A heavily spray-painted wall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn faces the East River. A tall, lanky twenty-something man stands against it, his skinny jeans just grazing the brick. He stares at the flowing current in front of him while his heavy Ray-Ban frames mask any visible attempt at expression. He scratches his cheek, thick with a facial hair pattern not unlike that of a lumberjack, and flicks the end of his self-rolled cigarette. He then takes one final chug of his Pabst Blue Ribbon can and rides off into the sunset with his fixed-gear Schwinn. He is today’s hipster.
Hipsterdom is the first counterculture to develop since the Internet’s rise to commercial power. Message boards and instant messenger threads have overtaken the coffeeshop conversations. Travelers no longer walk into gas stations for directions. Instead, they pull smartphones from their pockets and download maps from virtual clouds. And in lieu of escaping to faraway cities, admiring the skirts and leather boots of passersby, everyday consumers type “street style” into Google and suddenly become savvy of the fashion’s latest trends. In an interview with The Independent, Ted Polhemus said, “People always ask me, ‘What’s the next best thing?’ But there will never again be a next big thing. The future of fashion is that all of those places will participate. There will never again be one ‘the place.’” But a majority of hipsters refuse to let the information overload stop them from finding styles before their peers. Aside from physical characteristics, the hipster hopes that his or her mind’s cultural encyclopedia will display a sense of knowledge that does not evidently rely on the mass commercial world.
But the subculture’s foremost flaw – and quite possibly its greatest key to commercial immortality – is its inherent dependency on consumption. Hipsters wear trucker hats without hauling across the interstate highways, away from friends and family for sometimes days at a time. Some do not even step foot inside pick-up trucks at all. They aspire to live the artist’s lifestyle without producing artwork of any kind. And while they might brag about owning the most expensive Ikea couch or the newest Fleet Foxes album, even though infinite copies are available online, the origins of their belongings and their production mean very little. In “Of National Culture,” Frantz Fanon writes, “The psychology of the national bourgeoisie is that of the businessman, not that of a captain of industry” (157). Today’s searches for trends do not lie in one’s fascination to produce, but rather in fetish for ownership – of information, terminology, products, and culture. Mark Greif contextualizes Fanon with “What Was The Hipster?” “[Hipsters] did not produce photographers, but snapshot and party photographers… It did not produce painters, but graphic designers. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts” (Greif).
The hipster’s need for consumption – however “underground” or anti-commercial its claim – leaves open a series of vulnerabilities. Retailers like the America-based Urban Outfitters comprise of “cool commoditizers,” anthropological savants who pick and choose aesthetics from existing subcultures and countercultures, merging them into a greater, globally marketable fashion. But because these styles are only attaining worldwide interest because of their visibly exotic final product, the initial impetuses under which they were contrived and manufactured are ignored.
In 2011, Urban Outfitters released “Navajo,” a fashion line aimed at imitating Native American designs. As Bell Hooks writes in “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” “Ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (Hooks 366). Consumers purchase items, such as “Navajo” flasks and panties, out of hope that peers would revere them as culturally aware beings. But the individuals who created the line held neither experience as members of Navajo Nation, nor as a part of any other Native American tribe. They might find their eyes stuck on animal skin patterns or tipi-shaped lamps, but a majority of them know relatively little about the actions of their White European imperialist ancestors. The Navajo line was discontinued later that year, after the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for trademark infringement. Regardless of conscious intention, the company violated federal law. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act prevents salespeople from falsely implying that items are authentic products of Native American culture when, in fact they are not. In Urban Outfitters’ case, the materials were actually produced inside facilities controlled by White European men. Hooks notes that imperialist nostalgia is most prominently characterized through similar acts of reenacting the colonist’s journey as a fantasy of power and desire. “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power” (367-9). Fanon adds that New World colonialism does not solely consist of imposition of rule. “Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people on its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it” (Fanon 154). The retailer committed actions not unlike those described above, incorporating a Native style not its own and taking control of its production and distribution.
