The Hipster Myth

Jake Kinzey, The Sacred and the Profane: An Investigation of Hipsters

Zero Books, 77pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781780990347

reviewed by Sebastian Truskolaski

Jake Kinzey’s book-length essay The Sacred and the Profane is the latest offering in a slew of recent titles concerned with an elusive cultural phenomenon – the hipster. The blurb at the back of the book lays out the task ahead: to answer questions like ‘Why don’t hipsters want to be called hipsters?’ and ‘Why do they act like they are different when they are just like all the other hipsters?’ Apparently, ‘If you can’t stand hipsters, are a hipster, or don’t know what a hipster is, this book is for you.’ Kinzey, a student at McGill University (Montreal) sets out to tackle these issues in three chapters: a brief introduction, involving a typology of the hipster (‘ironic postmodern-kitsch zombies’); a correspondent genealogy from Nero to bo-ho; and an account of the hipster’s alleged ‘passion for the real’. Kinzey’s monumental task, then, involves nothing less than characterising all the conceivable ills of late capitalism – from the gentrification of Brooklyn to the impending ecological catastrophe – through an account of what constitutes a hipster, elaborated over some 70 pages.

The opening passages of the book serve to set Kinzey’s terms. The hipster, we are told, is a social-phenomenon characteristic of late capitalism. He is young and urban, possibly works in a ‘creative industry’ of one sort or another (or maybe he’s just ‘slumming it’), drinks Pabst beer, smokes Parliament cigarettes and wears American Apparel. Moreover, hipsters are said to stand at the end of a long line of subcultures that – each in their own way – opposed the mainstream: ‘Beats, Hippies, Punks, Hip-Hop’ etc. Only, somehow the hipster is different… Despite the truism that all of his antecedents surrendered what little spark they may have possessed to the Culture Industry without much resistance, Kinzey appears to find the failure of the hipster to usher in the classless society particularly reprehensible. (One wonders: was this ever at stake in the hipster’s self-understanding?) The hipster’s lack of passionate belief in anything – his callous posturing – we are told, means that ‘selling out is practically programmed’ into his constitution. Kinzey characterizes hipsters as loathsome ironists: the postmodern subculture as such. ‘Nothing they do is really new, it’s all about sampling, bricolage, remixing, or, usually, just stealing wholesale from the past.’ That is, hipsters tread that uneasy line between seeking to resist the logic of capital by recourse to some vague notion of ‘authenticity’ – a return to a genuine sense of subversion in the past, perhaps – and an ironic distance that mocks the very notion that resistance should ever have been desirable or possible.

Kinzey’s account is problematic because it demarcates the hipster as somehow undermining the noble causes of preceding subcultures, without recognizing that the distinction is wholly cosmetic. Whether you live in a social centre and wear a battered leather jacket with a Crass patch on the back; or whether you live in Dalston/Williamsburg and ride a fixed-gear bike is completely inconsequential from the standpoint of capital. This is what makes it so insidious. Ultimately both models will be recuperated and sold back to you in one form or another, not least, perhaps in the form of this book. Even if one were to distinguish between more or less successful attempts by the youth to ‘stick it to the man’ – from Bob Dylan to John Maus – the characterization of hipsters in terms of bricolage is unconvincing. What is punk – not to mention hip-hop – if not collage?

Kinzey then proceeds to advance a bewildering analogy between the Roman emperor Nero and modern-day hipsters. The author’s assurance that his book must be viewed as a kind of ‘pastiche’ doesn’t quite cover how preposterous this comparison is. This is followed by a seemingly unrelated account of hipsters (or was it artists?) moving to crumby neighbourhoods and driving up prices. Whilst this may indeed capture some half-articulated truth about gentrification, it leaves one wondering why Kinzey is singling out what – according to his own account – are, presumably, twentysomethings with either student loans or woefully low incomes, as the agents of this development? Could one not equally have argued that CBGB’s and its crop of arty proto-punks ruined the bowery back in the early 1970s? And would this not undermine Kinzey’s tidy distinction between the heartfelt sincerity of punks and the obnoxious indifference of hipsters? Following this excursus, Kinzey proceeds to speculate over the pre-history of the hipster. His musings are undifferentiated, conflating snobs and dandies, flâneurs and bohemians in a one-dimensional account of art history that leaves much to be desired.

