Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotics filtered through a few generations of abstract thought

Language conveys meaning only through a relational process

Ferdinand de Saussure
  • Ferdinand de Saussure

Dear Hipster:

I have a meta-question for you this week. It seems to me that you receive a tremendous number of messages along the lines of “is such and such a thing hipster or not hipster?” Although the subjects of inquiry vary greatly, the questions often boil down to the same kind of yes/no inquiry, i.e., whether something is hipster or not hipster. I wonder, however: is this an unnecessarily reductive way to look at things? Is hipster a binary category, or might you more accurately describe things with a sliding scale, or perhaps by assigning varying degrees of hipsterness? Sorry if this challenges your entire worldview, or anything like that.

— Dale

You may be right, but the “binary” approach boasts some important advantages, not the least of which is the simplicity with which it can be applied. As the social gatekeepers of cool, hipsters depend on the ability and opportunity to quickly and decisively determine whether someone or something passes the litmus test for coolness. When you’re out there in the field, faced with the split-second decision of whether or not to eat at some new gastropub, there isn’t always time to sit down and parse the details—hipsters have to choose between an enthusiastic Instagram sesh or a “meh” and move on.

Hipsters might be said to “level up” like characters in RPGs. A Level 1 hipster comes into the world all but nude, vulnerable to attack by the weakest enemies. Even hearing a single Justin Bieber song on the radio can reduce his hit points to zero, at which point he has to respawn back at his parents house in Duluth and start his whole journey to a first-rate nightlife city over again. Once a hipster reaches, like, Level 80, she becomes basically untouchable. Overly sincere non-hipsters, with their pitifully earnest appeals to Coldplay and Kantian morality, cannot penetrate her +5 Ironic T-Shirt of Snarkiness. Lesser hipsters try to recruit her for their hipster quests. Her hipster power is so high level that she doesn’t even take damage if she orders white zinfandel with ice cubes in it at a local craft beer bar. If the bartender tries to throw shade, she shuts him down by casting a high level Cone of Cold, i.e. a frosty stare developed over years and years of being cooler and better than those around you.

But perhaps even this “levelling up” model is too discrete and subject to misclassification. I suppose one might define hipsterness by a panoply of measures. Why not go further than you have suggested, and define hipsterness in purely descriptive terms? The Swiss semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure rather famously suggested language conveys meaning only through a relational process. Filtered through a few generations of abstract thought, and applied in the context of defining hipsterness, the meaning of “hipster” implies nothing on its own, and we can only understand what is or isn’t hipster in a as part of a convoluted framework of hipness. That sounds amazingly abstract, but it really isn’t. One might say, “Well, that’s about as hip as a lacrosse player named Blake slacking his way through a summer internship at his Dad’s law practice,” i.e. not very hipster at all. By way of contrast, one might describe something as “More hipster than a set of skinny jeans stuffed full of kale salad singing Haddaway’s “What is Love?” to the tune of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” at the local karaoke bar, i.e. hipster A.F.

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