Image credit: Flickr user QXZ

A Self-Conscious Scene

by Leah Rosenzweig

It is about 11:30 p.m. and I have mistakenly revealed my fascination with existentialist philosophy. I immediately stare into my drink. My blurred reflection reveals one eyebrow and a semi-shiny eyelid masked with a greenish film. PowerAde on the rocks. The figure before me is male, about six foot, and lanky. He sports a saggy maroon beanie and an expensive olive utility jacket. He begins, his voice purposefully sounding sedated,

“You like existentialism? Cool.”

“Yes, it is.” I gaze to a far corner of the room.

“Awesome. Like Camus . . . dude’s the shit.”

“I guess so.”

“Yeah . . . you know, Sisyphus? Crazy shit—”

Suddenly he turns—caught by a friend’s beckon. His dissertation on The Myth of Sisyphus would sadly, I believe, have amounted to something as meaningless and periphery as his beanie. Because, with my extensive experience basking in its presence, I’ve found that everything about the contemporary hipster amounts to just another borrowed signifier or identifier. The problem with hipsters today isn’t what they are so much as what they aren’t. They aren’t thinkers, nor are they individuals.

The beatniks of the ‘50s and ‘60s, were signified by ideology, thought, and literary zeal. The antiwar movement was alive. People read things in retaliation, said what they believed, and wore what they did because they were broke or simply liked it. The purity and practice of the original hipsters died with them and their memory remains only in clothing styles, empty references, and “that one time I read Ginsberg’s America in high school.” Idiosyncrasy has been put to bed—there is, really, no such thing any more; and in its place is the mass-marketed “counterculture.”

Like a page of Where’s Waldo, but it’s all Waldo, the hipster herd is a magnificent display of banal aestheticism—metaphorical murals that often assume the shape of a restaurant, bar, neighborhood, or even an entire city. Fashions represent large-scale identities, and identities are fashions. Face it: the beat died with the beats. The hipster is dead, and we are his murderers.

 ***

Image credit: Flickr user eastsidephil

Saturday, March 9, 2013. Le Bain, The Standard, High Line.

The meatpacking district does not live down to its name. Several windows display cowhide dress forms; some totally bare or even tipped over, others sporting taupe frocks with studded cowl necks, or large fringe circle scarves worn atop animal-spotted denim. The Standard, too, is oxymoronic in name. From its entrance, I note that the corridor is lit in sepia. The building itself is a characteristic byproduct of modern architecture. Its eastern wall straddles the High Line Park. A living testament of recycled genius, the High Line is essentially an aerial greenway constructed to preserve the century-old railway. It is urban greening at its finest, but in the summer months, when the West Side becomes an amplification of year-round Manhattan squalor, it is like Le Bain at the Standard Hotel.

I first notice the men. I say this because, as a woman guilty of measuring myself to the smells, curls, waistlines, and posh of other women, I am not typically attuned to men when anywhere. But here the men are extraordinary. They give more kisses than my dog. They come in two dispositions. One is revved-up, chattery, pocket-scarfed and jacketed. The other is dark, small-eyed, hands-in-pockets, ear-ringed, dead-beat and windowed with bold glasses frames. Inwardly, though, they do not seem to lack many similarities. They all eye me, as we staggeringly join one another on a baseboard-lit elevator. The lighting is ideal: dark as hell, so everyone looks sexy, if visible at all. The women are taller than me and it is perhaps the single moment of my semi-adult life that I am most aware of my own height.

I am accompanied by a friend, who we’ll call Stef. To ensure that our transfer from sepia corridor to 18th floor is nothing short of expedient, she has enlisted the company of her friend, who we’ll call Ramón. His hair is combed over and visibly moussed into a perfectly side-swept, coiffed creation. His crisp and skin-tight clothing emits stale fumes of vodka and marijuana. Ramón zigzags through hordes of women clad in black and animal fur, fingers, knuckles, and cartilage decked and pierced with gemstones and other platinum or brass-colored obscenities. As we enter the room adjacent to Le Bain’s main vortex of drink, dance, and revelry, Ramón begins kissing cheeks and greeting public relations types with sing-songy darlings and dears. This new room, formally known as the Boom Boom Room, brims with swanky cocktail servers in white tuxedos and crisp gowns.

