The End of Austin

an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas

Hipster Hate and the Sabotage of Real Social Commentary

hipster photo

We hate hipsters don’t we? It’s probably their detached air of superiority that irks us most, but in reality, we hate it all. We detest star-spangled Toms, imperial mustaches, and pastel suspenders loosely clipped to skinny jeans. We loathe the way they camp out at iconic coffeehouses like Epoch and Cherrywood, hammering away at their typewriters only to pause periodically to swipe through their smart phones.

If we can’t conjure up enough reasons to hate hipsters, there are plenty of resources to inform our opinion. Vice Magazine, The Onion, and Huffington Post provide a steady stream of pseudo-intellectual snark to help us justify our contempt, while websites like “Look at this Fucking Hipster” and “Die Hipster” nourish our most vitriolic inner snob. These websites have been around for years now, making us wonder which came first, DIY banjo woodworking classes or “You Know You’re a Hipster When…”

At about the same time hipster hate sites like these were reaching their pop culture cruising altitude, the liberal-arts-grad social justice bloggers began their anti-hipster campaigns. Hipsters became targets of sweeping erudite critiques. Hipsters were suddenly sexist, racist, privileged purveyors of cultural appropriation. They caused East Side gentrification. They perpetuated rape culture. They scandalously fooled the world into buying fake bean-to-bar chocolate.

Then academia got involved. Dissertations analyzed the neoliberal appropriation of rebellion through hipster praxis. Academic books attempted to define “the hipster” and deconstruct the ethical flaws in hipster consumer culture. Scholarly periodicals decried hipster urbanism and hipster creative class entrepreneurship.

Meanwhile, a diverse milieu of Austin twenty-somethings continues to work, socialize, and survive in an increasingly fast paced and competitive local job market. They seek out cheaper rent, reliable roommates, and faster Wi-Fi. Yes, they sometimes wear ragged cut-off jean shorts, drink Lone Star beer, and shop at thrift stores, but so does my Uncle Dale. Uncle Dale is no hipster, but his gunsmithing talents match well with hipster “maker culture” and he does sometimes engage in what has been called “hipster racism” and “hipster sexism.” Uncle Dale and I don’t mesh well politically, but we do agree on one thing: It’s time to stop talking about hipsters.

At least, it’s time to change the way we talk about hipsters. In recent years, scholars and social critics have managed to blame most of the social shortcomings of college educated Millennials on a group of twenty-somethings who seem to share little in common other than a loosely understood set of semiotics and a self-proclaimed search for authenticity. These critiques are usually well written and confront the poignant issues of white privilege, structural racism and sexism, and the ongoing marginalization of the working class. But the objects and language of such critiques frequently miss the mark, or worse, their arguments are mimicked by amateur bloggers, stripping away the scholarship and reducing the hipster hate down to easily digestible, social media clickbait.

Beyond Hipsters: Actually existing sexism, racism, and marginalization

Issues of “ironic sexism” and “ironic racism” are as relevant now as ever, and deserve serious scholarly attention and activism.[1] When social critics like Meghan Murphy (2013) or Alissa Quart (2012) deconstruct the issues of structural racism and misogyny, they directly confront the myth that the current generation—benefitting from civil rights struggles—is so colorblind and equitable as to move beyond such “historic” injustices (Watson 2012). But by labeling these trends as hipster, they unwittingly engage fashion, media, and marketing tropes, thereby limiting their otherwise far reaching structural critiques to the sins of a satirical icon. The resulting straw man is either easily dismissed or created in the image of the “hipster other,” allowing the reader to wash their hands of the whole issue and dismiss any notion of critical reflexivity.

Likewise, the gentrification of working class and minority neighborhoods is a serious threat to the social and economic sustainability of cities throughout North America, and countless scholars have outlined the political, economic, socio-cultural, and environmental causes of gentrification (for examples unique to Austin, see Tretter 2013a & 2013b; Long 2016). But when urban geographers and sociologists reference hipster gentrification, their arguments are often reduced to knee-jerk generalizations that speak of the “hipster takeover of the urban core” (Bogovic n.d., 7), “hipsters much-maligned habit of gentrifying poor neighbourhoods” (Elley 2014, 27), and the tendency of hipster urbanism to appoint “young white professionals to ‘reclaim’ the downtown in denial of their own occupation” (Cowen 2006, 22). Indeed, as Geoff Stahl (2010) notes, the hipster has quickly become an “easily identifiable locus about larger issues” and a “modern day urban folk devil.”

