“Hep or Hip … Someone who knows the score. Someone who understands ‘jive talk’. Someone who is ‘with it’. The expression is not subject to definition because, if you don’t ‘dig’ what it means, no one can ever tell you.”
– William Burroughs Junky glossary, 1953
I haven’t used the word ‘hipster’ before in this blog – I have been consciously avoiding this now heavily loaded term – Kate Forsyth on the Melbourne Arts Club did not avoid the term in her post “Hipster or Hobo”. (I don’t have any argument with Kate Forsyth, I’m not surprised that people are mistaking hipsters for hobos, this is only an example to show that the word is in common use in Melbourne.) I savvy the history of the word but I’m not sure when the word ‘hipster’ took on a pejorative connotation, maybe it always had one in the square world and I didn’t know about it.
I did use the word ‘hipster’ in my MA thesis but that was decades ago, at a time when the hipster had fallen out of contemporary use. To quote from my thesis:
In “The White Negro” Norman Mailer, attempts to explain the philosophy of the hipster. He argues that since death is ever present “then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey of the self.” (Mailer “The White Negro – Superficial Reflections on the Hipster”, 1959) Both Stirner and Mailer advocate living with the contradictions, living with the nihilism and the meaningless arguing that it brings a valid, life-enriching existence. This is a life enriching experience because the objective of the Unique One (Stirner’s name for the ego) is to get as much enjoyment from these things while he and they last.
In reference to Mailer’s contrast between the hipster and the square, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin provides a compilation of contemporary comments on the dichotomy along with Mailer’s 1959 list.
Do I really care if some people think that being a hipster is right or wrong? No, there is something square about distinctions based on appearance, clothes and hair. Mailer’s list is also kind of square, lamely attempting to define the indefinable with a few examples.
“I don’t care about the state of my hair/ I got something out of nothing/ That just wasn’t there/ And your kiss kiss kiss/ Is never going to blow me away.” (Jesus and Mary Chain, “Blues From A Gun”)
Getting “something out of nothing that just wasn’t there” was Marx and Engles critique of Stirner’s proto-hipster philosophy of the Unique One. It was, according to Marx and Engles, impossible and a “conjuring trick” on Stirner’s part. But according to the Jesus and Mary Chain they did it and it had something to do with hair and never being blown away. Now this might seem like nonsense to some but I’m hoping that someone will be hip to what is happening here. It is this acquisition of something (cool) out of nothing is what is desired and despised in the hipster. And this explains why Kate Forsyth’s friends were mistaking “hobos” (people with nothing) for hipsters (who also clearly have nothing but are getting something out of it because they have other things like a home, a job, money, skills, talent, good friends…) – as I said, a common mistake; it embarrasses the cops, and those with minds like cops, like Marx and Engles, all the time.