Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hipsters Love Indiana

I want to clarify something. Seems like a lot of people have many associations with hipsters, most of them negative. That's why it's used as a derogatory term in poetry discussions. Just as the term "fashion" is used by folks who envision themselves as "traditionalists", ie not prone to "fashion", to defend against new poetries and ideas. Tradionalists are people of true taste (not kitschy fashion).

These two terms are of course very much intertwined - fashion and hipster. Afterall hipsters are people who are very fashionable, who bring a sense of the aesthetic into every part of their lives - their clothes, record colletion etc.

That's why I think Bobby was very astute in the original post when he made the connection between hipster and aestheticism. All these "hipster" and "fashion"-insults is a fear of aestheticism. A fear Mark Halliday, as I mentioned, made more than apparent when he freaked out about Josh Clover's "lettrist jacket."

But it can also be clearly seen in American Hybrid's austere obsession with "attention" - don't let your attention slide or aestheticism will ensue - and the prevalence of Christianity (and most importantly iconophobic Protestantism, for example in Revell, who in a book called "Attention"-something calls Ginsberg a "caged animal in the zoo of capitalism" or something like that - this harkens back to mass culture, fashion, vulgarity, the image, things I've babbled about recently) in that anthology. And you can see it in the criminal misrepresentation of Alice Notley's wild work with brief lyrics (spiritual). (But Notley with her decidedly uncool wildness is a very different form of aestheticism from "hipster", more about this later today.)

Here's a Ranciere quote Bobby posted in the comment field below:

"Flaubert already deals with what Adorno will spell out as the problem of kitsch. Kitsch does not mean bad art, outmoded art. It is true that the kind of art which is available to the poor people is in general the one that the aesthetes have already rejected. But the problem lies deeper. Kitsch in fact means art incorporated into anybody’s life, art become part of the scenery and the furnishings of everyday life. In that respect, Madame Bovary is the first antikitsch manifesto."

I think here we can see how things work out: The hipster does not have real taste, she/he has kitschy taste, he's an aestheticist, he has allowed aesthetics to invade his every inch of life.


Blogger Max said...

I guess it begs the question, to what extent are the accused "hipsters" really introducing "new poetries and ideas"? To what extent are they actually "fashionable"?

I'm not really sure what definition of hipster we're working with here. In the other post's comments, you said that we're looking at "now" as our historical context, but I'm not sure if a single conception of the hipster really holds up, and I'm not certain how it plays into the contemporary writing culture. Is this a special brand of poetry hipster you're referring to or something? The more general cultural hipster doesn't appear to be adding many new or interesting ideas to the mix.

You seem to think that kitsch is valuable simply because it's derided by a favorite bogeyman. This reactionary logic is itself kind of a boring pose.

7:36 AM  
Blogger rodney k said...

Hi Johannes,

Here in Portland, where "hipster"--rather than yuppie--is the put-down of choice, the word seems to connote a tendency to follow the herd, a faux aesthete instead of the real thing, anxious to see what everyone else is doing before they wriggle into those skinny jeans.

Like you, I'm suspicious of the unspoken hatreds that hide behind the term.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I'm looking at a critique, a rhetoric that establishes values. I don't embrace the things because they are denigrated, I'm merely pointing out that they are denigrated. I'm sure there are tons of stuff I don't like that is disqualified as "fashion" etc.

And clearly this is not a "pose." By saying that you are once again buying into this anti-aestheticist logic! Pose = fashion.


9:31 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, it has to be fake because that is what aestheticism is accused of. To say someone is an aeshteticist would force one to engage in an actual argument with aesthticism. Instead we can just call them a hipster (ie feminine, "soft", herd-like, shallow etc). It's a double aestheticist trope so to speak. A fake aeshtete.

And I may add to Max that it's not just "reactionaries" who use this trope. Ron Sillimans' emphasis of his own "realism" and Surrealism's "softness" is part of the same rhetoric. Or some version of that rhetoric. But of course I've called Ron reactionary in the past so maybe that doesn't hold up.


