At Least Three Reasons to Care about Hipsters

tim a (among other commenters on Peter’s post from last night) asks the sort of question that deserves to be answered:

I love the seriousness of so much of this blog (including some Suderman contributions), but have no idea why any serious person (including myself) would be engaging this conversation….

We truly are at a world-historical moment that’s been building for generations. Who the hell cares who’s a “legit hipster?”

Obviously there are two questions here, the question of “Why should the hipster matter to me?” and that of “Why don’t we stick to the serious questions and ‘helpful’ analysis and skip the insidery, esoteric cultural stuff?” If you don’t think the first question is even worth asking, I urge you to skip to my answer to the second. If you don’t think the second is worth asking, check out commenter c.t.h’s spot-on answer to the first:

it boils down to a question of where a generation of educated, privileged, creative class sorts of people are ending up. As a group, those who wind up being hipsters tend to have a good deal of opportunity, so if hipsterism is a kind of psychological/cultural zombie state (suggested by the Time Out New York article, and the Adbusters article from a couple years ago “Hipsters: The Dead End of Western Civilization”) then there is a vast amount of potential being wasted.

I’d add that, for better or for worse, “hipster” seems to be the dominant archetype/stereotype for this generation. It’s not mainstream, but neither was “hippie” or “punk” or “greaser” or “grunge,” all of which enjoy outsized significance in our collective memory. Years from now, when high school student councils declare the Tuesday before Homecoming “00’s Day” and tell everyone to dress up accordingly, the boys will wear skinny ties and skinny jeans and the girls will wear tunics, leggings and Uggs. They will have gotten mixed up about the Uggs, but the only teacher with the chutzpah to make a comment to this effect will be greeted with a class-wide hush and the wide-eyed question: “Miz Gould, were you a…hipster…back then?” The answer will not matter then either, but the question will endure, only the verb tense changing.

But it’s c.t.h.‘s point that’s more important to my answer to the second question, which speaks more to the implicit critique of anything that doesn’t seem important to this “world-historical moment” than it does to anything in particular about Peter’s post or tim’s response.

Those of us who routinely write about “culture,” including cultural ephemera, do so exactly because we’re trying to figure out what (if anything) its impact will be on wider society and the way we live our own lives. Culture routinely has a more immediate impact on us than politics does, but it’s often harder to pin that impact down because it’s more subtle and variable (which also means that people are more likely to disagree on what’s important based on where they live, who they interact with, etc.) It’s a vicious cycle, to a certain extent: when no one is aggressive in calling attention to something in culture and explaining what its significance is, people get progressively more resistant to the idea that anything cultural is really that lasting or important — because they certainly can’t see what its significance could be!

Just as newspaper or magazine columnists (or even bloggers, though I find the column to be a more analogous form than the post) take the events of the last week or two and try to ask themselves “What is important here? What might it mean for the future? What should we do next?”, cultural critics—the ones I like and respect most, at least—are examining each contemporary moment for the narratives that actually define our age and who we are in it. It’s a process somewhere between doing a puzzle and panning for gold. This is why, for example, Tom Wolfe (one of this blog’s secular patron saints) has succeeded so well, and while David Brooks seems to generate conversations in the blogosphere more consistently than any other New York Times columnist. Everyone loves to hate newspaper “trend pieces,” but they often end up talking about them around the proverbial water cooler anyway — because “trend pieces” hint at significance, and even sometimes try to address it, but they’re rarely well enough sourced or thought through to do a decent job of it.

And, in fairness, it is incredibly hard to do well. When I wrote for Culture11, I’m sure that I was responsible for a few of the pieces tim a. thought were “garbage” because of their “attempted ‘hipsterness.” But they weren’t aspiring to “hipsterness” at all. Far from it! I was trying to explain these phenomena in a way that didn’t exclude people who’d never heard of them, but held insights even those who were more familiar wouldn’t have thought of before. I don’t mind being called out for my (numerous) errors of execution. Using consumer products to read the national zeitgeist is generally a tall order.

But it’s also a tall order to, say, use a series of posts over the course of years to articulate a dystopian theory of the “pink police state,” or perform an autopsy of local journalism — to name just two of the grand endeavors contributors to this blog have taken on. We wouldn’t do these things if we didn’t think there was something worth finding there. “Seriousness” should be about the purpose to which we’re putting a metaphorical microscope, and the rigor of the examination, not the specimen in the slide under the metal clips.