The Further Sociology of Hipsters

Does the word ‘hipster’ mean anything? “Not anymore” says Josh, an “archetypal hipster” quoted in this Guardian article. The word itself obviously has a long history but did its present sense, referring to a diffuse yet uniform sartorial and lifestyle trend in the neoliberal metropolis, ever really have a clear meaning? In its absence, can we take the ‘hipster’ seriously as an identity category? I would have assumed not and yet a Polish friend of mine described having met self-defining hipsters in Warsaw bars. I was sceptical but Morwenna Ferrier describes these encounters in East London (having presumably gone trawling in her local area for particularly earnest incarnations of the trend):

At Hoxton Bar and Grill in east London, 24-year-old graduate Milly identifies with hipsters: “I mean, that’s why we all live in east London. It just feels so real, like something creative and cool is happening.”

Manny, a 28-year-old singer who has lived in Dalston for more than five years, likes the sense of community: “Young people haven’t got jobs or work and they need it. It’s like a tribe, like goths. I hope hipsters aren’t dead, because I just signed a year lease on my flat.”

Miller adds: “We’ve never written about hipsters as a subculture at Vice because I don’t think hipsters are a subculture. However, I do appreciate that people like the idea of belonging to something, so I suppose on that level the idea exists.” As O’Neil explains: “Whoever said [hipsters] wanted to be unique? I think it’s more about wanting to belong.”

The article ends on an interesting point: “I don’t see why you can’t just be a guy in east London liking the stuff that’s around without being branded as something”. When I wrote about this a few weeks ago, Matt Lodder made the important observation that the category of ‘hipster’ is often used to denigrate adherents of activities that are undertaken with absolute sincerity. So what could be an overriding passion (of the sort that an ethically earnest, Andrew Sayer quoting sociologist such as myself should take seriously) is instead dismissed as obvious artifice. But perhaps the dichotomy here (between passion and pretence) is fallacious – am I preoccupied with the category of the ‘hipster’ because it unsettles the intellectual scheme I’m so invested in? It makes me realise that I frequently come close to the concept of ‘authenticity’ despite this being a notion I find rather absurd.

One way to preserve the dichotomy would be to consider the expression the author quotes at the end of the article: liking the stuff that’s around. Does passion slide into pretence when it’s lazily selected from the adjacent context rather than searched for? I think there’s something to this thought but it’s not an overly convincing response. The discussion with Benjamin Geer here makes me think I’ll need to read Bourdieu properly before I get a handle on this issue. I’ve had Rules of Art on my shelf for ages and still haven’t touched it. What seems particularly important is the manner in which, as I understand it, Bourdieu addresses definitional struggles by incorporating the contesting parties into the analysis itself. This is Benjamin’s comment on the previous post:

The question “who is a hipster” is like the question “who is a writer” that Bourdieu dealt with in “The Rules of Art”, in that the participants in the field are engaged in a constant struggle over where the boundaries of the field should be drawn. He called this “conflict over definitions”, or “classification struggle” (as opposed to “class struggle”). Rather than try to impose his own definition on a contested category, he ended up deciding to construct his object of study by including all those who were involved in that very struggle.

So on this view, the Guardian article and my blog post would presumably figure into our understanding of the concept of the ‘hipster’ rather than being something external to it. From this perspective the initial form of my question starts to seem slightly silly (basically: are they committed to their practices or is it a cultivated pretence?) and it instead leads outwards into a whole network of questions of that are otherwise slightly occluded by the way I’ve setup the issue. How is it that the question becomes intelligible in the first place? I’m going to retrieve the Rules of Art from my shelf and place it on my ‘to read’ pile. I’ll also perhaps restrain myself from any further ruminations about ‘hipsters’ until I’ve read it.

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