RoC 3: Masticating On "The Hipster"

(I can't finish this one and yet so much of what I believe is in here, badly expressed, that I must put this out...) 

A few months ago, the discussion of the "hipster" phenomenon reached, well, not quite a fever pitch but a temporarily higher level of intensity due to the publishing of an article in Adbusters. As much as I appreciated some of the sentiments behind the article, I always felt it did not dig deep enough, that it was a litany of conclusions without any evidence to back them up, other than the anecdotal references to cliches about hipster fashion (and, contrary to the article, there were already people drinking PBR in v-necks a decade ago). 

I want to try and discuss the issue with more sympathy, and to try and see things from more of a "hipster" perspective. After all, this is my generation. I am a twenty-something living in Brooklyn with a blog, and I did have the Matador Records catalog mailed to me before I reached high school. If I dressed fashionably, didn't have an arbitrary preference for hotel bars instead of dives, and didn't rebel against my early-teen indie past in my late teens, I could be one of the mocked on Hipster Runoff.

The map 

In the first essay in Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation, the author refers to Borges' story about a map that grows so large and detailed that it covers the entire terrain and, in doing so, obscures it to the extent that it is as if the terrain never existed. This definition has numerous effects. First, it provides an image to define the state that eveyone in the West, if not worldwide, lives in, which has been called mediation. Secondly, it redefines the concept of the authentic as something that can be seen but not recovered (because the map does define that which lies underneath it, even thought its very existence prevents us from touching below its surface). 

What we call the post-modern era, especially in terms of the arts has been the process of drawing this map. When our feet passed from touching on the ground to touching the map underneath it, the map was not completed. The process of mediation, ie the process of the map enveloping the terrain, was the precondition for our ability to finish the map in its every last detail. The process of the completion of the map has been the process of delinieating everything underneath it by sketching it out. Our access to the past has become perfect. 

Especially in music, which is the art I am most capable of discussing, most recent attempts at creating the new have failed. Why is this? Not that we can no longer access what is under the map but only the map itself, the process of innovation is only the redrawing of the map. There can be no more mountains, nor rivers, but only the facsimile that the redrawn contours of two-dimensional space can achieve. Even when seemingly new ideas come about, the culture does not change, there is no depth, and the new renderings on the map, being not mountains and rivers, being not physical, weighty, can easily be redrawn in the next hour. 

The process of criticism over the last decade or so especially, with the proliferation on genre-naming, of delineation, has been to draw and redraw countours. The vitality of Modernist criticism, with its standing-on-the-moutaintop invocations for the new, the radical has been replaced by detail, specialization, by the fixing of lines instead of the call to abolish them. For all of the genre-hopping of recent decades, the result has not been more innovation because the hopping has happened across the virtual borders of the map. The effort required to traverse real space that was required before the map existed has been replaced by the ease of skipping about a flat and concacted space. This ease of travel, requiring little commitment, is the reason that hybrids have lost their charge and excitement. It is no longer a physical act, the literal construction of bridges between formerly intraversable space. 

The focus thus far has been on the horizontal plane, on the drawing and erasing of lines, but what of the vertical? What of the space underneath, the space we used to walk? It does still exist, even if it is difficult if not imossible to access. That aspect of hauntology that is the regard for derelict buildings and artifacts from the Modernist past, the places in our cities that have not been mapped, is certainly proof that there are ways to get (temporarily) off the grid, but, although walking these spaces and thinking on them is certainly not futile, these spaces that are off of the map literally do not function. They have not been mapped because they are not part of the new mediated space. So any fetishization of these spaces is non-functional in the same way. Sure, they assuage the nostalgia of some for the lost vitality and historicity of the past, but they do not function as alternatives for what is so distastful. They are ways out, but not ways in. Any intervention that is against the map must build on top of it, must put physical space on top of it, instead of hiding out in its holes. 

But the fact that there are holes allows the ones who seek them a priveliged access to the world of construction of the past that must inspire the constructions of the future. 

The map, conceived vertically, allows discussion of another theme, namely the intransitive nature of art. As I have noted before, all problems are problems of reception. The problem of the hipster is the problem of the inability of the art of the past, especially Modern art, to survive through the map as an agent of change. The map, a drawing, is an aesthetic rendering, and thus anything seen on the map can only be processed in this manner. The depth of this art of the past, the meaning and ideas behind it, does not get through. The only proper critique of the hipster lies in identifying the unwillingness of a group of people who know the map and all of its contours well, can travel its spaces with knowledge and ease, and yet never attempt to tear pieces out of it to see what is behind. The world superficial is appropriate and not at the same time. Used as a synonym for vapid, it is inappropriate. The effort required to be able to thrive in this horizontal space is its own challenge. It does require a serious commitment. Much of the critique of hipsterdom seems to come from those who have not acquired the knowledge and skill to traverse the horizontal space of the map. This is not a valid critique. A broad familiarity with art and popular culture, that is the province of the alpha hipster is a familiarity necessary just as much to the critics of this culture as its proponents. 

