By Jacob Stubbs
All-Inclusive Disclaimer: In this essay I do not necessarily use philosophers’ thoughts as they intended. Any reference to a philosopher will probably be a heterodox or downright incorrect interpretation. I do not use Hegel as a “hipster” would, nor do I claim that Hegel is himself a hipster. His great critic Søren Kierkegaard might have something to do with hipsters, especially since he was into the whole irony thing, but I do not have the purity of heart to elucidate this connection…
G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx are known as philosophers of History. That is, they focus on the process of man making himself and focusing on himself in such a way that he betters the world through technology. Alexandre Kojéve, the French philosopher who created the European Union, synthesized Hegel and Marx to argue that society lives at the “end of history.” For Kojéve, we live in a time where man has evolved to the point where all political, philosophical, and cultural developments have reached their highest apex and man lives as truth.
This “end of history” appeared with the advent of liberal democracy, given that democracy has found a way in which everyone’s rights can be respected so that each person has the freedom or liberation to pursue satisfaction as he sees fit. The dialectical processes that fueled the movement of history have ultimately negated themselves and history has entered a “void of nothingness.” We see this happening tangibly in the ways that man has gained an understanding of nature, made technology, and used technology to counteract or negate nature. This led to a synthesis of the natural and contra-natural that causes man to live in “nothingness,” a realm that is beyond the demands of nature.
Friedrich Nietszche recognized that this “nothingness” creates a “void.” Dwelling in nothingness, man cannot understand who he is or why he exists. In the “void,” all that is left to him is the “Will to Power” and the Creative Spirit to help him create a new man, a man that is able to “stare back at the void.”
Many writers have criticized this ideology of the “end of History,” but to catalog all their critiques would be outside the subject of this essay. Instead, I will apply this idea to the phenomenon of the Hipster by analogy, to show how the dialectic of “hipsterism” has created an “end of culture” similar to the “end of history.”
First, we must attempt to describe what exactly a “hipster” is.
Having attended a liberal arts college and majored in the humanities, I have encountered a lot of “hipsters.” I myself certainly exhibit certain hipster tendencies: I collect vinyl records, I love Wes Anderson movies and Bill Murray, I listen to bands like Vampire Weekend and the Animal Collective, I am convinced Zooey Deschanel is quite beautiful, and I was one of the first people in my friend group to open a Spotify account. That being said, I am of course not a hipster. For one thing, I certainly don’t wear skinny jeans, nor the hipster beanie.
For, while these are quite a few quirks attributable to hipsters, I have not yet articulated a comprehensive or practical definition of what exactly a “hipster” is. For that, let us refer to Mark Greif in New York Magazine:
Through both phases of the contemporary hipster, and no matter where he identifies himself on the knowingness spectrum, there exists a common element essential to his identity, and that is his relationship to consumption. The hipster, in this framework, is continuous with a cultural type identified in the nineties by the social critic Thomas Frank, who traced it back to Madison Avenue’s absorption of a countercultural ethos in the late sixties. This type he called the “rebel consumer.”
The rebel consumer is the person who, adopting the rhetoric but not the politics of the counterculture, convinces himself that buying the right mass products individualizes him as transgressive. Purchasing the products of authority is thus reimagined as a defiance of authority. Usually this requires a fantasized censor who doesn’t want you to have cologne, or booze, or cars. But the censor doesn’t exist, of course, and hipster culture is not a counterculture. On the contrary, the neighborhood organization of hipsters—their tight-knit colonies of similar-looking, slouching people—represents not hostility to authority (as among punks or hippies) but a superior community of status where the game of knowing-in-advance can be played with maximum refinement. The hipster is a savant at picking up the tiny changes of rapidly cycling consumer distinction.
According to Greif, a hipster is the product of a “consumer-oriented” market that has the means to use material and aesthetic choices to carve out a “niche” within the market and use that “niche” to dictate his identity. Before we evaluate this definition, we must review the history of consumerism in America from the 1950s to the present.
Following WWII, America entered a large market and population boom that created our current “Age of Abundance.” Ironically, during this “Age of Abundance,” American culture moved toward a state that fulfilled Marx’s conception of the “Communist Utopia.” Man had plenty to eat, lots of free time, and enough happiness/pleasure to go round. This worked for a while, even though certain groups were not able to fully realize the “American Dream.” In the dialectic of postwar American history, this 1950s “Age of Abundance” will serve as our “thesis.”
Toward the end of our “thesis” period, minority groups (women, African-Americans, etc) began to realize that many benefits of the “Age of Abundance” had been withheld from them. These minorities began to agitate more vigorously against the cultural mores of the previous decades, demanding equal recognition and freedom. The civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 1950s and ’60s are the clearest examples. Additionally, undercurrents of changing sexual mores suppressed by the Depression and wartime unity began to bubble up during the “Age of Abundance” and hit the mainstream in the ’60s as the “Sexual Revolution.” All of these movements came in violent conflict with the “thesis” of 1950s culture. We call them the “antithesis.”
This conflict between the 1950s cultural “thesis” and the 1960s cultural “antithesis” raged over the next few decades as each sought cultural dominance. Ultimately, both cultures won and lost and eventually “synthesized” into “nothing” during the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s. During this time, we achieved the unity of 1950s economic prosperity and 1960s personal liberation movements within a free and happy society where all were empowered to pursue pleasure as they saw fit.
A “void” began to appear. There was no sort of forward cultural movement. Everything appeared to be stagnating; then, the hipster arose.
As with any social movement, it’s quite hard to put an exact date on the inception of the hipster; however, there is a good case for placing the beginning of this movement in the late ’90s. The preconditioning synthesis of 1950s and 1960s culture was fertile soil for the hipster to germinate.
Ultimately, the hipster movement came to be through the “will to irony” that hipsters imposed on the late-nineties cultural synthesis. They embraced popular consumeristic tendencies with an ironic spirit. The comedy show Portlandia satirizes this hipster anti-culture, proclaiming that “the dream of the ’90s is alive in Portland.”
Hipsters began to take over the products of the synthesized culture of the “end of history” and assimilate them under their ironic outlook. Rather than authentically asserting their independence via the “will to irony” and creating new forms of culture to replace the nothingness of the late ’90s culture they reject, the hipster recognizes the nothingness of the synthesized culture and through irony strips it of any remaining meaning or value.
Yet, as Christy Wampole explains in a recent New York Times article, irony is just another aspect of post-historical culture which hipsters have appropriated:
[The hipster] is an easy target for mockery. However, scoffing at the hipster is only a diluted form of his own affliction. He is merely a symptom and the most extreme manifestation of ironic living. For many Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s — members of Generation Y, or Millennials — particularly middle-class Caucasians, irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt. One need only dwell in public space, virtual or concrete, to see how pervasive this phenomenon has become. Advertising, politics, fashion, television: almost every category of contemporary reality exhibits this will to irony.
The hipster is us. Wampole argues that the hipster’s “will to irony” emerges as a result of the Gen Y understanding that “everything has already been done”–that we live at the “end of History.” By embracing irony, the hipster movement dooms itself to remain at the “end of History” by “fleeing” the necessity of creating a new culture. Irony is a defense against responsibility; it a “pre-emptive surrender” to nothingness, in order to shirk the difficult work of creativity.
In the historical dialectic, man creates himself and his reality via “creative action,” moving history forward. Hipsters, by contrast, seek to make themselves from “reaction.” Rather than moving the historical dialectic forward, the hipster’s ironic reaction alienates rather than creates. It looks at the nothingness and attempts to create something out of nothingness without realizing that one must act rather than react in order to create anything.
While reacting to the “end of history” through the “will to irony,” the hipster binds himself to the culture he despises. He creates the “last culture” through his failure to progress beyond what is behind him. He refuses to do anything besides ironically repackaging the consumerism that he seeks to rebel against, condemning himself to forever wallow in the cultural void that he wants to escape.