Between apathy and activism: In search of the elusive hipster

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Spotted near Occupy Wall Street in New York. (Photo: Steve Rhodes / flickr)

There's no cultural milieu that resonates more anxiety than all the policing going on around what exactly is a 'hipster.' Their style, their motifs, their beverage preferences; we talk about them like they're not in the room. But they are.

Generally speaking, a hipster -- which I would loosely define as one who engages in an underground image not only for the purpose of standing out, but also to feel a sense of superiority -- is an urban middle-class phenomenon. Emerging in the 1990s, the hipster is known for an enthusiasm for alternative products and strange aesthetics, often developing distaste when these products enter the mainstream. 

What's most distressing is the lack of official recognition or identity of the hipster. Since it's both a pejorative and an everyday term encompassing an entire lifestyle of certain individuals, it's worrisome enough for the young adult demographic to spend a significant amount of time fretting about who is who. 

Here's my understanding of a subculture. It offers an alternative from both social and political conventions and actively provides a lifestyle subverting the status quo and working on a mélange of methods to change it. The hippies, the beatniks, hip-hop and punk music -- these countercultures provided something socially innovating at the time, only to be eventually co-opted by the market and sold back to a disenfranchised youth. 

What makes a hipster different? Supposed neutrality.

The problem with assigning hipsters a subculture of their own is that their political relevancy is too ambiguous to claim true counterculture vitality. Since much of the hipster aesthetic is, in parts at least, taken from other subcultures and time periods, it differs in that it doesn't take root in pioneering a social movement. Their fashionable emblems of activism are just that, emblems that have been relieved of their rebellious synergy that transform the visibility of a youth driven culture into holier-than-thous and snarky attitudes in competitive costumes. 

In the Adbusters article "Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization," Douglas Haddow laments the past capacity of prior subcultures: "An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization -- a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning." 

But surely this superficiality is not a new phenomenon. 

Mark Greif, in the New York Timesuses theory established by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to look at the competitive vibes of hipster culture. 

According to Greif, Bourdieu dedicated his life to exposing the myth around upper class pretension and cultural capital. He extended a similar theory to the class dynamics of hipsters. 

"Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up."

He parallels this to hipster dynamics of cool and uncool, mainstream and alternative. And he effectively broadens the scope of social competition beyond 21st century hipsters. 

Are hipsters truly a sign of our times, doomed to lambast whatever is not close to the fringe, all the while unaware of what their Che Guevara shirts and kefiyahs used to represent? Or is there something salvageable in their outlook for movement building? 

Though the hipster is an amalgam of prior subcultures, ironic and ambiguous enough for everyone else to wonder where they truly stand, the commodification of subcultures has left the 21st century with a suspicion over much of the aesthetics of the left. Despite the definite apathy, owned by some hipsters and evaded by lifestyle politics, there has to be some longing for political action.

Ilie Mitaru challenges Haddow's take on hipsters in a subsequent Adbusters piece.

"His path may not have been inspired by revolutionary ideas as much as a search for personal meaning. But ultimately, motivations matters little if the roads lead to the same place."

All sorts of reasons motivate activists -- guilt, anger and hope, among others. Clearly personal meaning needs more depth in order to survive, but it is a start and one to be validated, else it definitely won't be channeled. 

I've been told I live in a breeding ground for hipsters, here in East Vancouver. But when I look around, it's hard for me to detect those fashionable from those actually doing the organizing.

So maybe it's time to take a break from stewing over who is a counterproductive hipster, and just try to manifest social change with whoever turns up. Maybe we'll be surprised.


Tania Ehret recently joined rabble as a contributing editor. She's been involved in all sorts of fun organizing around Vancouver, from participation in the anti-war movement to opposition to the Enbridge Pipeline. She finished Langara College in Peace and Conflict Studies and has had reports published in Socialist Worker. She believes deeply in melding the worlds of social justice and multimedia/arts, making activism accessible to as many people as possible. 

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