Meditating on Hipsters, Irony, and the Role of Status
What follows is in reference to this post about hipsters and irony. I will attempt to demonstrate one theory for how we get from hipsterism on the one hand to the politically destructive use of irony on the other. But mostly I will just speculate wildly on things that have entered my consciousness at one point or another over the last year or so.
“If irony is the ethos of our age — and it is — then the hipster is our archetype of ironic living,” declares Christy Wampole. Freddie DeBoer dismisses the second part of this equation as a distraction. “[H]ipsterdom,” he writes, “while not easily definable, is still easily identifiable, and thus doesn’t pose the kind of threat that a broader and vaguer sense of chosen meaninglessness does.” Yet as an archetype with substantial economic mass, whether born of Madison Avenue machinations or a revisionist compromise between the pastoral and the suburban, the hipster is an important point of contact for the larger pandemic of irony which Wampole (though she is not the first) diagnoses.
Writes Wampole, “The hipster haunts every city street and university town.” And these are not insignificant haunting grounds! Rather they represent the two most prominent bastions of digital interconnectivity and liberal consciousness, and, where both intersect in the urban university, contradictory  consumer excess. Wampole identifies the disease in an over-abundance of irony, she pinpoints the hipster archetype as its primary distributer, and recognizes the localities from which it is dispersed. With this in mind, ignoring those twenty something’s whose aspirational pinups exist somewhere between James Dean and Joseph Gordon Levitt, Jackie Kennedy and Zooey Deschanel, would risk overlooking phenomena central to our age of irony.
According to Mark Greif two years ago, “The hipster is that person…who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.”
In so far as the opposition between these two groups is obscured, the surface level threat posed by 21st century hipsterism begins to take its shape. Whether it’s an irony due to disposability, or an issue of irony too easily disposed, there is something in the knee-jerk employment of anti-meaning that blurs the boundaries between political binaries, leaving conflicts of race, class, sex, etc. ultimately sterilized.
Of this there can be little doubt. On the point of hipsterism, and the default to irony that is associated with it, what’s clear is a counter-cultural movement whose potency is zero precisely because it has collided with systems which are anathema to its initial impulse. What the hell does that mean? I’ll try to explain .
Greif locates the hipster’s “common element” in 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.’”
A culture of consumption not only pervades but finds unrivaled expression in the hipster archetype. While like the American Experiment it is dominated largely by straight white males, there is nothing which circumscribes the mentality so much as a materialism that is uniquely suited to, and yet bizarrely opposed to, the globalized techno-consumerism that has characterized the last decade plus.
Vast databases of cheap and easily accessed music have reignited a passion for vinyl and HD television and Blu-Ray have brought with them a re-evaluation of VHS. A subset of gamers fetishize 8-bit pixels, 16-bit sprites, and the clumsy edge work of 32-bit polygons. The apparent success of Big Agriculture has inspired a return to small, local, and urban farming. A profusion of cheap garments from mass retailers has resulted in an explosion of DIY styles and individualized, non-institutionalized clothing.
When I look at how the hipster archetype has influenced a generation of millennials, I see an unconscious movement to resist capitalism’s movers and shakers by trying to best them at their own game. The temperament feels sterile, the sentiment hollow, and the movement mostly bereft of sincere values exactly because it has sought to 1up the cult of obsolescence which governs America’s free market consumerism.
Greif describes the archetype’s core skill in the following way, “The hipster is a savant at picking up the tiny changes of rapidly cycling consumer distinction.” Hipsterism is its own form of trickle down, where in knowledge-intensive trend setting leads eventually to seemingly spontaneous moments of coolness that then filter out to the less hip masses.
On the one hand this is an incredible power, even if there is no centralized intention behind its execution. Rather than actively resist the flow of capital, or passively consume what otherwise amounts from it, hipsterism appropriates its practices while modifying the incentive. Instead of pursuing profit, hipsters pursue social status .
On the other hand it is so far clear that there is no end-game which appears to positively improve upon free market capitalism’s profit incentive. The hipster archetype is based upon a transactional outlook as much as its capitalist counterpart. Which is to say that the methods of the enemy will never undo themselves, or act as a suitable means for undoing the enemy.
So what of irony then? Irony is, as Wampole argues, “[A] kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.”
In so far as this form and use of irony neutralizes everything it touches, purging the subject and object alike of meaning and dispossessing both, it does so through a kind of inflation. The economy stops growing, or the government keeps minting, and either way currency plummets. Likewise, semantic currency is undermined either because it has stopped evolving (the banal, the trivial, etc.) or the legs have been cut out from under; its core rejected or denied through means of an un-engagable recursion (irony) .
And so, I suppose, if the ability to trend set and exchange economic utility for social status relies on an input; to the degree that hipsters lead certain segments of the consumer market rather than following them, debts are racked up in this pursuit. And whatever surplus is obtained on the one end results in an equal deficit on the other as cultural meaning is depleted in order to fuel the making of micro brews, seasonal lattes, and WordPress themes.
There are two extremes of hipster. The first is severely esoteric. Whether its knowledge of a niche band or the particular details that distinguish one craft IPA from another, this is the type of person who scoffs at the ignorance they encounter around them despite being utterly dependent on this asymmetry for relevance. The second is nihilistically derivative, of which one consequence is the comeback of the PBR pounder, on which no more need be said.
