OH; or, “The Original Hipster”

[This essay is obviously quite belated. By now there have been numerous articles that more thoroughly study the many screes that cover the hipster mountain. In this I am not attempting any new insights about fashion, postmodernism, history, or that most contentious of all topics, fretted over nearly beyond recognition, irony. I myself am usually many years late to any game, and take a long time for reflection. So I hope it is apparent that most of all in this essay I am analyzing my own particular responses and, within them, my characteristic failures to see.]

IMG_0386  (Rare depiction of a young, hopeful Ishmael setting off in search of Experience by Rockwell Kent.)

Call him Ishmael, but also call him American. Because like so many Americans, Ishmael has a tattoo. In fact, he may have more than one. Like so many dudes, his is on his arm. You can imagine how cool it looks, considering how yoked he must be from all of his whaling experiences. All that manly pulling of ropes and . . . um . . . barrel carrying.

But actually, the one tattoo he mentions in his narrative, and the only one we know about, is a detailed enumeration of a sperm whale’s measurements. So Ishmael’s tattoo is in fact a flesh-bound fascicle of the very material for which many consider Moby-Dick to be an old, long, and “difficult” (aka boring) book: all those dry, technical, often prolix passages of whaling minutiae better situated in a scholarly work than in a high seas chase novel. “And then the great whale’s heart burst, clouding the air with blood, raining hunks of exploded life-stuff down to plash piece by piece into the roiling water like so many melting rubies . . . Now, in this next chapter, I’d like us to examine the ways in which the throwing of a harpoon can be as exciting to read as any operator’s manual.” No, no—in truth, I like, love, and greatly admire the vast majority of Melville’s novel. To me it is a loose baggy monster only in the best sense. It is full of so much. Including an interesting example of American tattooing before it was a thing.

For some time now there has been a trend of getting antique-looking tattoos on one’s body—usually somewhere frequently publicly visible, very often the forearm. I am not the one to write even a brief history of this fashion, and I refuse to do the research to do so. But I am assured by my sheer experience of “the culture” that it is a thing.

And actually, the thing is part of a much larger trend that by now is commonly called hipsterism. Well, not exactly: it’s not in fact enough of a movement with a collective cause or shared experience or set of agreed-upon principles to be deemed an –ism, but it is widespread enough to have become a real presence in the culture. From the fact that we in Portland have a “Hipster Santa,” plus the recurrence of hipster parodies in the mainstream culture (such as in shows like 30 Rock and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), we can infer the existence of some essential facets to being a hipster. We all seem to have a higher idea already in mind when we discern the outward signs of a true hipster on the street.

For many, the phrase “the old is new again” will likely sum up the hipster style nicely. And indeed it gets very close to the subject. At least, it gets very close to what I in this essay will be calling “hipsterism” or “historical hipsterism.”[1] Portlandia famously satirized historical hipsterism with its “Dream of the 1890s.” Knitwear, suspenders, straight razors, muttonchops, handlebar mustaches, artisan everything. These are things that people are not doing still, but are doing for the first time for themselves. However, they are not doing these things because they need them, but because they like the idea of them, and because they want to be seen doing them. The Portlandia segment approaches the ostentation of the hipster enterprise through its lyrics—“Micro-brew or die”; but it most clearly captures hipster affectation in its visuals: the blank, grim, and often forbidding stares of Fred Armison and his fellows are pointed at the viewer from over their gargantuan whiskers. The facial hair is exaggerated and fancified as it has not been for over a hundred years, and they stare at you as if they were standing for their first daguerreotype.

Here I think Portlandia has caught something unique but elusive or hidden, perhaps latent, in at least some hipster self-fashioning. It is more than just plain old-fashioned coolness, though it is related to it. It does indeed want to seem not to care much about anything, to seem effortless in the midst of so many trying.[2] It is, indeed, ironic, but not necessarily deviant for doing things this way: as writers like Jen Doll and Ann Powers have pointed out in response to Christy Wampole’s judgments, irony has been a fact of human living for some time. But in its selection of certain historic American clothing and hairstyles, often caricatured even by 19th century standards, historical hipsterism seeks to take a specific kind of step away from the crowd. It is more than a mode of donning parody. It is more than unsmiling self-satire.

