Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Layer 546 . . . The Rebellious Imperatives of the Self

It looks as though the word 'hipster' might be forcing its way into mainstream discourse, even though its meaning is still far from clear. For example, the Guardian's young film critic described the two lead characters in "Take This Waltz" as hipsters and was promptly and quite rightly denounced for it by various commenters. Even I could see that those characters weren't hipsters. The fact that someone lives in a funky part of town and is a self-employed "creative" type surely doesn't make them a hipster. To be a hipster means you also need a certain sort of attitude - self-consciously 'cool', smart, knowing, and fashionable in a bohemian kind of way. The couple in the film were actually the sort of people that 'beatniks' in the '50's used to call 'square' - meaning conventional, bourgeois and mainstream, with musical and cultural tastes to match. Their main aims in life seemed to be to exist in a kind of cosy and comfortable romantic bubble without too much connection with the outside world.

The rickshaw guy, on the other hand, was probably a hipster - a bedsit-dwelling, would-be artist; self-analysing, minimalist, sardonic, confident in his own sexuality, and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

We seem to need labels to describe human beings, whom we reduce to 'types' and tribes. Back in the Sixties there were Mods, Rockers, Hippies and Skinheads. Following that we had Punks, Yuppies, New Romantics, and so on.

College culture in the USA produced geeks, dorks, nerds and dweebs, based on young people's capacity for intelligence, social ineptitude and/or obsessive behaviour.

A geek is someone who's both intelligent and obsessive.  A dweeb is intelligent but socially inept. A dork is socially inept, obsessive and lacking in intelligence. A nerd is intelligent but also socially inept and obsessive. It's just about OK to be a member of the geek squad, but no-one wants to be a nerd, a dork or a dweeb.

As for hipsters, it seems we're about to see more of them on television.

How hipsters took over television

We've scoffed at them online and in books, but a new NBC comedy could be the first mainstream TV show to laugh at them.
It's a modern morality tale: the story of the hipsters, the counterculture phenomenon that ate itself. What began as a run-on from (anti-consumerist) slacker culture, wherein groups of wannabe artists with barista jobs congregated around urban areas (Hoxton, Williamsburg), has morphed into a multimillion-dollar industry trying to sell a mythical, neo-bohemian lifestyle.
With the kook well and truly out of the bag (and Urban Outfitters on high streets everywhere), a glut of anti-hipster literature grew against the seemingly self-satisfied and insular subculture, from websites and books such as Look at This Fucking Hipster, Stuff Hipsters Hate and Hipster Hitler.
Into this melee of so-called "hipster hate", steps comic Jimmy Fallon. His production company, Holiday Road, headed by former Daily Show boss Josh Lieb, is working on a sitcom about a decidedly unhip anthropology student who ends up living with the hipsters of Brooklyn, New York. 

Wikipedia says this:

Hipster (contemporary subculture)
Hipster refers to a subculture of young, recently settled urban middle class adults and older teenagers that appeared in the 1990s. The subculture is associated with independent music, a varied non-mainstream fashion sensibility, liberal or independent political views, alternative spirituality or atheism/agnosticism and alternative lifestyles. 
Origins in the 1940s
The term itself was coined during the jazz age, when "hip" emerged as an adjective to describe aficionados of the growing scene. Although the adjective's exact origins are disputed, some say it was a derivative of "hop," a slang term for opium, while others believe it comes from the West African word "hipi," meaning "to open one's eyes." Nevertheless, "hip" eventually acquired the common English suffix -ster (as in spinster and gangster), and "hipster" entered the language.
Jack Kerouac described 1940s hipsters as "rising and roaming America, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere [as] characters of a special spirituality." In his essay "The White Negro," Norman Mailer characterized hipsters as American existentialists, living a life surrounded by death - annihilated by atomic war or strangled by social conformity - and electing instead to "divorce [themselves] from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self."
A 2009 Time magazine article described hipsters thus: "take your grandmother's sweater and Bob Dylan's Wayfarers, add jean shorts, Converse All-Stars and a can of Pabst and bam -  hipster." It went on to say, ""Hipsters are the friends who sneer when you cop to liking Coldplay. They're the people who wear t-shirts silk-screened with quotes from movies you've never heard of and the only ones in America who still think Pabst Blue Ribbon is a good beer. They sport cowboy hats and berets . . . Everything about them is exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that they just don't care."
In his 2011 book HipsterMattic, author Matt Granfield summed up hipster culture this way:
"While mainstream society of the 2000s (decade) had been busying itself with reality television, dance music, and locating the whereabouts of Britney Spears’s underpants, an uprising was quietly and conscientiously taking place behind the scenes. Long-forgotten styles of clothing, beer, cigarettes and music were becoming popular again. Retro was cool, the environment was precious and old was the new ‘new’. Kids wanted to wear Sylvia Plath’s cardigans and Buddy Holly’s glasses — they revelled in the irony of making something so nerdy so cool. They wanted to live sustainably and eat organic gluten-free grains. Above all, they wanted to be recognised for being different — to diverge from the mainstream and carve a cultural niche all for themselves. For this new generation, style wasn’t something you could buy in a department store, it became something you found in a thrift shop, or, ideally, made yourself. The way to be cool wasn’t to look like a television star: it was to look like as though you’d never seen television."
Is there such a thing as a sustainable counterculture? More to the point, is it possible for the broad mass of people to live authentically, to become their true selves, to discover their individual Tao and to live in ways that are independent, self-sufficient, creative, individualistic, non-materialistic and pay no attention to fashion, marketing and the insidious messages of the mass media?