In either case the problem is one of exploitation. This is not to say that there are not “authentic” brewers concerned first and foremost with the beer in and of and for itself. Or that all PBRs are necessarily purchased ironically, rather than because they are a cheap and efficient path toward inebriation (two virtues which belong to the industrial era whose white, blue collar worker iconography so many hipsters initially sought to plunder).
It simply means that outside of these folks, there is a large group not only of poseurs, but of vulture capitalist ones. By the time the Beats could be sold and marketed to young people, the original curators and creators had moved on from such things. Unlike sincere attempts to grasp the counter-culture of the 50s and 60s, the hipster archetype does not pick something up and then set it back down where she or he found it. They strip the object bare starting first with its sentimentality and finishing with all manner of ironic subversions before at long last leaving behind whatever it is they encountered as a useless husk.
So why is this anything more than silly mustaches and skin tight jeans? Mostly, I think, because in being antithetical to redemption and prone to excess this mentality is highly corrupting. Irony can be usefully deployed (see TNI’s issue on drones) or it can be both deadening and deafening.
On the subject DFW remarked, “Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone.” And that was over ten years ago.
The issue then is that the status-seeking which underlies so much of human behavior, but especially public discourse and especially online, pushes us  to continually search for the new and novel, and where and when it cannot be found, settle for ironic rehashes instead. To revisit the vulture capitalism metaphor, the hipster looks at the derivatives they’ve been trading in, and upon realizing their value has decreased in proportion to how much they’ve been handled and traded, attempts to rework them into even more exotic symbolic artifacts.
Like unsustainable recycling, the object that’s produced the next time is always of a lower grade and quality than what came out the last, until what’s left is only good for making composite park benches. After meaning has been appropriated ad absurdum the only thing that’s left is for it to be sacrificed at the expense of an ironic chuckle.
Irony’s proliferation, and its role as a last ditch effort (comparable to cooked up financial instruments) to instrumentalize culture for easy exchange with social status, is an issue because it makes meaningful political engagement that much more difficult, particularly on issues of class and economics. Some time ago Freddie criticized this piece at Jezebel for being a mode of anti-racism that employs its politics for self-righteous self-promotion rather than in the service of actually defeating racism.
To the degree that this is true, it feels to me to be emblematic of the overall trend toward witty entertainment and brand marketing which a capitalism built on the status-motive encourages, and which new digital technologies (Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, etc.) allow to flourish. Freddie has detailed his theory of the “resentment machine” already, and it’s one which, despite disagreeing with some, feels intuitively accurate to me.
This is another way of saying that I am a problematic cog in that machinery and, in the same way the temptation of a higher standard of living can test one’s commitment to egalitarian values, the temptation of a seat at the table of online cultural discourse can lead one to behave in strange sometimes repugnant ways. Wampole’s suggestion is to argue against the poison and its mode of delivery (Irony/Hipster Archetype) and resist the desire to give someone a joke-mug for Christmas. Freddie thinks, to the degree that irony renders argument ineffective, that positive results would not be forthcoming. I don’t have a solution either, but I do think there is something more going on here than just naval-gazing by those privileged enough to do so.
 I think it’s more than a coincidence that Mad Men has become so iconic, despite being completely derivative, and a cultural touchstone for hipters/millennials even though, and actually precisely because, it deals with an emptiness that plagues advertising and the markets it serves.
 Contradictory in so far as liberal arts colleges and urban universities are presumably where the young, innocent, and otherwise naïve go to be indoctrinated by Marxist critique and multicultural pluralism, and yet they are expensive, attended mainly by the affluent, and maintained by populations of under-paid, non-unionized minorities and immigrants.
 I say “our” despite the limits of generalizing a cultural mood associated with disposable income, youth, and white people, because I think its effects are not at all so limited.
 Greif uses the masculine pronoun, and I think it is somewhat fitting in that hipsterism certainly seems to be a preoccupation which, even if it is no exclusive to men, relies on much iconography and social systems which, while sometimes sexist, almost always appear to originate in the male psyche.
 I understand that this post has taken on a horrible tone which some will find too grating to push through, and for that I apologize. Please consider each statement as less a declaration than a kind of fumbling step forward. This is widely speculative terrain, but highly fertile I think. Though that is still no excuse.
 I don’t remember why I put this footnote in originally, but if I do I’ll update it with a note at the top of the post.
 Un-engagable because irony is so disarming. And a recursion because there is no end to it. Irony has most games rigged so that even attempting to refute or disassemble it is to then appear to be the very thing which it had initially been dismissing. There are two readily observable phenomena which point toward this impermeability: the number of tweets which no one knows whether to take seriously or not and the new kind of Internet troll who claims to be bored by the very person, comment, topic on which they are trolling.
I say “us” because I think that most, if not all, of the people who read this will know what I’m talking about and feel somewhat caught up in it themselves. What I’m getting at here is nothing more than the attempt by nearly all of us, at one time or another, to try and find the original angle, contrarian argument, or unexamined data point, even when those things end up distracting rather than serving our ultimate ends (in terms of politics, principles, etc.)