What we talk about when we talk about hipsters

by douglas reeser and lana lynne on November 14, 2012
We started this fun conversation about hipsters after reading two articles: "Hipsters and Low-Tech" by PJ Rey and "Away from a Sociology of Hipsters" by Andrew M. Lindner. In brief, Rey’s article discusses the trend of low tech devices such as Polaroid cameras and fixed-gear bikes in relation to individualism and authenticity. Basically, Rey argues that the hipster aesthetic hinges on a desire to be unique, resulting in a socially-mandated hyper-individualism. The trendiness of low-tech devices or even the illusion of low-tech (such as can be seen in Apple ads) reflects a desire for agency and independence. Lindner’s article argues against the use of hipsters as a lens through which to do any type of critical thinking. Having become such a broad category, the noun hipster can refer to any number of groups of people: the artsy Williamsburg type, the hipster-clothes-wearing-type, or rich young people. Lindner believes that specifying factors such as age, education, political leanings and the like would be  more accurate analytic concepts. From these two interesting pieces, we indulged in our own analysis of the hipster aesthetic:

D: I get Lindner's argument, but...

There is definitely a hipster aesthetic, and I do think it probably started as a sort of counter-culture (like the hippies), but was quickly appropriated by corporate interests for profit (like what happened to the hippies, only much much quicker). So maybe there really were some authentic hipsters that held a certain anti-mainstream view of the world, but that can no longer be said. Hipster is mainstream now. So even if you were/are an "authentic" hipster, it doesn't matter; the subculture has been appropriated. If you don't want to be a part of that, best to look for a new (life)style. I mean, steampunk, skinny jeans, fixed gear, big-rimmed glasses, tight flannel shirts, librarian-esque clothes, and all the other aspects of aesthetic hipsterism now belong to the mainstream corporate world. They took and are selling it. It's no longer unique, but it remains identifiable, and it seems to include a certain subset of the population that has money to spend on things (with exceptions of course, but every [sub]culture has exceptions).

L: Yeah, this is basically what I was getting at.

There is no "being hipster," it's just a style, or a fashion. So Rey’s article strikes me as giving way too much depth to the style. People who dress hipster-like can find these "toys" (such as polaroid cameras) at Urban Outfitters. Maybe the 16-year-old hipster thinks s/he is being unique, but I would imagine most people older than that recognize on some level that it's just fun or cool or trendy or whatever

And just to go on a little bit more about the fashion... Before the internet, it USED to be that fashion did align people in certain ideological camps. Especially when you tied music to it. Hippies, goth, preppy, hip hop... it was fashion and music, and certain assumptions (and stereotypes) could be drawn from what you wore and what you listened to.

Now, it seems all those categories are gone. It's just about the way you look, and there's nothing of substance behind it at all.

D: I think you're beginning to get at something here that is kind of at base to what we're talking about more generally. I mean, I think, especially with "older" hipsters in their 30s and 40s, there is something more going on than following a trend. The clothing and accessory style, the places where they socialize, the music they listen to, and the books that they read all make up their identity. It's an identity largely based on style, but I think, especially for the older subgroup, there is a bit more to it than just the style. There is an element of the alternative to the mainstream that is a part of that identity, even as the style or trend becomes more noticeable in the mainstream. Most telling, I think, is that the hipster identity is lacking any political meaning.

Still, "hipsters" of all ages are certainly consumers of a certain style, often paying high-end prices for the accoutrements of that style. And despite the alternative to mainstream leanings of the style, "hipsters" are not dangerous or threatening to the mainstream. It seems to me these alternative style trends can be traced to the original hipsters, who in my version of history, were kind of subsumed by the hippy movement. Hippies became politically active, and quite threatening, until "hippy" turned pop, and the alternative identity lost its meaning. Since that time in our history, there hasn't really been a style or trend that has maintained any kind of alternative, activist, political identity. The style(s) get sucked into the corporate machine of consumerism and gets sold back to the rest. Giving that style (as briefly discussed above), at least in part, forms one's identity, when your alternative identity is appropriated for the mainstream, your identity also becomes mainstream. I would be interested in the psychological effects of this kind of consumer warfare, and I wonder if anyone has studied the effects of identity appropriation by the mainstream on the early creators of that identity.

Now, I readily admit that identity is more than style, but for the most part, "hipster identity" appears to be all about the style, and in most cases, not much more.