9:35 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I want to add here, as I sometimes do, the large historical note. Distrust of the ornament and the dandy (yesterday's hipster) is as old as the European settlement of America. The overly aesthetic, anti-plain speech and dress of the dandy is considered by many early American commentators as the essence of European urban corruption, to which the simple dress and plain-spoken rural nature of the American settler is supposed to be an anecdote.

I myself wish people could get over taking one side of this endless cycle and note that in fact what we have here is a classic Hegelian dialectic, in which each term is always a critique and counterbalance to its opposing term.

Whatever happened to wanting a third term?

But I could waste a lot of time wishing too hard that such a thing is going to happen, especially in the U.S. I suppose some of us might have seen the news that a worker for the American Census Bureau was found murdered in Kentucky last week, the word "Fed" carved into his chest.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think that's certainly part of the answer.


9:56 AM  
Blogger Mike Young said...

Hi Johannes,

"Hipster" carries plenty of class connotations as well, right? Classism accusations, I mean. And that's bound up with your argument of hipster connoting "fake aeshtete," insofar as the bias might read: from their positions of privileged luxury, hipsters can afford to go around being aeshtetes, and it's that very privilege that makes their aestheticism fake, because it's in an indulgence in sifting through various aesthetic poses and trying on their effects rather than committing to them, because when you can afford any clothes you want, all the clothing is costume. To tie it into the Flaubert quote, hipsters are people who have kitschy taste not because they "actually like" kitsch but because they're amused by their ability to reject what they can actually afford and go for the same kitschy stuff that poor people like.

Then you get into a whole bunch of mulch, right, what with the most scornful anti-hipster attitudes (i.e. the ones with invested emotion, not just dismissal) coming maybe from people parallel to what they perceive as a hipster's class but feeling guilty about it, feeling anxious about it, etc. etc.

So what do you think about that argument: colloquially, that "hipsters" are "rich kids" who just "play around?" I'm down with exposing the biases that unfairly demote the notion of "playing around," but what about the "rich kid" part?

10:08 AM  
Blogger Morgan said...

As a first time visitor here, I just want to say how very satisfying this developing discussion of the "hipster" put-down is.

You're hitting on something that's been bothering me about the recent, widespread cultural scapegoating of this mythical creature for a while. And, surprisingly, it looks as if the use of the term in poetry debates lines up with almost substantial differences, rather than just being motivated by insecurity about one's record collection.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


It's a good point. But I think hipster comes from the Beats too, doesn't it? And from Beats being into Black culture? I'm thinking of that offensive essay that Mailer wrote back in the day.

Judging from the Revell/Hybrid establishment, they're still trying to "cage" Ginsberg and the Beats.

But yes, perhaps it has to do with expenditure? Of various kinds.

But yes, somebody else pick up on this idea and carry it on.


10:17 AM  
Blogger Matt Walker said...

i like revell

10:27 AM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...

A few quick comments.

First of all, I appreciate Mark's historical distinction between dandys and rural-ites, though now things are complicated by the university system, and the fact that (speaking of fashion specifically), many poets wear the uniform of the academy and distrust those who do not wear this same attire (I don't think I have to call it out: button up shirts, slacks, whatever plain thing from the Gap). I can't help but connect the traditionalism of the academy and distrust of aestheticism to the security of academic jobs and even the ugliness of most university buildings.

This relates to what Mike was saying about class--but the thing is, though in wider culture hipsters are often considered rich kids, if as poets you set them in contrast with the university system or as university outcasts (or flarfists? I'm thinking of Nada Gordon b/c she has amazing clothes) then I don't know that the idea of hipster rich kids holds up. Often they are the children of rich kids who've rejected their parents lifestyles for a aesthetic lifestyle where all money is spent on interesting and beautiful things and art & they are actually quite poor, living a conversely object/art driven lifestyle while not really making any money. This actually makes them kind of radical but still problematic to those who think more ascetically or are anti "stuff," thinking its vain and vulgar.

I am very vain and vulgar in this way.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I was reading McGurl's THe Program Era about the Workshop era of American literature and there he makes an analysis of "lower middle class modernism" (realism) and its predominance in the founding of the workshop. As soon as I read more I'll make a post about that.


