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.

Letter From the Editor

While I am never one to criticize Sesame Street, I have to respectfully disagree with Kermit the Frog’s famous adage: here at The Voice, we think it is quite easy to be green. This year we are doing things a bit differently, and in the spirit of sustainability The Voice is now completely online. Though I am sure you miss seeing our pretty little faces handing out issues, you can still read the pithy witticisms, helpful advice, and provocative stories that we provide – and all from the comfort of your own Lamont cubicle!

Even as we try to reduce the impact of our carbon footprint, we are hoping to increase the impact of your voice on campus. This year, we set out to do more – to write more, to sponsor more, to involve readers more – in the hopes of giving more to the community here at Harvard. The year is long, the stories are bountiful, and the possibilities are endless, so be prepared for times of change!

This is where we start: an issue for coming back to school, for October happenings, and for things that you forgot about Harvard while you were away from the People’s Republic of Cambridge. It is the first of many, and I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we did making it. In the meantime, relax, sit back, and peruse: welcome to the online-only Voice!

From Hanoi to Harvard

Hi, my name is Michelle, and I’m from Hanoi, Vietnam. But I’m not a Communist, so don’t worry” is the shtick I use to introduce myself at Harvard. It makes people laugh, and serves my narcissistic purpose of distinguishing myself from the hundreds of short Asian girls that dominate this campus.

Behind the introduction is a long and bumpy road that led me to Harvard. In fact, I almost didn’t come. Harvard wasn’t my first choice for matriculation, but my parents thought it had better international recognition and my mother semi-blackmailed me into choosing it. Besides, they could not pronounce “Yale” despite my best efforts. It was quite difficult for my mother to brag to her gossipy neighbors about me going to “a certain famous school in the US.”

In retrospect, though, I couldn’t have made a better decision.

I have one of the most unusual and unorthodox Vietnamese families you will ever find. My father is the fifth child of a dirt-poor family with ten children in central Vietnam. He grew up in the 50s and bore witness to two major wars and political and economic turmoil in the country. With a preternatural amount of self-motivation and efforts, he went to college in Hanoi on a government scholarship, and finally earned a PhD in mechanical engineering from Germany. It is the classic rags-to-riches story that characterized my childhood and instills in me today an unquenchable sense of pride and affection for my father—to the extent that I am (perhaps too) ready to gloss over his humanly flaws and his unhealthy affinity for alcohol.

My mother is twelve years my father’s junior, and a city girl through and through. She was beautiful and carefree, had a day job as a photo model, and moonlighted as a drama actress. Yet somehow she found herself married to an older man that, at the time, had neither looks nor money on his side. If I could put a caption below my parent’s wedding pictures, it would be Beauty and the Beast,” reminiscent of the classic Disney tale. Standing next to my impeccably made-up mother, my father looked like a gorilla that had undergone a yearlong hunger strike, his horrific, shoulder-length mop of black hair overwhelming his stick thin figure even more. (Funnily enough, he now has a belly and hardly any hair at all.) For all their incompatibilities and idiosyncrasies, they actually make a good pair, like Thelma and Louise, Batman and Robin, and yes, Beauty and the Beast. But most important of all, they were and still are great parents. For one thing, they allow me to verbalize all my less-than-flattering descriptions of them and their habitual antics and actually proceed to laugh with me.

In between Hanoi and Harvard, there was Singapore. There, I spent four years in a public high school under the generous ASEAN scholarship. The opportunity came like a whirlwind. I was invited to try out on Friday night, reluctantly came to the examination on Monday after a weekend away on holiday, knew that I got in via a phone call on Tuesday night, and the papers were signed on Wednesday. Just like that, I was whizzed off to a land I hardly knew existed. I was fourteen years old, stood at 4 feet, 10 inches tall and weighed a grand total of 90 pounds. As we waited to check in at the airport, my tearful mother was still quite convinced that it was all a scam to trick young children and then sell them off to China or Africa. She reminded me over and again that should anything happen in the next day or two, just call and she would board the next flight to Singapore and escort me home. My father was stoic, as always. He believed that it was never too early to see the world and realize how minuscule I really am. As for me, I was just excited about flying for the very first time.

In the next six months or so, Singapore sprung me around and hit me hard. I came to fully realize the perils of starting a life in a foreign country all by myself without adequate preparations. I could barely speak English. The pace of life was nauseatingly fast, and I was lost. It did not help that in this country, chewing gum was banned, a legal drinking age actually existed, and a hefty fine accompanied eating and drinking on public transportation. It remained unclear to me how I managed to climb out of that muddled mess of pubescent drama, but I did. I made friends, did well in school, and graduated with a shining portfolio. Still, sometimes I found myself frightened by lonesomeness and suffocated by the rat race, and I wondered if being 1,400 miles away from home was worth it.

People often asked how I managed to adjust so fast to life in America (I suspect some had a vision of me as a Marx-spewing, flag-waving, loony Commie), and my answer always involved Singapore. I think of Singapore as a microcosm of America, a model of what America would be like if it were the size of Massachusetts and had a Chinese majority. It taught me to appreciate racial and cultural diversity, to believe in myself, and to survive by myself. Most important of all, it trained me to master the art of bullshitting my way through an essay on a topic that I knew nothing about.

Four years later, I left the Lion City one last time. I was an inch taller, fifteen pounds heavier, and a whole lot more cynical. I traded innocence for maturity and (some) wisdom. But sometimes you just want to be carefree and happy and not having to worry about everything.

As I stood inside Hanoi’s International Airport last August, waiting to board the flight to Boston, it was with familiar sights but wildly different sentiments. It would be a blatant lie to say that I was not intimidated. After all, no matter how many episodes of Sex and the City and Gossip Girl I watched, the real America still held that potential to shake me out of my core and break me into pieces.

My first year at Harvard have been marked by exhilarating highs, like seeing myself anonymously featured for the first time on HarvardFML, and embarrassing lows, like stupidly auditioning for Eleganza and spending the next hour having the last bits of self esteem sucked out of me by the parade of thin, tall, and beautiful Harvard ladies. But I did have a lot of fun. Too much fun, perhaps. I have good friends to commiserate with over looming deadlines and a much-too-crowded iCal, to party with every weekend, and to share profound thoughts and dreams over scallion pancakes at 2 a.m. in the Kong. It still amazes me sometimes that I am here, walking the historic path crisscrossing Harvard Yard, and living among the people that will some day be titans of industry and leaders of the world. I don’t know yet if I deserve my place here, or if something valuable will come out of my stint as “a Harvard kid,” but at least I know I will enjoy myself trying to find out.