The retailer has experienced a variety of other product-related controversies as well. A women’s T-shirt reading “Eat Less” infuriated health advocates who felt that the item was glorifying thinness while disregarding the bodily risks associated with eating disorders. In 2005, the company released a T-shirt that read “New Mexico, cleaner than regular Mexico.” The shirts argued that, because New Mexico is an American state, its residents have more access to American values and resources. Meanwhile, during the period in which these items were on sale at branch locations, other store frequenters did not object. But as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels write in “The Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas,” a society’s ruling material force – the global, virtual storefronts of today – simultaneously serves as its ruling intellectual force. When clothing manufacturers pride themselves on low production cost, average consumers pay little attention to the way products are made. Once more, they give even less notice to the impoverished sweatshop employee who holds a job in manual labor. They instead point their fingers and laugh at the jokes on the popular shirts, pulling out their wallets in the process (Marx, Engels 59).
In “The Concept of ‘Ideology,’” Antonio Gramsci writes that one’s ideas are broken down into sensations, such as those achieved through “powers of the Spirit” or “immortal destiny.” He adds that they “organize human masses and create the terrain on which men can move, acquire consciousness of their position, struggle, etc.” (57). The development of hipster subculture bears no exception. Individuals associated with the trend are characterized by an ever-continuing penchant for irony. For the hipster, experiencing and acknowledging paradoxes provides a sensation all its own – the reward of multitasking, or applying multiple concepts and definitions simultaneously in a given situation. With technology encouraging awareness of universal truths, multitasking has become commonplace. And thus, the Web 2.0 era has become a signature one for the hipster.
Marianna Torgovnick’s Gone Primitive ties one’s journey for knowledge with the shadowed image of the primitive. “They sought the universal truth about human nature and conceived of primitive societies as the testing ground, the laboratory, the key to that universal truth.” For today’s hipster, the primitive is the Polaroid, the forgotten image of a baby-faced child who later grew up to become wrinkled and gray because society let him slip by. “Primitives are our untamed selves, our id forces – libidinous, irrational, violent, dangerous. Primitives are mystics, in tune with nature, part of its harmonies. Primitives are free” (Torgovnick 8). But one can easily read the titles of travel journalist Henry M. Stanley’s many books about his trips to Africa – In Darkest Africa, The Congo and the Founding of Its Free State: A Story of Work and Exploration – and recognize that this is a long-standing impression. As perceived in media and advertising, Torgovnick adds, “Africa is dark and dangerous… Africa is ‘childhood,’ the ‘immature,’ ‘developing’ state of human existence. The Westerner gives Africa its voice; Africa is ‘unknown’ because Westerners do not know it” (7-13). In the case of Urban Outfitters and stores like it, the same can be said of Native Americans, Jews, women, and Black people.
The connection of irony with the primitive can best be portrayed through the Internet and mass media, by gazing into the wide, magnetic eyes of women like Zooey Deschanel. She has developed an entire persona around fetishizing social awkwardness, but her act still retains a touch of charisma. She, like many celebrities, has millions of followers on the microblogging site Twitter. One of her popular posts reads, “Haha. :) RT @Sarabareilles: Home from tour and first things first: New Girl episodes I missed. #thuglife.” Not only does the tweet allude consuming episodes of a show about three White Californians and their “one Black friend,” but it also remains a popular post, primarily due to the irony of the hash-tagged “thuglife.” Deschanel, along with fellow White female musician Sara Bareilles, is considered conventionally attractive in mass cultural circles. The idea that either one of them is a thug – or a rebellious, fiscally disenfranchised racial minority of any kind – easily parallels the lyricism of Alanis Morissette.
But underneath the tweets and the apparel, the hipster’s obliviousness to production is exactly what keeps the subculture, and its material hubs, so globally prominent. Many of its most devout members scoff at the idea of others generalizing them because, as they preach, nothing is sacred. An ideology closed off from the means of production continues to hide unacknowledged.
