The Hippist

Phil Ford

This morning a colleague stopped me in the hallway and asked, apropos Jonathan’s throwdown on hipness, “are you gonna take that”? It’s odd to be put in a situation where you are expected to defend the honor of hipness. Actually, I don’t want to, because I don’t feel that hipness is something to be defended or opposed. Or, as said to my students on the first day of my “Music and American Counterculture” course, I come neither to praise hipness nor to bury it. What I want to do is understand it — as a sensibility that has shaped artistic expression for the past 60 years. Writing this blog has made me aware of the various uses I make of the word hip. When I wrote that “Water Get No Enemy” is hip, I was saying that it’s a great track, though great in a particular way — it has a sweet groove, makes your body move, and makes you feel, briefly, like you’re not driving a beat old Saturn station wagon. When I wrote, a propos Scraps’ and Tha Notorious T.R.J.’s iPod playlists, that Dial M has the hippest readers, I meant that our readers have taste and surprising deep resources of musical knowledge. These are everyday, offhand uses of the term which basically mean that things (our readers, favorite music, etc.) are cop show.

But when I write about hipness as a scholar it’s to denote a complex historical thing that I’m observing, not to use a concept as a yardstick for evaluation. There’s a doubleness, then, in my uses of “hip,” and, I suggest, in everybody’s understanding of the term. (And, as we’ll see, this leads to confusion.) When I say that this or that piece of music is hip, I’m using the word in a normative way; when I say that (for example) Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz album can be understood in terms of a midcentury discourse of (writing about, talk of, opinions formed in the shadow of) hipness, I’m using it in a descriptive way. As a private citizen and blogger, I feel I can use the word to evaluate things, though without implying that I have some kind of affirmative relationship to the whole hip worldview, which, as Jonathan argues, has its downsides. (Still, Jonathan, such vehemence!) As a scholar I never use the word normatively, because I don’t actually believe that some things are “really” hip and other things aren’t. In my private life I do like some things better than others and might use the word “hip” to express that opinion, but that’s sort of beside the point in an academic piece of writing.

I don’t usually post my full-on academic writing on this blog, but there’s a passage in my book-in-progress that deals with this point. I’ve pasted it below; casual readers can skip it, while hardcore types might want to check it out. I apologize for the tedious length (not that that hasn’t happened before, though), but in any event I’m going out of town for a few days and won’t be bloggin’ again until Monday, so I’m just posting a whole week of words at one shot. See you next week.
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Questions of definition — “what is hip?” — remain unavoidable, and are bedeviled by a fundamental defect of language, an ambiguity that plagues almost all discussions of hipness. I have claimed, and hope to demonstrate, that hipness is a sensibility and aesthetic. Which is to say, it is like an operating system — a code, running largely below the threshold of conscious thought, that constellates habits of mind and patterns of taste, orders our everyday perceptions of what is meaningful, true, and beautiful, and shapes individual acts of artistic creation.

In this it is much like modernism, whose postwar American career is tangled with that of hipness, as I also hope to demonstrate. Writing about hipness, then, and groping for definitions, we might wish for a lexical distinction akin to that between “modern” and “modernist,” something to mark the difference between hip and an -ism of hip. In the last part of this essay I discuss “Sound Museum,” from Ken Nordine and Fred Katz’s album Word Jazz, and particularly its strong period flavor of midcentury modernism. If I were to say that this album is very modern, I would be making an aesthetic and historical claim for it: that it is up-to-date, neither derivative nor backwards-looking, and that, as a work that takes its place in the present day, it competes with and holds it own against other pieces of music that likewise try to claim our attention with their grasp of the modern moment. And I might point out certain technical features to make my point — Katz’s flirtation with bitonality and quasi-Stravinskian rhythms, say, or the use of musique concrète episodes. But in making this claim, I would also tacitly accept the aesthetics of the modern. If I say that “Sound Museum” is modern, I also suggest that I think such distinctions hold: that it matters whether or not this piece is up-to-date; that, if I could not argue that the piece is modern, it would not have the same claim on our attention.

