It’s a dubious privilege to be a hipster

Still very much a class apart from the mainstream

Genesis, 1974
  • Genesis, 1974

Dear Hipster:

As one of my friends recently noted on Facebook, “Part of being a Hipster is pretending you aren’t a Hipster, and in fact insisting you don’t like Hipsters. But, what science is still debating, is: do Hipsters know they are Hipsters? In fact, there are two competing subgroups. One knows he is a Hipster and that he is pretending to be antagonistic toward Hipsterism. And the other genuinely believes he is not a Hipster and that his distaste for Hipsterism is real. This Hipster, who believes he is not a Hipster, is a more genuine Hipster. But for him to know that would mean admitting to himself he is a Hipster. Which would then make him...not.” My response was, “Isn’t everyone basically a hipster these days?” Doesn’t this, then, totally negate the label of “hipster”? For if we’re all hipsters, then how can this be a designation at all?

— One Confused Hipster

In the distant past of two years ago, I observed a kind of Hipster Uncertainty Paradox whereby confirming or denying an accusation of hipsterness has the identical effect of stripping the accused party of any conceivable hipster status. The first part of your message might be a nice workaround for hipsters stuck facing Ontological Uncertainty. In your friend’s view, the true hipster is ignorant of his hipness, whether willfully or incidentally, and thus insulated from the terminally unhip condition of being aware of his own coolness.

I like it!

But, I don’t like the supposition that everyone is “basically a hipster these days.” I suspect it’s a case of not being able to see the forest (teeming as it is with hipsters in lumberjack costume) for the trees. For a self-proclaimed hipster, talking about hipster stuff with her hipster friends (and don’t think I’m not proud of you for this); it’s easy to see hipsters everywhere. But, the hipster is still very much a class apart from the mainstream.

I just read a story at the Guardian, which either indicates that the hipster is the crypto-retro face of a new capitalism or that he is the gleefully socialist rebel thwarting the rise of neo-corporate oligarchy — I am frankly not sure which one the author intended by his delightful plenitude of internet-y buzzwords. Not that it matters, because no matter which way you slice it, the hipster stands outside the mainstream, by definition and by dint of circumstance alike.

I have long maintained that the hipster is not any one thing in particular. The handy, catch-all term incorporates a host of values, styles, and extraneous details; but in the end, the hipster remains defined more by that which he isn’t: the mainstream, convention, unsustainable meats, et al. It’s not possible for, as you suppose, everyone to be hipster, because hipster stuff is paradoxically identified as such exclusively by non-hipster interests. If everyone were hipster, there would be nobody to identify hipsterness (since we all agree hipsters never admit to being hipsters) and we couldn’t be having this conversation.

Imagine it this way. If we lived in a glorious world where Phil Collins enjoyed universal acclaim, the idea of a person not liking Phil Collins — or even of someone thinking Peter Gabriel was the better Genesis frontman, but still kind of liking Phil Collins — would seem absurd. It might not even be possible.

So, chew on that, hum a few bars of “In the Air Tonight,” and rest assured that the hipster still enjoys his curious place of dubious privilege.

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