Critic’s Notebook: Unpopular Causes, Part II

Unpopularity as Popularity: or How to be a hipster.

“Every aspect of hipster culture amounts to little more than an elaborate pissing contest.  …  Hipsters ignore rules because they think it will make them look like they don’t care. There is no end result, just a continuous cycle of mediocre indie rock and scruffy looking dudes. By basing their actions on avoiding the mainstream, they are in fact guided by the mainstream.” – “Cracked Topics: Hipster”,

You’re not cool enough.  The bands you like aren’t unpopular enough.

Hipsters, the annoying quasi-subculture, has its own uses and abuses of unpopularity.  What began as a critical response to mainstream pabulum has ossified into a motley assemblage of fashion cues and empty posturing.  The position has become the posture.  In the words the Ango-Catholic royalist conservative poet T.S. Eliot, “Shape without form, shade without colour,/Paralysed force, gesture without motion” (“The Hollow Men”, 1925).  Reaction has become paralyzed by its own desperate need for acceptance as “not mainstream.”  The negative dialectic between the Mainstream and the Hipster yields nothing more than “mediocre indie rock and scruffy looking dudes.”

The crux of the Hipster Ethos is unpopularity.  So long as you liked such-and-such “before it was cool,” then you can join the anointed ranks.  Unlike previous generations who have fought and battled for acceptance as Cool, the hipsters go one step further, creating a posture almost Masonic in its occultic nature.  (Not necessarily occultic in terms of cult behavior, although there is enough of that, it is based on the other definition of occult.  Occluded, hidden.)  Hipsters cherish their acceptance of bands and films otherwise unknown to the mainstream.  Unlike a critic who wants to spread the good news and let everyone know about lesser-known writers, filmmakers, and musicians, the hipster will keep such information hidden.  They will only disclose the information in catty comments disparaging the philistinism of their quarry.

Where the Mainstream is produced.

The hipster’s dismissal of the mainstream also requires a definition of what constitutes the mainstream.  The Mainstream is characterized by populist middlebrow entertainments engineered to appeal to the broadest audience.  Taking the water metaphor for what it’s worth, every mainstream has its tributaries, estuaries, and rivulets.  The hipster posture comes close to the Luddite ethos, except instead of wanting to smash the machines of industrialization, they snark about the latest Hilary Duff album.

A dark analogue of the hipster appears in the Tea Party movement.  The Tea Party members resemble hipsters; one only has to find the parallels.  While hipsters disdain the Mainstream, the Tea Party presumes they speak for the Mainstream, even though they are a small but loud minority within the greater spectrum of American conservatism.

So doesn’t the extremist position immediate invalidate any claims for speaking for the majority of the population?

Instead of the Mainstream, they use the moniker “Real America.”  Robert Anton Wilson’s phrase rings true with them.  “Reality is what you can get away with.”  In a multicultural, multilingual secular democracy, they have the arrogance to assert that White Christians (read: extremist Protestants) in rural towns are “the Real Americans.”  In the words of Alicia Silverstone from Clueless, “As if.”

The Tea Party members are the hipsters of American politics.  They confuse their own misperceptions about America and think that everyone resembles them.  They inhabit the same fishbowl as the Williamsburg hipster.  Just exchange the Founding Fathers for the Arctic Monkeys, since both possess the same garish fashion sense and mocking contempt.  Both reduce any critical discussion to shrilling catcalls and wooden postures more about appearance than content.

Up next, Kitsch and Camp!

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