A real problem emerges, however, when no one can agree on a definition of these devils, and at the same time everyone seems to “know one when they see one.” As Maly and Varis (2015, 1) note, the hipster is “rarely clearly defined—it seems to be used as if its meaning was universally fixed and transparent, while in reality its meaning is opaque and fluid.” Of course, some have tried to define the hipster. Greif (2010) offers no fewer than three definitions of hipsters (as historic figure, as a cultural icon, and as postmodern consumer) before jokingly admitting that he “suspects those definitions are wrong” (13). Bogovic (n.d., 15) enigmatically states “hipsters are the bureaucratic apparatus through which difference is administrated and regulated by means of neoliberal forces, while they delude themselves in perceived uniqueness.” (I’ll give you a moment to process that). Elley (2014, 6) seems to have the most revealing definition when he declares: “the Hipster is them, but it isn’t me.” It’s worth noting that the identification of hipsters referenced by Elley (and others) is based upon a purely semiotic display of fashion and behavior[2]—a problem that can lead to essentialization followed by disdain and othering.

Perhaps the best description of a hipster comes from Cummings and Reft (2010), who after presenting a detailed and carefully articulated treatment of the rhetorical issues surrounding “hipster identity” suggest the following:

What does seem to define the hipster category, broadly speaking, is the existence of a new group of youngish, more or less educated people for whom career ambitions, prolonged education, or personal choice have pushed marriage, children, homeownership and other traditional features of adulthood farther and farther into the future.

Maybe this is the most useful definition for this article, because as Cummings and Reft seem to be smartly aware, this is no definition at all, but rather a near exact retelling of the lifestyle choices and characterizations of the “Millennial” generation, who number over 76 million in the United States alone (Ng et al. 2010).

Yet, such social criticism is not a benign exercise on the part of academia. The scapegoating of a shadow group has tangible consequences for scholarship, awareness, and policy. Not only are we creating a contentious social atmosphere for any twenty-something donning skinny jeans and a trendy hat, we are actually obfuscating the real social, economic, and political factors that underlie the marginalization of communities. You don’t have to look beyond Austin for examples to understand what I mean.

Austin Hipsterdom

 I never intended to write about hipsters. Much of my research directly or indirectly addresses Austin counterculture, the creative class, and gentrification in East Austin neighborhoods, so it comes up frequently in interviews and focus groups. Suffice to say I’ve shared more than a few Topo Chicos with amateur, indie musicians at Shangri-La. And let’s face it, as a tattooed, Chucks-wearing academic in black rimmed glasses, I’ve probably been mistaken for a hipster a time or two. Despite the convincing satirical treatment of Austin hipsters I’ve seen in sources that range from Portlandia to Smithsonian Magazine, the ATX hipster should not be made into a one-dimensional patsy for all that is wrong with Austin. And while the irony of listening to a mustachioed barista in neon wayfarers tell me that he “fucking hates hipsters” seemingly calls to question the credibility of my research subjects, I have conducted enough interviews with young Austin bohemians to confidently assert the following:

