Questions of Method, pt. 2



“Hip is a culture of the young because they have the least investment in the status quo.” -John Leland in Hip: The History

    Mia Steinle, my ad hoc investigative assistant of sorts, has been all kinds of useful, especially most recently with her discovery of John Leland’s book Hip: The History.  Leland writes for publications like Spin and old favorite New York Times spanning a broad array of topics, although most of his published articles deal directly with music and pop culture. It’s all too appropriate, too, that a music writer of all people would be the one to proverbially “write the book” on hipness.

Since I’ve been lamenting a lack of “scholarly” sources on the topic of hipsters, Leland’s book has come as a welcome resource for some of the explanation and definition that I’ve been lacking. He looks at the history of “hip”, not so much as a word, but as a holistic cultural movement that has undergone several incarnations, beginning with slavery in the Americas. He addresses a lot of subjects (notably race and economy) that I hope to address later on, when I delve more into the theoretical. What I’m primarily concerned with at this juncture in my investigation, given the ties to internet party photography that I intend to elaborate on later, is the concept of image and language and what they respectively entail. As Leland continuously notes, the visual image of the hipster today is a far cry from the origins of what “hip” is. He contends that it originated in the early days of the American slave trade, prompted by slaves’ subversive use of the English language: “The roots of contemporary hip talk go back to this encounter with language (Leland 2004:23)”, but throughout the evolution of hip, it “maintains some constants: a dance between black and white; a love of the outsider; a straddle of high and low culture; a grimy sense of nobility; language that means more than it says (2004:10).” Language does indeed play a significant role in this particular sub-culture, specifically in evolution of the vernacular (words like “cool”, “dope”, “sweet”, “radical” have all been hip adjectives at one point or another, and perhaps still are provided they are expressed in an ironic manner), emphasis on an ironic mannerism (thematically, irony is integral to the modern-day incarnation of “hip”).

Are there readers who are still curious as to what a hipster is, or what hipster means? Again, Leland puts it very articulately without too much essentializing (and, believe me, as a sub-cultural icon, the hipster is a very easily essentialized subject):

Hip is a social relation. You cannot be hip in the way you might be tall, handsome, gawky, nearsighted or Russian. Like camp, its unruly nephew, it requires an audience [emphasis my own]. Even at its most subterranean, it exists in public view, its parameters defined by the people watching it. You decide what is hip and what is not. Hip requires a transaction, an acknowledgement. If a tree falls in the forest and no one notices its fundamental dopeness, it is not hip. (2004:8)

So, far from helping to define the hipster for this audience, I come to you with a few fundamental points that help contribute both to the notion of hip and what it entails in the spectacle and ritual of internet party photography. Displays of hipness can be through language, but are predominantly through image, and in the age of the digital hipster, sites of text and investigation such as Misshapes and TheCobraSnake offer an invitation to discourses surrounding image that extend beyond a simple art or fashion movement (though, make no mistake, these movements are integral). I intend to investigate issues of economics and class within the hipster community at a later date, but for now Leland offers a look at the hipster sub-culture in economic terms, as well as the emergence of a form of hip “celebrity”:

This does not mean that mass hip is not ultimately self-limiting. If it relies on the approval of mass culture for currency, how hip can it really be? By taking hip out of the hands of hipsters, and by collapsing the lag time for phenomena to develop, mass culture devalues hip in the same way that branding devalues commodities. All that matters is the next acquisition or the next hip trend. (2004:308)

In my investigations and initial reviews of Hip: The History, I am preoccupied with this term “approval of mass culture” because of the “approval of mass culture” that sites like Misshapes and TheCobraSnake rely on.

Next time, I grapple with “mass culture”: what it is, etc.; and with my subjects and the issues and methods behind investigating them, as well as preliminary introductions to a rich, bi-coastal cast of characters whom I have spent the past six months or so investigating.


4 Responses to “Questions of Method, pt. 2”

  1. 1 Dylan

    There is a very politically incorrectly titled (and in some parts written) piece called ‘the White Negro’ that is about swingers, hipsters and the art of being cool. Its a1950s piece by Norman Mailer. His analysis is somewhat like the one you outline above but its related to stereotypes about race rather than capitalism and class. It might make a bridge for you to incorporate colour into this definition of hip. Where are its roots and how better can we understand its routes…if you get what i mean

  2. 2 Ryan

    To the guy above me: John Cassavetes – Shadows comes to mind.

  3. 3 Mom

    To the quote “Hip is a culture of the young because they have the least investment in the status quo” from a 47 year old vantage point I disagree. Relying on the approval of mass culture is buying into the status quo and who relies on approval more than the young? Just study peer pressure on high school and college campuses. -Perhaps what is really hip is that which does not garner the approval of mass culture but rather …the envy of mass culture – To be envied is better than to be approved – maybe. I do agree with this: “mass culture devalues hip in the same way that branding devalues commodities. All that matters is the next acquisition or the next hip trend.”

  4. 4 Mia

    Mom is always right; I also agree with Leland’s statement that hip “requires an audience.” Of course, the hipster’s most sought-after audience is other, perhaps hipper, hipsters. I’ve often thought about – and I’ve discussed this with Annie – how the average person perceives and defines hipsters. I think, in hipsters’ quest for elitism, they forget that the “mass culture” is at least vaguely aware of their existence and influence. They (and by “they,” I mean my friends and I) are surprised when people who are decidedly not interested in hipster culture call them out for being too hip. I wonder then if there is a conflict between the hipster’s “love of the outsider” and apparent love of exhibitionism.

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