Culture

What Was The Hipster? A Sociological Investigation, edited by n+1

What Was The Hipster?: A Sociological Investigation BY n+1, Mark Greif, Christian Lorentzen, Jace Clayton, Reid Pillifant, Rob Horning, Jennifer Baumgardner, Patrice Evans, Margo Jefferson, Rob Moor, Christopher Glazek, Dayna Tortorici. n+1 Foundation. Paperback, 200 pages. $10.

"There should be no shame ever surrounding the love of or identification with a place, a way of life, a band, or a pair of glasses."

—Maria Bustillos, from The Awl's "Being a Hipster Is An Excellent and Wonderful Thing!"

It's difficult to get a grasp on What Was The Hipster? This is due in part to the very structure of the book: Divided into three sections, it includes a transcript of an April 2009 panel on the death of the hipster, five responses to the panel (two published at other media outlets, three elicited by n +1), and a final section of four essays loosely taking up the volume's titular question. For the reviewer it's a bit of an ouroboros—panel leads to critique to defense. People are still talking about hipsters—UCLA hosted a panel on them just last month—but the topic seems to be increasingly self-referential. Is there anything left to say?

n+1, a New York-based literature and culture journal, called the 2009 panel on the notion that hipsters (whose official birth as a subculture the authors date in 1999—based on, at various moments, Richard Lloyd's ethnography of Chicago's Wicker Park in the late 1990s, the WTO protests in Seattle, and jokingly, the high school graduation date of one of the panelists) have now had their 10-year run. Yes, this work sounds suspiciously in the wheelhouse of sociologists, of whom, the editors are quick to note, the volume contains none. But never mind that. Let's look at this fucking hipster.

But no matter how hard you look at this book, there’s something missing. For one thing, the panel's transcript doesn't offer any sense of the audience's reaction. (I read most of Christian Lorentzen's essay wondering if he was getting laughs). The editors acknowledge a "persistent inability … to place the ‘hipster feminine,’” but the attempt to correct this sorely misses the mark. And finally, the book as a whole—with some exceptions—asks, but doesn't answer, questions of class and entitlement. It's this last point that rankles, not only because n + 1 has shown itself to be a journal that capably takes up such questions, but ultimately because this would have offered actual answers to the question of why hipsters are so easy to disdain.

To wit: n+1 editor Mark Greif, who edited the book (with Kathleen Ross and Dayna Tortorici), observes in his introduction that "the hipster represents what can happen to middle class whites, particularly, and to all elites generally, when they focus on the struggles for their own pleasures and luxuries […] rather than asking what makes their sort of people entitled to them." In a response essay, Patrice Evans, creator of the blog The Assimilated Negro, concurs:

Hipsterism strikes me as what happens when white folks become aware of power and inequity—but then say, 'Well, what are we supposed to do: Throw our hands up and mug for the camera?' Any relinquishing of power is inevitably an aesthetic gesture.

Evans runs with that premise—contrasting hipsters with the conversation about "Us and Them" that occurs within hip-hop. Manifesta co-author Jennifer Baumgardner similarly offers a self-reflective take on where she fits into the hipster taxonomy, but I wish she'd discussed how hipsterism fits in with her role as a feminist writer and activist.

I was utterly puzzled by the inclusion of Robert Moor's essay on douchebags as the opposite of the hipster (Hot tip for Moor: Nothing makes you more of a douchebag than a story involving yourself traveling to India. See also: Elizabeth Gilbert). And given the reasoned thoroughness of most of the essays, and the assertion that n +1 intended to go beyond the cliché of skinny jeans, Dayna Tortorici's essay is baffling. If the hipster is about appearances and consumption, she argues, identifying the female hipster is more difficult because society already reduces women to eye candy. Somehow this leads Tortorici to conclude that to understand the "hipster feminine" we should consider the "presentation" of the female hipster appearance via party-snapshots and self-photography. Hipster women are photographed women. I fail to see how this is any less insulting than just leaving women out of the conversation altogether.

Tortorici’s essay is also marred by an uneven survey of visual hipster culture. She name-checks the collaboration between conceptual artist Jenny Holzer and the sneaker line Keds announced in June 2010, but fails, oddly, to note that while Polaroid film was discontinued in 2008, it was back in production again by March 2010, thanks to a private company formed by ex-Polaroid employees. The reissued film retails for approximately twice the cost of the original. Or make it easy on yourself and download the Hipstamatic iPhone app ($1.99) on your $299 iPhone, which allows you to produce images with that blown-out, square-framed allure. Once again, the most interesting analysis of the hipster surfaces from the simplest calculations.

For all its failings, the volume gives a recorded history to a decade that has largely been chronicled—until any given site goes dark—online. I was asked by a friend while reading the book if Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes had always been "kind of crazy rightwing." And, yes, thanks to Mark Greif's "Epitaph for the White Hipster," I was reminded of Vanessa Grigoriadas's investigation of the same back in 2003 for the New York Times. (McInnes, incidentally, was a panelist on the L.A. restaging.)

The true gem of the book is the final essay, Christopher Glazek's look at conflict between Hasidism and hipsters in South Williamsburg over a bike lane. As usual, hipsters come off as entitled brats, but then, so do the anti-bike-lane Hasidic Jews, who complain about what is ultimately an improvement to transportation safety. "At their most extreme," he writes "hipsters and Hasids present rival heresies, dueling rejections of bourgeois modernity." Like Evans, Glazek wisely uses an actual conflict and examples to ground his piece.

The volume raises plenty of questions I wish it had answered. Why are all the women writers relegated to the response essays? Why are we debating hipsters, when we could be talking about the growing levels of inequality in the United States? Why has n + 1 published this as a book, when everyone knows hipsters <3 the internetz? (Something I would love to see: a Carles/n+1 collaboration.) As Jace Clayton asked on the panel, "What are we not talking about when we're talking about the hipster?"

Let's be honest: The only thing easier than hating the hipster is discussing him. And god knows making a profit in the magazine industry is an uphill battle. I hope this book sells piles of copies. And that n+1 uses that profit to put out an issue on something really overlooked. Like, say, the structures that enforce inequality. They could get a woman to edit it.

Phoebe Connelly is web editor for the American Prospect.