Hipster chronicles

An illustration: the cover of the 11/3/14 New Yorker, Peter de Sève’s “Hip Hops”, with a hipster doing a beer tasting in a hipster bar:

More on the artist and the story behind this illustration later. But first, on hipster.

The Facebook comment. This posting was inspired by a Facebook comment from a poster (someone I’ll label H) I don’t follow and came to me through a chain of other people, of whom Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky was the last. H was contemptuous of hipsters, and also speculated about what label to apply to (contemporary) hipsterdom:

I especially hate when they open a restaurant with an open kitchen concept and I can see them [hipsters] with their power beards, mouths agape, seemingly doing nothing as I wait 48 minutes for a simple burger and fries to arrive on my table. I was in Revel [either the restaurant in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle or one in Danville CA] around the corner from you last night, it was full [of] fat bearded nerds in hungry bum corduroys, such a shame. I read the wikipedia on Hipster recently so I could understand facebook comments on the subject. It does not meet the threshold to be a true sub culture, it exactly meets the definition of a clique.

Elizabeth’s reaction:

I was struck by the idea that being a subculture is clearly better than being a clique. Not to mention the idea that people who have never met each other can form a clique.

Clique and subculture. I was myself puzzled by H’s understanding of clique, which is seriously at variance with its use in ordinary English; I can’t imagine where H got this understanding. From NOAD2:

clique  a small group of people, with shared interests or other features in common, who spend time together and do not readily allow others to join them.

Yes, a social group, but a small and “local” one, based on face-to-face interaction. Hipsters as a group could not possibly count as a clique; they constitute a kind of social group, but at a much higher level of analysis from cliques.

NOAD2 on subcultures:

subculture  a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture.

Clique is a term of ordinary English. Subculture originates as an academic term (a piece of technical language in sociology), though it has begun to diffuse into more general use. Wikipedia on subcultures:

In sociology, and cultural studies, a subculture is a group of people within a culture that differentiates itself from the larger culture to which it belongs.

… As early as 1950, David Riesman distinguished between a majority, “which passively accepted commercially provided styles and meanings, and a ‘subculture’ which actively sought a minority style … and interpreted it in accordance with subversive values”. In his 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige argued that a subculture is a subversion to normalcy. He wrote that subcultures can be perceived as negative due to their nature of criticism to the dominant societal standard. Hebdige argued that subcultures bring together like-minded individuals who feel neglected by societal standards and allow them to develop a sense of identity.

… The study of subcultures often consists of the study of symbolism attached to clothing, music and other visible affectations by members of subcultures, and also the ways in which these same symbols are interpreted by members of the dominant culture. According to Dick Hebdige, members of a subculture often signal their membership through a distinctive and symbolic use of style, which includes fashions, mannerisms, and argot.

Examples in the Wikipedia article include: the Trekkie subculture (of Star Trek fans); punk subculture; hip hop subculture; bears and other gay sexual subcultures. Membership in these social groups is often diffuse and loose (it’s not always clear who’s in and who’s not)  and depends on some degree of self-identification: not all Star Trek fans are Trekkies, not all those who enjoy punk music or hip hop are in those subcultures, not all gay men with the bear bodytype and appearance are in the bear subculture, and so on. (Similarly with the contemporary hipster subculture.)

Historical note on hipster. OED2 does indeed have an entry for the term.

slang (orig. U.S.). One who is ‘hip’; a hip- (or hep-)cat.

1941   J. Smiley Hash House Lingo 31   Hipster, a know-it-all.

1946   M. Mezzrow & B. Wolfe Really Blues 374   Hipster, man who’s in the know, grasps everything, is alert.

… 1967   Lancet 15 July 150/2   The ‘hipster’ movement in California..seemed to be an outright rejection of accepted standards and values.

The original associations are with “beat” or “beatnik” culture, and then with “hippie” culture. Contemporary hipster builds on these old associations but with a decidedly new (and recent) twist. From Wikipedia:

The hipster subculture typically consists of white millennials living in urban areas. The subculture has been described as a “mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior” and is broadly associated with indie and alternative music, a varied non-mainstream fashion sensibility (including vintage and thrift store-bought clothes), generally progressive political views, organic and artisanal foods, and alternative lifestyles. Hipsters are typically described as affluent or middle class young Bohemians who reside in gentrifying neighborhoods.

The term in its current usage first appeared in the 1990s and became particularly prominent in the 2010s, being derived from the term used to describe earlier movements in the 1940s. Members of the subculture do not self-identify as hipsters, and the word hipster is often used as a pejorative to describe someone who is pretentious, overly trendy or effete. Some analysts contend that the notion of the contemporary hipster is actually a myth created by marketing.

