New York Times graphic by Josh Cochran and Mike Perry
William Deresiewicz is an essayist, book critic and former professor of English at Columbia and Yale. He recently gave an entertaining but eviscerating talk at Creative Mornings in Portland on the topic of hipsters and the social meaning of the hipster aesthetic. It was based on his article “Generation Sell” in the New York Times.
Comparing hipsters to previous youth movements like the 60s and punk, Deresiewicz tried to identify the emotional tone and dominant social form of each movement. If for the hippies the dominant feeling tone was love and the social form was a communal utopia, what was the feeling tone and social form for the hipster movement? He concludes that for hipsters the dominant feeling projected is “post-emotional” in a group setting with a faux countercultural appearance, and to even his own surprise the dominant social form turned out to be the small business. This is the idea that you’re going to save the world or at least distance yourself from its structures via ethical small artisanal food enterprises, or in his words by selling hipster pickles to your parents. As Deresiewicz says, though:
“The ethos of do-it-yourself social engagement goes along with a withdrawal from politics, which is inherently a sphere of two things that that millennials say they hate: conflict and large institutions. … Unless we engage with politics, what starts at the edges stays at the edges. … Against the immense power of coordinated wealth, the Walmarts, the Goldman Sachses, the Koch brothers, the small business model does not amount to very much. I don’t think you can change the system by just working within it or by dropping out of it. You can only change it by confronting it directly.”
As for the idea that the hipster generation or millennials are all creative, Deresiewicz points out that this “creativity” is married to technology and entrepreneurialism, it’s disengaged from politics or the social, and therefore has nothing to do with the historical avant garde or any sort of truly critical creative mode. (Of course, that can also be said of a lot of art, which I think is why he’s trying to reanimate the idea of the avant-garde.)
“Artists and salespeople are fundamentally different kinds of people. It’s the nature of being an artist to be be consumed always with doubt. That’s what fuels your exploration. It’s the nature of being a salesperson to suppress all doubt and to speak in explanation points. Now these functions have to coexist in the same person.”
We’re not going to fix the world by selling. What we have … is a loss of the avant garde, or art that offers resistance to its audience. And not just art. If you make people uncomfortable, then they’re not going to want to buy, in either sense, what you’re selling them. For a long time we haven’t had any avant garde.”
I was relieved when I saw this video, especially considering it took place in Portland. It is nice to have some backup. The past fifteen years of this flatlined, generic pseudo-counterculturalism and Maker Faires while Rome burns have been more than a little frustrating.
Private enterprise is not going to fix this. We need to reinstate the idea of the public and start to think bigger than microbrews and organic vegetable chips.
There also needs to be less naivete in local politics. It’s amazing to see how many youth-based political groups in Vancouver are backing or working with the neoliberal greenwashing party in power here, Vision Vancouver. What the hell.
Note: critiques of hipsters and hipsterism seem to be accumulating… both good and bad. For critiques that seem as bad as what they’re critiquing, see this.