Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hip Is Not a Four-Letter Word (But Boho Is)

Well, about ten days have passed since the initial publication of the infamous Adbusters article; this lapse, translated from real-time, equals about 2.3 years of online-time. (Not insignificantly, this is the same ratio of Earth-time to Uranus-time.) Netizens ripped through the article like Norman Bates in a Bed, Bath, & Beyond, and I myself bore witness to about a half-dozen discussions in various bars. By now, the thematic terrain has been torn up and left as barren as the Somme - but that ain't gonna stop me from having one last waltz through the minefield.

Within a certain online cul-de-sac, the Adbusters article couldn't come at a better time, following a sudden flush of posts about how at-least-middle-class "creatives" have franchised a butterknife-dull brand of bohemianism. Both Simon Reynolds and Phillip Sherburne connected the dots between this nuevo-cosmo sprawl and the HUAC-like hysteria over hipsterism by way of one Mr. Nick Currie.
Momus... with his nomadic lifestyle and restlessly mobile aesthetic, his Japanophilia and his privileging of the faux/unrooted/"superflat", was very much a pioneer, an early settler on this post-geographical "terrain".
His CV bullet-pointed with such po-mo touchstones as Shibuya-kei, Wired.com, and Vice Magazine, few are better qualified than Momus to comment on all things au current. Indeed, his response did not disappoint, lambasting the article's theatrical tone ("Haddow comes over all purple, all 6th form apocalyptic") and its ankle-deep cultural analysis ("Haddow fails to get down to the serious business of art criticsm"). But the most fascinating moment of Momus' rebuttal is when he agrees
with my former boss at Vice, Gavin McInnes, when he says that disdain of hip subculture tends to come from "chubby bloggers who aren't getting laid", people who are "just so mad at these young kids for going out and getting wasted and having fun and being fashionable".
This accord, between the dialectical and juvenile fronts against anti-hipsterism, is key in understanding anti-anti-hipsterism. (If there's such thing as pro-hipsterism, it's a better-kept secret than Merchandise 7X.) Momus has made a career of being the token outsider, an arch-Orientalist in a mobile bubble; meanwhile, McInnes (an anti-immigration activist with a history of racist outbursts) did more to define the parameters of irony in indie culture than anyone since Stephen Malkmus. In short, they are both Other-ers of the first order.

In spite of the avant-garde associations with the word, Hip rarely debuts any new ideas these days. (We'll come back to the this.) Instead, it traffics almost exclusively in irony, manifested typically as either hostile mockery, or deconstructive play-acting. Either way, the relationships created are oppositional, across lines of generation, gender, class, and race. But there's nothing ideological about these oppositional positions. Take everyone's favourite polyglot performer, Mathangi "M.I.A." Arulpragasam, for example. She named her debut after her Tamil Tiger father's nom-de-guerre, and her current single's chorus is a bald endorsement of armed robbery. She's posed herself as the voice of the developing world's vengeful animus - at least to the extent that everyone else agreed upon her role as such. Yet this former St. Martin's College film student panders to Western pop-cultural hegemony by relying heavily indie-orthodox samples (the Clash, the Pixies, etc.); she likewise denies supporting violence under any circumstance. Indeed, this is already several years after Robert Christgau succinctly argued against expecting a coherent political agenda, much less a revolutionary one, from a pop star - and yet his reasoning demands that the audience be possessed of a normative psychopathy:
The decoratively arrayed, pastel-washed tigers, soldiers, guns, armored vehicles, and fleeing civilians that bedeck her album are images, not propaganda...
Just images. See? Nothing to get frazzled over. Naturally, that a signifier is hollow to some doesn't mean that it's universally null & void. Momus himself made this point in his riposte to Adbusters:
I'm sure that somewhere, as we speak, a Shining Path Maoist is being sold a Shining Path Maoist t-shirt via AdSense, thanks to a link between Shining Path Maoist keywords and Shining Path Maoist products being marketed in his area. This does not, however, invalidate the politics or philosophy of Shining Path Maoism. It just gives him the chance to proclaim what he believes in via a t-shirt, should he so desire.
By extension, anyone might buy a copy of Kala not because it's got a good beat, but because they want to express their hatred of Sinhalese Buddhists over the stereo at a house party. Call it Che Shirt Syndrome: as commodified and mediated by capital, all symbols are sold to one of two customers - either the True Believer, or the cultural scavenger who can afford such whimsically purposeless purchases.

