What Was the Hipster: An Interview

How are you recording this?” This was the first question asked in my recent interview with writer, professor, and editor/co-creator of n+1, Mark Grief.  I had been anxiously awaiting the interview, double-checking everything, and doing hours of research and here my interviewee was helping me through the basics. It may have just been the professor side of Grief, but it seemed like he was giving me a lesson on how to interview in a very open and lighthearted way rather than an interview on his newest book.

Grief has an impressive rap sheet. He graduated summa cum laude from our very own Harvard, got a PhD from Yale (we can forgive him this), studied literature at Oxford, co-created the literary magazine n+1, and is currently a professor at the New School University in New York City.  To add to this, he has recently published a book entitled What Was the Hipster: A Sociological Investigation. We called him and learned about his opinions on the book, the hipster, our generation, and the Hist and Lit concentration at Harvard.

Why did you choose the hipster for the subject of the panel and then the book?

The word hipster is pretty light; it’s still kind of a funny topic. Even when we were working on it, it felt light. What is serious about it is that it provides you a way into the topics that people talk about in often a very dry way: like gentrification, stratification, or inequality. These are the words that sociologists would use to try and describe how the culture justifies people having very unequal wealth and very unequal opportunities in America. What interests me about hipsters is that they do provide a kind of light way in, but also a way in that lets you immediately use the skills that you know so well. These skills are from daily interaction about how your friends act or how strangers act. They evolve into some of the most fundamental ideas about the class system in America. About how people who are super privileged, even if it is just by going to Harvard, deal with that privilege. Whether that be by justifying it or trying to use it to make the country a little better for everybody. That’s what’s nice about it; it’s a subject that allows people to use what they already know to think about these deep volcanic forces of culture and economy.

What does the word hipster usually imply?

The word hipster was used in a pejorative way to differentiate people that strived for cool but in a way that was false, inauthentic, or in bad taste. The reason I say “was” the hipster here and in the book was twofold. Partly I wanted to annoy people. I wanted to provoke them, so that people would think historically. We were trying to think of a history, to see what had gone before it, to give it some definitions rather than playing the game of a lot of novels of how to be a hipster. They are joke books that try to please you by pointing out the different trends that mark the group at any particular moment. By putting the book in the past tense I wanted people to look at it as they would look at any historical subculture.

But now, people who are quite young are starting to call themselves hipsters, or use the term in a neutral or positive way. That is really different from the way the word has functioned for a long time. It has always functioned as a way of ruling people out.

So what exactly is or was the hipster?

There were these identifiable groups that we now call hipsters who wore a characteristic set of markers of clothing: the trucker hat, the giant buckle belt, the strange mustache. Those markers have changed. So we begin to ask what is the hipster? What are the signs of hipster-dom? How and why can we identify them? Is it a way of identity? Is it a subculture? Is it a movement?

Indeed this seems to be the topic that makes everyone I know angry, even people whom you would think would be completely indifferent to it. Everyone feels uncomfortable or implicated and so it seemed like the hot button topic. And I was very curious to figure out why everyone got so upset.

And why does everyone get upset?

It started to become clear that it association with hip and with the taste that knows ahead of time what is cool. It’s the ability to tell what is cool, not because you’ve learned it but because of some inner superiority of knowledge or taste. That’s something that I think a variety of people, and probably everyone you and I know, use as a way of positioning themselves in the social world.  It turns that the basic phenomena of hip taste or hipster taste is the way that they allow themselves to feel good about who they are often in relation to things they can’t have, deficits they can’t get rid of. Once you start questioning it, it’s as if you’re calling everyone’s bluff, including our own. A key part of the project, for me and the other writers of the book, was to make sure we weren’t exempting ourselves or making accusations that we weren’t prepared also to level at ourselves.

In the book, one of the panelists talks about hipsters in terms of a global culture. Is hipster a global term?

That the word and the style have gone global can be found in Mexico City and Moscow. It also turns out that in America it has become something you can buy in the shopping mall, something you can pick up at Hot Topic. Once you get that type of mainstreaming it’s certainly going to challenge the people who were drawn to the culture, or its exclusivity, to do something else. What’s funny about the hipster phenomenon is that it seems to be a phenomenon that can’t be co-opted because it is already committed to a commercial culture, to just buying stuff. It’s the first “pre-co-opted” culture.

So the hipster was more a consumer group than a political movement?

It had a lot of the markers of a rebellious anti-authority youth culture, but really its values were ultimately in line with authority and with buying. This looked like youth culture: a bunch of young people sitting around looking angry. I’d see the bars and cafes, but all the things that are central to a counter culture were missing. You wouldn’t see the vegan cookie baking classes or even artists. Instead there seems to be a lot of people selling products.  They were very artismal products, but they would be selling Nike sneakers that somebody had drawn on. Then Nike would cobrand them. That led to a lot of anger. Because they are picking up the markers that anywhere else would spell out that you don’t like Nike because of the labor problems. But here you are simply trying to make them seem cool.

Do you think this idea of trying to be an individual is always going to be seen as just being a poser now or will it ever be cool again?

I think that the sense of the hipster is truly pejorative and this is where the word is just synonym of poser, faker, or hanger on. This, I do think, is permanent that people in so far as we continue to live in a world of cool. A world  where people try to identify themselves as special in this democratic culture, and in this mass market culture by getting ahead a little bit.

Subculture seems to be a way to identify yourself in this massmarket culture. Is this our subculture and what does that mean for our future? 

I ask myself what subcultures seem to matter now. It seems the really meaningful and unexplained subculture phenomenon of our time is the hipster. A big part of the book was trying to do the kind of history that we just inherit or read as homework, but about the moment we actually live in. Where we can confirm our thoughts or disprove them by actually following through with what we think and listening to our intuition about what’s true or false.

I also think that there are still continuous genuinely antiauthority and genuinely rebel subcultures which exist of your moment. There is a kind of rebel anarchist bicycle culture that continues to amaze me. And the world of freegans, these vegans who only want to dumpster dive for food, continues to amaze me and I admire it. But clearly there is a whole world of antiauthority, environmental, feminist, vegan, anti-capitalist, bicycle riding, organic farming and I don’t even know what else is your generation’s subculture.

What would you like readers to take away from the book?

I’d like readers to take away from the book a principle that we tried to incarnate in n+1, though it isn’t always obvious: The tools of analysis you learn in school aren’t just for school, they’re for helping you to understand the things that befuddle and trouble you on the street, in a bar, with your family, watching TV, etc.  Maybe Harvard students already know this without having to hear it.  But I’d rather people not feel that we discovered an answer to the enigma of “the hipster” in this book (nor is there just one, anyway), but that we made people’s lives more interesting and graspable by trying to show how a few different people tried hard to think it through.

This book is a classic Hist and Lit project. It takes a present day problem, something that lots of people talk about, and adds a historical background. This is very much in the tradition of the things I was taught in history and literature. I can imagine previewing this in front of my Hist and Lit tutors fifteen years ago… and I’d like to think that they would be pleased with it.

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