Hipster Panel Intellectualizes Skinny Jeans

on 24 February, 2010

hipsterLast night, Gallatin’s Conversations in Context panel series hosted “Hipster Culture and Its Legacies.” Before I recap, I should tell you that this was way more interesting than I expected it to be. Any ribbing is done with good humor, I promise! So if you read about a panel that sounds like something you might like, I highly recommend you go check it out; and if you hate it, the Jerry H. Labowitz Theatre has WiFi, so you can always occupy your restless millennial mind that way.

I got to the theater early. Here are some notes I took while trying not to feel awkward sitting against the wall in a row by myself:

> I am one of six people in the audience right now. Maybe it’s the rain or maybe it’s just the soul-crushing ennui that is an undeniable legacy of hipster culture, but save for one girl in a beret, nobody here is dressed hipster-ese. I don’t see a single flannel shirt. I’ve got my St. Mark’s Place glasses and skinny jeans on, so I guess I’m reppin’ the gents for now.

> Six more people have just come charging in. Still not the crowd I was expecting. At the same time, the crowd I was expecting is probably still trying to score blow for the party at Darkroom later tonight (which, by the way, features an open vodka bar from 11-12, so take note for next Tuesday or something).

> “I’m an outsider here,” says a dude behind me. He is wearing loose-fitting jeans.

Then the talk started. First up was Professor Stephen Duncombe, who teaches classes on things like “The Politics of Style” and overall seems like the kind of guy it’d be really fun to get drinks with. His argument is summed up thusly: “The hipster is essentially a modern concept,” dating back to mid-1800s France, where the bourgeoisie and bohemians appeared to culturally clash but actually existed in an interdependent relationship. The bohemians sold wares and produced art for the bourgeoisie, who in turn “loved, ate up, [and] consumed” the bohemian class. In America, Duncombe said, “hipsterism is forever intertwined with blackness.” Hipsterism is the “romanticization of blackness,” and hipsters appropriated aspects of a supposedly forbidden black culture while retaining the privilege of their whiteness. Duncombe closed by saying that in our less racially divided modern society, “the conditions for being a hipster don’t exist anymore. Who lives in Williamsburg now?” Bearded men, Professor Duncombe. Bearded men live in Williamsburg, and sometimes they pull tiny guitars out of those beards and strum wistful songs about you, disappearing.

Poor Professor Hallie Franks spoke next, and I say that because her argument focused on the Socratic percursor to modern-day notions of Otherness (crucial to the quintessentially “hip” identity) found in Ancient Greece. Unfortunately, we all got sick of Socrates after ConWest; our Gallatin friends, for their part, got sick of hearing the rest of us bitch about Socrates. Some mornings during freshman year, I’d be too hungover to go to ConWest because I’d been out drinking the night before at places like Happy Ending, which is how I’m going to tie my conception of hipsterism to Socrates.

Bringing up the rear was Professor Nina Cornyetz! She opened with a winner: a video clip documenting the Ganguro trend in mid-90s Japan. See, Japanese girls in the “liminal phase” of their lives (between girlhood and marriage) are able to commit sociocultural transgressions that would otherwise shame their families, like a flower that wilts before it blooms. So these Ganguro girls darken their skin and wear crazy tribal get-ups and lead shopping tours during which younger Japanese girls can buy the clothes that will make them into acceptable Ganguro girls in the doubtlessly insane future. These girls aren’t trying to be racist; in fact, the racialized meanings behind blackface in America are completely divorced from the skin-darkening style in Japan. This emphasis on superficiality, coupled with an appropriated past cultural signifier whose meanings has been changed to fit into a Japanese context, provides an example of foreign notions of hipsterism. So the next time your white-bread friend buys neon Nike high tops, know that he’s participating in a broader cultural process of “cannibalized caricature” that aligns him with black parody in Japan. It’s a small world after all!

After each professor finished, the three of them (along with panel moderator Becky Amato) talked about consumerism and capitalism and the patterns of youthful rebellion (in which Socrates was included because, come on, let’s throw Professor Franks a bone here), and then we students had our say! Many students criticized the hipsters they see all around them for, among other things, shopping at Urban Outfitters, “trying to live in slums,” and “not standing for anything.” I rose my hand and defended these hipsters, arguing that: 1) this notion of hipsterism is vague and meaningless, 2) I’m pretty sure that most NYU students “living in slums” (which I took to mean deep Brooklyn?) would much prefer to live closer to the city, or at least to a subway station, and 3) we go to NYU, which already makes us a bunch of gay liberal hiptards in the eyes of at least one-third of the country.

And what exactly are we supposed to stand for, anyway? As a wise man once said, “Let’s go slowly, discouraged, distant from other interests.”

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