The Sanctity of Cool: and the threat of modern hipsterism
By J.R. Kuwanski
They are modern society’s coiffed pariahs, the poseurs you love to hate. They are vultures of culture—the personification of style’s suffocation of substance, snark’s snuff of sincerity, jaded irony’s preemptive strike on perspective. They are the vacuous trend-chasing children of privilege, the young and the soulless. They are walking, talking empty T-shirt slogans. They are the scourge of 21st-century humanity, fakers of funk in form-fitting jeans and Nike Dunks. They are hipsters.
‘Cool’ is an unusual topic. Like Magic Eye or irony, it seems to disappear when you focus on it. But cool actually has very practical origins. While it is subtle, it’s not beyond analysis. And like many social curiosities, it tends to only be discussed in a time of crisis, or when someone’s making money off of it.
To be ‘hip’ is usually synonymous with ‘cool’. They diverge when what is trendy supersedes its origins; the trend becomes a movement in its own right, now casting aside its sociological and artistic beginnings. The style is taken out of context and is appropriated.
Nonetheless, hip is usually indicative of what society, at that time, considers cool. It’s this relationship between what’s currently hip, and those practicing it, that has led to some alarming discussions. Time Out New York, hardly a fire-brand publication, printed the article ‘The Hipster Must Die’, and the more radical periodical, Adbuster, published ‘Hipster: The Dead End of Civilization’. Websites full of scathing criticism have arisen and conjured a mass following. The trend against anti-trend has been too pronounced for even broadsheets to ignore, and London’s own Guardian mainstream newspaper printed ‘Why do People Hate Hipsters?’.
What is it about this contemporary hipsterism, and those accused of propagating it, that has led to such derision? Is it simply the usual criticism that is leveled against alternative culture? The beatniks were derided as ‘hippies’, accused of being ideological and naive. Are the recent attacks in the same vein, now targeted at the hippies modern contemporaries? Or is it something more?
What is distinct about the modern anti-hipsterism movement is that it’s largely from the hipsters’ own peers. The beat generation, that was synonymous with the social revolution of the 60s, were rebuked by an older, more conservative, male generation, whose power and values were being threatened. But the tirade against modern hipsterism is from those in their 20s and early thirties, those that regard themselves as adept in bohemian culture and leftist politics. Adbuster magazine, a bastion of the radical Left, wrote:
We’ve reached a point in our civilization where counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum. So while hipsterdom is the end product of all prior countercultures, it’s been stripped of its subversion and originality.
The criticisms are wide-ranging, but themes do emerge – that contemporary hipsters have violated something that we consider quite sacred, ‘cool’. The debate inevitably leads the question ‘what is cool?’
The intuitive response is something like ‘to display a quiet confidence or grace under pressure’ or ‘to be affiliated with urban youth culture’. Though while these characteristics of calm and urbanity may be necessary for cool, a more considered investigation reveals that they are far from sufficient.
It could be said that the origins of cool can be found in the 15th century art movement ‘Itutu’, practiced by the Yoruba and Igbo West African civilizations, the aesthetic being one of poise, smoothness and calm. However, one can go back further, much further, to see such an aesthetic. Gautama Buddha after several days of constant meditation seemed to take cool to a new level. So much so that he decided to dedicate his life to telling people about it. It caught on fast, and soon entire populations in South and East Asia were focusing on how they could be more calm, more relaxed, more aware and more self-controlled.
Europe was not untouched and the sprezzatura art movement was epitomized by Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Her posturing is one of grace and mild detachment, but also of slight deviance. The practicalities of cool were utilized by the Turks and their ‘Anatolian smile’, the term used describe the mannerism where no specific emotion is shown, leaving the company unsure of the subject’s intentions.
But cool really went global and became a major unspoken social movement following the Second World War. The spread was due to American cultural influence, mass African American urbanization and the proliferation of jazz. American GIs when stationed over-sees made a strong impact on local cultures. Their challenging of traditional moral and religious beliefs, along with their tendency for hedonism and relaxed disposition, conjured the interest of local youth and left an immutable impression.
Norman Mailer’s seminal essay, ‘The White Negro’, published in 1957, investigated the nature of the post-war hipster. He posited that the 50s hipster was on a perpetual path of discovery and adventure – a path contrary to that of the“square’s” who seeks conformity, security and comfort. The mind-set of the hipster was one of rebellion against the social norm of a “single mate, the solid family and the respectable love life”, whereas the previous generation of youth were merely adults in the waiting, imitating and emulating their parents.