Clearly things would be a lot easier for a lot more people in this regard if money wasn't such an issue. The cost of renting or buying a place to live in is, on its own, always going to make it harder for anyone to live according to their natural instincts, rhythms and cycles. People nowadays work far too hard and for far too many hours in the week doing largely uncreative and meaningless things just to keep the wolf from the door.

Plus there are millions of people doing important and meaningful work ranging from caring for the elderly to keeping the streets clean who are paid a pittance and nowhere near a living wage, and have no time or energy or spare cash for doing things for their own spiritual and mental wellbeing. Then there are millions of well qualified professional people who also do important work - teachers, doctors, social workers, engineers - but similarly work far too hard for too many hours of the day and often at weekends when they should be resting and enjoying themselves with friends and families, not rushing around doing household chores and basic maintenance routines the majority of their 'free' time. The idea of a work/life balance is a bit of a joke. Why is there no popular clamour for a four-day maximum working week? Because people are insecure and are afraid of demanding anything. Because people are often paid by the hour and need all the cash they can get in order to pay the rent or the mortgage.

Contrast this with what Ian McEwan said about his life in the early 1970s in London, "when it was very bliss to be alive" : 'I had the time of my life':
"It was very easy not to have a job, to live the life of a full-time writer. I had a huge apartment in south London and it cost me £3 a week. The occasional review for the TLS, the occasional piece for Radio Times, and I could very easily pay my rent, buy a few books, make a weekly trip to the launderette. There were no machines everyone needed, apart from a hi-fi. I didn't feel poor at all. At the risk of sounding like Virginia Woolf, I could live on £700 a year."
These thoughts come to mind when I think about my son's current lifestyle. Now that he's living rent-free he can afford to pick and choose when to work and thereby generate some income. He has time to look after his physical fitness and his recreational needs. He has time to read, to listen to music, and to watch movies. His musical tastes are quirky and eclectic. He takes his dog for long walks. He spends time with his son. He sees friends and he cooks with basic, inexpensive ingredients. He's working his way slowly towards building up his own business that enables him to use a range of skills and abilities - teaching, coaching, interacting with people.

He has no-one pressurising him and keeping him to a contract or a timetable. He's a sidekick to his best mate who regularly needs him to help with his building and carpentry business, and they have leisure time together to practice their climbing and scrambling skills. He borrows his pal's 600cc motorcycle occasionally, and he's looking forward to having a bike of his own just as soon as his insurance company pays up for his latest accident - which was caused by a wretched car driver not looking where she was going. I guess you could say he's living in the 'Now', having learnt some tough lessons along his Way, whilst looking forward to further adventures and satisfactions in the future. He's even thinking about a move to a place of his own sometime next year.

All in all a son to be proud of - an individual who's his own person. Whether he's a hipster or not is another question. He's certainly a "character of a special spirituality", as Kerouac put it. And he's certainly "on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self".

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