Are Hipsters Really the End of Western Civilization?

| 8/12/2008 1:31:40 PM

adbustersThat culturally ubiquitous slice of youth culture known as hipsters now finds itself under the microscope of the always provocative Adbusters. The magazine’s latest issue—and, to some extent, its overall editorial mission—is predicated on the alleged cultural malaise of the past 50 years, beginning with the rise of postwar consumer culture as an inevitable byproduct of Western ingenuity. “Practical cleverness beats the crap out of spiritual wisdom on the battlefield and in the marketplace, as the West has made clear over the last 500 years,” the preface declares. “But cleverness without wisdom sooner or later destroys life.”

Douglas Haddow’s lead essay, "Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization," takes it from there, positing hipsters as avatars of the narcissism and spiritual emptiness Adbusters laments, and as the probable harbingers of civilization’s decline. “We’ve reached a point in our civilization where counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum," Haddow writes. "So while hipsterdom is the end product of all prior countercultures, it’s been stripped of its subversion and originality, and is leaving a generation pointlessly obsessing over fashion, faux individuality, cultural capital and the commodities of style.”hipster_stop

As much as the cantankerous square in me wants to see hedonistic youngsters taken down a peg, I think this essay might be giving hipsters a bit too much credit, overestimating both their cultural impact and longevity while longing nostalgically for a chimeral sense of past “cool” whose own authenticity is itself suspect. “An amalgamation of its own history, the youth of the West are left with consuming cool rather than creating it,” Haddow claims. But is this sort of inversion really so unprecedented? Are hipsters the first generation to practice it? And isn’t it more accurate to say that all youth everywhere, not just hipsters, end up doing both the creating and the consuming of culture, with the advertising and entertainment industries serving as mediators?

Yes, the commodification of cool is obnoxious, but it’s not novel and it’s not an agent of the apocalypse. Casting oneself and one’s peers as the “last generation, a culmination of all previous things”—as Haddow does, in his essay’s dour conclusion—displays the same narcissism and myopia as the culture he’s skewering. Hipsters are really nothing more than the latest manifestation of the disaffected, nihilistic youth population that mutates into a new form with each generation. They’re an obnoxious but essentially innocuous pocket of youth culture whose era is already waning, especially now that hipsterdom has been thoroughly assimilated into mainstream culture, branded, and codified into a household word. The hipster fad is now so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless: everyone and no one is a hipster.

Besides, I’m immediately suspicious of any author who posits the “end” of anything. Hipsters represent the end of Western civilization? Really? Alarmist generalizations are guaranteed to sell magazines and generate angry emails to the editor—in fact, the inevitable debate will probably be more interesting than the article that inspired it. But ultimately, I suspect hipsters are simply kids in a phase they’ll eventually grow out of, just like the Gen-Xers, punks, hippies, beatniks, and flappers before them.

Image by Joseph Mohan

10/9/2008 1:26:29 PM

Something I have noticed about today's culture, hipster or non-hipster, is that today's youth do have a tendency to put style before action. Hippies might have dressed a certain way to identify their subversive status, but today, people dress like hippies "because it looks cool". Its not cool. Similarly, people dress themselves in fake platinum bling, when clearly they are just another kid on the block, going home to an apartment, not a mansion. The role of Adbusters is to challenge people's buying habits-- because advertisements influence so much of youth's purchases, making kids think that they can be something if they simply dress like it. The article written about hipsters was in line with the mission of the magazine, to target and subvert shallow consumer trends. Mainstream entertainment, working together with advertisements, indeed marginalizes non-consumer culture. What hipsters stand for is a blind eye turned to the deeper issues regarding consumerism, and I thank Adbusters for faithfully pursuing the issue.

Jake Mohan
9/19/2008 12:15:16 AM

Julie: Thanks; I hadn't seen that yet. It's gratifying to be in the same corner as Alarcón!

Julie Hanus
8/21/2008 2:08:06 PM

Hey, Jake. Thought you might like to know that you and Daniel Alarcón were totally on the same not-buying-it wave. Here he is, blogging for the Virginia Quarterly Review: "The essay—and it is an entirely speculative essay—is suffused with a treacly nostalgia for the past when young people shook the world. [Haddow] implores the kids, 'to abandon this vain existence and start over,' lest we all hit, 'the colossus of societal failure.' Based on Haddow’s observations, these infantile, solipsistic youth comprise, 'a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning.' Hmm, maybe. Then again, they’re at a club. What exactly was he expecting to find?" Here's a link to the whole piece:

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