The danger, or at least provocation, of hipsterism seems to me to be pomposity. Hipsters can take not taking themselves seriously very seriously. It is this tendency that I think defenders of hipsterism and irony do not always address: the investing of irony with self-importance. Perhaps some of it is treating parody as fine art. Whatever the case, at least on a superficial level, hipsters seem to be the opposite of unassuming—and yet what they assume is not easily traceable to themselves. Like many stylish people, hipsters are practitioners of being seen. To me at least, they are constantly being-seening. I can’t imagine any of the nattier dandified kind making toast, getting sick, or sitting on the toilet, so imposing is their toilette. (Not that I really want to imagine the last on the list, by the way, but think about it: can you easily imagine a young man with the proudly up-turned mustaches of a Union general hunched over in so naked, undignified, and basically human a posture?) I sometimes believe such people don’t want me to know they own pajamas, or even a bed for that matter. And on top of all that there arisen that aloofness or self-distancing that’s become so notorious. There’s a self-focused gesturing that never looks at anyone. This is obviously not true, and humanly impossible, but the appearance of it is a noticed phenomena. Simply Google the words “aloof hipster” and see what you get. There is a real sense to some that hipster will not grant you entry into the compound circle of their orbits. It’s as if they are monks of coolness, who have sworn themselves to themselves, and made a vow to style itself.

I would say this view of the hipster is really of the mythical “arch-hipster.” It is largely a stereotype. And as far as irony is concerned, its strategies have become so normalized by now that perhaps, as Doll said, it’s really a matter of moderation.[3] But I have to confess that the stereotype of hipster aloofness is one that I can relate to having perceived as true. At times I have been just as judgmental as Wampole in my estimation of the ostensible “hipster lifestyle”—or at least their style of dress. And I suppose that has been just the problem for so many: “hipsterism” of such an outwardly totalizing nature flaunts an affected lifestyle as pure style, leaving nothing known but the gesture itself. To me, an arch-hipster bares no experience in their get-up. They are all gotten-up, with no sign of where they’ve gone or where they’re going. The outfit, when taken from a century out of context, doesn’t even represent a currently relatable occasion, much less any individual background. Here is the barista with the Woolrich vest and John Brown beard. The side of his scalp is strictly shaved, but from the asymmetrical side-part his hair flows like some force of nature. What happens when you look him in the face?

* * *

Experience and history are two highly charged words in the American canon. Ever since Emerson—but really ever since our purported forbears presumed to start a new nation, thus in some strange sense seeking to restart time and opportunity—we have always been acutely conscious of our individual lives as enterprises of accomplishment parallel to other such lives, both past and present. We are often in a competition to renew and succeed the old. We hold up “experience” in the grand, cumulative sense—aka one’s personal history—as a testament to one’s self-reliance and management of people, places, things. After all, if this land is free, in fact the freest nation on earth, then we only have ourselves to blame if our lives are scanty. Look at what so many others have done in this unbounded vacuum.

Of course anybody could point out the problems with this kind of thinking. But my point here is that, to some degree, perhaps most of all subliminally, the charges of freedom and the prizing of personal experience do exist as a kind of mythology in our culture. They certainly exist in my mind, anyway. I have felt the cankerous urge to make and make and make something of myself because of where I’ve lived and gone to school, who I’ve read and who I come from. I have viewed not only my best but seemingly all of myself as “blank and suspicious”[4] because of someone’s newly awarded degree in a subject I would never give more than an hour of my life to thinking about. I mean, as his letters and journals confess, Emerson himself suffered great and besetting self-doubt from the burden of individual liberty and the fear of its literal doom through death.[5]

And so to me, historical hipsterism of a certain brand springs from an American anxiety. American and, dare I say, postmodern. Just what do I mean by that? Well, first, that hipster style plays with the language of fashion just as postmodernism plays with the language of signifiers. As with words, the clothes on our bodies and the hair on our heads also have their signals; we send messages about ourselves whether we know it or not, because style is conditioned. Hipsterism often seeks to scramble the conditioned message of the self with “combinations and collisions” of various forms out of context. After all, no lumberjack ever wore a leather jacket, and no greaser ever had a chin the size of Melville’s—and not one of these lived to see the twenty-first century. Perhaps arising out of a confrontation with the lorded-over Individual, the Master of American Freedom, hipsters question, mock, and discard not only the notion of coherent self-expression, but also that of any coherent sincerity therein: “The loss of a continuous meta-narrative [such as the Self] therefore breaks the subject [in this case the person] into heterogeneous moments of subjectivity that do not cohere into an identity.”[6]

