Whence the Hipster

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Flickr/Jack Newton

They’ve invaded the Pioneer Valley. They strut the sidewalks of our college campuses with their Urban Outfitter jackets, chins raised high. They act as if their buying local organic goods and refusal to consume animal products makes them superior to us plebeians. ‘Oh,’ they seem to muse, ‘you haven’t heard of the obscure Icelandic post-rock group I listen to? That’s okay. It’s too sophisticated for your radio-friendly Calvin Harris singles.’ They are the subculture we love to hate. They’ve inspired a bestselling handbook, an array of disparaging jokes, even their very own meme. They are the hipsters.

What motivates one to be a hipster? They may have read the collected works of Turgenev and Camus, and they may be able to detail to you the advantages of knowing your farmer. But their minds can only distinguish them. They need some way to let others know how knowledgeable they are. The easiest avenue for a person to display their cultural capital to the world is through wearing the latest clothing.

Thus spawns the frantic race to Urban Outfitters and the nearest thrift store. Mark Greif, author of “What Was the Hipster?” explains that “the hip reaction was to insist, purely symbolically, on forms of knowledge that they possessed before anyone else.” A hipster’s unbeatable taste in fashion informs us that they belong to an exclusive cult of cool. This defining characteristic of consumption births the hipster that we know and love to hate. Having bought their way into the premier clothing club, hipsters may now walk the streets with a mindset of exceptionality. A rebellious air of “I know more than you” surrounds each one.

But the hipsters incorrectly self-identify as a representing a counterculture, deluding themselves into thinking that they go against the average Joe’s values. They merely constitute a subculture. A counterculture may reject the mainstream’s politics, norms, fashion and, most importantly, values. A quick look suggests that they fail to do any of those things.

Regarding political platforms, the arguably-hipster Occupy movement exposed America to class inequalities, but the same political structure stands strong and shows no signs of caving. No radical party has emerged to fix the corruption. It’s politics as usual.

Pertaining to societal norms, drinking organic chai and brooding over Raskolnikov’s downfall in a free-trade coffee shop fails to drastically differ from our society’s standard behaviors.

In terms of fashion, buying new clothes to distinguish oneself only pleases the fashion-industrial complex. If anything, hipsters are the most conforming in this department.

And finally, hipster values again stick to the status quo here. Let’s compare the hipster movement to that of the hippies. Joseph Heath, author of “Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture,” explains why hipster’s values match ours:

“While there is no doubt that a ‘cultural’ conflict developed between the members of the counterculture and the … establishment, there never was any tension between the ‘values’ of the counterculture and the functional requirements of the capitalist economic system. The counterculture was, from its very inception, intensely entrepreneurial. It reflected … the most authentic spirit of capitalism.”

What we regard as the counterculture of the ‘60s hippies doesn’t really fit the definition of counterculture. The hippies’ conflict with our culture motivated them to distinguish themselves. But distinguishing oneself through the purchasing of a VW Beetle or vinyl records still involves consuming products; that’s not radical.

Heath then pulls from the writings of Guy Debord to explain that “consumer capitalism has taken every authentic human experience, transformed it into a commodity, and then sold it back to us through advertising and the mass media.” As the hippies were stuck with consuming their VW Beetles to visibly express their superior coolness, today’s hipsters follow suit. The object of desire is now not automobiles, but clothes (and still vinyl records). Mark Greif notes that hipsters may think themselves to be nonconformists, but they are merely what the social critic Thomas Frank dubs “rebel consumers.” And that is the distinction that mitigates the authenticity of the hipster. The initially authentic waves of the hippie and the hipster may have indeed been countercultural. The members may have once held progressive political views, anti-consumerist values and a host of deviant behaviors to go against the grain. But once these movements are sucked up into the mainstream, they simply constitute another diluted niche. The original values make way for the more traditional ones.

The key value that these hipsters refuse to surrender is consumerism as distinction. This value, among others, limits the hipster from becoming a radical countercultural movement. Augmenting their ever-expanding knowledge of Norse mythology at Starbucks – though a bit out there – still plays by the rules. Only when the hipsters settle for an unmarketable pool of cultural capital can they become unique. Truly radical notions would be to grow and prepare one’s own organic coffee beans, rent books from the library, wear outdated clothing and to start an effective grassroots political campaign. Their air of superiority may then be warranted because we would have to question our values. But such is not the case. Hipsters simply constitute an arrogant subculture that pretends to go against the grain, when they merely obey our values in a slightly abnormal way. For now, they’re sipping Starbucks lattes, buying more Kerouac off of Amazon, hunting for new scarves and stamping Obama stickers on to their cars. Hipsters could be the true rebels that they pretend to be, but they’re merely consumer rebels – hardly rebels at all.

Surrendering distinction through consumerism is hard in a world that judges based on looks. The hipsters would again be stuck at the uncomfortable place they occupied before, in which they knew so much but had no means to express this fountain of knowledge. Until they cease to consume distinction, hipsters need not hold their chins up so high — they’re not onto anything new.

Brandon Sides is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].