The claim that the avant-garde recoiled ‘in fear before the image of a Fordist automaton ... seeking refuge in a unique, personal or authentic style’, for instance, is simply untrue. One need only consider any number of heavy-hitting examples, from Futurism to Warhol, in this regard. Kinzey’s account of ‘Garbage, The Sacred Place, and the Hipster Aesthetic’ – as one of the sub-headings in Chapter Three reads – similarly misses the point. If we are to understand the hipster’s alleged penchant for postmodern ‘dumpster chic’ as an abandonment of modernism’s earnest endeavour, then what are we to make of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, or Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau? Kinzey’s recourse to Zizek’s reading on this point is too linear, too tidy. In fact, the very crux of Kinzey’s argument falls prey to this critique. As he argues: bohemians are historically aligned with realism – their correspondent historical epoch is that of ‘national capitalism’; the avant-garde is associated with modernism – its correspondent economic system is ‘monopoly capitalism’; and, finally, the hipster corresponds with postmodernism – its economic model is that of ‘late capitalism.’ Bam! From Montmartre to late capitalist dystopia in three easy steps. And who spear-headed this development? The artist-bohemian-avant-garde-hipster.

Chapter Three marks Kinzey’s attempt to align his reading of Alain Badiou’s notion of a ‘passion du réel’ with the hipster’s un-reflected worship of all things ‘retro’. ‘The hipster’s passion for the real is expressed in their longing for authenticity, coupled with nostalgic mania, the mad-dash for the real located in a former time.’ But what of it? At worst, this marks hipsters as yet another failed attempt of the youth to engage with pop culture in a meaningful way. That is not to say that Kinzey isn’t correct in identifying that the taste for distressed denim pre-inscribes articles of fashion with dreamt-up narratives of labour and toil. But, surely, whether jeans are frayed or not, or – indeed – whether consumers imagine themselves to be gold rush renegades or not, is simply not the issue. Kinzey’s wholly unconvincing account of the hipster as recalling a desire for all things rustic and völkisch (‘authentic’) is at odds with the irony he ascribes to them. Are hipsters obsessed with ‘authenticity’ or do they endlessly ironise? Kinzey’s demand for the ‘truly new’, here, is simply misplaced. Surely it is clear that the marketplace is not the site on which the ‘new man’ that Kinzey so emphatically seeks to summon shall be forged.

The closing section on ‘Why Hipsters Don’t Call Themselves Hipsters’ also feels contrived. Hipsters do not call themselves hipsters, because – on the model that Kinzey is proposing – ‘hipster’ is only ever a pejorative term. There is no sensus communis regarding what constitutes a hipster, no ‘movement’ beyond vague generalities imposed from outside. (Hipsters are aloof and wear bobble-hats etc.) The fact that hipsters ‘are not “unique”’ is not news. Nor is it particularly anything that anyone falling under that rubric might even claim. Moreover, this is not an insight limited to hipsters. Yes, ‘Being cool takes a lot of (…) immaterial labour. Hipsters are’ indeed ‘part of the laboratory of fashions and tastes which designers can then expropriate for their own benefit.’ But so is virtually everyone under the sway of capital. When Jerry the Jock ‘likes’ his favourite sports team on facebook he is as engaged in the machinery as those who order Marx’s Capital from Amazon. ‘Hipsters’ are no more the problem than the Starbucks-sipping yuppies that follow in their wake. In fact, this kind of typology is – at best – a dead end.

Kinzey’s closing remark that ‘the hipster does not represent ultimate evil’ is bewildering following his vitriolic diatribe. His assessment that ‘Hipsters can attempt to be as “authentic” and “original” as (…) they like’ since they are only ‘clearing the ground for something new and world changing’ seems dubious, to say the least: as though the hipster’s happy romp through the pop-up bars and off-spaces of Neukölln resembled the biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. The book half-recognizes a real problem that it is constitutively unable to address. The question, ‘what is a hipster’ remains unanswered. The question, ‘what is to be done?’ remains.
Sebastian Truskolaski is a PhD reaseacher at Goldsmiths, University of London London. His research focuses on the work of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Karl Marx.