Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Ways of Yore

Douglas Haddow's biography shows him to be 28, which either explains or fails to explain -- it's difficult to say for sure -- the ahistoricism of his jeremiad against hipsters and the generation they supposedly embody:

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the "hipster" – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.
Wow, bleak. But wait, it gets bleaker:
We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.
It's all over but the squabbling among scavengers for the last bits of meat off our bones and the silent, desolate bouncing of wind-blown tumbleweeds.

As eager as I am to declare that today's young adults are the most irredeemably awful group of human beings ever to walk the earth -- if only because that plaint is ever so novel and so unfailingly accurate every time it is issued -- I must pause to wonder: can Douglas Haddow cite any prior generations surrounded by the sheer volume of "media" that constitutes the water in which this present generation swims? If so, I'd be fascinated to learn who and when, and most of all, I would love to hear of what they did in response to it that was so much more endearing, creative, and enduring than imaginative reappropriations of some of what the deluge had washed forward.

It goes without saying that such an account -- one taking the form of "back in the good old days, we had style, grace, strength, conviction, and endless inventiveness" -- would itself be as welcome as it would be original.

I'll dare to answer my own question -- no. Today's non-stop omnidirectional shout of culture is unprecedented in degree, though not in kind. Those of us outside caves spend every waking second, asleep or awake, within physical reach of a few thousand advertisements and time our motions to a non-stop accompaniment of video and audio blaring "culture" from all directions.

This engenders cultural responses and forms that remain an ongoing project, but it would be rash to wax too confident about where it all will lead, assuming it even helps to speak in terms of "to" and "from" and "where." As we have known forever, there is nothing new under the sun, but there are new ways to stir and arrange what's already known (as every hipster is painfully aware). I could easily be wrong, but I don't predict buzzards or robots crushing skulls under steely feet. Whether the ecology will agree to furnish the time for this ongoing experiment to play out long enough for anyone to see its outlines is another matter.

As far back as Homer -- off hand I'm not sure if that's before or after Ecclesiastes, and it doesn't matter much -- all our stories have been retellings:
Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways,
who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy's
sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose
minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on
the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the
homecoming of his companions.
Today the retellings are spiced with a heavy sense of self-awareness of the process of retelling: we have heard it all, or variations of it, but still the old tellings have to be reformulated to speak to the present in some way. Watching one's guts function and taking notes is still a form of being alive. Arguably, it is the only way for humans to be socially and culturally alive.

Nothing in the above has been a defense of hipsters. Everyone is right to despise them, and to enforce the scorn in which they are universally held. It is one of the conventions of our moment, and in that, at least, Douglas Haddow has understood the relevant material.

I've linked to this before, but Amanda Marcotte covered similar ground a while back.


Domestically Challenged said...

I had to Google Hipster because I haven't really heard it used to describe anything since the 40's/50's... Only to discover that I AM a Hipster. It's just I was so fucking cool and anti-mainstream that I believed I transcended subcultural categorization. But it was all right there in the list of what a hipster is... my converse sneakers, horn rimmed glasses, San Fran upbringing (I didn't stand a chance), Philosophy degree, love of Decemberists... *sigh* I AM the downfall of society. Thank goodness. Society as we know it sure could use a nice flattening and rebuild.

Dale said...

DC, yep. Maybe it's the hipster in me talking, but the whole anti-hipster thing makes me yawn.