Thursday, 4 September 2008


As proof I don’t just use the internet to read Andrew Rilstone’s comments on Doctor Who, I was recently perusing K-Punk’s critique of hipsterdom. Despite the fact that neither article he’s reacting to is worth reading of itself, I’m a fan of K-Punk - even at the points where I disagree with him. For example, when he condemns hipsters as “pathologically well-adjusted” he is surely bang on the money.

However, when he calls the hipster “a vague irritation at the periphery of awareness” of “the general population”, I would claim quite the opposite. Of course, the self-conscious hipster has always cared more about his hipness quotient than anybody else has done, or indeed even could. But in many ways the culture-surfing hipster has come to determine our post-modern era. For one thing, culture has largely abandoned segmentation for a grey homogenisation – we are all brand-wearers now, everybody’s goateed nowadays. Listening to “keep-it-real grime” or “rad hip-hop” no longer places you outside the mainstream, for it will all win a Mercury Prize eventually. So the only distinguishing marker left is to be ahead of the curve. And “I used to be into them last year” is precisely where the hipster plants his pad.

More pertinently, the hipster has come to epitomise our relationship to culture. The hipster hangs out inside a hermetic, rarified world where there is only room for appearances. Music and art become interchangeable with the brand-name clothing as signifiers for the self. The objects are merely there as something to hang the labels from, which stand so easily for a projected ‘self’ with no greater depth to it than they do. Devoid of substance, everything can safely be jettisoned as soon as it’s classed “last year”. Thereby insulated against attachment, the hipster can feel neither pain nor pleasure – save a temporary salve of peer approval. With the world so shrunk, everything appears effortless to the hipster. His life is one of perpetual torpor.

One example of the leakage of hipsterdom into the general culture is the rise of ‘smart casual’ workplaces. You’re no longer required to wear a stock uniform to work. But you’re also aware that to wear the same clothes you lounge about in at home is not an option. You are as judged for what you wear to work as ever, making it your de facto task to generate some pseudo-individuality within conformism. This is the hipster’s challenge in a nutshell.

But the point where I really disagree with K-Punk is where he negatively contrasts the hipster against the geeko-outsider, the “sense of abandonment and maladjustment” found in “Metal, Goth and even, Gold help us, Emo.” It’s not just that the geek is any less a stereotype than the hipster, it’s that they are the two sides of the same tarnished coin.

At the level of general appropriation, the charismatic, smart-casual Blair was (by politican’s terms) a hipster. (Bono was exultant at finding a tuned guitar in his office, pronouncing there “hope.”) While of course the crumpled, number-crunching Brown couldn’t be more of a geek. And of course the media encourages us to focus on this difference, and of course it’s the last thing we should actually do. It merely serves to obscure the fact that their policies are interchangeable. The same is true of the wider culture.

K-Punk’s comments are particularly bizarre, for geek culture has penetrated the mainstream almost as surely as has hip. With both defined by consumption, what differentiates them is their method of consumption. The collectivist geek is the addict of consumption, wanting the set of everything irrespective of whether he even likes it or not. The dilettante hipster passes his faddishness off as connoisseurship. In general, everyone else now consumes as addicts whilst carrying the belief this makes them connoisseurs. In the past, only geeky genres such as Science Fiction made it onto video collection releases. Nowadays everything’s available on DVD, from nature shows to sitcoms to cheesy cop shows.

But the real exemplifier of geek culture penetrating the mainstream must be comics. Back in the early Eighties comic fandom almost reflected gay culture, with its mix of ‘out’ fans and ‘closets’ who kept their sorry hobby a secret from friends and workmates. Nowadays... well, just read those reviews of Dark Knight.

K-Punk is however, much closer to the nub of it than the above might make out: “When youth culture was interesting it was because of alienation... the sense both that the young were not adequate to the world and also that the world was not adequate to them. I am nothing and should be everything.

Of course in a fucked-up world, the only non-fucked-up response is to be is fucked-up. But what makes those moments of youth culture special isn’t when they abandon cool for alienation, or when the two are held in separate-but-equal contrast – it’s when the two were dialectically synthesized. You need to be grub and butterfly simultaneously. Think of Ziggy-era Bowie or Stooges-era Iggy, it’s impossible to separate them into examples of alienated outsiderhood and of cool-as-fuck-ness. (As John Lennon once said “part of me thinks I’m a loser. The other that I’m Christ Almighty.”) What makes it alienated is also what makes it cool. Even the more credible ‘cool’ icons such as Jim Morrison seem to suffer from the lack of something to me. There’s no tang to the taste, no sense of internal conflict, merely a sugar rush.

The chief drive to alienation in youth culture is, after all, not social or political but merely hormonal. Of course this can sharpen a youth’s antennae to wider concerns, but it can as easily narrow into sheer self-pity. Merely insisting on your right to feel fucked-up leads nowhere except wallowing. Once you’ve made your alienation your identity, you’ve become a hopeless case. Youth culture must carry feelings of alienation, but to avoid the sulky bedroom it must also suggest an antidote. At the same time this antidote must feel volatile and tenuous, something precariously grasped. It’s not a formula, where the two can be combined in the correct amounts – the key is the reaction which then results.

You probably won’t be too surprised to hear me say this, but at root it’s all to do with shamanism. The shaman is the sickly kid who has the task thrust upon him to heal himself, and through this stumbles upon some strange new form of transformative power. The shaman is no master of his trade, like a blacksmith or carpenter. He doesn’t truly understand this power itself, but can only explore it and offer it to the rest of the tribe through performance. The shaman remains an outsider to the rest of the tribe, even at the same time they join in his rituals.

Okay, here’s a question for the reader. What about the ‘geek chic’ image, first put forward by Talking Heads and Devo – which side is that on? No conferring. Your time starts now...

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