So what of what is underneath the map? Obiously, as we have seen, there are unmapped spaces that can be reached, but what of what is covered? I assert that, even if the past, Modernism, etc., can NOT be recovered, we can tear holes. Never enough holes to detroy the map (because others are in the constant process of redrawing), but certainly some. What can be recovered through this whole is not the sanctity or "authenticity" of the past, but its spirit, its desire. We can never truly remake what was made, but we can recover the motives in order to try and move forward. And these motives and desires, when recovered will not yield the same results as they did in the past. The desire for the authentic that exists now fails for this reason. It believes that simply depicting the look of the past will revive its spirit. The desire for the authentic that mistakes the past for its aesthtics and not for its desires cannot see past the map, is purely mediated, and therefore as far from the authentic as possible. 

That is not to say that those who tear into the map, and who touch real terrain, who may even live parts of their lives, days at a time, on the terrain below the map, are more authentic. Those that live in this way, who understand the desires of the past, understand that for so long, the animating ideas of past revolved around change. This past is the history of man changing nature. This is the past of great feats of engineering and design. This is Faust, Robert Moses, the long procession of manifestos that animated the centuries after the Enlightenment. Those with the ability to tear through the map know the terrain below was never fixed. It is only those who cannot see through the map that imagine a fixed terrain below, imagine it possible to recreate the past as if it was as it was for more than one second, for more than one person. 

But what of these people that can access the terrain underneath the past? What is their relationship to the hipster? Here we must bring back that old concept of the double. From a distance, these two are the same. Educated, both about the past and about "now". They own many of the same records, have seen many of the same films, even hold many similar opinions. But, for whatever reason, the non-hipster has, whether on purpose or not, has been able to break through the map to the terrain below. The resentment this person feels, the critique he levels, is at once the valid complaint of someone who sees his peers insufficient for not being able to cross from map to terrain, and who feels put-upon for having the lines redrawn around and above him. It is also invalid in the sense that it is taken personally, and also because many who can access the map believe in their own version of authenticity, which is just as problematic as that purely aesthetic authenticity that hipsterdom is so enamored of. 

Upon tearing through the map, many who arrive on the terrain below see it is not changing. Now that all effort goes into the process of redrawing above, nothing has happened below. They make the mistake of projecting this fixity as a permanency across the past and seek to preserve this stasis. They mistake the redrawing of contours as the redrawing of terrain itself. Denying both the change of the past, the fact that the terrain they seek to preserve was not always thus, and the change of the present, the work on the map, their concept of the authentic is as equally aesthetic as that of the hipsters they so detest. The only difference is the lack of mediation, which is no bonus; in both cases, only the surface is seen, just different surfaces. 

An example of this contrast can be seen in the different approaches of, say, Wynton Marsalis and what a stereotypical hipster band could be. While it was once said that the only tradition in jazz is innovation, what I have heard of Marsalis' early work seeks to fix the past at a certain moment. His opposition is avant-jazz, another, sadly, fixed aspect of the past. He is not only trying to recover the authenticity of the styles of past jazz, (in fact I do credit him with his own style, his own aesthetic) but also, by denying the avant-garde, is implicitly trying to recover practice as well (ie what chords can be used, how a jazz performance is structured). Contrast this, with, say a post-punk or country-rock revival group, which may go much further in both the exteremes of formal experimentation than Marsalis, but also in its recovery of the past as pure aesthetic (whether in clothing or which synthesizers are used, etc.). Maraslis lives on the real terrain under the map, and is only defined by its contours because he is unwilling or unable to change them, whereas the stereotypical hipster band cannot access the terrain below and is limited by the map itself, even as they are able to redraw and erase its marking as they see fit. In both cases, the ideas are not recovered, the drive is not recovered. In both cases, regardless of how enjoyable the music is on an aesthetic level, the feeling is that there is nothing at stake, either because no new physical structures will be erected, or because the map itself, as it is only a map, and constantly being redrawn, can hold no value, regardless of what happens to it.

