Monday, July 2, 2007

Hipsters, Prepare to Die

ENW sends me an article form 3 Quarks Daily entitled "Hipsters, Prepare to Die." For that reason alone, I must write about it, but unfortunately, the title may be the only reason I have. It is fascinating to hear someone who has somehow stationed themselves in the outskirts of Romania reflect back on Williamsburg hipsterism (in whose bosom I now sit). But it's hard for me to really believe that a) this generation is really so different from the last, or any other, given that I know enough children of the 60s who did not, in fact, share that mythic experience of the 60s and that b) we, our hipster generation, don't really feel all that special. Do we?

I think what is perhaps more consequential than the supposed irony of these hipsters, as a threat to us in our old age, are three things: our late bloom into adulthood, where so many of our contemporary twenty-, thirty-, and even forty-somethings have been able to put off the basic mechanics of life, like jobs, babies, death, and taxes; our political disengagement, where we are ill-equipped to navigate and shape an increasingly complicated and technocratic political landscape that will determine the fate of issues like health care and social security; and the changing demographics of our world, where, as we collectively get older and (maybe) richer, the world will get younger and poorer. None of these things are caused by irony, nor will any of them be fended off by irony. ENW?


Eli said...

As my smarter half pointed out, two of the things you mention _are_ in fact connected to creeping irony: delaying the life-cycle followed by our parents and our political apathy. The ironic atittude of our generation makes it somewhat difficult to strike a "serious" pose [the irony part], and because our culture so valorizes youth and dynamic change, we have a less clear sense of the life-cycle, than, say, our ancestors did [the aging part]. Of course, there are many ways to slice those issues and I don't think "irony" is the central story, nor an evil we need to combat (see Jedediah Purdy; that's a very nerdy position, btw), but it's significant as a cultural and commercial backdrop we live in.

Your point, well-taken, is that the increasing complexity of politics and our relationship to the world's laboring masses are the major challenges we will have to deal with as we grow older. Although our Romanian hipster's reflections were of a more navel-gazing, philosophical nature, how we think of ourselves -- our culture -- will have a hand in how we resolve these big issues.

I suppose I agree too, that our generation is not so different from that of our parents in that we too will grow up, or at least figure out how to combine seriousness and meaningfulness with our irony (and can then remember fondly our moustache rides of youth, or watch them on youtube). This might fit in, too, with the discussion about the Dream book: irony/latent adulthood play out in different ways in "low-culture" (bad tv shows) and in high-culture (moustache rides?).

I guess I'm talking about something bigger than hipster irony at this point...

karsten said...

Is irony still creeping at this point? Maybe this only reflects my own personal development, but I think my detachment from political stances and my irony about values ended when Bush was elected.

But maybe when this maniac leaves the stage our political irony will return, since the big issue that we have the power to decide will then have been decided. After all, personal commitment to a political stance only makes sense where there is a political arena. But there is hardly any political arena nowadays, because the public no longer debates its own political values as if they matter, and I think this is because they do not matter. Decisions are made by private capital. Things that are called political in America are in reality cultural, i.e. whether boys can kiss each other or a Mexican accent offends your sense of America. The basic political question of what sort of state we wish to have, whether it should safegaurd the private economic freedom that some can afford or should instead take responsibility for the quality of public life, is absolutely 100% not there. Although this might be a chicken-and-egg question: whether we gave up political determination in our irony, or our irony is an adequate response to the lack of political determination. My main point here I guess that I don't like your characterization of "the increasing complexity of politics". The complexity of the power web does not imply a complexity of real politics. And the creeping obsolescence of national parliaments that can be seen clearly among the European states is a good reason for creeping irony, since national parliaments were our basic political vehicle.

Look at "family values". People are upset that the traditional family is being eroded. But it's being eroded by the free market; increasingly both parents have to work and the kids raise themselves. People are increasingly automized by the market. What can politics do? Jack shit. So the debate turns to cultural issues like homosexuality as a substitute for politics. And here irony -- the acknowledgement that these substitutes for politics are not worth our commitment -- is a much more honest and appropriate response than redneckery that takes itself to be fighting a political battle.

I've been thinking about political irony. You guys are also talking about the cultural irony seen on hipsters' t-shirts. I don't know why American culture reached the end of history, but it has. I just got back to America after about a year and a half and kids here are still dressing like I did in middle school and listening to the same music. Their new music sounds the same as the old music. Curious.

Ritik Dholakia said...

Eli -

What strikes me is not that irony isn't connected to political disengagement (I find the connection to delaying stages of life a little harder to follow), but rather, that irony isn't the root cause. More concerning to me is that as societies achieve a certain level of material wealth and comfort, irony/detachment become the mode of behavior for most of the "middle class." In some ways, the young, wealthy people who didn't have to struggle to achieve a sense of material wealth dis-enfranchise themselves -- because while current events may not exactly match their political views, the perception (and, I think, reality) is that they have don't have that much to gain from changes in the political order, and they have a lot to potentially lose.

To put it pointedly, your political concerns and engagement, and mine, are less concerns of self-interest than of principle. This is markedly different than our forebearers.

This is a broad point I make, and I'm sure it is entirely cogent (I'm writing at the end of a long day). But what concerns me about it is this: I don't think irony is the root cause of the behaviors alluded to by the author of the article or our discussion. Irony is not a state that anybody strives to achieve, but rather, a consequence of some other set of conditions. I think understanding what those conditions are, and how they can be influenced is more to the point.

Maybe this is worth revisiting in a separate post...

Ritik Dholakia said...

Karsten -

I agree with you that I don't think irony is any more creeping than it was ten years ago, but I certainly don't think that political irony ended with the current administration.

For all the outrage that your average twenty something might express at the current state of American politics, domestic policy, foreign policy, or whatever, not much has changed, and not many people of our age are really doing that much to change things. Life in Brooklyn, at least, goes on as we've known it. And the most effective forms of dissent of this political generation has been the arms length scorn and sarcasm of the Daily Show and Colbert. Unfortunately, that is political irony writ large...

The distinction you make between cultural and political is a good one, but in both cases, I think that irony is still quite pervasive, and relating to my response to Eli's comment, I think it is connected to something deeper than 20-something posturing.