As the essay’s title suggests, Mailer proposed that the hipster was born when a three-element fusion occurred, “a menage-a-trois was completed – the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the ‘Negro’, and the hipster was a fact in American life”. Mailer wrote that “the Negro” in 1950s urban United States was in an almost constant state of survival, often subject to oppression, violence, discrimination and poverty. The post-war urban African American, having seen the hypocrisy of an overarching moral code like nationalism, became an existentialist. He embarked on a continuous search for meaning, alongside an acute appreciation for the present, knowing that the future was not promised.
While Mailer stated that modern cool was largely sourced from African American culture, he believed the phenomenon had gone much further. An entire post-war-generation-youth “contained adventurers who had absorbed the lessons of disillusionment and disgust of the Twenties, the Depression, and the War.” It was this ethos of an oppressed minority, that was acutely aware of danger, impermanence and death, that transcended norms and practiced what we know as ‘cool’: a language and set of mannerisms that accompanied artistic and hedonistic pursuits of an anti-establishment youth. These pursuits were not necessarily for their own end, but were borne out of a courageous search for meaning and deeper spiritual investigation, in the context of a moral vacuum and a hostile environment.
The language of cool cannot be understated and Mailer eloquently described its importance:
“If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share: at least all who were Hip.”
The dialect is purposely and inherently abstract as it makes reference to ethereal mental states, and the language can only really be understood by the listener themselves have experienced such states.
Movement and energy are common themes in the language of cool, not for the purposes of pure style or aesthetic, but in terms of hard practicalities – of survival. In a deprived or besieged situation, the practitioners of cool were required to not be wasteful in their exertion, as Mailer states:
“And so the sweet goes only to the victor, the best, the most, the man who knows the most about how to find his energy and how not to lose it. The emphasis is on energy because the psychopath and the hipster are nothing without it since they do not have the protection of a position or a class to rely on when they have overextended themselves. So the language of Hip is a language of energy, how it is found, how it is lost.”
Those practicing the way of cool were the artists, African Americans and dissidents who were either inherent targets of authority, in the case of racist institutions, or conscious subverts by means of their lifestyle or politics. As such, the style of cool was one of mild defiance. The ironic detachment sent a statement of stoicism against those in power that wished to objectify them. It was subliminal enough to hopefully avoid persecution, but psychologically powerful, as well as unnerving for the viewer
With this context in mind, it can be seen that the behavioral mannerisms of cool are not merely for fashion. Instead, they are the very significant indicators of the necessary calm and focus, not only to subvert and avoid persecution from authority, immerse further in to the present, to spiritually develop, to be stoic and in control – or as Mailer puts more poetically:
if you lapse back into being a frightened stupid child, or if you flip, if you lose your control, reveal the buried weaker more feminine part of your nature, then it is more difficult to swing the next time, your ear is less alive, your bad and energy-wasting habits are further confirmed, you are farther away from being with it. But to be with it is to have grace, is to be closer to the secrets of that inner unconscious life which will nourish you if you can hear it, for you are then nearer to that God which every hipster believes is located in the senses of his body, that trapped, mutilated and nonetheless megalomaniacal God who is It, who is energy, life, sex, force …
To be cool is “to be equipped”; to have it together for the purpose of a genuine artistic and spiritual pursuit. To be aware of the dangers, one’s own weaknesses and fears, and to persevere anyway; to not be led by the lesser drives of human-nature, like conformity, or panic, and instead to go forward with dignity and calm.
So, if that’s cool, then how does it differ from modern hipsters, and why are people so upset about it?
In a conversation with a friend’s younger sister she described one of her peers, “Oh yea, he’s cool. Some days he’s usually like gansta style, and others he’s like rocker”. The fashion of the hipster is paramount. The unique characteristic of modern hipster fashion is a spasm of style, with a strong emphasis on kitsch, including 50s décor, polaroids, Formica; with sporadic thefts from the beatniks: beards, thick rimmed glasses; along with several ironic gestures: budget sweatshirts with juvenile images; or even an occasional pillaging from hip hop culture by way of a high top sneaker.
As Matt Granfield described, in his book ‘Hipstermattic’:
Retro was cool, the environment was precious and old was the new ‘new’. Kids wanted to wear Sylvia Plath’s cardigans and Buddy Holly’s glasses — they reveled in the irony of making something so nerdy so cool.
