Phil Ford

A couple of days ago Squashed, of the fine music blogs Bricolage Fantasy and Motel De Moka, wrote the following comment to my “Hippist” post of last week:

If it is a habit, how can it be hip? . . . . also, by introducing the idea of habit, it doesn’t seem possible for a hipster to adopt radically new style. How can it be? If it is radically new, it coulnd’t be possibly be a habit yet. (even if it is just frame of mind) . . . . wouldn’t defining hip as “awareness of zeitgeist and its expression” be sufficient?

Which are good questions. Anatole Broyard, the first intellectual to interest himself with the problem of hipness, called hipness a quality of being “superiorly aware,” and historically this is how it is most often understood. (Whether you believe that hipsters really are superiorly aware is another matter. At the very least we can say that hipsters have always been about being superiorly aware.) Hipness, then, can’t be a fixed style, a habit, as Squashed puts it, any more than having acute hearing or being 6’8″ is a “habit.” Hipness isn’t a set repertory of stylistic tics, or an artistic vocabulary, which makes the analogy with modernism suspect.
BUT. Ideology and reality part company here, because I think it can be shown that hipness does end up being a style. The situation is sorta like that of the avant-garde. When I was writing about the Canadian Opera Company’s production of the Ring, I complained about the stage design for Die Walküre and its use of certain avant-garde stylstic tics:

My program book tells me that the set was intended to recreate the feel of photos from Germany at the end of WWII and is aimed at “presenting a world in chaos as a result of Wotan’s addictive obsession with the gold and the Ring.” No, what it presents is the art world’s addictive obsession with the threadbare visual tropes of the avant-garde. All the little piles of dirt on gallery floors, all the tangles of industrial materials in arte povera installations, all the anhedonic anxious obsession over “commodification.” You know, a pile of dirt on the floor is just another commodity — but an ugly, unlovable one whose value is assigned by the command economy of academic art criticism. The avant-garde keeps up its pretense of growing organically out of of the present historical moment through its negation of it. This would imply that the avant-garde is not a style but a moment of trangression sanctioned by History. But in truth the avant-garde has become just another style, just another set of mannerisms to be copied by artists and institutions anxious to appropriate something of its cultural capital.

The ideology of hipness has something in common with that of the avant-garde: that notion that it grows organically out of the present moment through its negation (or, sometimes, affirmation) of it. The idea is, you’re hip to something in the present-day, and you define your persona, your tastes, in relation to that thing. Since society changes, so does hipness. John Leland, his book Hip: The History, sticks close to this argument when he says that hipness is a “game,” something more about process than products:

The essence of hip talk, the game says, lies not in its vocabulary or syntax but in its ability to continually make these anew. This is a constant of hip: it lies in the process of invention, not the products. For example, to dress hip means to play coherently with the language of fashion, not to wear the correct black jeans or turtlenecks. To dress square, or be a fashion victim, is to mistake the means for the ends.

But then why is the black turtleneck permanently in the rotation of hip fashion? To be sure, it is not always hip to wear a black turtleneck, but then again, the black turtleneck isn’t just another arbitrary item of fashion, picked out of an infinity of possible garments, and imbued with hipness by someone playing “the game.” After all, there’s a reason why all the poseurs picked it out at the same time. The black turtleneck means something: it is a shorthand, a sign for beat-ness, just as a goatee or a clove cigarette or Naked Lunch is. To insist on the primacy of process is to ignore the fact that hip culture consists in the constant recycling of particular, definable products.
This point is made, albeit with greater wit, by the Onion: “U.S. Trendsetters Go On Strike.” Since all the hipsters are refusing to “listen to any synthesized music, wear makeup, shop at thrift stores, bake cupcakes, “make the scene,” or discuss any potential trends or up-and-coming drugs,” scabs are brought in to think up new trends:

If a collective-bargaining agreement cannot be reached, trendsetters will likely be replaced with scabs. Indeed, some second-rate trends have already begun sprouting up, as aspiring tastemakers—often the same people maligned by the ultrahip as “poseurs”—cross picket lines and attempt to fill the void left by the strike. Many of their ideas, such as adopting chinchillas as pets, are largely recycled, and, while their original innovations, such as wearing top hats and paper shoes, walking with crutches, and referring to friends as “Frankenstein,” may seem forced, they could potentially be the only trends available for some time.

The thing is, if you come up with some arbitrary weird thing, like wearing paper shoes, and say “well, that’s my thing, yo,” it won’t automatically be hip. If being hip is simply doing some radically new thing; if being hip is defined by the completeness of your rejection of the mass-culture scene, with its Britneys and Brangelinas; then the hippest thing you could do would be to throw out your TV, stop going to movies, cancel your subscription to EW, and play Bach or read the Iliad in facing-page translation. But then this isn’t what anyone thinks of as hip transgression, because it isn’t something you can do with your friends on TV. The ideology of hipness is one of radical individualism, but the mechanism by which things become hip is inescapably social and collective. If it’s a game, as Leland puts it, it’s a game you play with a million of your closest friends. Which is probably why Jonathan responds calls it “craven conformity masquerading as individuality.”

About Phil Ford

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