From this perspective many hipsters are insecure people.[7] It would be too little to say they are insincere. Beneath the superficial style is a profound concern to save face by never showing it. They are artificers of experience, yes, but they are not charlatans. They are gamesters of charlatanry, yes, but they are not merely playing. Hipster style—again, of the history-shuffling kind—treats the self-expression of outward appearance as a game, and then pitches it in a new direction by changing the rules: it plays the game by seemingly opting out; it participates by standing aloof. It reverses the codes of interpersonal conduct: you will know me by the experiences I cannot possibly have but deliberately array myself with. These experiences, whatever they might be and however vague, historical hipsterism not so much wears or flaunts as references or . . . ugh, intertexts. These experiences are not usually uniform or modest[8] or casual. They are not causal: the apparel bears no direct relation to who the person is, and causes no immediate knowledge of them personally. The symbols of the styles are not sincere, because the experience usually wrapped inside these clothes is not real or earned. But the realization of this inauthenticity, this sense of belatedness, lies at the heart of the fabrication. My arch-hipster is a supreme outfitter. The outfitting is so out there that the fitted becomes hidden. Just as writers like Pynchon and Morrison through their style seek to write and rewrite in a prose so multi-layered and hybrid that it reads as if no author was ever there, hipsters seek to conceal themselves in clothing and hair and tattoos so full of associations and fashioning that they do not seem present. They do not dress—they hide. Whoever they are, they are not in their clothes.

I am not a huge fan of postmodernism as theory-writing, but I appreciate postmodernity as response to actual human history. Despite what so many academics say[9], “postmodernism” points back to an experience that originated from real people, individual and collective, dealing with a series of specific events (one might call them catastrophes and disappointments) at the latter-half of the twentieth century. These events may be difficult to determine precisely, but they are definite occurrences. They may be manifold and particular, but they have genuine influence. One need only watch “Apocalypse Now” to know that “the horrors” have at least one location, even if the perception of that place would liken it more to Hades or a nightmare. Whatever the external experience, postmodern originals found themselves “[l]amenting the ‘loss of meaning’” in their internal experience of the world.[10] It was not merely a game with broken rules at that point; it was a sense of broken reality. The “grand narratives” that once gave the world coherence, and even the very idea of narrative itself, became fractured in the sense of broken enterprises. Thus, whatever cachet or trendiness the –ism would later acquire, the “postmodern” was first of all a kind of condition. “Disillusionment” is a frequent descriptor of it.

I say all this to disabuse anyone (and myself) of the reductive view that postmodernism is merely pretentious nonsense or trickery. Some of it may be, just as some of it can be fun—as with The Simpsons, for instance. But there is also a deeply felt side to postmodernism. In my opinion, some very human, very compelling books, paintings, music, and films have arisen out of a post-1965 sense of unfathomable irresolution. They are not riddling to fool or frustrate; they are facing a riddle and feeling fooled and frustrated themselves. Think of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, a book psychologically rooted in the Cold War, and therefore rife with the absolutely palpable paranoia of an era always waiting for the bomb the next second—and permanently suspended in its fear by the fact that the End never happened. Decentering and displacement are favored tropes for this kind of narrative, but one could just as easily read the first-person narrator’s experience as trauma. As so many have rightly commented, the point behind the unexpected oddity and quirkiness of the characters in Twin Peaks is not just to have fun with the viewers—though it is a good one—but to heighten the haunting sense that nothing stays what it seems, that even the most ordinary, all-American, hyper-normal of us can contain uncanny sources of violence. And so the postmodern in this sense does not merely make a display of itself, but rather discloses an alternate reality first and foremost intuited and processed through the individual responding to experience. Thus, to me the postmodern as a condition is in some sense earned.[11] It is often a bizarre, puzzling wisdom.

Hipsterism is about a generation late to the game. It is post-postmodernism. It has arrived on the scene after the aftermath. At least as a young sub-culture, but also in its proponents (the majority of whom are, like me, in their 20s and 30s), it has inherited the postmodern estate as an already thoroughly processed, absorbed, and re-appropriated zeitgeist. I believe much of the original pains of postmodernism (assuming anyone out there will allow that phrase) have faded into the cultural amnesia. Thus hipsterism has experienced the trauma as anodyne, the chaos as discipline, the counter-culture as culture, the avant-garde as mainstream. It knows the disillusionment only intellectually. The fuller categories of experience have never touched the crisis.

