We are all hipsters now

Here is an extraordinary essay on my book. Elizabeth Newton, formerly a musicology student at IU and now at the CUNY graduate center, talked to me at length and edited some of my utterances (including some slightly insane ones) into a long meditation on hipness. For Elizabeth, this is personal: she understands that hipness is a part of who she is, part of the psycho-social operating system, and wants to get to the bottom of it.

It’s great for me when anyone writes something smart and perceptive about my book, and if there is anyone out there who wonders how I actually talk, this essay might give you a pretty good idea. I swear a lot and deploy dubious metaphors.

He continued, “The whole thing is to try and see this neither with hatred nor with sentimentality. There are so many books that are so sentimental. Writing a book about the Beats is the closest thing they can get to hanging out with the Beats. And that is, you know…boring. It’s not interesting to me. Then you also have these people like Tom Frank and Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter who wrote really valuable books, but I feel those go too far in the other direction. They’re so unrelentingly caustic that they just reduce the [hip] sensibility to a set of sociopolitical postures, and they’re impatient with the complexities of the expressive culture that this sensibility has produced. The trick is to not give into these very contemporary emotions of mingled resentment or craving for acceptance, or wanting to belong. It’s about hanging loose with this material and seeing it like a historian.”

“But,” Ford added after a pause, “Most people don’t give a shit about history.”

Haha! I don’t remember saying that. But it’s true. Most people don’t have the slightest interest in understanding hipness historically, partly because that would mean taking a closer look at themselves. And who wants to look at that? One of the foundational ideas of this book is, in effect, that we are all hipsters now. As Big Mike Glab, journalist and dude who works at my favorite bookstore (Bloomington’s Book Corner), wrote in an earlier blog post, “The beatniks and the cool jazz cats of 20-year period after 1945 saw themselves as outsiders who had nothing to do with you, yet now you act and think in ways they did more than you or they would have ever dreamed.”

I often like to say that if you could somehow teleport some average squarejohn Americans from 1948 to the present day and showed them an episode of Family Guy, they probably wouldn’t even understand that what they were looking at are supposed to be jokes. One technique that Family Guy uses all the time is the “cutscene” gag, where the (meagre) plot can be exited at any time for a basically non-narrative pop-culture-referential set piece. (South Park‘s parody of this device is brutal and dead-on.) Now, this is not some sophisticated, recherché, Samuel-Beckett-type narrative device; the point of it can be grasped by any bonehead born since, say, 1960. That’s not to say that anyone must necessarily find it funny — I don’t, for the most part, because it seems hacky and formulaic to me. But I get that what I’m looking at is supposed to be a gag. We accept that it’s supposed to be funny because we have learned to savor the cheesy aroma of dated pop culture; we have learned to mentally reframe old pop songs (like A-Ha’s “Take on Me”) in an ironic way, in that in-it-but-not-of-it way that I write about at length in Dig. The point is, this ironic way of viewing pop culture, relying as it does on a complicated blend of knowing snark and kidding affection, is a part of a sensibility that even the most ardent hipster-hater shares — at least to the extent that s/he understanding what it is s/he is looking at when turning on an episode of Family Guy.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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One Response to We are all hipsters now

  1. grahamlarkin says:

    Dr. Ford you have found your Boswell! I’m in awe of Ms Newton’s ability to frame your game, convey your antic persona (“fluffer for the Weltanschauung” wtf brother) and teach me something in the process. She channels you and your subject in a way that’s really breathtaking. I’d say all this on her site, but it’s closed for comments so I ‘m having to thank her here.

    I was intrigued to see your latest take on Frank and Heath/Potter. When I first came to know you we both felt that that The Rebel Sell (aka Nation of Rebels), with its compelling argument that hipness is a sham and a loser’s game, was the last word in cultural criticism. A decade later, as we sail gracefully through middle age, it seems that the very desire to have the last word–the manly urge to lift that final veil and explain away absolutely everything–is of increasingly little value to either of us. I wonder whether Heath and Potter feel the same way!

    As you suggest, the ol’ will-to-finality bugbear is fundamentally at odds with the historian’s task. “Hanging loose” as you put it–just listening in on past conversations with no definitive goals or agendas–is indeed the best place for a historian to start. And even as one writes, one should try to stay in that open, divinatory frame of mind–as I’d say you manage to do when you’re really digging into Mailer or John Benson Brooks. To put it somewhat differently: the correct posture for the cultural historian (or the critic of contemporary culture, for that matter) is ear-to-the-ground. This prostrate position is optimal for listening, and for channeling up in a way that preserves the essence of what you’re hearing. It is, however, not well-suited to declamatory discourse.

    As our man McLuhan would say: Enough with the hotness, already. Be cool, be involved. And be sure to pick up a copy of “Dig”, available now at a bookseller near you!

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