  1. We should stop blaming hipsters for gentrification. Scapegoating hipsters for the displacement of working class and minority populations in East (and now Northeast and Southeast) Austin is not only misplaced, it is counterproductive. Austin has a long history of forced racial segregation, myopic development policies, environmental injustice, and aggressive “blight removal.” Combine that with boosterism campaigns meant to attract a specific kind of creative knowledge worker, and you’ve got a recipe for what is often referred to as creative class gentrification. Further complicating this issue is the fact that it is not just minority working class families who are being displaced from East Austin anymore. The “young creatives”—those who have come to Austin following the promise of employment in the high-tech sector and cultural industries—are also now unable to find affordable housing in the so-called “Creative Mecca” of Texas. Are the young and hip tacitly complicit in the gentrification of East Side neighborhoods? Sure. But I have yet to come across anyone that fist the stereotype of “hipster gentrifier.”bInstead I’ve interviewed young East Austin residents who work with PODER, volunteer for HOPE Farmers market and Compost Peddlers, or who intern with the Learning and Tutoring Center of East Austin. Most of my interviewees have multiple roommates. They are not all white. They are not all men. I have not yet met any of the mythical “trust fund hipsters” I keep hearing about. And by the way, the self-loathing expressed by interviewees is palpable. Most are well aware of the gentrification occurring all around them. As one interviewee noted: “I know about gentrification and that people are leaving the neighborhood…I know it’s horrible… But I don’t know what to tell you. I have to live somewhere and I can’t exactly buy a flat in the Austonian, can I?It isn’t as though I cheated some poor old lady out of her home. I share rent with two other people like me in a fucking tiny house over [near East MLK]…You won’t mistake me for the gentry. As this interviewee and others argued, they are looking for affordable housing in walking distance to downtown, access to service and creative sector employment, and proximity to the (very) few mass transit spots we have in this city. When they arrive in Austin, realtors, locals, and online magazines point these young and minimally employed aspirants in one direction: Central East Austin.
  1. We should stop calling it hipster racism and hipster sexism. Those terms have been increasingly promulgated in popular digital media and even scholarly journals. While most critiques smartly explicate these catchphrases from their broader entanglements with white male privilege, dominant culture, and the fantasy of a post-racism/post-sexist society, they inadvertently disservice social justice efforts. Their intent was clear: writers were reacting critically to the popularity of ironic exploitation and normalization seen in American Apparel ads, Vice Magazine spreads, and other media associated with “hipster fashion.” But by ignoring the popularity of hipster hate, they underestimated the fact that the substance of their argument would be largely overlooked by an online audience that quickly disseminated a new term and target of faux political correctness. Let’s be clear: many of these same writers intentionally emphasized that hipster racism/sexism is just another term for ironic racism and sexism (which themselves are just different manifestations of…racism and sexism). But social media and its associated algorithms saw ‘hipster’ and pounced on one of society’s most castigated figures. In doing so, this particular display of prejudice was confined to a group with whom virtually no one identifies and everyone is quick to blame.
  1. We should stop speaking about the hipster as a homogenous concept. Perhaps the best attempt at defining hipster comes from Ico Maly and Piia Varis (2015), who despite conducting extensive ethnographic research were still unable to offer anything that resembles a clear definition of hipster culture (although they spend 15 pages explaining this dilemma). The hipster is “a translocal, polycentric, layered and stratified micro-population that is not only visible in style and (both local and translocal, and online and offline) infrastructures, but also constantly (re)produced through identity-authenticity discourses” (14). As they suggest, our ideas about hipsters are place-specific, multi-layered, dynamic, and reciprocated through media discourses as well as on the ground. In short, my hipster is not the same as your hipster. Fortunately we live in a great place to explore those differences. The “Austin hipster” is a product of local music history, culture, recent migration, and bi-generational bohemianism unique to the Texas capital. The Austin hipster doesn’t brag (too much) about their friends in the band. The Austin hipster rents their house out during SXSW. The Austin hipster is tired of listening to their parents’ stories about the “good old days” of Austin, when free parking, cheap rent, and Old Armadillo World Headquarters still existed. The Austin hipster is desperately seeking a job they can do from a couch in Flightpath Coffeehouse. The Austin hipster is considering leaving Austin because of all the fucking hipsters.

All jokes aside, there is a point to be made here. That is, while there are plenty of people who fit the above description, it’s a satirical construct, not a research demographic. It is perfectly acceptable for writers and scholars to deconstruct complex cultural notions of hipster semiotics and praxis, but I have serious concerns when I start seeing urban geographers, sociologists, and economists scapegoating and critiquing a media-constructed trope for gentrification, sexism, racism, and cultural appropriation. These are real issues that deserve ongoing critical research and policy development. Rather than talking about hipsters, we should look for the synergies in the research of people like Markus Moos (“generationed” space and “youthification”), Heather McLean (feminist critique of the creative city), Sarah Dooling (ecological gentrification), Phil Hubbard (“studentification”) and other scholars of the city. These academics are conducting sound demographic analysis, applying critical theory, and proposing meaningful policies. They are doing real research, but hey, maybe it is being dismissed as “too mainstream.”

In the end, denouncing hipsters as the source of all things wrong with Austin has become a lazy habit in this city, and we should think about the reasons we default to “die hipster scum” every time we see a bearded ukulele player on a fixie. When we do, we play into social media essentialization and pop-social commentary. At best, we add faux legitimacy to a modern day folk devil. At worst, we condescendingly make light of inequality, marginalization, and privilege in a city that all too frequently markets itself as a progressive utopia.

Which is a completely hipster thing to do.

_________________________________________________________________

Joshua Long is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Southwestern University. His 2010 book, Weird City, uses the “Keep Austin Weird” movement as a central focus to explore the socio-cultural, demographic, and land use changes occurring in Austin at the beginning of the 21st century.

_________________________________________________________________

 

Notes

[1] The terms “ironic sexism” and “ironic racism” sufficiently define the satirical treatment of racism and sexism and the myth that they are outdated social problems that are no longer too sensitive to employ in media, literature, advertising, gaming, etc. (see for instance, Blloshmi 2013; Rodriguez 2014; Softkey 2014, and numerous others).

