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Why Hipsters Aren’t All That Hip

Forrest Perry (forrest.r.perry [at] is a graduate student in philosophy at Vanderbilt University. His research interests include the nature of work under capitalism, the cultural dimensions of class, and radical pedagogy.

Richard Lloyd, Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City (New York: Routledge, 2006), 295 pages, paper $19.95.

Over the past decade, I have gone from being politically unconscious to leaning left. During that period of transition, I was cool. Put differently, I was something of a hipster. Not quintessentially so, but I certainly did, and to some extent still do, have some hipster credentials (I’d flash them here, but the list—mostly of bands I listen to and widely-unknown indie-rock musicians I can count among my friends and acquaintances—would make little sense to the uninitiated). I am now thirty, the age around which most hipsters begin the process of becoming formerly known as hip. From my current perspective, as someone increasingly critical of capitalist social arrangements, I cannot help but wonder: How cool was it to be cool? I’ll try to explain what I mean by that question and then present the answer I take to emerge from Richard Lloyd’s Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City.

“Cool” is perhaps best understood as a marker sought by participants in a competition for status. It may be interesting to examine, even if difficult to catalogue and keep abreast of, the many ways whereby people establish themselves as cool, but it is, I think, more important to note what they have in common. Those who enjoy success in the struggle to be recognized as cool know that whatever strategy they use, it must consist in distancing themselves (in the appropriate way) from what is considered “mainstream society.” What unifies the diverse strategies of those who position themselves as cool, then, is the image of the nonconforming individual.

Thomas Frank provides the most mordant critique of those who imagine themselves to escape conformity. In The Conquest of Cool, he shows that those who engage in what he calls hip consumerism cast themselves as rebels in a narrative informed by the mass society critique first articulated in the fifties. According to this narrative there is, on one side, “the Establishment” and the masses conforming to it, on the other—the side of hip consumers—resistance through nonconformity. But if “the Establishment” is understood, as it is in the mass society critique, to include corporations and their strategy of maximizing profits through product obsolescence, then it has to be noted that, far from being at odds with this strategy, hip consumerism abets it. As Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter explain in Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, “one of the most objectionable aspects of mass society was the system of ‘planned obsolescence,’ exposed most famously by Vance Packard in The Waste Makers. Yet the solution to mass society—countercultural rebellion—has given us even faster cycles of obsolescence in fashion, all in the name of individual expression.”

So, if to be hip is imagined to involve resistance to corporate America, and if hip consumerism amounts to precisely the opposite, mustn’t we conclude that hip people aren’t hip?

Some would insist that there is a difference between people who buy certain things to make themselves appear hip and people who really are hip. But even if we employ the mystifying language of authenticity and grant that there are, on the one hand, genuine hipsters and, on the other, those who merely imitate them (and perhaps also a wide range of people somewhere in between), I think we cannot help but conclude that the distinction here is one that does not make a difference. However, to understand this—that hip people, even “authentically” hip people, aren’t hip—it helps to look at “hip” not only as a way of consuming.

Richard Lloyd is among those who do just this. In Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City, Lloyd examines a sample of those who would be widely recognized as authentically hip—the young musicians, painters, film-makers, writers, and other artist types who populated Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood in the 1990s. Lloyd rightly understands “hip” as a status marker and writes keenly about the status games Chicago’s “neo-bohemians” play, but that (or that alone) is not what makes his book so distinctive. What sets Lloyd’s book apart from others is that he does with respect to the sphere of production what others have done with respect to the sphere of consumption: others have pointed out that what counts as “bohemian” or “cool” or “countercultural” appeals to many American consumers and thus benefits the world of big business that hip consumers imagine themselves to be rebelling against, but Lloyd is the first, to my knowledge, to show that those perceived to be authentically hip, and thus to genuinely resist the corporate mainstream, often end up, in their capacity as workers, conforming rather nicely to capitalism’s profit-making imperative. In examining “authentic” hipsters as “useful labor,” Lloyd also distinguishes himself from those who treat them as “tortured geniuses or the heroes of modern life” or as constituting a “resistant subculture.”