David Foster Wallace, a little more than a decade before hipsterism came onto the scene, gave his own personal account of this very disconnect between the postmodernism of intelligentsia and culture and the postmodernism of original artists and art: while he was writing frustrated experimental fiction in grad school, Wallace saw with the help of Blue Velvet that the sense of authenticity and persuasiveness of great surreal and fractured art came from the artists being “entirely themselves” and having “their own vision.” To Wallace’s eyes, the images in the film stood out from the “critics and camp-followers” as being “completely David Lynch.”[12] Only he could have perceived a world in that way.[13]

Of course all of this is only to speak for people like myself, who were born sometime in the eighties or thereabouts and have witnessed nothing quite like the advent of the absurd. For myself anyway, I know the smug, tidy pleasure of seeing some policy or public figure collapse or fold, because deconstruction is currently like common sense. But where do you go deconstruction is an expectation? Hipsterism as a descendant of this posture may find itself constrained. It lives in the shadow not of disillusionment itself, but of its genius response. It is eclipsed by the new enlightenments of “little narratives.”[14] It is crippled, or cramped, by all of the dismembered concepts. How to be a self, how to be serious about anything, when anything can be made into a parody or game? And by now seemingly everything has been.

Of course this is all assuming that people make decisions within the abstract realms of culture and philosophy.

“Hipsters are the spoiled, insecure children of postmodernism.” I once said this to a snickering room of friends. I quote it now to point out a partial perspective, and to displace responsibility—I said it in the past; I may not always think it now; and if the thought is totally unfounded, why did so many snicker? The perspective is that hipsters who play this game of decentering needlessly frustrate others’ expectations of interaction. This may in reality only be once in a blue moon while one is ordering coffee, but the deconstruction of personal appearance in that moment feels like a destruction of common courtesy. Did I offend them by ordering drip? (According to some Internet threads, the suspicion is by ordering at all.) Do I seem to them a leaning T-post of countrified ignorance? But it’s on their menu! (Meanwhile the barista is steaming a drink, looking with what seems adolescent gloom and judgment down his Methuselah’s beard, whose dignity spurns a hairnet.) The best I can get is a “cool.” What on earth could have happened to make them so short with me? What did I, or the world, do to provoke in them such moody pouting rebelliousness against my person?

Of course, I may in the moment be making much of out next to nothing. At my more objective moments, I am sure that in many of my real-life dealings with perceived hipsters, as with most of my interactions with real people, I have taken them too personally. This is an unfairness and a silly sin, this taking people’s outside moments as their inner selves, their passing seconds as their lasting worth. Whatever they look like, I don’t know them, though I wish I did. Sometimes, I wish it so fiercely that I project. The anxious mind informs the eye. It is a viciously sucking self-centeredness. Moreover, who is there among us twenty- or thirty-somethings (and beyond) who is not at least somewhat acquainted with irony as attire? I wear thick-rimmed glasses, about which people have said I look like a professor, which I truly am not. I don’t have any tattoos, but I do have a beard, and in a climate that’s not all that cold. But mixed with one of my many plaid shirts I am immediately “lumbersexual,” as many have pointed out. Am I not playing at something? And furthermore, who is there among us who has total control of their clothes? Except for those on the fringes, none of us has complete say over his pants. We have no hand in the clothes we wear. We wear the work of many years of hands. And most likely it is the question of just where my own clothes come from, really come from, that I should actually be concerned with.

Still, I don’t think I would have made such a thing out of this had so much of hipsterism not been comprised of such distinctly American historical stuff. It seems to me anyway that many hipsters, at least on some subconscious level, have turned themselves into a postmodern American narrative. They make a pastiche of the self both past and present, historic and personal, as a means of mocking the question that, to me, every human speaks to another, even (or most of all?) in the company of the self: Who are you?

* * *

(I have reread these sentences many times. Every time I have attempted to temper the tone of criticism. Thus, if whatever remains seemed sententious to you, you now have a hint of just how priggish I really am, or can be.)