Ganfield posits that the hipsterism movement began as a kind of tacit rebellion against current trend and norms:
“While mainstream society of the 2000s had been busying itself with reality television, dance music, and locating the whereabouts of Britney Spears’s underpants, an uprising was quietly and conscientiously taking place behind the scenes. Long-forgotten styles of clothing, beer, cigarettes and music were becoming popular again. … They wanted to live sustainably and eat organic gluten-free grains. Above all, they wanted to be recognized for being different — to diverge from the mainstream and carve a cultural niche all for themselves. For this new generation, style wasn’t something you could buy in a department store, it became something you found in a thrift shop, or, ideally, made yourself. The way to be cool wasn’t to look like a television star: it was to look like as though you’d never seen television.”
Even if it is accepted that this was the origin of contemporary hipsterism, it quickly turned awry. The supposed movement against current trend became a fervent trend in its own right and the pretense of irony soon became tired. The theorized artistic and social foundations of the hipster trend (antipathy towards pop-culture) simply became a pop-culture itself; the focus was now on the fashion, not the arts, nor the politics, nor social change.
While Mailer talked of the 50s hipster being an amalgamation of the bohemian, delinquent and ‘the Negro’, the modern hipster is an amalgamation of the bohemian, the yuppie and the consumer. Following the demise of punk and grunge, the sub-cultures of the yuppie and metrosexual arose. Unlike the sub cultures before them, these fads had no underlying narrative or subversive premise; they were expressions of material wealth, pruning and technological advancement. The modern hipster continues on this vein, no undercurrent of menace or spiritualism, just quirky bric-a-brac and fervent self-absorption. As posited by Christian Lorentzen in his article ‘The Hipster Must Die’:
they are afflicted by that other ism sociologists made an industry of decrying in the 20th century: narcissism. The late prophet of our current moment, George W. S. Trow, posited that television had obliterated the context of American life. The only refuges remaining were TV, God and the self. Young people who live in cities notoriously shun God and television to cultivate themselves.
Previous subcultures focused on change or creation or rebellion, and the aesthetic was a symptom of this impetus. But contemporary hipsterism has turned in on itself, a fashion for its own sake, entirely self-important. It could be said that the modern hipster would dedicate great time and energy searching for brogue shoes and a waist coast, but would only consider attending a political rally or a spoken word event as an afterthought, and then only to show off the new waist coast and shoes. Sub-culture had turned inward, consuming itself in a feverish spasm of post-modern self-reflection. The concerns lies in that this subculture is the production of our contemporary society, and what does that say about our current state of affairs?
Douglas Haddow, in his article ‘Hipster: The Dead End of Civilization’ summates well:
An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.
The modern hipster does not wish to cultivate the world outside of him, or rebel from it. He does not wish to investigate one’s self, or produce awe inspiring art, music or writing. He does not wish to transcend the self to an elevated level of being, to travel to the space beyond the ego, either in a flurry of hedonistic fury or meditation, nor by intrepid adventure, or bar brawl, or via heavy hallucinogens. He wishes to wear a v-neck, short shorts and thick rimmed non-prescription glasses.
But why should this arouse us so? Not all members of society are obliged to seek spiritual transcendence, nor are they expected to protest social norms or be committed to the arts. An upheaval of criticism hasn’t been levied against the common man for not aspiring to do so, nor has it been levied against their chosen fashion sense, so why such derisive criticism towards the hipster?
The style of the hipster bastardizes and emasculates every sub culture that came before them. It cheapens and denigrates them. The hipster arrogantly ignores the cultural foundation from which the fashion spurred and instead seeks to consume culture itself.
The purpose of the style is the style itself. The hipster skims across decades of movements and accessorizes from each. He incessantly opts out of culture, cowering behind the excuse of irony, while parasitically feeding off all predecessor sub-cultures that were bold in their statements. The same goes for music, where modern consumer technology reflects the attitude. Spotfy and mp3 files allow the hipster to evade taste and instead flick from one genre to the next. This, all under the auspices of kitsch, is in reality the manifestation of both laziness and gluttony.
It is the sanctity of counter culture and cool that is violated here. For the last five decades each evolution of counter culture has spurred on cultural progression and change, not to mention real political and ethical advancement. Is this now the end point, where the youth are left to only reflect back on the past, make a playlist out of it, and dress up as a pirate? It is the lack of originality, the cowardice, the self-absorption, narcissism and conformity that offends. The modern hipster emits the veneer of rebellion, of innovation, of bohemia but offers none.
In the Adbuster’s article ‘Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization’, former Vice magazine editor Gavin McInnes, asserted that critics of the supposed hipster were merely those who were “mad at these young kids for going out and getting wasted and having fun and being fashionable”. But that is not the cause for incitement. It is the loud pretense of Bohemia that the hipster shouts, only to then scurry behind a Mac book if anyone looks.