The interview ranges from the meaning of the word ‘hipster’, how it evolved from the early 2000s Vice archetype to the eco-minded, liberal arts educated type of today, to how hipsters are not really a genuine counterculture. Tortorici also has sympathy for the hipster though, self-identifying to some extent with them. The hallmark of the hipster, nonetheless, is its shallowness: it’s a subculture that’s defined entirely by its aesthetics.
At the end of the interview the question is asked: ‘Is the hipster over?’ You may wanna ponder that question yourself. A very interesting piece though, which I recommend to read in its entirety.
HIPSTERS are everywhere and nowhere in the culture of the last decade. On the one hand, a quick hop on the L-Train to Williamsburg (and now Bushwick) in New York City suggests that the burgeoning population of bestubbled waifs with chunky eyewear is, if anything, expanding its hold on the contemporary imagination. On the other, this prevalence seems to have precluded any real conversation about the hipster’s meaning in our culture at large. “What Was the Hipster?: A Sociological Investigation“, the latest addition to a small-book series published by n+1, a Brooklyn-based magazine, turns an inquisitive eye to a subject that would seem to defy such discussion. After all, nobody likes hipsters, hipsters least of all.(…)
Dayna Tortorici co-edited “What Was the Hipster?”. Her essay “You Know It When You See It” tackles the subject of hipster photography and the place it carves out for women in a male-dominated subculture. She spoke to More Intelligent Life via Google-chat about late capitalism, the death of the poser and why it’s a cop-out to refuse to understand hipsters. We’ve condensed the conversation here.
One of the running themes of the book, and of hipsterdom in general, is the way the term eludes definition. What do you see as the essence of the hipster?
Well, one of the arguments that the book tries to make in confronting this question is that the hipster is a sort of a “boogeyman” in popular culture—a blank screen one can project a lot of one’s own prejudices and anxieties onto. It seems like a cop-out—a refusal to talk about the hipster in a way that’s personal. So to answer more personally, I’d say that the essence of the hipster is his or her (but mostly his) fascination with, or curation of, subculture arcana. There are many ‘types’ of hipster that tend to get lumped together when people talk about hipsters—and one of the challenges of the book was knowing when to generalise, when to taxonomise. But one of the things they all have in common is the desire for a special kind of cultural knowledge, and a fierce protection of this knowledge once it’s obtained.
What’s striking to me about your definition is that it’s ultimately an aesthetic categorisation; it’s about self-presentation and curation. Whereas when we think of subcultures or countercultures historically, we usually tend to think of politics or even religion. Can hipsters make a genuine claim to being a counterculture?
I think this is where the “taxonomise” v “generalise” problem comes in—because while I’d say “No, hipsters can’t make a genuine claim to being a counterculture” (as Mark and several others in the book argue, hipsters are the dominant culture nowadays, despite their “interest” in aspects of subculture, past and present), there are several groups of people who I think often unfairly get lumped into the category “Hipster” who are in fact representatives of more genuine countercultures. Freegans, DIY-kids, radical queers, feminists, crust punks…all kinds of punks. And so on. I wouldn’t call such people “hipsters,” but I can think of more than a few people who would.
Do you see the hipster as inherently negative? The book, in particular, Mark Greif’s opening paper, suggests that hipsters are in some way “poisonous.” Is this giving them too much credit?
It might be. “Poisonous to whom?” one wants to ask. Of course, the other complication of talking about the hipster generally is that the distinctions between mutations get lost. I’d argue that the conservative, white-pride-inflected, Vice-magazine hipster of 1999-2003 Mark Greif talks about in his contributions is far more “poisonous” to culture than the eco-minded, bicycle-riding, liberal arts-educated hipster one thinks of today. The hipsters of today seem pretty benign. But what I think a lot of people see as truly negative about the hipster (apathy, refusal to engage in politics, participation in gentrification, mindless consumerism paraded as “uniqueness”) isn’t actually unique to the hipster. Hipsters today are often regarded (from what I can tell, anyway) more as a nuisance than a poison. They’re not doing much of anything bad—often, they’re not doing much of anything at all. But they’re people that make you feel something about yourself, or about culture, that you don’t like.
Right. Part of the frustration with hipsters seems to be that they say something very complicated about privilege, in particular about the privilege of the early “millennials” who came of age in the boom years. I mean, in most instances, aren’t we dealing with the white upper-middle-class?
I think so—or if not strictly white, mostly white. In his piece for the panel discussion Jace Clayton asks what we’re not talking about when we talk about hipsters, and the role of race and socioeconomic status in this phenomenon is undoubtedly the biggest elephant in the room. But while I think a lot of the ill-feeling toward privileged white twenty-somethings who have the luxury to try out “being an artist” in a city like New York is warranted—hipsters, especially disaffected hipsters (a redundancy?), seem to lack perspective when griping about their problems, claiming to be ‘poor’ because they have bedbugs in their renovated three-bedroom apartment in Bushwick—I also sympathise with the hipster. Being a hipster looks like it really sucks: I would hate to be living in an overcrowded city, sublimating my artistic impulses into tacky freelance graphic-design work, going to the same bars every weekend with the exact same white people who look just like me, posing for the Cobrasnake. But it’s a pattern that’s been established, so I think a lot of young people reach for that lifestyle when they don’t know what to do with themselves. Part of it, apolitical as it may be, seems to be a resignation to living in the socio-economically stratified, over-commercialised world of late-capitalist America.
Your essay deals with the role of internet instantaneity in the proliferation of hipster tastes. Do you think there would be hipsters, in the 21st-century sense, without the internet?
Truly, I don’t think there would, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. I think it’s the internet’s ability to rapidly circulate taste markers (clothes, music, movies, even poses) that facilitates the making of the hipster, insofar as the hipster is defined purely by the expression of his or her taste (how s/he looks, what obscure movies s/he knows about, etc). Significantly, you don’t have to have any ideas to be a hipster, or any ideas in common with other hipsters to recognise them as your hipster brethren. While it’s possible that this ‘subculture’ of people that was all taste and no ethos could have existed before the internet, the internet certainly facilitated the spread of the hipster by making the how-to of hipsterism available to almost everybody online.
Is the hipster moment over? The title of the book implies as much.
I think most people would acknowledge that the hipster moment isn’t over. The inflammatory, online-comment reactions to the book suggest as much: people are still preoccupied with hipsters, whether they’re sick of hearing about them or not. While certain iterations of the hipster are definitely over—you don’t see trucker hats anymore, really—new iterations are still taking shape all the time. But I’d argue that the hipster as I think of it is certainly phasing out, bleeding into mainstream taste. The figure of the hipster as an elitist, subcultural icon is becoming obsolete. But as for hipsters in general? I think that unless something radically changes in youth culture in the next few years—or in American politics, or in the economy—we’ll be seeing hipsters for a while.