* * *

There is an American myth of the center.[15] Like so many American myths, it has its origin, or at least most original articulation, in Emerson. This center is at once private and public, individual and shared. It is yours and it is mine. It is ours.

The first and private sense of the personal center takes the form of Reason more than perceiving the world, going beyond the veil of appearances and into the realm of ideas: “When the eye of reason opens, to outline and surface are at once added, grace and expression. . . . [M]an is apprized, that, whilst the world is a spectacle, something in himself is stable.”[16] Indeed, so many Emersonian images for the personal center are circular: think of his famous transparent eyeball and, most obviously, the central motif in the favorite essay “Circles”; but think also of Whitman absorbing and merging wherever he goes, or of Dickinson’s trope of “circumference,” that boundary her Brain traces and retraces within so many poems. Later on there is Wallace Stevens, further ruminating on this boundary and its center, proposing that even should “The evilly compounded, vital I” seek to escape all pain by becoming absorbed in pure perception, perhaps in that of the brilliant nothingness of a watery bowl, “There would still remain the never-resting mind” that wants from the center and knows its desires from that center. And nowadays there is Marilynne Robinson, who finds in all of these writings “America’s old-time religion” and strives to gather the fractured, scattered discourse of our own time back to “the centrality of human consciousness.”[17]

The second and public sense of the human center is what Emerson calls the “representative.”

Men are also representative; first, of things, and secondly, of ideas. . . . A man is a centre of nature, running out threads of relation through every thing, fluid and solid, material and elemental. The earth rolls; every clod and stone comes to the meridian: so every organ, function, acid, crystal, grain of dust, has its relation to the brain.[18]

Just as the brain makes its representations (perceptions, memories) of the physical world, the mind in its thoughts and productions (language and action) represents the world of ideas, i.e. the human. Each center stands for all centers, and all they think or do or attempt says something about the rest. “What they know, they know for us. With each new mind, a new secret of nature transpires.”[19] Think of Whitman’s sending sunlight from himself, his filtering and fibering the very blood of his readers. Think, again, of Dickinson’s Brain:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

And think of Stevens’ own atmospheric individual: “The central man, the human globe, responsive / As a mirror with a voice, the man of glass, / Who in a million diamonds sums us up.” This is a very serious way of taking oneself and others indeed.

“A hipster is what happens when ironic statements, and not the desire within them to communicate nevertheless, are taken seriously.” What can happen, anyway. I agree with this. As Umberto Eco notably pointed out, the postmodern person finds him- or herself an unwitting student of history. They face the challenge of what to say when so much has been said. We are all students of so much history by now. But to Emerson the challenge was even greater:

The student of history is like a man going into a warehouse to buy cloths or carpets. He fancies he has a new article. If he go to the factory, he shall find that his new stuff still repeats the scrolls and rosettes which are found on the interior walls of the pyramids of Thebes. Our theism is the purification of the human mind. Man can paint, or make, or think nothing but man. He believes that the great material elements had their origin from his thought. And our philosophy finds one essence collected or distributed.[20]

Here one could actually call Emerson’s philosophy one of historical decentering. But one thing remains immovable and sacrosanct. Emerson maintains the human at the center of all human consciousness. All iterations of it, past and present, are the same thing in different form. “The genius of humanity is the right point of view of history. The qualities abide; the men who exhibit them have now more, now less, and pass away; the qualities remain on another brow.”[21] These qualities germinate deep within the central person, and they will take on a different face in every generation. The point, then, for Emerson, was not to evade the world or history in all of their multitudinous claims on the individual’s attention, but to stand planted first and foremost with the self, to cultivate its experience, and to filter the “qualities” through it.

Nevertheless, if one ever did see a representative person, one was reminded of how great one’s own self might be. “We shall one day talk with the central man, and see again in the varying play of his features all the features which have characterized our darlings, and stamped themselves in fire on the heart.”[22] To the myth-maker himself, the influence of past individuals was meant only to quicken one’s own individuality. This was what it meant to be original: the recognition in another of one’s own potential. This was the “use,” and the hope, of great people.

