[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.]
(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.” 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. 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. 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?