One of Lloyd’s reasons for calling Wicker Park a “neo-bohemia” is that the artists living there, much like past bohemians, construct themselves in opposition to people overly concerned with making money. The die-hard denizens of Wicker Park who see themselves as living for the sake of art do not, of course, avoid living also for the sake of (others’) profit, for they cannot help but commodify their labor-power. Lloyd reminds us that success in the form of being able to make a living from one’s art, let alone “make it big,” is enjoyed by a very tiny minority of those who make art their life. Thus the typical artist’s energy, although occasionally manifested in works of art, for the most part finds expression in work of a much more mundane sort—that of a “real” job. For the majority of Wicker Park’s artists, this means a job in one of the trendy bars, restaurants, or nightclubs that make up the neighborhood’s service sector; for a smaller number, a job in one of the Internet and graphic design firms clustered in and around the area.

Lloyd finds through interviews that many of those who hold such jobs do not feel alienated from them. Those in Wicker Park’s service industry work in environments that reflect their own tastes, and they are allowed, even encouraged, “to be themselves” on the job. Many in the design sector feel the same and appreciate the opportunities to put their artistic skills to work. Service and design workers alike contrast the work they do with that of their “other,” the yuppie who trades autonomy and excitement for wealth and job security in the corporate workforce. On the whole, the workers Lloyd speaks to see themselves as working jobs that suit them as artists and individuals. And, deploring not capitalism as such but rather only “big corporations,” they take a certain pride in doing work that lies outside the corporate mainstream.

The understanding Lloyd’s interviewees have of themselves in the world of work is not without its blind spots and tensions, however. Many of the people Lloyd interviews fail to see that the life of risk and instability they take themselves to have freely chosen is a life they (and most Americans) are more or less forced to choose. As Lloyd explains, with several decades of deindustrialization and the decline of Fordism has come the dominance of a new, “flexible” mode of capitalist accumulation, which generates insecure jobs in the very sectors Wicker Park’s artist types find employment. The artists in Wicker Park are like their bohemian predecessors in “insist[ing] upon their opposition to an imagined mainstream,” but they rely on an “imago of the mainstream [that] is anachronistic, as the old promises of career and social security under the terms of the Fordist corporation and the welfare state have increasingly evaporated.”

Most of Lloyd’s interviewees take themselves to be anticorporate, but when one’s business depends on the patronage of at least some “big corporations,” exceptions must be made. Thus although MTV (more specifically, its program “The Real World”) and Starbucks were greeted with hostility when they set up shop in Wicker Park, the director of one design boutique, when asked whether he would work on advertisements for Nike, acknowledged that “there’s controversy about the company” (because of its sweatshops) but nevertheless said he would willingly do work for them, his reason being that Nike is the kind of client that “allows you to express your own artistic vision within the context of their brand.” He welcomes the prospect of doing creative work but does not single out as problematic the fact that his artistic vision must not break through the confines of what is good for Nike’s brand identity. His company could not, for instance, create a commercial consisting of documentary-style footage of garment workers in “free trade zones” being disciplined—perhaps to the ultra-hip musical accompaniment of Japanese death metal—with bamboo rods bearing the imprint of the Nike swoosh. That would most certainly be “cutting-edge” material, but it would also, no doubt, threaten to cut too much into Nike’s profits, thus resulting in the loss of a lucrative client. And not just any client. As the director of the boutique claims, Nike isn’t like other corporations—it’s “fun” and “flexible.” Implicit in such a statement is the neo-bohemian belief that most corporations are still run by the 1950s Organization Man. As Lloyd puts it, “The traditions of dead generations are what make it possible to understand oneself as resisting the stultification and injustice of corporate capitalism while working twelve-hour days making…ads for Nike.”

Far from mounting resistance to capitalism in its neoliberal incarnation, Wicker Park’s neo-bohemians, precisely because they are bohemian, contribute to its reproduction. What counts as the artist lifestyle nowadays, Lloyd argues, has been deeply influenced by the legacy of bohemia, and bohemia has always been associated with urban spaces. With most artists being bohemian and all bohemians living in densely populated urban areas, spaces like Wicker Park become home to a reserve army of labor that the service and design industries benefit from having flexible access to. However, Chicago’s neo-bohemia does more than just concentrate an ample source of so-called creative labor in one area. As Lloyd points out time and again, it also fosters dispositions and attitudes particularly useful to capitalist accumulation in its post-Fordist form. For example, like bohemians in the past, Wicker Park’s artists take pride in tolerating material scarcity, thus constituting a pool of labor particularly well adapted to the needs of the neighborhood’s design firms, whose hiring (and firing) fluctuates in accordance with the volume of piece work they happen to have contracted out to them by corporate clients.

