N+1 held launched Mark Greif et al’s “What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Study” this past Friday. Greif, a professor at the New School and N+1 editor, brings the philosophical discourse on hipsters to an academic level in this series of essays and commentaries.
It’s important work. Hipsters, though the butt of many jokes, are the occasion for engagement with our time in history. Though not everyone may have been a hippie, for example, that group is still a locus for important questions that define a historical period. By identifying or not identifying with the group– analyzing the literary, musical, fashion, philosophical, and psychoanalytical streams present in it–we explore what we are and aren’t members of. It’s a locus, an opportunity, an occasion to explore how we’re participating in history.
Hipsters, for better or worse, are a window to our own moment. Getting clear about what they are will help us get clear about what we are. Greif’s project helps us do this. It covers important ground. But we should go further.
A few weeks ago I wrote my most-read blog post ever, a short essay called “Hipster Defined” where I define hipsters set-theoretically as the group whose members believe they’re not members of any group. This definition entails a formal set-theoretic paradox (what I call the Hipster’s Paradox) since hipsters compose a group, but to be a member of this group one must believe one is not a member of any group whatsoever.
This definition also entails an existential explanation for the term’s pejorative use. Here we are, a group of people trying not to conform but doing so together according to rules we must follow. We’re non-conformists conforming. In that sense the hipster is absurd: there’s a clear reality–that we’re part of a group–but we behave and speak as though we’re not members of any group.
In this way I found Greif’s account histiographically rich but definitionally clunky. His approach doesn’t offer a clear definition. Rather, in line with most of the critical hipster cannon, he provides lists of colorful exemplars alongside a variety of relevant social theories.
In addition to being complex (and possibly ironically self-reflexive) I find this approach politically deflating. It doesn’t offer anything for the future. It doesn’t tell us what to do next, what to make of this hipsterism, how to evolve into something new.
But there is a way to do this. Let’s say we are, in fact, members of a group whose members don’t believe they’re members of any group. If we identify as hipsters, if each of us says “Yes. I am a hipster” then we’ll no longer be absurd. We’d recognize ourselves as being members of a groWe’ll recognize our place in history and achieve a radical authenticity. Our public selves will merge with our private selves and we can just be. We can live in the world, be in it without lies or apathy or disappointment. This would be a psychoanalytic revolution. We’d feel a release. A relief. The heaviness of the hipster would dissolve into self co-incidence and self-centricity.
It doesn’t end there. When I admit I’m the member of a group whose members don’t believe they’re in any group, I’m not part of the group anymore. I believe I’m the member of a group. The hipster definition is violated. I no longer fit it. I can move on. Once I admit I’m a hipster I’m no longer a hipster. I’m just myself. And this is a radically human conclusion: I’m a contradiction. I’m part of a group and not part of it. I’m free of society but still bound by it.
At the book release I told Greif about my argument. An extremely warm individual, he laughed and nodded and took it seriously. He said my idea begins where his book ends, that he can’t admit he’s a hipster because he just can’t identify with the group. He said this was a function of his age. He told me that he gave a lecture on hipsters at a university recently and during the question/answer period a young student, obviously a hipster, asked him: “I’m a hipster, what should I do?” Greif said he couldn’t sympathize with her. He told her, “I’m not sure.”
That student had the answer. She admitted she’s a hipster. In that moment of self-awareness she produced the possibility for an answer to her own question. When you admit you’re a hipster you’ll no longer be one and the time for a new moment of authenticity arrives. You’re yourself. You’re free. Celebrate this! If you’re a hipster and you know it, clap your hands!