The bar is like a Roman bath, a gold-walled oval implanted in the floor. Flanked by crackly gold columns and embellished with an ivory marble backsplash, it is a fermented tub fit for Caesar. I suddenly realize that someone is buying us a round. I am shaking hands with French girls, French guys, someone named Ivan. Meanwhile, I am handed a translucent lime-colored beverage, a far cry from the smooth, un-iced ochre I prefer. Ramón pulls Ivan into him, his arms wrapping round the front of Ivan’s waist. Sticking his hands into Ivan’s pockets, Ramón snickers. It is the hour of unbridled laughter. Women and men alike are laughing all around me. These laughs are accompanied by empty gestures, mindless hair twirls, and “I’ll have another Tanqueray and Tonic”s.

My self-confidence has plummeted and I am beginning to wonder whether my inability to sway my hips and swirl my tumbler about in mid-air is marking me incapable of living the Dionysian. What am I doing wrong? It dawns on me then, with an overwhelming sense of metanoia. The tyranny of self-awareness is too evident in situations like this. I am myself far too self-conscious, even as I am acutely and frighteningly in tune with the self-conscious tendency of those around me. What am I doing here,or anywhere if I can’t seem to make myself fit?

Perhaps half a century ago, when mainstream society was a force to be reckoned with—when good little soldiers “pinned” their gals and spun them around down at the town rec center and no one thought about why—people really did reckon with it; they really said no to it, and they became the counterculture. Now, the dominant “counterculture” resonates with about as much authenticity as Bob Dylan’s shades or Ginsberg’s suspenders, divorced from the men who turned these objects into icons. And here I am, thinking about it, and somehow that too feels out of place. What is presented now as “counter” or not the norm now involves submission to a Nietzschean “slave morality,” a moral blueprint that requires denying one’s own free, individual will and submitting to the scene.

At the bar, I am totally enveloped in the celebrity-seeking agendas of my company, most of whom I do not know. This does it for me. The babbling chorus has completely unraveled and I am actually thinking about things now—thoughts I cannot abate . . .

***

In a standstill moment of total situational rebirth, my inner loathing of all around me is vindicated. Something is wrong with this Instagram™-filtered sea. Then again, a sea is more forgiving to diversity. Here, I feel like a salmon, trapped in a school of trout. Moreover, here at Le Bain, diversity is muffled not only within the group, but even within the person. For instance, let’s take the girl beside me with the Rosie the Riveter bandana, chunky cat-face sweater and ripped nylons, raving about how she spent her first six months out of college following a band called Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head* from Seattle to Audubon. The self-conscious scene of contemporary hipsterdom dictates a very one-dimensional profile by which she must abide.

I would bet she’s an atheist (a clairvoyant at best), her rusted (and she likes it that way) vintage Volkswagen Rabbit is stamped with the Human Rights Campaign logo and SUPPORT LOCAL FARMS, she has 26 canvas tote bags for grocery-stowing purposes, she lives in an old bungalow in Williamsburg which she shares with a watercolorist and a couple who conducts in-home sex therapy and sells pickled things at the Sunday farmers’ market, and her favorite film is Wet Hot American Summer. When you pay the membership fee, you receive the starter package, or perhaps, the starter package receives you—that’s contemporary hipsterism. As I stand atop the covered ‘70s style cruise ship swimming pool, I feel, more than ever, a strong connection to my literary brother Sal Paradise. We are two tramps under the same night sky, crying for our brothers and sisters:

Somebody had tipped the American continent like a pinball machine and all the goofballs had come rolling to LA in the southwest corner. I cried for all of us. There was no end to the American sadness and the American madness. Someday we’ll all start laughing and roll on the ground when we realize how funny it’s been.

Except I wasn’t laughing—not yet. My eyes welled with tears as I stood, back to a wall, trying not to incur platform shoe-induced contusions to the feet. But before a single tear could break loose, I was released. We were going.