L: Still, I still agree with the view in "Away from a Sociology of Hipsters" – that the category is so broad, it's almost meaningless. I mean, what we're talking about when we bring up the overly-obvious conformity in the hipster style is just conspicuous consumption. Since the beginning of consumer culture, people have sought to align themselves with certain identities as they were portrayed by media. And throughout this time, it seems there was always a counterculture "style" – think of bluestockings, flappers, beatniks, greasers, hippies, punk, hip hop, grunge...and like you said, there was a political edge to each one. I'm not sure that hipsters ever had a place in this list. I think the style borrows from a lineage of counter-mainstream, but, like you said, was subsumed or maybe even created by corporate consumerism as a surface-y mash-up of all these other "styles." And, as Rey disturbingly points out in "Hipsters and Low-Tech," "hipsters are the product of a moment in history where the socio-economic system benefits from and has discovered effective methods to enforce the moral imperative to 'be unique.' The hipster aesthetic reflects an ideology of hyper-individualism, though this individualism is itself paradoxical because it is socially mandated." But again, I think it's important to define what category of "hipster" we're talking about, because I have a hard time seeing anything other than depth-less fashion.

I think it's more interesting to use the style of the hipster to talk about how a style that seems to idealize individuality really grows out of conformity. I like especially Rey's last couple lines: "The hipster low-tech fantasy...is one of escape from the complex socio-technical systems that we are highly dependent on but have little control over. It is a fantasy of achieving the most radical expression of individual agency: the opt-out."

So what we have is a socially-sanctioned way for people to opt-out of the mainstream in a safe, non-threatening way.

D: "Hipster" is definitely a broad and nebulous category, and it necessarily has to be since we're talking about a popular identity that includes a significantly sized population. I also think that Rey's thoughts on the topic start to bring us into more interesting and thought provoking discussion. Framing "hipster" identity as socially mandated non-conformity raises issues of power and how power is exercised. I previously brought up the lineage of countercultures to point out that since the 1960s, when a certain segment of the hippie style became radicalized, there has been little in the way of a politicized or radical identity. Through direct engagement with authorities, radical hippies presented a very real problem to the powered elite. Whether intentional or not, hippie identity was rather quickly mainstreamed and depoliticized, essentially stripping the identity of its potential for disruption. Since that time, any non-conformist style that held potential for politicization has been mainstreamed through style – I think punk, hip hop, and now hipster are all decent examples of this trend. When one's identity can't be identified, it becomes difficult to form coalitions and movements. Are you a radical hipster or are you just expressing your individuality? By keeping styles depoliticized, power maintains itself. I don't know if this is now intentional or just a byproduct of the power of capitalism.

L: What happens if we take this conversation out of the cloud and think about the people we know that could be slotted into the hipster category? In other words, I can generalize about all the hipsters I see at any number of hipster bars in Philly, and sit and judge their superficiality and conspicuous-consumptioniality, but what about people I know who dress hipster-like? What does it say that they would vehemently deny being hipsters?

D: When we start talking about people in the real world, and not just the "idea" of hipster, we have to be careful not to get too anecdotal. Everyone has their story after all. But I think you bring up the most interesting point when you mention denying that they are hipsters. This small group of folks fit the hipster identity in terms of style, music, and other social-cultural interests, yet none of them identify themselves as hipster. I guess that's the beauty of conspicuous consumption? It allows people to take part in certain consumer trends that really are a part of a broader mainstream, yet feel that they are unique individuals. In a culture based on the virtue of individuality, there couldn't be a more perfect set-up. And while our sample size is small, I wonder if we would find this trend in the broader hipster culture – a reluctance to identify as a hipster?

L: I think there is definitely a broader trend of denying hipsterdom. It's cool to look like a hipster, but not be a hipster?

D: Yeah – What is that?! It's embracing and denying at the same time. So maybe when someone who quacks like a hipster denies that identity, we're seeing a defense mechanism of the ego – denial: defined here as "arguing against an anxiety provoking stimuli by stating it doesn't exist." Denial of the identity almost has to be built into the identity, because if you accepted that you fit into the category, you strip away the individuality that you aim to impress on people. Can you be individual and alternative while being part of something mainstream? It's two opposites that a brain can only make sense of through denial!

D and L: And with that, we leave you with a song for all of us who have ever wanted to assert their individuality with others who are different, just like we are.

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  1. Anonymous1:21 PM

    "Whatever happened to protesting for the hell of it?" Interesting post here, and creatively done. Identity politics are a certain kind of art that too few people engage in. I think the threads exist though, so that something grander can be woven. Contribute. Participate. Be.

  2. Carlos1:43 PM

    I think this hipster thing is just people hoping to get famous by their weird look. They think they are special.

  3. "The revolution which the bourgeois class has brought into the conception of law, and hence into the function of the State, consists especially in the will to conform (hence ethnicity of the law and of the State)." - Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s

    The class-based State, from which modern States grew, is based on the ability of the State to promote conformity within its citizenry. This makes the coupling of capitalism with the State a natural fit, and I think helps explain the success of the Capitalist State that has now come to be.

    Conformity to what? Again, based on Gramsci, the State promotes conformity to goals of the development and advancement of society for the benefit of the ruling elite. It's a cycle in which society "advances" towards the continued enrichment of the elite.


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