* * *

I am aware of how antique these notions may seem to be nowadays. How quaint, compared to the assumptions about ourselves under which we often operate. Perhaps I am hopelessly blinded by the myth. But in the process of writing this essay I did at least see something true: I discovered my own personal reasons for not liking “hipsterism.” It is because to me its symbols represent a central change in American personhood—at least in one generation, at least in one subset, at least in one individual. This generation or subset or individual I relate to not just by age but by common interests: coffee, movies, books, whaling, printing presses, “Americana.” I like these things sincerely—I would even honestly say I love some of them—and so it has been unsettling to me to see people my age treat these things so personally and yet ironically and ostentatiously. I remember when I overheard one doctoral student say that “graduate students are the new hipsters,” and it gave me pause. “In place of the centre, but not in its place, there is alterity, otherness, a multiplicity and dispersal of centres, origins, presences.”[23] Intuitively I feel that the above-mentioned things represent me. I even feel that someone about the same age represents me. Am I going too far by assuming participation in the way one hipster represents himself? To what degree should I feel altered?

The twenty-year-old handing me a receipt and my card with a narwhal on his forearm offers me another kind of transaction. Just what does the narwhal mean to him? He says it is his “favorite.” How seriously does he mean this? How often does the narwhal figure into his life, if only in memory, for him to get so visible a semblance of it on his skin? How prudish, how severe, would I come off if I told him, did you know, that Ishmael says the horn “is only found on the sinister side, which has an ill effect, giving its owner something analogous to the aspect of a clumsy left-handed man”?[24] What does it say about me that I thump a book while getting coffee? Certainly Doll and others are right: we need irony to avoid disappointment, especially that which arises from taking ourselves too seriously. But what does it say about our society that we have to poke the fun permanently on our persons? Does he love the narwhal? I will not presume to know what love can mean for him; I have no right to define it. But does it mean something to him? Will it always? I have no right to question his personal meanings, or to judge what he does with his skin. But can I be free to wonder?

“In all people I see myself.”[25] But what does this really mean to me?

* * *

I feel as if I may have insulted many people. Or come off as tendentious, Victorian. Misinformed or ill-advised. Certainly, it seems the surest way to call the Internet down on oneself is to invoke the word “hipster.” I hope it is clear that in no way do I speak for or about all of the styles or modes of being the word “hipster” can contain[26]; and certainly, in uncovering (I hesitate to use the word “undressing”) the “movement” of “historical hipsterism,” in no way do I speak for or about the people behind the styles (though I often wish that I knew enough about them that I could). But feeling as if my words have caused offense, have somehow managed to slap the face of the aloof, I will ask myself a question that my parents often confronted me with as a child: Can I find something good to say?

They would pose, or more often imply, this question to me whenever I had gotten so angry or upset or, most often, threatened by a person that I myself had crossed a line by slandering that other’s personhood. No matter if this person had said or done something injurious to me, my parents would stop me in my verbal stomping on their face and tell me in some quiet way that I had yet to find the good in them. The good they firmly believed existed at that other person’s center. The good that in no way had I spoken for or about.

Is there anything good that I can say about historical hipsterism, the impulse that I’ve incised? In this free market of lifestyles, and as a person with a certain interest in American history who fancies himself “democratic,” have I taken anything beneficial from the movement? Emerson himself said the best he could get was provocation. And I have certainly gotten that. But what about my three greatest consumeristic vices, coffee, donuts, and pie? Certainly we all have hipster taste to thank for raising these and other hobbies—such as brewing, distilling, pickling, printing, and to some degree food-trucking—to a new level of seriousness, or serious silliness.

I could write a whole essay on coffee alone (and sometime, against my better judgment, I probably will). But for now I will merely say that with coffee hipsterism has found its sincerity. To an austere degree. The seriousness of good taste is not to be underestimated. But neither is it to be overestimated. The seriousness of fair trade should never be forgotten. But the raising of a ten-minute beverage to a three hundred dollar in-home science experiment overflows the measure. Indeed there seems to be a totalizing nature to craft as well as style within hipsterism. I don’t know if you have read the coffee commandments on some the 12oz bags, but I have. Thou shalt have no other bean but whole. Thou shalt not pour thy water less than 192 degrees, if thou art brewing light roast, which thou shouldst only be drinking anyway. Thou shalt never in a million years drink dark roast. Never, never, never. Not to mention the mostly unsaid moral code of baristas, those masters of esoteric commands and judges of good coffee conduct. Indeed, going into these places of craftship, you forget the fact that you are in a store amidst many in a wide and competitive service industry. Even the stylish need currency, need people, need to eat.

I have written down that hipsters “inflate the meretricious and the subservient into the high-end and the artisanal.” But, like much that I have written, I still haven’t looked deep enough. In the process of writing this essay, I had a conversation that, like those I used to have with my parents, helped me see I had not seen. I was talking with my wife Danielle about the historical posturing of hipsters and the overblown notion of craft within the trend and she casually remarked that perhaps both of these had something to do with young people having to shift their idea of success. What did she mean? Well, it seems to be no coincidence that the hipster fad rose to cultural prominence just after the 2008 financial crisis. Oh. She explained that, while it was indeed an overreaction, the heightened investment in ironic dress and various forms of craft were also retreats from a realm no longer hospitable to their pursuits. Hipsterism began to play with American historical symbols of success as a way of satirizing their own displaced “dreams.” Psychologically speaking, I added, one might even say that the obsessive level that appearance and craft took on was the sublimation of frustrated “freedoms.” One might. But then Danielle murmured something about “a response to our technology.” What did she mean by that? Well, just that maybe the frantic advances and rampant proliferation and constant encroachment of social media has made all of us feel the pressure to rethink how we might be ourselves. Oh. We are all watching how each of us performs his or her Americanism. Just think of the first time you had to choose a profile pic, what a revolution of self-esteem that was. Like looking into a strange new kind of mirror. It seems almost a truism to say that our social atmosphere has only gotten more competitive with so many platforms on which to display ourselves. To display ourselves amidst each other, off of each other, against each other. And so I realized the public yet still personal significance of some hipster impulses. At a specific point in time, hipsterism was not just a way of self-referential social posing; it was a heightened form of good old-fashioned saving face.

This softens my view of the overreaction. But it is overreaction nonetheless, full of overemphasis. The sincerity that is there invests itself too much in a material thing, a very ephemeral thing, a thing very subject to change, as the last two decades have shown us. Like fashion, craft is constantly in flux. From espresso to French Press, from French Press to pour-over, from pour-over all the way back to FETCO. (Somewhere in there AeroPress sometimes pops its ventilated nozzle—not to mention siphon and various forms of cold brew, tower or otherwise.) To some degree this diversity means rich culture, the American coffee dream realized. Variety is the spice of life for about 15-45 minutes in the morning or after noon. Who knows what it will be like the next decade, but I’m sure whatever it is will seem very cool and very serious. The forms will change, but the formula of superficial-turned-significant will stay the same. The importance is not just displaced now, but misplaced.

I am not the only one who has noticed this—again think of Portlandia’s many segments about not only coffee but pickles and jewelry and art (made of tangled iPhone earbuds), or of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s “Dark Milk,” a horrific example of how even chocolate milk can become disgusting through haute self-importance. I hope I am not the only one who wishes for more depth. More depth, and a more positive view of ourselves. Because to me anyway, there’s a surprising parochialism to the hipster craft-being. And usually parochialism’s narrow affirmation entails wide negation. Call it fear—of change, of outside influences, of people different from oneself. Even deeper than that, parochialism, I believe, means fear of oneself. This would seem to be the case in a subculture that appears to hold the surface as its major province. Is this postmodernism’s “depthlessness” taken personally?[27] Is it suspicion of the use—the helpful quickening and provocation—of other people, because some people, so many it seems, have worked so hard to be unrepresentative of the rest of us? Is it a distrust of the very idea of participation, of the common center, because it disappointed us before we even had the opportunity to try it?

I remember feeling that way. I graduated with a master’s in religion and literature in 2012. The job market was better, but not good enough to hold a place for what I’d thought I would do. Who I’d thought I would be. The person I’d thought I was becoming was brought to a halt. I began to resent those successful before me, and distrust those already established. I remember one day I planned to get a tattoo. It would be of a passage from Job in original Hebrew. It would be entirely unreadable to most; I alone would be able to translate it. At whatever job I would have to have, whatever subways and neighborhoods I would be forced to travel, the people would see it and get that recognizable look of unknowing. That look you rarely get when people realize they don’t know your origins—that individualizing look. I needed to see it. I needed it to be on me.

