In July of 2008 Douglas Haddow offered a vividly bleak and appropriately serious critique on the hipster. Now – 17 months and over four thousand comments later – the topic begs reconsideration. Not because Haddow’s thesis that “the hipster represents … a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning” is misconstrued, but because any attempt to discuss such an elusive topic requires that one cuts their truth from a universe of options, inevitably sidelining possible narratives.
The discussion of the hipster is so laden with assumptions and generalizations that it can be refuted perpetually, so why more? The article elicited a sizable group of comments communicating wariness with the generalizations and speculation the hipster conversation requires, and seeing no need for the conversation in the first place.
But words serve not only to describe but also to ordain: merely acknowledging the possibility of an alternative may encourage a brighter future. This dialog is necessary because hipsters holds enormous disruptive potential and discourse about them should not be categorized as disposable, but rather a necessary inclusion into the framework of social action.
Haddow approaches hipsters as a potential revolutionary group, and when they fail to uphold characteristics of previous groups – cohesive ideology, symbolism and behavior – the lack of historic parallels leads him to conclude that the hipster holds no revolutionary potential. If hipsters are to evolve into anything meaningful, however, they will adhere to no historical pattern and must be given the benefit of the doubt, the opportunity of the unknown.
We blind ourselves to possibility if we expect future movements to resemble those of the past. Dozens of factors – connectivity, near-global capitalism, disenfranchisement of revolutionary groups and ideologies – have given birth to an environment with new influences and constraints on radical options, ultimately shifting what works and what doesn’t.
The architects of this new environment have tabooed our history of ideology-driven movements to such an extent that to label oneself a Communist, Anarchist or Feminist nowadays is a weighty claim in mainstream discourse. And so – partially based on a sophomoric understanding of history and ideology but also rightfully wary of a set of ideals which promise utopia – the hipster reframes.
The hipster is primarily defined by aesthetics and broad lifestyle preferences: what he wears, listens to, reads and drinks. Without such congruencies, even the loosest conception of the group crumbles. And such aesthetics, Haddow argues, are unoriginal, purchased and devoid of revolutionary flair.
But the fact that the hipster aesthetic fails to represent radical ideals does not automatically exclude hipsters from holding such inclinations. The authenticity of revolutionary symbolism is increasingly threatened by a pervasive commercialism, which seeks profit on the back of authenticity. And while hipsters may indulge in a broad sampling of styles, their social potential should not be evaluated by these increasingly vulnerable externalities.
When the present consumption/growth paradigm has so thoroughly degraded our social environments and clouded our futures, the natural reaction is to search for meaning in those narratives still offering promise: technology, sustainability, relationships, aesthetics, the self. And sure enough, the hipster subscribes to these passionately.
Formed by the empty promises of our predecessors, history has dealt hipsters more defeats than triumphs, more distractions than direction, and abandoned them to the hollow embrace of commodity fetishism.
But they are collectively filtering through the facade. Evidence of this can be found in the adoption of bike culture, urban gardening and art/music-based activism and even in rallying for Obama. Many are also acting on their distaste for corporatism by starting businesses and nonprofits, engaging in progressive work both locally and internationally.
The critique is that entrepreneurship and progressive work are the exception for the hipster, and that bikes, technology, art and gardening are only frivolous lifestyle pursuits. But these interests are the low-hanging fruit of a reconnecting citizenship: the first step.
Still new in respects to movements, the hipster is groping in the dark for authenticity. He does not claim to be an activist when he rides his bike, buys used clothes or works as a freelance designer, though he may have labeled himself as such a few decades ago. His path may not have been inspired by revolutionary ideas as much as a search for personal meaning. But ultimately, motivations matters little if the roads lead to the same place.
Hipsters’ sheer potential should not be ignored. While much criticism is dumped onto them for their assumed passivity, however, the movement remains the most socio-economically inclusive, globally present, and sexually and racially diverse in history. The sole reason that it has been able to evolve as such is because it remains externally ambiguous, with no defining agenda or socioeconomic class.
Every journalist, politician and organizer works with an assumed vision of our sociopolitical future – be it partisan reform, fringe uprising or a global revolution. This vision blinds us to the potentiality of it happening another way, one with no historical precedent. I’m not saying that hipsters hold the key to change; they may not. But to write off the largest conglomeration of young people across the globe as only a narcissistic clusterfuck – rather than the inception of the largest youth movement in history – could inadvertently suppress a flame worth fanning.