Major clothiers, including Urban Outfitters, American Apparel, and Converse, have imposed this fusion onto billboards, Internet banners, and television commercials worldwide. Gramsci adds, in “Cultural Themes: Ideological Material,” that the media plays the most prominent and dynamic role in perpetuating an ideological structure. “A news editor of a daily newspaper should have this study as a general outline for his work: indeed, he should make his own version of it,” he writes. “Think of all the wonderful leading articles one could write on the subject!” (389-90). The same could be said of advertising, the press’s all-too-known lovechild. Converse recently used “My Drive Thru,” a song by hipster icon Julian Casablancas, in a commercial to celebrate the company’s centennial. The song’s presence attempts to connect the visual elements of past youth subcultures and countercultures – the eyes and hair of James Dean, the screaming girls holding Beatles records, the hippies’ two-fingered peace signs – to the modern-day “indie” music fan, from Boise to Beirut, just dying to rebel against parents, bosses, and schoolteachers. “There is a tendency to bring conflicts up to date and to modernize the kinds of struggle which the stories evoke, together with the names of heroes and types of weapons,” adds Fanon. He also notes that consciousness inevitably becomes an empty shell, devoid of any and all notions of production, “instead of being the all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilization of the people” (Fanon)
The hipster’s styles range from “post-punk-electro-blog-house” to the minimalist films of Wes Anderson – from vintage Nikes to cowboy boots – and yet the movement’s sensibilities still reign with a striking uniformity. This is because many consumers know just as little about sewing a T-shirt in Cambodia as they do about playing the electric guitar in a Lower East Side recording studio. So after a while, materials such as clothing and music mesh into one flashy, elaborately advertised final product. Clothing retailers are signing contracts with independent publishers and record labels to distribute books and CDs in their stores, oftentimes just a few inches away from the T-shirts and shoes.
Most corporations owe their monetary success to the connections its staff builds. Advertisers tell their audience that they, too, can globally dominate others by purchasing items from the store catalogue, or “in-house zine.” A majority of consumers believe that picking and choosing styles from a seemingly never-ending set of options will make them sovereign trendsetters, free from corporate influence. But the power of worldwide retailers does not end there; it instead takes a more calculating avenue. Major corporations pay individuals great sums of money to attend parties and concerts and to study the fashion of the “counterculture” in attendance. As trend forecaster Martin Raymond states, Internet culture has magnified the sphere of influence and developed a homogenized world consciousness. “You once had a series of gatekeepers in the adoption of a trend: the innovator, the early adapter, the late adapter, the early mainstream, the late mainstream, and finally the conservative,” he says. “But now it goes straight from the innovator to the mainstream.” The only person the hipster dissents from is the worker (“Meet the Global Scenester: He’s Hip. He’s Cool. He’s everywhere”).
In this world of endless competition, where ideas and people are being judged up against one another, many now ask how long hipsterdom will continue. With the Internet and social media, unlimited databases of information are present, and virtually every consumer is encouraged to participate. Just as it is easier than ever for bands to become widely known to the public, or “sell out,” hipsters can also move onto the next great trend more frequently and without skipping a beat. The hipster is persistent about consuming that one universal truth, even if there just might be a field of many. But as Marx and Engels note, “If we confine ourselves to saying that these or those ideas were dominant at a given time, without bothering ourselves about the conditions of production and the producers of these ideas… then we can say, for instance, that the aristocracy was dominant” (10). While the hipster’s rampant, shameless consumption of facts and histories will remain strong in this world information age, perhaps its key to immortality lies within an open acknowledgement of production.
Fanon, Frantz. “On National Culture.” The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1968.
Gramsci, Antonio. “The Concept of ‘Ideology.’ Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers, 1971, pp. 57-8.
Gramsci, Antonio. “Cultural Themes: Ideological Material.’ Antonio Gramsci: Selections from Cultural Writings. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1985, pp. 389-90.
Greif, Mark. “What Was the Hipster?” New York. 24 Oct, 2010.
Hooks, Bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Media and Cultural Studies: Key Works. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 366-380.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “The Ruling Class and the Ruling Ideas.” Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: Collected Works. New York: International Publishers, 1976, vol. 5, pp. 59-62.
“Meet the Global Scenester: He’s Hip. He’s Cool. He’s everywhere.” The Independent. 14 Aug 2008
Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 7-13.