12:14 PM  
Blogger Bobby said...

I realize that this discussion has wandered well afield of my original post, and I know better than to try to corral wild horses online, but I will say that I think the question of style(s) is a red herring. To take Flaubert's side against Bovary/dandys/hipsters doesn't mean you have to write like Flaubert. (Though god knows I for one would love to.) Joyce, Nabokov, Gaddis, and Martin Amis were four of the most ornamental and extravagant writers of the 20th century, and they all stood opposed to kitsch in exactly Rancière's sense.

12:46 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Mike's point about wealth again ties all the way back to the European dandy context. Europeans are rich and wasteful and, crucially, aristocratic, as is evidenced by their overly ornate clothes, and in opposition to the plain-spoken, hard working American anti-aristocrat.

I think one can also see here why the history of Marxism, in its aesthetic elements, is often close to the plainness of the Puritan aesthetic. And again, I'm not saying that it's automatically a putdown of Puritans or Marxists to connect them. I'm not one of those people who thinks Puritans were one-dimensional or "evil." Oddly enough though, perhaps the best Puritan poet, Edward Taylor, was very much more willing to play aesthetic games with language than his local contemporaries.

And once we're tying class into the problem, we have to tie gender into the problem as well. Since women are historically highly associated with ornamental dress, this is another problem with the dandy; he dresses like a woman.

So add that up and yes, the dandy is a rich, feminine, anti-democratic man who indulges in decadent urban practices. It's interesting to consider the varieties of real people that exist beyond that stereotype, and the end of Kate's post talks about some of those people.

12:48 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, I did touch on the supposed European cosmopolitan dandy (jew, feminine, gay etc). And I think that's important.

For example how Silliman excused his lack of interest in foreign literature based on the fact that it was supposedly a upper class cosmopolitan (soft surrealist) thing to do.

It also has to do with non-productive expenditure. You hear critiques of poetry that is "masturbation" etc in the same breath as hipster and fashion poetry.

But Mike may be right in the sense that this is where the critique comes from, this is what is invoked. The twisted class-consciousness of america.


1:02 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Mark, the European dandy wasn't always rich. In fact, they were often people from "lesser" backgrounds who managed, through wit, charm, and style, to fall into the good graces of various patrons.

This is why I brought up historicism in the first place, because I'm not really sure the European dandy, or the 1950s hipster, or whatever else, can really even be considered part of this unbroken cultural phenomenon called "the hipster" (or even that the classical dandy bears any resemblance to the beatnik ... I don't think that match works very well, either).

So when I say that I have a distaste for contemporary hipsters, it's not because I'm anti-new ideas, it's actually because I don't think contemporary hipsters bring any actual ideas to the table. It really is just something for kids with trust funds to do during their 20s.

Which is to say that, if the word "hipster" is used to trash contemporary poets, I think the insult itself (whether it's warranted or not) carries with it a grain of general validity. I may disagree with how the term is assigned (I probably would, but I'm not sure how broadly or narrowly it's been assigned thus far in poetry), but I'm not sure that just because the insult is poorly hurled means that it doesn't speak a general truth about a certain segment of white urban youth culture.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think Mark was speaking of the stereotype of the rich Euro cosmopolitan dandy.


5:52 PM  
Blogger Max said...


I think the term "hipster" is simply being misapplied by these critics. I normally don't think of hipsters as people who are more than peripherally associated with the creative class. I'd imagine that a person who makes a point of regularly writing poetry and seeking publication can be called a member of the creative class.

Maybe what they mean is that this is the type of poetry hipsters would like, or that hipsters would find fashionable? I'm not really sure, but I think we're dealing with confused terminology here.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Yes, there are definite class implications with hipsters. The term connotes a privileged status-- inheritances, trust funds--but with hipsters, instead of actually embracing this status aesthetically, and wearing fancy, expensive clothes, they attempt to downplay or even disguise it by looking average or lower class. Dirty, disheveled hair, unkempt beards, haphazard if not scuzzy dress, etc. These days the capital of this charade is these daysWilliamsburg / Brooklyn, NY.

4:50 PM  

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