Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hipsters as economic class

The pressure to categorize yourself has become obsessive. No sooner have you decided whether you are a Mayfair Mercenary or a Sloane Ranger than you have to check your NAFF or WALLY tendencies and consider whether you have what it takes to be a YUPPIE, a Yap, or a Young Fogey. If you want a grand theory for this phenomenon, you could, I suppose, suggest that it is linked to a firm belief that our present status is unlikely to change in these difficult economic times and that, therefore, we should hang on tightly to what we have got.
Sociologist Laurie Taylor, in The Times, 3 June 1985.

The terms quoted above seem somewhat foreign (what the hell is a Yap?) but you could easily substitute the terms with ones such as "hipster" or "tween". These are not simply social signifiers, but rather, economic demographics. They are markets.

I've noticed that many cultural critics are bemoaning the state of culture in the 2000s and on. After the mid 90s, nothing seems to have changed other than rampant 9/11 imagery in every movie. Music has stayed the same, fashion has mostly settled down, and film seems to regurgitate the same thing every year. Yet the only subculture that seems particularly attractive to cultural critics as a subject is the hipster.

The hipster hasn't changed since the early 2000s when the New York Times ran a feature on Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In summary, the hipster is a conscious rebellion against the primary modes of capitalism and consumption. Rather than conspicuously accumulate name brand fashions, hipsters reach into the vast store of the past in order to cultivate an image of anti-consumerism. They ride fixed gear bicycles (surely an inefficient mode of transportation in large urban areas due to the fixed gear) and drink terrible cheap beer.

The lifestyle is a manifestation of the difficult economic times of the generation. Rather than be embarrassed about their distressed bank accounts and inability to climb the economic ladder as their parents did, hipsters proudly project their fixed economic position.

However, as hipsterdom evolves, the subculture becomes disproportionately complicated. The subjective signifiers of authenticity and inauthenticity are made volatile due to the co-optation by the free market and the re-deployment through corporate fashion avenues.

Thus, the hipster, already concerned with authenticity, becomes a fractured subject. The co-optation of the past's subculture combined with the rapacity of late capitalism creates a subject concerned primarily with irony and pastiche; the hipster is the ultimate Jamesonion subject.

At this point, even the discussion of the hipster within the mainstream cultural discourse is exhausting and exhaustive. Every journalist and every magazine has attempted to understand, define, and categorize what is a hipster. I'm not helping by writing even this small of a piece.

I would contend that the desire to categorize the hipster into a cultural/social signifier is related to the inflexibility of the social classes. As the middle classes realize that their parents' dream of children doing better will not and cannot come true, the economic ladder only allows for downwards mobility. What better way to accept this awful reality by ironically embracing the economic fall?

The advent of neoliberalism and the subsequent deregulation of markets allowed for the rich to get richer and the middle classes to get poorer. Thus, the less economically advantaged classes have physically marked themselves, allowing for the visual identification of the middle class by dint of hipsterdom. Class stratification deepens due to the categorization and easy identification of the lower classes.

In this way, the process of self-cultivation as a hipster is an atomizing process, re-producing the anxiety of authenticity in order to maintain the discipline of hipsterdom. It's simply a way for larger market forces that benefit the rich to reinforce class stratification.

Aestheticism and authenticity are merely tools of the market at this point. This is why I find any discussion of subcultures and authenticity to be so asinine in our entirely globalized and deregulated world. Social categories are simply demographics from which to extract profit. Gone are the days of counterculture movements! They've been replaced with overlapping markets!

No comments: