Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Reading: The Hipster in the Mirror

HipsterThe hipster.  Is there a more universally-derided yet barely definable term? It’s easy to say, “Oh you wear oversized glasses and skinny jeans, so you’re a hipster” or “Get your six-pack of PBR and your Sufjan vinyls off my porch, hipster!”  But are these people automatically hipsters?  Or is it a self-fulfilling thing?  Are hipsters only hipsters because we dub them so?

And why do we take the time and effort to label them as such?  Why do we scoff at their style, their music, their beards?  It’s their taste versus yours.  Should it really provoke such ire?

Mark Greif recently posed these questions in a New York Times essay entitled “The Hipster in the Mirror.”  What excited Greif more than the actual responses to a survey conducted about hipster was the trepidation and anxiety with which people participated at all:

“When we announced a public debate on hipsterism, I received e-mail messages both furious and plaintive. Normally inquisitive people protested that there could be no answer and no definition. Maybe hipsters didn’t exist! The responses were more impassioned than those we’d had in our discussions on health care, young conservatives and feminism. And perfectly blameless individuals began flagellating themselves: ‘Am I a hipster?’”

He sees the hipster rage as a sort of territorial battle, flamed by various socioeconomic conditions and perceptions similar to those outlined in Pierre Bourdieu’s 1979 book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.  Greif claims that “Bourdieu’s innovation, applicable here, was to look beyond the traditional trappings of rich or poor to see battles of symbols (like [hipster] boots and hats) traversing all society, reinforcing the class structure just as money did.”

Bourdieu’s deconstruction of twentieth-century French tastes and stereotypes aligns pretty well with the current “What’s the deal with hipsters?” conversation.  But why does the conversation exist at all?  Writes Greif: “The attempt to analyze the hipster provokes such universal anxiety because it calls everyone’s bluff.”

I hate it when people force me to confront flaws in my worldview.  I hate it because they’re usually right.