… In early 2000, both the New York Times and Time Out New York ran profiles of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, without using the term hipster; the Times refers to “bohemians” and TONY to “arty East Village types”. By 2003, when The Hipster Handbook was published by Williamsburg resident Robert Lanham, the term had come into widespread use in relation to Williamsburg and similar neighborhoods. The Hipster Handbook described hipsters as young people with “mop-top haircuts, swinging retro pocketbooks, talking on cell phones, smoking European cigarettes… strutting in platform shoes with a biography of Che Guevara sticking out of their bags”… One author dates the initial phase of the revival of the term from 1999 to 2003.

… As hipsters, “young creatives”, priced out of Bohemian urban neighborhoods in Brooklyn such as Williamsburg, Park Slope, and Greenpoint moved into suburbs near New York City such as Hastings-on-Hudson The New York Times coined the neologism “Hipsturbia” to describe the hip lifestyle as lived in suburbia. Dobbs Ferry, Irvington and Tarrytown were also cited.

… Christian Lorentzen of Time Out New York argues that “hipsterism fetishizes the authentic” elements of all of the “fringe movements of the postwar era — Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge”, and draws on the “cultural stores of every unmelted ethnicity” and “gay style,” and then “regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity.”

The article is unusually rich and detailed, with quotations from critical media sources, especially those critical of hipster conformity. (Virtually all subcultures are taxed, at some point, by accusations of mindless conformity. But social groups are like that: of course they tend to cohere.) Some sources, like Lorentzen’s above, also accuse hipsterism of being “inauthentic”, of abandoning the “authentic” properties of beat, hippie, ethnic, gay, etc. subcultures in favor of ironic whateverism. (As someone who is occasionally condemned as being “inauthentically gay”, I am wary indeed of contempt for “inauthentic” members of subcultures.)

Contemporary hipsterism is geographically diffuse, with outposts throughout North America and the U.K. (at least). So: Portland OR (far removed from Brooklyn) is now a famous locus of hipsterism, and there’s even a website, The Portland Hipster, “a stereotype site poking fun at” hipsters in the city.

An alternative label: lifestyle. A possible alternative to subculture (or clique) would be the ordinary English (but ideologically fraught) term lifestyle ‘the way in which a person or group lives’ (NOAD2). Here’s a considerably edited posting about the term I made to ADS-L on 7/21/03, on the occasion of a  William Safire “On Language” NYT column of the day before:

Safire’s reference to the OED is somewhat beside the point. The 1929 Alfred Adler citation in the OED is from material translated from German, and uses “lifestyle” (Gm. Lebensstil) in a sense different from the ones that have become current in English. Both senses are essentially compositional: “lifestyle” as ‘style of life’. But Adler used it to mean ‘style of a life’, referring to a basic character established in childhood and extending throughout life’, while later English uses can be glossed as ‘(chosen) style of living’, something that could be altered without great difficulty.

Safire cites me as pointing to “the German sociologist George Simmel’s 1900 Lebensstiles“. What I supplied was merely a reference to a secondary source, the “lifestyle” entry in Dynes’s Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, written by Warren Johansson. Simmel’s use of Lebensstil (not Lebensstiles) was of course in German, not English, so it’s not relevant to the OED citation list. (Anyway, it’s Georg, not George; I’d guess this was a copy editor’s “correction”, of the same sort that bedevils my daughter Elizabeth, whose name is often “corrected” in the text of the German and French translations of her books, to Elisabeth.) In any case, I’m not responsible for claims about Simmel; I was just passing them on.

What i did comment on were uses of “gay lifestle” by gay people, to refer to a particular constellation of attitudes and practices (crystallized in the 1970s) characteristic of certain urban gay men, and uses of “gay lifestyle” by outsiders, to refer either to homosexuality in general or to homosexual acts.

The in-group use, which is discussed at length in the Johansson article, is what Michelangelo Signorile calls the “(urban) gay (male) scene“. He takes this collection of attitudes, ideologies, and practices to have enormous visibility and influence in the gay (male) world, well outside of the (minority of) gay men, largely young men, who might be viewed as its central practitioners, and he views this influence as baleful.

Safire quotes The Times Stylebook as advising that phrases like “gay lifestyle” be avoided, on the grounds that they “imply that all gay men and lesbians live the same way.” This is an incredibly weak objection, since the same objection could be made to any brief label; AAVE is not spoken by all (and only) African Americans, and so on for a great many other familiar examples. There would be little reason to object to “gay lifestyle” — or “yuppie lifestyle” etc. — if it were understood to refer merely to one highly visible collection of attitudes and practices; a reasonable person should understand that such labels do not refer universally to a group.

Note that Signorile chose to use “scene” instead of “lifestyle”. I’m sure this is not an accident or some idiosyncrasy on his part. I’m sure he was avoiding “gay lifestyle” because of outsider uses, to refer to homosexuality in general or to homosexual acts.

Safire quotes two (of many) correspondents who objected to his earlier use of “their lifestyle” (that is, homosexuals’ lifestyle), apparently as a reference to homosexuality in general. The letter writers referred to “the code word lifestyle [as] always derogative in intent” and to the word as “a politicized, freighted word meant to devalue sexual orientation as a mere choice”. Safire’s response to this is to cite an inoffensive use of the word “to categorize people based on their consumer or fashion choices”, adding that the word “is now taken by gays as moral condemnation of their sexuality.” He thus suggests that the usage that gay people are objecting to is merely the inoffensive usage and that gay people are hypersensitively reading insult into it.

What he misses here is something that I made explicit in my e-mail to his office, namely that derogation is clearly intended by many who use the expression “gay lifestyle”. (This is the same issue as with “gay agenda”.) Such uses poison the expression and make it difficult for a writer to convey a simple compositional meaning. In Safire’s case, it would have been open for him to have written “Homosexuals hail the decision as the law’s belated recognition   of fairness, which it is, but some would escalate that to American society’s acceptance of homosexuality, which is at   least premature”, but he chose to write “their lifestyle” instead of “homosexuality”. What does that choice convey? Did he really want to convey that? A careful writer should want to be scrupulous about distinguishing modes of living, sexual orientation, and engaging in particular sexual acts. Taking Safire to be a careful writer, as a careful reader I’d have to assume that he had some reason for using a reference to the first of these three things to convey reference to either or both of the other two, and from what I know of other people’s similar usages, I’d suspect that his intention was to derogate.

Actually, when I read his first piece, I did suspect this, and I was then surprised, given the tone of the rest of the piece.

My customary advice on gay lifestyle is that it’s best avoided, because it’s been poisoned. But hipster lifestyle is a possibility.

Back to the New Yorker cover. On the artist, from Wikipedia:

Peter de Sève is an American artist who has worked in the illustration and animation fields. He has drawn many covers for the magazine The New Yorker. As a character designer, he worked on the characters of A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Robots, the four Ice Age films (including Scrat), and on the main animal character E.B. (voiced by Russell Brand) in the 2011 Easter themed comedy film Hop. Most recently, he designed the characters for Arthur Christmas

And on the cover, in “Cover Story: Peter de Sève’s “Hip Hops” ” by Amelia Lester, which returns us to beer in Brooklyn:

In September, the Brooklyn restaurant Luksus became the world’s first beer-focussed eatery to receive a Michelin star. A year ago, I visited the restaurant, which is in the heart of Polish Greenpoint, and loved the Nordic-influenced tasting menu. There is no wine or liquor served; instead, each course is served with a beer. For me, the most memorable was a Berliner Weisse called Justin Blåbær, which is aged in Brunello bottles and tastes like cherries and Christmas. The blueberry-and-wintergreen sorbet that accompanied it evoked a sensation of trudging through a snowy forest singing carols on a wintery night.

The scene depicted on the cover of this week’s food issue, “Hip Hops,” by Peter de Sève, is not based on Luksus, but it captures the appropriate seriousness with which beer is handled these days by many Brooklyn restaurants and the people who dine in them. I’ve enjoyed a series of wonderful meals at Pickle Shack, in Gowanus, another place where you can both drink interesting beers and eat ambitious food. Pickle Shack opened in partnership with Dogfish Head, a Delaware-based brewery that Burkhard Bilger wrote about, for this magazine, in 2008. The owners’ goal, Bilger reported, was “to make beers so potent and unique that they couldn’t be judged by ordinary standards, and to win for them the prestige and premium prices usually reserved for fine wine.” That was six years ago, and, since then, the goal has been achieved by Dogfish and other craft breweries.

Just like the cover of this issue, there’s a burger at Pickle Shack, but it’s made with grilled vegetables and mushrooms, because the restaurant is vegetarian. My favorite sandwich there, though, is the marvellous vegetarian banh mi, in which the smoked tofu performs an alarmingly accurate impersonation of pork-liver pâté, and the house-fermented kimchi stands up to even the most robust craft beers. Probably the closest thing to the meal on de Sève’s cover, though, comes from the Brooklyn Beet Company, a Central European restaurant, in Bay Ridge, which we featured in Tables for Two last week. The Brooklyn Beet Company burger is made with grass-fed beef and is deep-fried in lángos, a Hungarian pastry dough. Of course the restaurant offers Czech beer, but there’s also something more unexpected: a crisp pale ale called Korzo, made in coöperation with Peak Organic, a brewery based in Portland, Maine. These three restaurants aren’t pubs, and they aren’t beer halls. They are, instead, places to go for thoughtful food and surprising beers, served by restauranteurs passionately interested in the pairing. It’s an unprecedentedly excellent time to drink beer in Brooklyn, as the cover suggests. Just don’t become a snob about it.

One Response to “Hipster chronicles”

  1. Tané Tachyon Says:

    Seeing a poster complaining about “fat bearded nerds” would definitely put my sympathies with the fat bearded nerds. The image that came into my head was a band of fat bearded nerds called the “Fat Bearded Nerds”, with their “Fat Bearded Nerds” theme song set to the tune of the Disney Haunted Mansion’s “Grim Grinning Ghosts” song.

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