If, on the other hand, I say that “Sound Museum” is modernist, I am making a different sort of claim. I do not necessarily endorse modernism, but merely note its effects on the music under discussion. Neither do I say that Katz and Nordine claim the modern moment through their use of bitonality and musique concrète episodes, but only that these are things a jazz composer might have used to stake that claim in 1957. The -ism marks the difference between a normative evaluation, in which one evaluates something in the terms of an aesthetic theory that exerts a moral force, and a descriptive evaluation, in which one places something within the terms of an aesthetic theory about whose values one can remain agnostic.*

Short of creating an ugly neologism (hippism?), we have is no words to mark the distinction between hip and an -ism of hip, no term for the artist whose works are in dialogue with those habits of mind that constitute the hip aesthetic. And so when we ask, What is hip?,  we are already subtly defining in advance the kind of inquiry upon which we are embarking. We set about trying to understand what really is hip, rather than the circuitous and unlikely paths by which things gain meaning within a hip sensibility. This confusion troubles even the best academic writing on hipness, including Ingrid Monson’s “The Problem with White Hipness.” For Monson, hipness is largely the white projection of a racial and sexual wish-fulfillment fantasy epitomized by Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” with its inadvertently racist mythologization of the black hipster as the sexual psychopath who alone can escape the soft totalitarianism of American life. The “problem with white hipness,” then, is that it is a distortion of black social reality: representations like Mailer’s gather into a white discourse about race and gender whose ideological character stands out in contrast to the ways black jazz musicians understand themselves and the working realities of their lives. Monson’s own response is to pursue ethnographic study of the jazz world in order to arrive at a truer understanding of the complex dynamics of race and gender.

However, this mode of inquiry, applied to historical study of hipness, makes a covert ontological claim: that hipness is a kind of thing that ought to make true statements about the ways people live their lives and can be faulted when it does not. But if hipness is an aesthetic concept comparable to modernism, questions of its truth or falsity are somewhat beside the point. To pursue the analogy with modernism further: we could certainly quarrel with normative modernism if we disagreed with its warrants — its historical teleology, its anxiety over audience, its formalism, and so on — and indeed many have. But when those quarrels are settled, or the disputants have at least agreed to disagree, and all we seek is to ask what modernism was and how its warrants shaped cultural practice, we no longer care much whether modernism paints a true picture of the world, but seek instead to understand what effect it had on those for whom it did paint such a picture. And that is my goal in understanding hipness. Like Monson, I do not believe that hipness presents a true picture of the world. I do not seek a social understanding of the aesthetic, though, but rather the opposite: this essay reads the social and political postures of hip culture as aesthetic objects. When I write of “hip culture,” therefore, I use the term in the descriptive rather than normative sense, as a culture bound by certain characteristic tropes of expression and habits of mind.

* It is worth noting, though, that midcentury artists and intellectuals often used the term modernist both descriptively, to denote a self-conscious artistic movement to which they belonged, and normatively, since they believed their movement stood at the forefront of social and cultural change. And whether they understood modern to imply a normative or descriptive evaluation, they were in any event fully modern creatures themselves, as are we, since neither they nor we usually consider the term in its older, more minimal sense of “happening now,” or distinguish the present moment from all others only by virtue of it being the most recent. In 20th-century aesthetic discourse, the spectrum of meanings bounded by the words modern and modernist assumes a conception of time in which the present moment assumes some structural relationship to the past and future. The discourse of the modern is defined above all by its historicism. All such qualifications aside, though, the -ism suffix does drive a wedge between normative and descriptive modes of language: note the distinction implied between rock and rockism, exotic and exoticism, or authentic and authenticism. Richard Taruskin coined the latter term in order to make a distinction between his own intellectual project — a critique of the authenticity concept in 20th century performance practice — and the normative use of the word authentic by those who were the targets of his critique. Richard Taruskin, “The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past,” in Authenticity and Early Music: A Symposium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 148 et passim.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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