They are redrawing the city. Yes, always. 

Gentrification is a part of hipster culture. There are certainly economic reasons for this, as most hipsters are young, aspire to live off of their creativity, and may not have well-paying jobs because of this. Be that as it may, the word gentrification is still used in an old manner with an old meaning that no longer holds. If we simply define it as the process of the working or welfare class being priced out of areas they took over during the suburbanization that occured in the middle of the 20th century, we would still not be satisfied with the term. Even if we add the racial dimension, we are still missing the point. The process of gentrification as conceived of above is no longer valid. The shifting of population across space is part of history. We can be critical of speculative real estate, and be sympathetic towards the disadvantaged as they are shuffled around the city by forces out of their control, even while they may be desprerately clinging to jobs they are compelled to move away further away from, but we have to see the process of gentrification as a symptom of larger problems. With a more even distribution of wealth, gentrification, as it is currently discussed, would slow to a crawl, if not stop altogether. Renters could buy instead, and those who wanted to stay somewhere would have the means to do so. 

Gentrification needs to be discussed in another way. Gentrification is the spreading of the mediating map to unmapped sections of the city. It is not that these areas are being recovered for the wealthy and white that is our primary concern, at least only for its own sake. As Koolhaas mentions in the book Mutations, when people move in from the suburbs back to the city, they bring their values of "predictability and control" with them. They are agents of mediation, which cannot be unworked. This is what I mean when I say the word gentrification is used mistakenly. People use it to describe a historical process, whereas the process now is ahistoricizing. 

"the terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons" 

The most valuable lesson that I remember from reading Marx and what he said about ideology is that "everyone has his reasons". This idea that corporate CEOs are evil and purposefully doing everyone wrong seems like a "Leftist" position. After all, it is critiquing capital, right? But it is a superficial one. The CEO of Coke was hired to expand Coke's market share. Capital is not intrinsically moral and corrupted by practice. It is rather instrinsically amoral and it is us who foolishly expect it to be anything else. Even the best public policy in a democracy with capitalism as its economic system is merely a better damn holding back impossible volumes of water. 

The idea that there is anything purposeful about the mediation of space and of ideas into art, things, is not a purposeful one. The admirable desire to find uncommdified space in all of its manifestations is the only desire left to those who cannot access the old desire for change to physical space, and the contruction and destruction that that requires. The change that this vanguard of sorts can achieve is only on a map, a map that is available to all the population, ie the nonhipsters. The fact that this map is so flat and easily traversible has accelerated the "changing same" of now, as hipsters try harder and harder to disappear into their own space, a space that, since it is flat, offers no place to hide. This is how hipsterdom accelerates the consumer culture it purports to detest. 

the seeds of the larger forms of capital lie in its smaller forms 

As any savvy navigator of consumer capitalism knows, the few "gems" left are hidden. In the case of Marx's Communist Manifesto, one of the more powerful statements he made is in a section of the book that few seem to read. In the last section, he derides petit bourgeouis socialism. He rightly understands the the larger forms proceed from the smaller. Remember ideology. Many of the "monstrous" extremes of corporate capital had their seeds in the simple thought "my store is doing pretty well. Perhaps it would be a wise investment to open another location". And so the transition of independant labels from small operations local in scope to internationalized farm teams for the majors, who, as they have allowed fewer and fewer to become players, have allowed the independent scene to thrive like never before. But the failure of the majors to "do their job", ie invest in artist development and use the power of promotions to bring truly worthy artists into the spotlight, has, as those artists are now independent artist, brought the indie labels ever closer into their orbit. The indies, picking up the scrappings of the majors, have become like majors themselves. They can no longer fulfill their purpose to subvert except by eating themselves. Anyone who imagines a healthy mainstream record industry that is undercuttable is kidding themselves. The major labels are a paradox: the heaviest nothing you can imagine. As record sales contiue to dry up and as they continue to push themselves further and further into the corner with their need for blockbusters that increasingly fail more spectacularly, they will collapse onto their catalogs and will become simply the best-capitalized reissue labels extant. They may also continue to serve, like the man in the grey flannel suit, as a straw man that indies can utilize to justify themselves, now that they cannot do it on music alone.


MATTYO said...

Great post, definitely think you are on to something here. There have been many valiant criticisms floating around about this topic that haven't really hit the mark. You manage to nail it. I hope that you continue to develop and expand upon this.

:-p said...

I appreciates the positive feedback on this one; I was worried that all it would accomplish is manifesting my OCD.