.”
It feels good doesn’t it? It feels terrifying. Are we really barren? Is there no hyperbole in the howl? If the hipster isn’t the end of western civilisation what comes after? Normcore. Normcore is a term coined by New York trend agency K-Hole. Apparently Normcore is a reaction against the commodification of individuality, stylistically it’s defined by simplicity. “‘Normcore doesn’t want the freedom to become someone. Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity that opts into sameness.” It’s a style guide; the latest trend.
Why does that make me want to puke? Have we polluted our language as profoundly as we’ve polluted our streams and air? As we wade through the waste words of self-consciousness clinging to our confused primordial bodies, we might very well wonder where we got lost. What can authenticity possibly mean in a world where trend agencies like K-hole and The Future Laboratory spew their descriptions all over our nakedness? Once you’ve opened your eyes you may long for the darkness but you’ll never close them again. Post-modernism can’t be crammed back into the box.
So in a world where all the meta-narratives are dead or dying, where the big belief systems, the idealisms, the hopes and utopias and preachers all just play about the fringes of the zeitgeist, in the world where the hipster is god, and the trend agency, prophet, how do we go about making good things, including ourselves and our personal relations, once again? Authenticity, how?
The hipster was born with its own critique as a conjoined twin. Yes, hipsterism reeks of arrogance, egoism and affluenza. Hipsterism, like many subcultures, is a highly homogenous non-conformism. Yes it has given birth to massive new commodifiable trends and market spaces. The critiques are apt but extant; I don’t need to join the chorus. Beneath the noise, the chaos, the accusations and denials that is hipsterism a true note rings out. We crave authenticity. We know that the world is full of social injustice even if we’ve misplaced the idea of justice. We’ve lost the meaning of community, cooperation and humility and we don’t know how to find them again. We’re embarrassed by their earnestness, by their realness. Embarrassed by what we crave.
When I sit at out at night, embarrassed into silence by the thick blanket of stars painted above, lured into spell by owl’s call and the hypnotic crickets there is no wild, no civilisation, no authenticity, no cutester, no normcore and no hipster. Ideas melt in the face of this; which is not to say that this experience is any more or less real. My need to drink the silence comes from and is defined by my hipsterism, by my reactions, by my angst. If it weren’t for that I’d just be another ape staring dumbly into darkness.
The problem began with our cultural forefathers. Nietzche declared the death of God in a fit of earnest transcendence and then promptly laid the egg to the death of earnestness. Perhaps we should have had foremothers instead of forefathers. Perhaps we sought too much authenticity in individuality forgetting that one person alone is an inauthentic abstraction relevant only to psychopaths. Perhaps there is something that the trend agencies don’t understand. What gave birth to hipsterism is complicated. You can take away the passing fashions, retro facial hair shapes, beer cans curled up in beards, you can take that all away, let cutesters and norm-core and wave after wave of trends come faster and faster. Let it all come and go. Beneath it all; we’ll still feel a structural cultural emptiness. We’ll still crave authenticity.
There is no shortcut to the authentic; no social trend, no style, no commodity nor meme arrives to it. If you insist on calling me hipster then it boils down to a project unspeakably huge: nothing less than the total reconstruction of meaningful culture. Forget the retro, the fetishisation of poor beers, the fetishisation of arts and crafts, these things are not the substance of hipsterism; they are the symptoms, the signs of deeper discontent. Our cultural groundwater has become polluted and so we must become like diggers, notching our pick axes deeper into the loam; following the whiff of a vein that we may crack open; pawing over the earth for signs of bubbles from below; seeking the ancient reservoirs that lie silent far far below the shallow pools of zeitgeist. We must drink from the very bowels of the earth and get drunk on what we find. In Humility and earnestness, we may rediscover what it is to make real things once again: profound things, pure non-egoist, non-commidifiable culture. It would not be easy; we would have to give up our lazy ways because such a project would require extreme discipline, self-criticism and personal renunciation, but for just a glimpse of something real once more, it would be worth it. It would be a new re-emboldening of our imaginations, ourselves, our politics and our world and we would be no more nor less than the angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
This article was first published in Unpsychology Magazine July 2015