That is, to either the ideologue, or the bourgeois hipster.

A twentysomething in a Che shirt may qualify themselves as a revolutionary Marxist, but until they grab an AK, storm the streets of São Paulo, and fight to nationalise Brazil's $517 billion industrial sector, then the symbol remains unfulfilled, necessarily empty. The now-intrinsic vacuity of bohemianism is a consequence of it being reduced to a spin-cycle of pop symbolic flotsam with a shrinking circumference. (The current sample-rate of the nostalgia feedback loop is down to a mere five years.) Very telling is that many discussions, both online and off, of the Adbusters article were petty turf wars over specific objects like the fixed-gear bike. I've no doubt that the fixed-gear bike is of great importance to anarchosyndicalist eco-activists, but if their only place in the conversation is as a rhetorical prop and not a participant, of what use is the bike beyond a stylish accessory? If artifice is its own reward, then there's no argument to be had. But the pretense that there's a bigger point has little to recommend it.

This debate is by no means new, and hipsters have been subject to ridicule by their own for decades. One Brooklyn Vegan commenter cited Marcel Duchamp's 1913 Armory Show as an early example of such infighting (though it was Wallace Stevens, not William Carlos Willams, who played Duchamp's nemesis). There's also been an implacable parade of slumming rich kids, from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker up through Lou Reed to Lee Ranaldo and Gerard Cosloy. However, a crucial (if arguable) distinction between the hipoisie of generations past and now is that, before, some genuine sacrifice of comfort & entitlement was required to live down on the street - which isn't to deny that it's always been true that, "if you called your dad, he could stop it all." But there now exists an infrastructure, social and physical, to comfortably accomodate any & all who can afford to exile themselves from the straight world. And it's that word - comfort - which presents the biggest problem: its presence is anathema to art. As Leslie Feist recently put it:
Comfort is comfortable - there is no need to circumnavigate. Once you stretch your mind out to get around something, as it pulls apart, you see stuff in the cracks - things you wouldn't glimpse otherwise.
Contemporary boho inharmony has apparent little to do with dialectical self-critique. Rather, it's the sound of a corrosive boredom, of deracinated dilettantes whose ennui has metastasised into cannibalism. Make no mistake, their complaints emanate from the elevated strata of society. Whenever Pitchfork is derided as a Cliff Notes of Cool for dumb kids in Des Moines, or when Momus describes "the general population, which schlepps about in jeans and listens to shapeless, floppy music and sleepwalks through shapeless, floppy jobs" - there is no disguising the sneering, priggish contempt for the lower & working classes. I'd almost admire the gall with which Momus lets the cat out of the bag, comparing hipsters to "chivalric aristocrats," were he not so astonishingly smug and condescending.

Which brings us full-circle to the debate about minimal techno. What struck me as the key phrase at the time was this observation by Owen Hatherly:
One often got the sense... that whatever was happening, it didn't really matter, nothing was at stake.
In light of conversations since, this would be the keystone of anti-hipster sentiment: above and beyond all else, hipsters are inconsequential and ineffectual. Momus (again) has a point in remarking that "maybe this 'smashing' [of conventions] has always been mostly gestural," but wouldn't it be better if a gesture were revolutionary as opposed to self-consciously empty? Shouldn't there be a more noble goal than staying one step ahead of the advertising agencies by ceaselessly subdividing into smaller & smaller subcultural cliques? Or does "what's at stake" have be of greater urgency than something gestural? Does the cold hand of actual catastrophe have to slap us across the face before we become bold? Because, right now, there's a whole lotta standing around and talking shit behind each other's backs - which is hardly the recipe for refinement, let alone revolution. "When," Christopher Hitchens once wrote, "a precious and irreplaceable word like 'irony' has become a lazy synonym for 'anomie,' there is scant room for originality."

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