To say the contemporary North American hipster has an ambivalent relationship with mainstream culture would be a mild understatement. How much – and how ironically – the self-identified hipster engages popular culture is an issue on which cred is staked and cultural capital gained and lost, often, one assumes, over pints of microbrewery beer or glasses of obscure Chilean wine.
While I acknowledge ‘the hipster’ is hardly a scientific category, as someone inclined to make crass generalisations, let me make another here. I’d say there are two general hipster approaches to the mainstream, both of which are quite familiar. The first is elitist disdain for the popular, the immediate dismissal of the idea that anything in mass culture has many, if any, redeeming qualities. The other is something like ironic detachment, an engagement with popular culture that isn’t about fully immersing oneself in a TV show or music act, but instead, enjoying the pulpy nature of it while simultaneously maintaining a critical, ironic distance. It’s populism of a sort, but one that maintains the safety of an emergency exit, the comfort of obscure literature and snarky blogs always ready to rescue one from Gossip Girl or Ashlee Simpson. And while it isn’t clearly elitist, neither is it value-neutral.
Of the two perspectives, I’d argue it’s the latter that has become more dominant. While those of us who grew up in the nineties were initially more familiar with the first, the ‘one foot in, one foot out’ approach has become more common now, and indeed, there are good reasons for that. Many will argue that irony is the only fitting approach in a culture in which distinctions between high and low, and even good and bad have started to become markedly fuzzy and that, furthermore, to condescendingly dismiss popular culture is to be an elitist and a classist. Given that so many urban hipsters are at least superficially left-leaning, this is frequently seen to be untenable.
At stake in the division between the two is a starkly divergent view of popular culture. One side views it as an aberration, a collection of media produced by shallow consumerism and an appeal to the lowest common denominator. The other sees popular culture as, simply, ‘the human’. ‘Whatever it is, it is’, they say, but the standard postmodern refrain that “high is low and low is high” is complicated by the acknowledgement of larger cultural and economic forces, not of all which are inherently ‘good’. Given the right context, a woman in a bikini may be highly ironic; given the wrong, it may merely be a repetition of sexism.
But if we are now free to revel in ‘low culture’ and the mainstream, while we are also aware that much of what drives it is suspect, what does this mean for satire, the genre that is meant to take existing forms and tweak them in order to critique? Well, one could argue that it has produced a generation of satire that has taken up that ubiquitous question – “Can you dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools?” – and answered with a resounding, deafening yes. From Starship Troopers and Natural Born Killers, to South Park and The Simpsons, to Mad Men and Gossip Girl, we have a spate of media that uses the very ideas, images, forms and dialects that are being satirised in order to criticise. Even when – say in the case of Gossip Girl – the satire is not ‘there explicitly’ irony saves us, giving us the critical distance to make what academics call ‘recuperative readings’, interpretations that save media from itself. Relax, my hipster friend, let that tightness leave your chest: when you sit down in front of the TV and immerse yourself in pop, you are still cleverly rising above it.
But the question to be asked is to what extent the ironic engagement of popular culture allows for critical distance. Put another way, at what point in immersing oneself in popular media does irony disappear and assimilation begin? And I’d argue that the entire premise of critical distance is – fatally – predicated on the idea of a conscious critical distance. To wit, I can watch Gossip Girl but remain unaffected by it because I know better; because I am smart, I can hover over this, untouched.
But does it actually work that way? Do images and the desire through which they function operate in a clear, conscious manner? I don’t think so. Mad Men may be a brilliant critique of the crass excess and prejudice of sixties Madison Avenue, but I have yet to meet someone not desperate for a scotch and cigarette by the show’s end, no-one neither straight nor gay who isn’t already in love with Joan Holloway. Until he was shown to be a brazen liar and womanizer, I know I wasn’t the only one who wanted to be Don Draper. Mad Men’s fastidious attention to glamorous aesthetics, its use of impossibly attractive leads, and its saturation in the late-capitalist fervour of postmodern America does far more to reaffirm those values than condemn them. In your waking hours you might hate Don Draper, but when you dream, you want to be reborn as him.
I can ironically critique Gossip Girl all I want; the images will still be burned into my brain. I will still walk down the street and think “oh, that girl’s hot, she looks just like that chick on that show”. I will perform postcolonial, anti-racist critique by day, and every night I will find myself believing that glamour and wealth are the purviews of the white, blonde and skinny.
The point – that I am now stating rather melodramatically – is that there is a disconnect between conscious hipster irony and the way in which images work to produce desire in us. Images never work alone, and while it is easy to consciously erect a wall between the sincere image and the satirical one – say between Jack Bauer as a model of masculinity and Don Draper as a critique of it – the way in which unconscious desire separates these two things is much more fuzzy, particularly when the satirical images themselves have desirable traits like attractiveness or wit or success.
The upside of the now old-fashioned hipster elitism is that a complete disavowal of the aesthetic and ideology of mainstream culture means that one is not subjected to its libidinal economy. Ironic distance works through false hope, offering up a vision of a purely conscious mind devoid of desire, somehow immune to the value-laden, sexually-charged imagery that pulses across our screens. Satire cannot work through reproducing the things it critiques because the unconscious cannot construct a division between the image that reinforces and the one that undercuts. When you see a billboard with an attractive person on it, you desire them or you desire to be them. Whether the billboard is for Adbusters or Guess is irrelevant; the effect is the same because of the network of images that pre-dated both of them.
The irony at the core of hipster-ism began with good intentions: break down the walls between high and low, embrace everything, and you understand culture and its inhabitants. But it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of human desire and its basis in the unconscious. The faux-populist, ironic core of hipster, bloggy culture is predicated on an optimism that has no reason, a resignation rather than an overcoming, a constant reproduction of the values we claim to critique but actually reaffirm. And while I, red-faced, cannot claim that I will not tonight, beer in hand, watch the latest episode of Man Men, I think I might, despite the internet’s protestations, never start watching Gossip Girl. For I would, as always, be affected the same way: claiming to float lightly above it, all the while writhing in the mud and lust of the id.
Note: In the interests of quoting my sources, I feel I should note that, like half the posts on the blog, the ideas here stemmed from a drunken conversation with my friend ‘M’ who refuses to write a guest post.