Thursday, June 4, 2015

'Romantic and earnest, rather than laced with irony'

Earlier this year, I, to a degree accidentally, eavesdropped on a conversation that pissed me off at the time and has continued to gnaw subsequently. Two men - young middle-aged, Guardian-grade middle-class men, the kinds of Dadley Wigginses you'd suspect of having discovered bicycles circa September 2012 - were having a chat about a forthcoming beer festival in Lewes. Having once, again to a degree accidentally, ended up at a beer festival in Lewes, I started listening, wondering if I could chip in with some lairy Falstaffisms. Before I could make my contribution, the talk took a kink with which I'm becoming overfamiliar: 'I don't think I'll be going this year...too many young people with beards and tattoos...only going because beer is cool.' The emphasis there is as spoken.

This in itself isn't what I want to unpick here: rather, it's an attempt to give some indication of the overall climate of the quasi-moral panic about 'hipsters' in the mainstream media over the last eighteen months. At this point, it's worth going full disclosure and stating that I feel like pieces I wrote played their own small part in this incredibly fucking tedious discussion, even though, in my defence, it wasn't really 'hipsters' as such that I was trying to critique in pieces such as this and this. Rather, it was the cult of the organic, acoustic and spontaneous that Alex Niven had spotted in his (brilliant and still wildly under-read) Folk Opposition, a text which did much of the key early work in figuring out the ideological dimensions of Cameron's Britain. Back then, I'd have tended to draw a fault line between the bearded ham enthusiasts of Borough Market and hipsters who, after all, I envisioned as the constituency of those articles. Indeed, although I've certainly used the term pejoratively myself, I'm pretty sure I'm a 'hipster' by my own relatively trad description: I listen to drone music and glitchy electronica (and, of course, mainstream pop), I read archly nihilistic American and European fiction, I'm a 'cultural professional', I quote Žižek with relative confidence. I am an archetypal Quietus reader as much as an archetypal Quietus writer, in other words.

What's the difference between the trad hipsters and the 'hipsters' of contemporary media discourse? The ones you're supposed to be able to identify because they've got facial hair like Matthew Arnold and sleeve tattoos like Popeye, the ones who know what they're roasting this week and where they'll be drinking the next? For a start, I'd suggest that it's largely because the group of people the Independent seems to think are hipsters are really quite impressively un-hip, in as much as - to the best of my understanding - they spend their ITunes vouchers on Bon Iver and Mumford and Sons and Jamie XX and other stuff that, honestly, I'd turn down the opportunity to listen to even if the only alternative was to live out the rest of my days in a universe where Shed Seven were the only band ever to have existed. I rarely see the bring-a-typewriter-to-the-cafe set with a novel by Ben Lerner or Houellebecq or Thomas Bernhard: instead, it's always something with all the outward significations of bookishness in the eyes of the mainstream media, Orwell and F. Scott Fitzgerald being apparent favourites. Amongst these people, I see very little of the taste or the traits - the nihilism, the cynicism or the restless obscurantism - that I'd have associated with hipsters of the James Murphy vintage

What's interesting is the way that the beards-and-tattoos have come, through a series of weird conflations, to be associated with 'hipness'. Think once again of the Hipster Policeman meme. One of its incarnations was printed with text which said something like 'My favourite music? You wouldn't know it', bringing together the beard (and what name can this group have other than 'beards'?) and the notion of (annoyingly) rarefied taste. (The best bit in the story, I thought, was when the papers revealed that the HP was not a hipster, but a biker, which somehow redeemed him in the estimations of The Men In The Rugby And Cricket Clubs.) There's also that strange idea that the beards are defined by their 'postmodern irony' (millions of newspaper articles passim), once again positioning them in the lineage of hipsters going right back to Norman Mailer's racist essay on the subject. I'm just so confused! I have this image of facially hirsute Factory Floor fans watching Raccoons! While drinking CRAFT BEER! In Berghain! While listening to Scatman John on, er, steam-powered Walkmans!