Bars and restaurants—many lasting but a few months, and some doing the bulk of their business during only the warmer months of the year—also benefit from the starving-artist ethos, but they benefit even more from the concern for status that pervades Wicker Park. For example, people working in the service industry are encouraged to display their status as hipsters, to be their subcultural selves, because in so doing they contribute to the aura of cool that attracts clientele of the financially endowed sort (the “urban tourists” consisting largely of yuppies, “amateurs,” the insufficiently hip). Service workers are also permitted to play a game of distinction that at first glance might appear to be only detrimental to an establishment’s bottom line. It’s a game that consists in demonstrating that one knows and is known by the right people. Lloyd describes it as a “circular process of mostly symbolic exchange,” for it consists in waiters and bartenders giving free drinks to their service-industry friends, receiving large tips in return, and then giving that tip money back when, on a different night and in a different establishment, their friends give them free drinks. Employers permit this practice of “juicing the tips” because the hip friends of their hip employees help “make the scene” that makes their businesses thrive. Service workers engage in the ritual in earnest and with pleasure, apparently not realizing that the whole thing ends up being a little like receiving a day’s pay, only to spend most of it at the company store.

In these and other ways, Lloyd shows that the efforts of Wicker Park’s hip artist types are “harnessed on behalf of interests that they often sincerely profess to despise.” What if, rather than serving the interests of capitalism, hipsters were to work towards its dissolution? This would mean contributing to their own demise as hipsters, because without capitalism, there can be no such thing as “hip.” At least not “hip” in its current articulation, which depends on elements of today’s society that would likely disappear were it transformed along socialist and radically democratic lines. Under such transformed social conditions, there would be no yuppies, “the ‘other’ in the neo-bohemian classificatory system” against whom hipsters define themselves. Nor would there be poor and working-class people, whom hipsters also rely on for their identity. (As Lloyd notes, the presence of homeless people is one of the features that contribute to the gritty authenticity favored by Wicker Park’s artists. Sharing the streets with the poor and, moreover, “with working-class and nonwhite residents…is part of the image of an authentic urban experience.”) To offer serious resistance to the capitalist system they claim to hate, then, hipsters would have to face what they would likely find (as I have) somewhat disconcerting, namely, that they must challenge the way of living they have come to value, the hip lifestyle that for them has become second nature.

The alternative, it seems, is for hip artist types to cling to their ideology of living for art’s sake and to persist in their illusions (which are also, as Althusser would say, allusions in that ideologies consist in people’s imagined relations to their real conditions of existence). This is indeed what most hipsters tend to do, Lloyd suggests in the concluding chapter of his book, where he talks about how virtually all participants of any given bohemia bemoan the passing of better times: “bohemia is always already over because it always already falls short of its adherents’ fantasies of social autonomy, expressed in the vaunted ideology of art pour l’art. From their very beginnings, bohemias and neo-bohemias are subject to external and internal pressures, pressures that differ in each historical period; thus the perpetual nostalgia for an imagined moment of genuine independence (and efficacious opposition).” Is the nostalgia for this imagined moment, for a time when artists could live for art’s sake, their lifestyle and values not (yet) co-opted by big business—is this a longing for capitalism’s demise? Perhaps, but it is a longing that has been distorted, that appears as backward-looking nostalgia rather than something more future-oriented in character. Does this mean that there is nothing about being hip that might increase the likelihood of one’s leaning left? Not necessarily, but so long as what hipsters long for is forever located in the past rather than recognized as a future that certain kinds of struggle could make possible, they are able to ignore their complicity in capitalist domination. And that ain’t cool.

I would like to thank Yusuf Oz and Kathleen Eamon for their comments on an earlier draft of this piece.

2006, Volume 58, Issue 04 (September)
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