Ishmael has a tattoo on him. It measures the body of a sperm whale. We do not know just what it looks like. We do not know what font it uses. But we do know what the whale means to Ishmael, to Ahab, to the crew of the Pequod, and perhaps to all of us. This is by no means an easy, single meaning. It is as knowable as the ocean itself. It appears enormous and elusive, as if from some deeper essence.

And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor—as you will sometimes see it—glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For, d’ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.[28]

We may easily say we have our intuitions. But the word in this form expresses more than most of us could say about ourselves.

It’s long been a commonplace to deem something older than hipsters the “original hipster(s).” Dads are the original hipsters—at least, dads from the seventies. Steve Urkel. Mr. Rogers. Or, more factually, the jazz aficionados of the 1940s.[29] Perhaps, mistaking this whole essay, some might say Melville/Ishmael or Emerson were the Original Hipsters. But really, the rightful OHs were people who accomplished a style without appearing to do so. They seemed experienced without the appearance of seeming. The signs of their experience were ostensibly mingled and random, as if they came from some unknown mixture of origins. Behind the nothing-we-can-know-for-sure is the knowledge of nothing yet accomplished. No, Ishmael is not the Original Hipster. He is simply an original.

But imagine the first time a kid from the suburbs ever got a nautical tattoo. I can see what he saw, why he wanted to see it. When he first saw the compass appear on his arm, it must have seemed like a happy rendezvous, a sort of startling recognition. Like seeing the part of a person he had always known about, and had always wanted to know himself.

[1] I am not, therefore, talking about the very modern ironies of general “hipsterism.” Contra a good many articles in the New York Times—most notably Christy Wampole’s infamous essay “How to Live without Irony”—I am interested in what might be called the more antique American fashions of hipsterism.

[2] I am indebted to Jonathan Franzen’s shrewd summation of the essence of coolness in the great documentary “Birders.”

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/11/ironys-not-dead-long-live-irony/321348/

[4] Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

[5] See Robert D. Richardson’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire, chapters 7-17, covering approximately an entire decade of Emerson’s inwardly fraught young manhood—although, as Richardson points out, this preoccupation never really left Emerson’s inner life.

[6] Gary Aylesworth, “Postmodernism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/postmodernism/&gt;

[7] See Evan Puschak’s sincere, if saccharine apologetic for this fact in his vlog, “What’s So Bad About Hipsters?”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7pM4T4AKEc

[8] Meant in a non-puritanical, purely aesthetic sense, as in unassuming.

[9] “That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism”: Thus begins Aylesworth’s article on postmodernism.

[10] Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 26.

[11] Though usually not for better.

[12] Related on the Charlie Rose Show, 3/27/1997: https://charlierose.com/videos/23311

[13] Perceived and, if you know how the Lynchian sounds, heard.

[14] Lyotard’s phrase for the new and very partial worldviews of postmodernism.

[15] If you want a thoroughly literary examination of this topic—if you like to go on benders of cantankerousness as I seem to—see Harold Bloom, “The Central Man: Emerson, Whitman, Wallace Stevens,” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter 1966), 23-42.

[16] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures, Library of America, 33-4. Though Emerson’s articulation (as always) is entirely his own, the formulation of Reason (the mind/imagination) versus Understanding (the purely physical senses) is greatly indebted to Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria and, most especially for Americans, James Marsh’s edition of the Aids to Reflection.

[17] Marilynne Robinson, When I was a Child I Read Books, xiv.

[18] Emerson, Essays and Lectures, 618.

[19] Ibid, 624.

[20] Ibid, 616.

[21] Ibid, 631.

[22] Emerson, Selected Journals 1841-1877, Library of America, 316.

[23] Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, Third Edition, Harlow: Pearson Longman, 256.

[24] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, University of California Press, 144.

[25] Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855).

[26] Perhaps, most noticeably, about women’s fashions within hipsterism. For hopefully obvious reasons, I have felt it appropriate to confine myself only to what I can relate to authentically.

[27] “[In Western culture] the authentic or real is understood to be hidden or disguised, while the surface phenomenon, the façade, is an inauthentic distortion or arbitrary offshoot of the underlying truth. With the postmodern, all of these surface-depth models are shaken up. The postmodern suspends, dislocates and transforms the oppositional structures presupposed by Western modes of thought.” Bennett and Royle, Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 254.

[28] Bennett and Royle, 383-4.

[29] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hipster_(1940s_subculture)


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