Le Bain taught me everything about social class I never wished to learn. The dustiest and most decrepit corners of this metaphysical world opened up to me, but I was too small to complete the remodeling job myself. If this was what the ‘50s and ‘60s intellectual rebel—the questioner, the writer, the creator—had become, then what really was the sociology of the contemporary hipster if the new homogenous herds assumed the old name and trashed the meaning? They are like the mannequins: identical; naked, yet festooned with gaudy signifiers. This is why I retreated. I cried for all of us.

***

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

Kerouac’s post-war literary dominance stood as a totem for counter-culture. To create a culture in retaliation to war was a raw representation of disciplined harmonization of life with one’s individual will. Kerouac’s hipster was a far cry from today’s Dionysian herd of the same name. In an interview on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show in 1959, a mere two years after the publication of the Beat Generation’s Holy Bible, On the Road, Kerouac is asked by the goofy-eyed, hook-nosed, piano-playing Plymouth, “How would you define the word beat.” Kerouac is quick to reply, but rather than providing a definition, he reads from his holy novel. And, aside from Plymouth’s wildly incongruous swanky cocktail parlor-esque accompaniment, it is beautiful. He reads with vigor, then comments, “Anyways I wrote this book because we’re all gonna die.” It is a curious statement, loaded with purpose.

***

In a 1968 episode of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, a drunken Jack Kerouac discusses the hipster and the post-beat insurgence of pre-apocalyptic art, writing, and music. Buckley (who, it must be acknowledged, is sporting a seersucker suit jacket) opens the episode with jolly raillery:

“The topic tonight is the hippies—an understanding of whom we must, I guess, acquire or die painfully.”

When first introduced, Kerouac is sweaty, evidently drunk, and smoking a cigar in drawn-out inhales, followed by frantic, yet erudite puffs. It is at first a sad scene, like the fallen Christ. He is a goddamn mess, but still, a goddamn mess that is not afraid to state beliefs and take sides, even if those sides seem to contradict or fail to align with a particular prototype. He blurs his brilliance with infantile displays as he verbally flips-off his intellectual counterparts, Ph.D. and author of The Hippie Trip Yablonsky, and artist and pacifist Sanders, by correcting their pronunciation of foreign words and emitting a disruptive slew of moans and “Hah’s!” Yet, drunk as he may be, Kerouac exudes brilliance amid hiccups and facial twangs.

buckley-cigar_02Buckley: Now Jack—Mr. Kerouac—to what extent do you believe that the Beat Generation is related to the hippies? What do they have in common? Was this a revolution from one to the other?

Kerouac: It’s just the older ones. See I’m 46. These kids are 18. But see, it’s the same movement, which was apparently some kind of Dionysian movement in late civilization and which I did not intend any more than I suppose Dionysius did, or whatever his name was.

Although the last two minutes of the episode are almost solely devoted to Sanders’ vehement profession of the hippie’s inclination toward non-violent forms of protest in a war-immersed society, it is Kerouac who gets the last word. Quoting the Bible. Kerouac, was, self-professedly, a devout Catholic. As described by fellow Beat Generation originator, Allen Ginsberg, he was “a very unique cat—a French Canadian Hinayana Buddhist Beat Catholic savant.” Kerouac, like many original beats, was a wild, motley mix of ideologies. His identity was not handed to him, there was no Wikipedia page outlining his habits or institutionalized behaviors, nothing really was institutionalized. He just was. At the close of the interview, Kerouac turns to Sanders, eyes three-quarters of the way closed and mouth perfectly puckered and rounded, aping unbeautiful Lowellian semantics: “Beware of false prophets who come unto you dressed in sheep’s clothing, but underneath, they are ravening wolves.” It is a wild, uncontained display, but a great one, nonetheless.

