Hipster Tetralogy: Part 3

Hipster: how deeply has it permeated your culture?

If there’s one thing the modern North American media is good for, it’s over-saturating us with political commentary. Take Vic Toews. During the past month there’s not much that hasn’t been said about him, exposed about him, tweeted about him, tweeted at him, threatened to be tweeted about him and at him, or invented about him. There’s even been “serious threats“! Which are inanely passé in a world defined by blog-lobbing “journalists” and tweet-witing (yes, say it like Tweety) political strategists. But whatevs.

After all, as Sun Tzu once tumbld: “To tweet the truth is to inflict upon your enemy the death of 140 cuts.”

Of course, given that we’re talking about a government which considers a cabinet minister’s fishing lodge pick-up call to be a “training exercise” and thinks freedom of speech is a form of child pornography, who knows what their definition of “serious threats” are (somebody probably sent Toews a birthday card). Anyway, they’re monitoring the internet for this sorta stuff (or will be soon) so let’s move on.

…it’s a government that seems to only be able to escape one scandal by careening into an even bigger one.

Moreover, it’s a government that seems to only be able to escape one scandal by careening into an even bigger one. The Conservatives have been accused by Liberals and NDP of having engaged in a massive operation to deceive voters and undermine the democratic process in the last election, while the Liberals have been outed as the ones releasing sordid details of Toews’ divorce proceedings (for which they were blaming the NDP). But in each case a junior staffer is taking the hit and the blame, so it looks like party machines will evade responsibility. Oh, Ca-na-da. The True North weeps for thee…

Of course, down south in the US the media is, inexplicably, focusing all its attention on the utterly boring race to see who will lead the American Taliban (GOP) into the next presidential election. Hardly a cheery subject either.

It’s at times like this that I retreat to one of the pastimes I find infinitely more enjoyable than the decrepit state of our country’s political sphere (and the journalists who purport to follow it). Yes: during the past couple of years I have, much to my own surprise, become quite an avid hipsterologist.

You can take the hipster out of the bay…

It all started a couple of years ago. A piece I wrote for the lovely St. John’s Signal website sparked a bit of a furor about hipsters, which I immediately realized made for good copy and so quickly proceeded to fuel the furor.

Of course, a lot has happened in hipster studies since then. Newspapers like Huffington Post rose to the fore, relying on user-generated content (lots of it about hipsters) to survive. Historical Hipsterology has refined the quest for origins to a debate between Brooklyn and Portland. The Wikipedia entry has tripled in size, and now quotes Pierre Bourdieu and New School theorists. Occupy Wall Street happened, bringing us the Internet sensation known as Hipster Cop.

Into this over-saturated field, I felt no further desire to wade. But my hipsterologist roots resurfaced the other day as myself and a friend headed for the Toronto subway system. My friend, who’d just got off work, confessed that she’d been called a hipster earlier in the day at work. I dismissed the claim disdainfully. This was one of the sweetest and most sincere people I knew – a hipster? Balderdash!

But wait, my friend urged. What if it was true? What if hipster isn’t something you choose to wear, or act, or do…but simply something you absorb and it becomes part of you? You know, like white privilege? Or patriarchy?

What if hipster isn’t something you choose to wear, or act…but simply something you absorb and it becomes part of you? You know, like white privilege? Or patriarchy?

This gave me pause. On the one hand, I refused to see my friend as a hipster. “To be hipster requires agency,” I refuted.

But on the other hand…what if it was true? What if we now live in a world where hipster no longer requires active agency to perform – what if it’s simply something that we are, whether we like it or not?

I clung tightly to my leather biker jacket as the possibility hit home.

Aesthetic? Or attitude?

The debate continued as we transferred lines at the subway station.

“Hipster is not an aesthetic, it’s an attitude,” I insisted, as we started down a flight of stairs. “All hipsters may wear hemp necklaces, but not all who wear hemp necklaces are hipsters.”

(inwardly I hesitated: what distinguishes them from hippies? Oh right, the iPhone and the web marketing job. And the checkered vans.)

My friend started to reply, but we were suddenly both tossed aside like so many leaves in the wind by a trenchcoat-wearing suitcase-toting middle-aged office man.

“Me! Gotta…get it!” he blurted as he tossed stairway-goers right and left, and then with a last burst of speed hurled himself into the waiting subway car just as its doors shut, valiantly saving himself a 2-minute wait for the next one.

A hipster stuck in a non-hipster body, if you will…

As we brushed ourselves off and settled in to wait for the next train, it occurred to me I had just seen proof of my own theory. Hipster isn’t an aesthetic, it’s an attitude. And we had just seen it: hipster attitude, without the aesthetic. A hipster stuck in a non-hipster body, if you will (or at least a wildly inappropriate trench-coat).

My friend continued. “Is it really so wrong if I’m a hipster?” she wondered. “Maybe it’s good that I get called out on it. After all, why should we hate them?”

Why indeed? I pondered as I left my friend and walked along Bloor Street. Waiting for the traffic light, I peered into a café: a hipster sat in front of a tripodized iPad, latte steaming into space as he typed voraciously at his iPhone, chewing on the hempen strings dangling from his tuque. It occurs to me, idly, that the same impulse which drives him to wear a tuque inside of a heated café is the same impulse which drives me to refuse to wear one even outdoors in the freezing winter air lest I be seen and mistaken for a hipster: a concern not with keeping our heads warm (in which case our statuses should, by rights, be reversed) but with the symbolic implications of our choices.

I hurry on, and duck into a used bookstore, trying not to think about tuque politics.

But as I browse the historical fiction, I cannot help but overhear the conversation playing out at the restocking desk near the back. I peer over. Three staff lounge against the desk, debating the pros of ginseng versus ginger soda. I glance over and realize their pants are folded above their sockline. More to the point, they have no socks.

In winter.

I turn to flee, but the hipsters beat me to it.

“Let’s go for rotis, bros.”

I straggle out the door, lost in thought.

Maybe hipsterism IS like white privilege, or patriarchy.

Once you learn to see it…you realize it’s EVERYWHERE.

No easy answers

Lost in thought, I trudge along Bloor. Pausing at the crosswalk, I hear a voice yell down at me from Kilgour’s Pub. Looking up, I see a half dozen bikers in leather vests braving the cold for smokes out on the deck. Leather solidarity beckons: I raise an arm and wave. The lead biker, cigarette drooping out of his mouth, waves back with one hand…

…and takes a long swig from a Starbucks latte with the other.

It’s at this point I realize that maybe there is no way of resolving the dilemma neatly. Perhaps indeed hipster has permeated our culture so deeply we all reflect it without realizing it. Perhaps when John F. Kennedy uttered his epic “We are all Berliners!” he was quoting a truism which today could be repeated as “We are all hipsters!” (granted, the lack of a cold war military blockade suggests the metaphor is absurd. On the other hand, Kennedy never had to deal with Starbucks. Or a resurgence in handlebar moustaches)

So I’ll leave it to you to decide. How deeply has hipster permeated YOUR culture?

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