Global hipsters and consumer culture
by Paul Mullins on
America appears to be confronted by a sinister wave of indifference, inauthenticity, and shallow irony, but somewhat surprisingly the threat arrives wearing tight jeans and flannel shirts, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, listening to Belle and Sebastian on their iPod, shopping at open-air markets, and sporting strategically mussed-up hair. Each time their death rites are read, these "hipsters" seem to again be resurrected by critical observers decrying insincerity or foreseeing the end of Culture.
The most recent volleys of disdain, parody, and moralizing over hipsters come from the unusual intersection of Francophone literary scholar Christy Wampole and the most prescient of all popular cultural mirrors, The Simpsons. These and more than a decade of observations on hipsters betray deep and consequential anxieties about consumer society and mass culture.
However, they rarely reveal anthropology's essential humility in the face of difference, respect for everyday experience, or appreciation for cultural and social complexity. It is very difficult to fathom understanding a social group or their broader sociocultural context without some fundamental respect for those people and their voices, yet that is precisely what we see missing in most hipster commentaries.
Wampole's New York Times essay How to Live without Irony laments the shallow materiality of the hipster, who "tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things." Her critique of hipster consumption is a familiar refrain that somewhat romantically imagines a counter-culture steeped in creativity, strategic politics, and authenticity.
In 2008, for instance, Adbusters' Douglas Haddow hyperbolically lamented, "An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning."
Such laments are not simply for a handful of youth in Brooklyn and Portland: instead, Wampole provocatively argues that the hipster "is merely a symptom and the most extreme manifestation of ironic living. … 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." Wampole may well capture the hipster as the tip of an iceberg, but for her the iceberg is a mass culture that has become stalely self-referential, utterly insincere in its politics and emotions, and alienated to an authentic public life.
What may alarm such observers most is that this hipster consumer is a truly global phenomenon. Hipster communities can be found in Helsinki, Reykjavik, Tokyo, Berlin, and London, reaching from China to South Africa and across class and color lines amplified by wired connections. Hipsters' social personality and consumption patterns reach well beyond gentrifying urban America because so many youth throughout the world are alienated to consumer culture; hipsters are indeed materialists, but they ironically view consumer culture and popular culture as stale lies.
Hipster style revolves around an inflated sense of "cool" that is expressed in novel materiality and stylistic exclusivity, unfazed detachment, and judgmentalism that aspires to appear confident and "in control." We live in a moment when every social collective seems to feel marginalized, and the hipster seeks the unfettered experience that we all believe we are denied. Hipsters seek agency in consumption, voicing a critique of consumer culture from the very heart of that culture and breaking from the stereotype of goal-oriented activist politics.
Perhaps even more unsettling is that hipster caricatures are clear enough that The Simpsons can goof on them and know that we will understand the references. We certainly all recognize the stereotypes, but is there really such a thing as a "hipster" ?
Perhaps the stereotype is largely a marketing heurism, a simulacrum that through popular repetition has assumed its own contrived authenticity. In this picture of the hipster, observers like Christy Wampole are probing a marketing niche and not an ethnographic subjectivity, accepting as authentic the stereotypes mocked by The Simpsons.
Wampole reveals longstanding apprehensions of materiality and consumption, admitting her anxiety that hipsters "provoke me, I realized, because they are, despite the distance from which I observe them, an amplified version of me."
Indeed, Wampole's distaste may be for a planet deeply immersed in material consumption, our values apparently pinned on brand goods, store devotion, seasonal styles, and popular culture instead of art, faith, and Culture. Wampole shared her feelings just days before Black Friday, that unique confluence of overwrought materiality and self-righteous anti-consumerism that dramatically illuminates the fissures in consumer culture.
Scholars and many ideologues have often reduced consumer trappings to inauthentic and meaningless shells, yet hipsters mine those goods and symbols, consciously recognizing their shallowness yet aspiring to make something meaningful from them. We do have genuine reasons to question the march of consumer culture, but hipsters may provide us an indication of how many people are reacting against that very culture, hoping to fabricate something from the detritus of consumer culture that feels authentic while simultaneously viewing it askance and ironically.
Anthropology is fundamentally based on sympathy for human subjects, but theatrical pronouncements like "The Hipster Must Die" go beyond humored critique. Berlin's recent movement toward legally expelling "tourists and hipsters" from public spaces presses beyond sarcasm and descends into xenophobia and hatred. We may individually detest the crowd experience at Walmart; the plastic furnishings and predictable food at McDonalds may repel us; we may find Disneyland to be contrived and unsettling; or we may deplore Lady Gaga.
But genuine understanding of the people who find those experiences truly meaningful and consequential requires something more politically substantial than posting pictures of poorly dressed overweight people wandering WalMart's aisles, drawing subversive pictures of Ronald McDonald, ranting about the Rat, or self-righteously dismissing Little Monsters.
Anthropologists are committed to critical reflection and honesty with our subjects, but genuine understanding of people unlike ourselves always starts with empathy, curiosity, respect, and a willingness to listen. Nobody has apparently listened very closely to hipsters except Urban Outfitters.
We live in a moment when every social collective seems to feel marginalized, and the hipster seeks the unfettered experience that we all believe we are denied