[2] It should be noted that Elley (2014) gives a lengthy and well-articulated discussion of hipster semiotics that the scope of this article does not allow me to fully address.

 

Works Cited

Blosshmi, A. 2013. Advertising in Post-Feminism: The Return of Sexism in Visual Culture? Journal of Promotional Communications, 1 (1), 4-28.

Bogovic R (n.d.) “Hipsters: Rebellion Commodified.” (accessed 08 March 2016). : https://www.academia. edu/6719739/Hipsters_Rebellion_Commodified

Cowen, Deborah. (2006) “Hipster Urbanism.” Relay, September/October, pp. 22-23.

Cummings, A.S. and Reft, R. 2010. “Behind the Mustache: The Cultural, Racial, and Class Implications of the Hipster Identity.” Tropics of Meta. Accessed 22 Feb 2016: http://tropicsofmeta.com/2010/11/16/behind-the-mustache-the-cultural-racial-and-class-implications-of-the-hipster-identity/

Elley, Benjamin. 2014. “The New Gnostics. The Semiotics of the Hipster.” Master’s Thesis: Dept. of Sociology, University of Canterbury.

Greif, M.; Ross, K.; & Tortorici, D. (2010) What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation. New York: N+1 Foundation.

Long, J. 2016. Constructing the Narrative of the Sustainability Fix: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Representation in Austin, TX. Urban Studies 53 (1): 149-172.

Maly, I & Varis, P. 2015. The 21st-century Hipster: On Micro-populations in Times of Superdiversity. European Journal of Cultural Studies. DOI: 10.1177/1367549415597920

Moos, M. 2015. From Gentrification to Youthification? The Increasing importance of young age in delineating high-density living. Urban Studies. DOI: 10.1177/0042098015603292

Murphy, M. 2013. “The Rise of Hipster Sexism.” Herizons, Summer, pp. 16-19.

Ng, E.; Schweitzer, L.; Lyons, S. 2010. Journal of Business & Psychology. 25 (2): 281-292.

Quart, A. “The Age of Hipster Sexism.” NY Magazine: The Cut. 30 Oct. 2012: http://nymag.com/thecut/2012/10/age-of-hipster-sexism.html

Rodriguez, T. 2014. Numbing the Heart: Racist Jokes and the Aesthetic Affect. Contemporary Aesthetics, 12.

Softky, S. 2014 “You’re the One Making This about Race! American Racism and the Unconscious.” In K.J. Fasching et al. Eds. Trayvon Martin, Race, and American Justice: 203-207.

Stahl, G. 2010. “Mile-End hipsters and the unmasking of Montreal’s proletaroid intelligentsia: Or how a Bohemia becomes BOHO.” Retrieved 03 Mar 2015: http://www.adamartgallery.org.nz/wp-con- tent/uploads/2010/04/adamartgallery_vuwsalecture_geoffstahl.pdf

Tretter, E. 2013a. Contesting sustainability: ‘SMART Growth’ and the redevelopment of Austin’s eastside. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Volume 37 (1), pp. 297–31.

Tretter, E. 2013b. Sustainability and neoliberal urban development: The environment, crime and the remaking of Austin’s downtown. Urban Studies, 50(11), pp. 2222-2237.

Watson, E. 2014. “Lena Dunham: The Awkward/Ambiguous Politics of White Millennial Feminism.” Chapter 9 in Watson, E. Mitchell, J. and Shaw, E. (Eds.) HBO’s Girls and the Awkward Politics of Gender, Race, and Privilege.

Watson, E.; Mitchell, J.; and Shaw, E. HBO’s Girls and the Awkward Politics of Gender, Race, and Privilege. Lexington: Lexington Books.

2 comments on “Hipster Hate and the Sabotage of Real Social Commentary

  1. Pingback: On Hipster Hate - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

  2. brahcephus
    October 30, 2016

    No it’s not just hipster mischief (although they are still pretty much vapid human effigies) causing the problem, and in fact they’re a fairly innocuous player in the demise of the overpopulated ATX. No, it’s more the dumbarse traffic engineers, greedy developers, and clueless city government that have ripped the soul out of the Heart of Texas…

    Don’t get me wrong… there’s nothing amiss about loathing hipsters, but they’re not the real issue here – it’s the great influx of oblivious humanity, and the inability of the almost equally obtuse municipality to deal with it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on May 24, 2016 by in cultural geography, East Austin, gentrification, geography, hipster, Uncategorized.
wordpress blog stats
%d bloggers like this: