In Waylon Lewis’s short article 10 Signs You’re a True Hipster, he attempts to rehabilitate the term hipster from its popular, negative connotations.
Pejoratively, the term refers to someone who’s superficially obsessed with a certain sort of marketing and fashion and attitude.
We all know such someones and we know how fashionable, and easy, it is to hate on them. Mocking the group has become such a cliché that even my teenage daughter is years past her obsession with hipster jokes.
Q: How did the hipster burn his mouth?
A: He ate his pizza before it was cool.
Mocking hipsters is so passé it’s no longer hip.
Lewis wants to preserve the term’s positive connotations while expanding it so that it could apply roughly to that class of people who read and write for elephant journal, in whom many of his 10 Signs are likely to be present.
Lewis also wants to realign hipster with the original meaning of hip or hep, which Kerouac was inspired by when he described his tribe in On the Road as:
“the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
I’m writing in opposition to Lewis’s attempt. Hipster is best left alone for reasons I go into below and doing so exposes a very interesting, and vital, impulse that lies beneath.
Now it’s very un-hipster of me to take a stand on this point. Lewis’s article, like much of his writing, is self-conscious, ironic, funny, off-the-cuff and hip and, well, sort of hipster-y.
What good could possibly come from criticizing his idea in his own online magazine? What is hipster irony after all but a forestalling of any possible criticism? How can I criticize something that isn’t intended in a straightforward manner?
The hipster’s moustache both is, and isn’t, what it seems to be.
If you mock it, all you accomplish is to prove you aren’t in on the joke. But the wrong sort of compliment could also get you in trouble. The hipster’s moustache is self-consciously not the parody of 1970’s masculinity that it seems to be, yet somehow it is that parody and it’s also somehow cool in its own right. It eats its cake and has it too, but it also isn’t cake.
Hipster intention feints and jibes like a scrappy boxer. If you must acknowledge it at all, best keep it simple and noncommittal, just in case. So goes all of hipster fashion. It’s both a set of clothes, habits, preferences and accessories, and an attitude toward those things.
At it’s best, hipsterism is clever, self-deprecating, funny, a source of unending novelty and a constant re-appropriation of valuable things that common fashion has stripped of value—claiming them as hip once more or for the first time (that old 10-speed, chess club, grandpa’s straight razor, farming).
At its worst it neuters all seriousness by excess of irony and, despite a thin veneer of intellect, is as shallow as any other obsession with appearance and tribal association.
Lewis wants to keep the former and eschew the latter by distinguishing true, original, natural hipsters from…what? False hipsters? Trustafarian hipsters? Mere hipsters?
This last example highlights the problem with trying to alter the meaning of the term. It’s a perfectly good and irreplaceable word. It points to a very real, novel social phenomenon. If it lost this association with non-true hipsters, then what word would contain the former meaning? If we rehabilitate hipster to mean simply a hip person (‘in’ with ‘us’, sharing ‘our’ values), then what do we call the person who presently deserves the label?
We will have stripped meaning out of language, not added to it.
But that’s not why I wrote this response. I mean who cares, right? Why could this possibly matter? Let’s have a quick laugh at Lewis’s jokes, nod at the acknowledgment of our shared values and move on. Why am I debating the value of this verbal moustache?
Well, here’s why. Because the impulse to tinker with the term exposes real issues.
Such as: What do we call us? Who are we, anyway? (We know us when we see us, don’t we?) And why are we here, reading and writing for this elephant journal and similar mindful publications, seeking virtual community that shares our values and experience of the world? And why do the mocking implications of the term hipster rankle us?
These are very good questions and Lewis’s article hits on them without taking them head-on. So what’s really at issue here?
Incidentally, we are many of the things that Lewis listed—we likely bike and hike, buy organic, drink coffee and are concerned about the political implications of where we shop. But these incidentals are expressions of some more defining essentials: we’re questioning all the received values of our culture, we’re skeptical of the media and the government and textbook history, wary of consumerism and national boundaries, interested in technology, and take responsiblity for our own health while seeking meaningful spiritual expression and engagement with the world.
Many of us are hipsters, but many are not. We know who we are and what we are, but we don’t know what to call us. We don’t have an apt label and we get pissed off when our values get passed off as mere fashion (pejorative hipsterism).
We’re aware that every conventional force in our culture would like to do just that and we want to fight back. But when they lob hipster at us, we don’t have a ready response.
That’s why Lewis’s attempt is interesting. And I’ll even admit that he’s right to point to Kerouac in seeking a solution. It’s been many years since I read On the Road, but what I do recall of that work is a sort of heroic groping for identity and means of capturing that identity in a language that seems undeniably and intimately expressive of it.
Kerouac and his buddies felt that there was no place in the culture for them except as outsiders of a certain sort. That’s why the identification with the hip jazz men was so attractive and why the label beat seemed appropriate.
But there was nothing ironic in Kerouac’s struggle—it wore its over-caffeinated heart on its sleeve. It hid from nothing and apologized to nobody. There was in it a great deal of showmanship and self-promotion, some serious intellectual searching, much wonderful and vivid writing, as well as no small measure of moral laziness and wishful thinking.
For all the fervor of his prose, we feel that the protagonist of On the Road is merely along for the ride, slouching toward a goal vaguely defined, and hoping to accomplish something brilliant merely via rejection and inertia and pleasure. Kerouac writes:
“Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”
The lines that precede Lewis’s favorite quote also tell:
“They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life…”
But Kerouac’s fight is not ours. For us, ecological cataclysm looms. Endless war and profit maximization are steering us down a dangerous course and no other has been clearly charted. Spiritual homelessness grows tiresome and wastes our energies.
We have no time to shamble after dingledodies.
And we have no time to confound our best intentions with hipsteristic irony.
We must take a stand, many stands, clear and unequivocal. We must have our cake or eat it (and share it) or there will be no cake worth eating.
Lewis is right to hope to engage the hipster in these quests, for many so engaged already deserve and own the label in its best sense. Making a moral and spiritual stance hip is probably a necessary step in our day if one hopes to ‘preach beyond the choir,’ and hipsterisms’ ability to effortlessly bestow hipness wherever it finds value is a useful skill to that end.
We must engage and include as many as we can, and for those already committed, we must strive for clarity and consensus. So, if we’re going to grope for an apt label, let’s do so madly, lets burn, burn, burn. Let’s seek our Kerouac and when we think we’ve found him, let’s spread the word to all corners.
Or, let’s insist on the absence of labels and burn madly in other directions.
But don’t let the flames be confused with fashion.
And don’t let anyone wonder whether you’re serious.
Sean Williams lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. His wife, Amy Jirsa, is a frequent elephant journal contributor. Together they own Quiet Earth Yoga. Amy frequently reads him articles from elephant journal during breakfast and sometimes he feels the need to respond.
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