The point is that the media has singularly failed to come up with an accurately expressive term for a cultural (or perhaps sub-cultural, I just don't know any more) group who are in many senses anti-hipsters. Provenance-obsessed, their focus seems to bend to the will of affective capitalism: where hipsters disavow(ed), the anti-hipster deals in capital-P Passion and intricate, over-focused knowledge. There is no space for magpie dilettantism in this culture. Once you've decided (for example) to brew, brewing is your whole existence, lived and breathed. You can't be out dancing every night, reading John Ashbery for breakfast and spending the afternoons watching Pasolini if there's brewing to do. Where the hipster could be seen as a hard-working rejection of the Protestant work ethic, the anti-hipster embraces it in all its artisanal majesty; that is to say that the beard is a true marker of entrepreneurship.

This, I think, is where things become confusing. The hegemonic principle in Cameron's England, and perhaps in all previous instantiations of England going back to the Civil War (with occasional happy if ineffective lapses), is that entrepreneurship is a thing to be applauded. Capital's avatar - the hardworking aspirant driven by Passion and knowledge - cannot be besmirched. However, Capital finds itself in something of a quandary here as it also needs a scapegoat for covering up some of its less ruddy-faced mechanics. One of the pleasing turns in the intensifying conversation about gentrification of late is that we can no longer blame this complex process of social cleansing and upwards capital transfer on 'consumption preferences': the economic and demographic transformation of Brixton does not happen because some twentysomethings decide they like pizzas cooked in woodfired ovens. However, given the rising anger about gentrification, there's a desperation to produce a narrative which leads away from the deep finance and the ideologically primed deregulation which powers the phenomenon. 

As a result, the cultural arm of neoliberalism - your Time Outs, your Evening Standards, your Guardian Guides - have to pull off the complex trick of keeping their entrepreneurial anti-hipster audience onside and blaming someone or something other than neoliberalism for gentrification. Enter the hipster. In the pages of Time Out, the hipster is the idiot with the beard and the tattoo and the craft beer who is not the idiot with the beard and the tattoo and the craft beer reading the article. Why is this? One answer might be 'journalistic laziness', but I think that's too meek. A scapegoat needs to be visible, or at least visualisable, and, as such, someone who has a lot of Rapoon records and goes to poetry nights isn't really a plausible villain. However, there are a lot of people with beards and tattoos drinking craft beer and eating pulled pork in inner London (and Brighton, and Bristol, and Manchester) at the moment: we know what they look like. The trick is to give these visual signifiers some behavioural characteristics which don't really match, to overlay them with Nathan Barley-style flippancy and 'postmodern irony' and all of that stuff, which only exists in the vaguest of ways. What it means, then, that the 'hipster' is always someone else, the next person, not the heroic entrepreneur who is actually the reader of the Evening Standard's streetfood reviews.

This all came to me when I was reading an interview in the reliably despicable Shortlist with the almost infinitely maligned Alan Keery, one of the twins who runs the Cereal Cafe in Shoreditch. The discussion around the Cereal Cafe has been almost heroic in its point-missing: if ever there was a tale of structure and symptom being confused, this was it - although, in some mad Baudrillardian twist, the structure now seems to be doing a competent job of absorbing the symptom, with the venture now apparently to be franchised to Dubai. Anyway, the interview revolved largely around Hamish MacBain machine-gunning classic tropes of broadsheet hipster analysis at Keery and finding out that they were bouncing off. Keery, it turned out, wasn't particularly middle-class (I'm hardly shocked to find that a pair of lads called Gary and Alan Keery from Belfast turn out not to fit the model of the Gap Yah bourgeoisie), and - more interestingly in terms of when you see a big fuck-off crack open up in ideology - was not even in it for the bantz. 'Thick beard aside,' writes MacBain, 'Alan [...] does not seem like a hipster. His love for cereal seems romantic and earnest, rather than laced with irony.' Hot news: business owner did not open business for a joke. 

What this apparent aside does, ideologically, is charge the whole idea of anti-hipster authenticity with goodness (it is clearly opposed to the shadowy 'intolerable hipster douchebags' mentioned earlier in the piece). Being in it for the Passion is admirable: it sets you apart (as if Passion was not the #1 marketing trope in contemporary UK culture). This is not about hipster disavowal; this is about full-blooded commitment to the cause of Cereal (or Crisps, or Burgers, or Dog Food) and who are you or I to complain? It isn't business, either in its small or large incarnation, that does gentrification: it's that hipster objet petit a, who always left the Cereal Cafe just before you got there, leaving a trail of socioeconomic chaos in its wake.

1 comment: