Deborah Talbot takes a look at hipsters and asks, from the perspective of subcultural analysis, what exactly are they all about, and should we be quite so mean to them?
Anyone who lives in East London, as I used to until very recently, will be familiar with the term hipster, the (normally male) figures of the shaped hairstyle, unkempt beard, plaid shirt and tight trousers, serving coffee or being served coffee. There are variations on the theme, but that’s the stereotype. What is remarkable is the degree of hostility they attract. Hipster is a term of derision, spoken of with a curl of the lip and a roll of the eye. It is, as Michael Gosse points out in an essay called Creative Bodies: Hipsters, Clothing and Identity, a label applied by the out-group and not one adopted by the subculture.
For years, this abject hatred was no more than a matter of rhetoric. Then, in 2015 the Cereal Killer Café in Whitechapel found themselves at the receiving end of an aggressive protest declaring that the good people of the East End were saying they had no right to exist. Their crime? Setting up a small business that sold over 120 types of cereal from around the world for up to £4.40 (for a large bowl). That, and looking like hipsters. It was enough to declare them deliverers of gentrification, responsible for oppressing the poor of the East End.
It didn’t help their cause that they were unapologetic about their inability to single-handedly eliminate poverty from the East End, just as one might expect from two self-proclaimed working-class blokes from Belfast making good. The liberal or conservative middle-classes never have forgiven the lack of sentimentality and guilt with which working-class people think about poverty, making money, and ostentatious displays of affluence.
So Class War, presumably inspired by a hatchet job from Channel 4 News, which had made the Café a target, organised a protest against gentrification. As Gary Keery (one of the founders) said on Facebook about Symeon Brown’s (from Channel 4’s News) reportage of their opening day on the 12th December 2014:
“You obviously don’t understand business if you think I don’t have to put a mark-up on what I sell. It may be the poorest borough in London but let’s not forget canary wharf is also in this borough but I am the one to blame eh? I am from one of the most deprived area in Belfast so me and my family know all about poverty but haven’t had to blame the small business owners in the area for it, I have been taught a great work ethic and have made it this far without blaming small business owners trying to better themselves and make a future for themselves… If you want someone to solve the poverty crises in London I don’t think I’m the man to do that as I am too busy trying to cure Ebola and get Kim Kardashian to keep her clothes on. Also you didn’t even pay me for the cereal which you could so easily afford with your overpriced river island suit so I will send you a bill for the extortionate £3.20.”
And of course, as Gosse reminds us, the original hipsters were a ‘working-class anti-establishment movement’ living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York in the early 2000s. What I’m saying, therefore, is that hipsters don’t all have to be middle-class gentrifiers.
And what of the protesters? They got outed in the gutter press for being a selection of ‘middle-class academics’. That’s probably not very fair, as you can still find working-class people in academia though sightings are increasingly rare. There is something unusual though about anti-gentrification protests. Heather Horn, writing in the Atlantic, looked at research from the US, which suggests that anti-gentrification protests are not led by long-term residents or the poor, but the first wave of gentrifiers. Their purpose? To try and hold onto the ‘symbols’ the neighbourhood they moved to, whether that is a strong working-class or an ethnic identity, which gentrification threatens to sweep away. It is itself a search for authenticity and inclusion, albeit a doomed one, since they will be swept away ultimately by finance capital.
Their anger is not necessarily shared by ‘native’ populations. The Economist argues that the effects of gentrification do filter through to existing populations and is welcomed, though we could question their stance because it is, after all, the Economist. We should celebrate hipsters as they bring jobs and money into an area, they say. Sensible voices have said that problem is not neighbourhood improvement, but the skewed nature of the housing market that makes improvement and wealth feel like an assault on identity. Of course, if you are lucky enough to have owned a house in the gentrifying area, the general trend is to pocket the money and retire to Essex like you’ve wanted to for twenty years.
Although…I do like Sarah Schulman’s laments on the closure of mental space or accommodations of wild differences that occurs with gentrification, explored in her book The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination.
Folk devils and moral panics
Back to hipsters and how much people dislike them. One wonders whether the originators of such venom remember the history of youth subcultures? Subcultures were never anti-capitalist per se. They could be about a whole range of cultural symbols: social change or social accommodation. This ambiguity always meant they attracted criticism, with few exceptions, from the ‘political left’ for not being radical enough and distracting attention from the cause of revolution, while simultaneously being targeting by the media and right-wing opinion for their cultural difference. Remember the concept of ‘moral panics’?
But subcultures are not always a point of resistance. They channel and amplify aspects of contemporary culture, in a way that parodies, finger points, and consequently alarms. Ethnographers, in response, set about the task of getting inside a culture to empathetically reveal their meaning and purpose. Rather than making bogus claims about hipsterism being a Trojan horse for gentrification, perhaps we should try and do the same.
So what do they represent?
The search for ‘authenticity’
Hipsters are often referred to as having ‘style over substance’ or prioritising cultural assemblage over radical statement. In other words, they put clothes before ideas, and it’s all a pose. Like most youth cultures, however, hipsterism is characterised by a search for authenticity. It is about finding a way to live among all the noise of consumerism, the media, and the overworked ‘bullshit’ economy.
In an ethnographic study of so-called hipsters in Union Square and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Sarah Oquendo argues that hipsters are both impossible to define, despite visual similarities, and actively resist definition. They seem driven by a quest for authenticity, and perhaps are savvy enough to try and resist imposed representations (from the media, who, as Stan Cohen pointed out, do as much to shape notions of subculture as the participants themselves). Much of the conscious struggle of the ‘hipster’ is with this search for authenticity and a tense re-examination of identity in a media and digital age.
Of course, the search for authenticity looks very much like fakery, and always will, precisely because we can never achieve authenticity. Authenticity, or a desire to get beneath the surface, assumes that we can access a self outside of the conditioning or context of our society. We, of course, cannot. But, the very act of seeking a ‘true self’ is transformative, in so far as it precipitates social or cultural change by pointing out a contradiction in a visually compelling form. The hipster, therefore, tells us much about our society just by absorbing the details of their clothing and culture. So what can we learn from it?
Politics is dead
Hipsters represent the irrelevance of political life. They do this by congregating in and colonising, small urban spatial zones. Think Portlandia (the satirical comedy series), Williamsburg (Brooklyn), Hoxton, Shoreditch, Dalston and Chatsworth Road. Think the interpellation of the hipster café. Living in a hipster zone is a statement of mistrust about contemporary democracy. It is not possible to live anywhere and find acceptance and tolerance. Instead, we huddle in small zones of cultural safety. By creating zones of hipster culture, it is also possible to keep out the misunderstanding of wider society. In short, hipster culture is saying ‘we don’t need you,’ ironically of course.
Embracing ‘alternative’ consumption
Portlandia made jokes about people who lived out of bins as part of a radical statement about lifestyle. It is probably true to say however that hipsters are much more at one with consumer culture. In the UK at least, the products of hipster culture are rarified and middle-income expensive. Coffee and cake will set you back £5 or more, for example, as opposed to the £2 in London Portuguese and Italian cafes (and hipsterism doesn’t embrace ethnic diversity, though it is not devoid of diversity, like many subcultures). The consumer products are home made, home spun, wrought of wood and organic cotton, a cottage industry of high-priced goods. These small businesses are started by hipsters, and they are the alternative entrepreneurs in the hipster zones described above. It is at once a statement against high growth high waste economies, and a rejection of the myth of economic cleanliness of more radical subcultures (who always embraced profit when they came of age because a person has to eat). Hipsterism isn’t middle-class, but it is aspirational.
Henry Alford, writing for the New York Times, takes an amusing look at hipster culture in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, by becoming one for a short while. While there is much to poke fun at, he also points out its positive attributes:
“I like this generation of young folk. Their food is terrific, and they find even the most insignificant things “awesome.” I admire their adventuresome quality vis-à-vis fixed-gear bike-riding and their non-prudishness in the face of nudity. Yes, their attention to detail on the fronts of locavorism and beard care can verge on the precious, but I’d much rather have a young Abe Lincoln serve me his roof-grown mâche than I would have an F. Scott Fitzgerald vomit all over my straw boater. Today’s twentysomethings are self-respecting, obvi…If every youth movement says as much about the status quo as it does about itself, then this new eco-conscious, agrarian-seeming, hair-celebrating nexus of locavorism is maybe telling us that the rest of us need to plunge our fingers into the rich loam of the earth, literally and metaphorically.”
The artisan string and wood carved objects are sensual and speak to a desire for uniqueness and quality over mass-consumption. Go into any hipster artefact shop and it will delight the senses. I wonder if it increases our attachments to consumer objects or simply enhances a more – perhaps unwelcome – relationship to the world of things? The mass production of things under capitalism has an ironic side effect of making us careless about material objects, which has both an ascetic and a wasteful side to it.
The networked economy
Hipsters are almost the living embodiment of Richard Florida’s description of the new creative class. Industries of the creative economy abound in hipster zones, all flashing glass and hot-desking. Yet it is probably right to say that, in many ways, the hipster embodies what Paul Mason and others refer to as the new freelance and networked economy. Wood hewn pens sit alongside shiny Apple products. A restless generation, separated from work security, sits in cafes hammering out research, reports, digital content, design, and other ephemera of the new economy. Freelancing and small business are always seen as the enemy of progress, and the unions constantly strike deals to eliminate it. In many ways, though, freelancing is a lifestyle choice, a bid for freedom and independence. It is, like political choices, a turn away and under. Money is sacrificed for liberty. How dangerous and culturally challenging is a generation unaccustomed to the normative and disciplinary influence of workplaces?
Gentrification as ‘normal service resumed’
Hipsters are mere symbols of gentrification, a cycle of the valorisation of free or lost urban zones that eventually get turned over to capital. They, with their free roaming entrepreneurialism, take advantage of regeneration, as do all parts of the population, if they can. Can they be said to be the winners, though?
Take a trip back to Sharon Zukin’s work on gentrification, or even Jane Jacobs in 1962, and we see that the only winners are international finance capital who use cultural entrepreneurs to create value, only to eject them when no longer needed. They are the ones who introduce real cultural uniformity, and eventually signal the inevitable decline of an area. Note the endless discussions about the emptying out of central areas of London. Where does that end, do you think?
Hipsters make a buck along the way, or sometimes more, but then they move on. In many ways, hipsterism is a parody of this process. It’s a parody because the shiny glass buildings of finance capital sit alongside artisan string. Expensive suits sit alongside straggly beards. It’s a funny kind of capitalism.
In conclusion, I think we should be less hard and more observant. Hipsters, like all previous subcultures, are telling us something about our society, and our cities, whether they know it or not.