What is it with Hipsters?

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.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

8 responses to “What is it with Hipsters?

  • publicartresearch

    Thanks Mark. Hipster – there’s that word again! Until recently, I had no idea that it was a predominantly pejorative term. However, it’s one that does seem to keep jumping out at me lately, perhaps I’ve been primed by seeing this clip from the PBS Ideas Channel, “Are You a Hipster?” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3xe-Wxio1o). On the one hand, the attempt to try and define what characterises a hipster gets a bit tedious, on the other, the clip does have a bit of fun with Hipster vs Geek/Nerd distinctions as by-no-means fixed or clear cut expressions of cultural capital…

    • Mark Holsworth

      Your welcome. I kept on hearing the word a lot too and it is either pejorative or an expression of jealousy.

  • Tsvia Aran-Shapir

    I am thinking…what would Herbert Marcuse make of all that? …probably put them all under the “one dimensional mentality”; that is the hipsters, the hobos and kate forsyth as well.

    beware of automation and categorization!

    • Mark Holsworth

      I’m not hip to Marcuse. I was thinking of a more Levi-Strauss structure of “cool” and “uncool”.

    • Tsvia Aran-Shapir

      yes,i know you were referring to levi-strauss structuralism etc… and in this respect its kind of funny …
      it is just that somehow Marcuse with his “one dimensional man” popes to my head and leads me somewhere else.

  • Sue Kennedy

    There’s a piece of graffiti in Brunswick, not far from my daughter’s place, that says’hipster scum get nothing done’- unlike, as my daughter said, people who climb up and write things on shops. (You might not call this particular piece art, although working out what ‘art’ means would take longer than defining ‘hip’!)

    • Mark Holsworth

      I’ve also seen some anti-hipster graffiti, specifically a stencil with “anti-hipster patrol”.

  • A Hipster Conversion | Black Mark

    […] It is interesting that ‘hipster’ has entered real estate agent’s vocabulary. (See my post on Hipsters.) The long term industrial decline in Brunswick and Coburg, two suburbs in the north of Melbourne, […]

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