***

Now Ginsberg, who called Kerouac “a unique cat,” also exuded idiosyncrasy. Though like Kerouac he was not always a charmer either in or out of the limelight, he assumed a multi-faceted identity that seems to be exactly what’s been lost among contemporary hipsters. In a 1994 interview with BBC, Ginsberg stops the interviewer to correct his opening inquiry: “Now, the beard and the hair are trimmed, you wear a suit, a collar, and a tie, but is the REAL Allen Ginsberg still in there?” (Note: “realness” is presumed to be something that can be lost through a simple change in grooming and dress). Ginsberg, unperturbed, interjects:

Though, I’m a Buddhist and I think the Buddists would say there is no real, permanent self. In any case, there are many appearances of self, so I am certainly a Beat poet, and I’m certainly Jewish, and I’m certainly gay, and I’m certainly Jewish, and I’m certainly a meditator, and I suppose a part of the counter-culture in America which is now under attack by the neo-conservative, theo-political televangelists . . . So, I don’t know if there is a real Allen Ginsberg.

The hipster Ginsberg posits, then, is one whose most revolutionary feat was the reshaping of identity. The mass movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s did not invent nor market the countercultural identity of the beats. The mass movement was in place as a comfort zone, an antinomian framework which enabled young, confused, questioning men and women to learn, be, and create whatever the hell they wanted in whatever way they wanted.

Kerouac’s hipster, his beat movement-er, had faith, a strong political opinion that wasn’t tied to anything mainstream, and was always aching to lend an ear or a word to a any such riveting, thoughtful conversation. The bars were a place for drinking, yes, but they were also for the intellect—a place to exchange ideas and theories. And people wrote. Yes, in On the Road and The Dharma Bums, it is difficult not to notice all the writing that happens. It was admirable and talked about; it was more than a fad. But now, even if our ideas and our styles feel and seem to ourselves to be wholly invented, we must fear that they will soon appear in Cosmopolitan or on that postmodernism readers message board—right there, yes, we know the word: TREND. In Rob Horning’s acclaimed 2009 Pop Matters blog post, “The Death of the Hipster,” he writes:

In always pushing ourselves to repudiate hipsterism, we may drive ourselves to new ways to conceive of our identity—but what good are these if these are always ripe for becoming the new modes of hipsterdom? . . . How do we stop running that race, stop worrying about the degree to which we are “hip,” the degree to which our treasured self-conceptions can be made into clichés against our will?

***

Today’s hipsters are the wolves in sheep’s clothes, no doubt. Or rather, vegan clothes—but they are certainly wearing clothes nonetheless. And oh, the clothes!

Urban Dictionary’s definition of the modern hipster is a characteristic representation of customary hipster dress, where to find a hipster on a map, and social conformity to hipster norms. A condensed version of the panoply of definitions on the site would look like this:

  • A composite of individuals with a certain bohemian life situation and lifestyle.
  • Lives in a young, artsy neighborhood of a major city such as Wicker Park in Chicago, Greenwich Village in Manhattan, or Williamsburg in Brooklyn. [ . . . ]
  • Favorite band is likely Bright Eyes, The Arcade Fire, The Arctic Monkeys, The Libertines, The Strokes, or something of that nature.
  • Watches independent and foreign films and reads independent books, magazines, and periodicals.
  • Dresses in progressive yet retro fashion that is often changing.
  • Eats chic ethnic food and prefers organic and Fair Trade fruits and vegetables.
  • Favorite beer is Pabst Blue Ribbon.

One must understand that intellect rarely factors into these remarkably superficial definitions One must also understand, at a very existential level, that this is a definition: a remarkably un-beat mechanism; a marketed identity. Club-going, Nylon-reading hipsters are ravenous wolves. Like many of those who surrounded me at Le Bain, they stand for chunky sweaters, beer labels, and neighborhoods. They are also the reason why my own chunky sweaters and love of local produce falls under suspicion, making it necessary for me to apologize for my tastes. And though they may be spotted reading an old battered copy of The Dharma Bums, they are not Kerouacian beats. No, they are the herd.

I can’t help but ask myself when this paradigm shift occurred; when counterculture became trendy. What began as a rough-and-tough rebuttal to pastel-painted kitchens, Kenmore appliances, and Joe Shmoe mercenaries has become an unsubstantiated façade. The hipsters of today go to Le Bain. They do their best to appear as floral-printed paupers. What is wrong with this? Well, it’s plainly written right here: THEY DO THEIR BEST. Doing one’s best and breaking a buck—bending over backwards—to appear as a hitchhiking, reclusive poet is an inherently flawed act. Hitchhiking Sal Paradise wore the same shoes till the soles fells out. His patchy jacket withstood exhaust smoke and booze stains. It was not bought that way. He did not “do his best” to look, to act.

The herd is a transcontinental mass movement. Individuals everywhere are sporting ripped, stained, tribal-looking, baggy, hooded uniforms. Everywhere there are club-goers who, like schoolgirls, turn to their neighbor, marking their straggly hair, suspendered satin trousers and tousled chemises. Does it ever dawn on them that they are facing their own mirror image—the image of the American boy or girl whose compass is always pointing toward regularity? At Le Bain, all the pretty kids stand, swaying, in a shameful sort of homeostasis.

This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.
Jack Kerouac


* This is a real band.

3 thoughts on “A Self-Conscious Scene”

  1. Always interesting to see someone on a conservative web site deride stasis, homeo or any other kind.

    The problem with hipsters is that a hipster can be your average Mumford fan in a flannel button-down, or the sort of person who quotes Derrida and Foucault; it can mean a person who’s interested in a meticulously curated self-experience or someone who’s interested in letting everyone know that their self-experience is meticulously curated. The Mumford fan is, undoubtedly, convinced that his or her self-curation is just as meticulous as our deconstructionist friend. “[A] certain bohemian life situation and lifestyle” is surely not a useful definition.

    Which is why I’m not sure it’s useful to talk about hipsters as such, especially as they move up the Hudson, into (slightly more tasteful, they think) suburban oblivion.

    As for the ‘when did the counterculture become the culture’ thing, “The Year Punk Broke” is always an interesting watch. And Greil Marcus has some interesting ideas. Pop culture has always celebrated self-destructive artists and musicians, I think the hipster problem is that, as you suggest with Sal Paradise, they think that impulse and bourgeois, “creative economy” respectability aren’t mutually exclusive.

    All this to say, this is a beautiful piece.

  2. Sorry but I have to question your understanding of the subject you purport to dissect. For starters, about three or four different eras and social groups get mixed up in this article. The people who hang out at the High Line aren’t hipsters. They’re paparazzi/euro/dance types, just about the polar opposite. 1950s beat poets may crop up once in a while in college courses, but they have little relation to the current music or art scene in Bushwick/LA/Berlin; even less does the hippie movement have relevance–it’s way too anti-establishment for these people. Also, the bands you mention: come on. Arcade Fire? Mumford & Sons? These are national names.

    What makes the contemporary “hipster” phenomenon interesting is that it is in many ways the *antithesis* of the 20th century counterculture you decry. These people, beneath their snark, are in fact deadly serious about certain things. They realize rebellion is played out, and in a weird way they seek a new permanence and “conservatism.” How do you explain the emphasis on reclaiming traditions and “heritage,” living less ostentatiously than their Boomer parents, and the general localism? Is it all an affectation or is there some real reason this is appealing to young people right now? But instead of asking actually interesting questions you just went for the obvious references and cheap charge of conformity.

  3. I am well aware of how the High Line functions generally and who it appeals to on a mass scale, but I chose to draw out simply snippets of my evening there that allowed for a swift critique of essentially rich kids who dress and act like they’re slumming their way through life like starving artists, when in fact they receive rent checks from mom and dad each month.
    Also, not sure whey you bring up these bands since I chose not to touch any of today’s music in my essay, apart from the obscure ‘Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head.’

    Lastly, I find your charges well and good and fit for a piece that trails away a bit from mine. I merely hoped to begin conversation surrounding the idea of counterculture brimming to a point of dominant culture. Frankly, I wonder if we’ll ever again have literature dedicated to a refusal of the status quo. We’ve taken a term and an outfitting that dressed post-war liberalism and put Buddy Holly glasses on it. I sincerely don’t care if social groups are mixed up in the midst of me drawing on my own perceptions of and interactions with various individuals in a single night club, but what I do care about is that people start to ask if there is such thing as idiosyncrasy anymore, and if so, where did it go?

React! Reply! Challenge!