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Society, Politics & Law

The late-modern hipster

Updated Friday, 10th April 2015

Unloved and shunned by sociologists. Bjørn Schiermer considers the plight of the elaborately bearded youth cult.

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Laurie Taylor:
Hipster mural Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Cheryl18 Years ago when there was something of an exponential growth in the number of subcultures which required urgent sociological attention, my colleague Stan Cohen and myself decided to invent one of our very own.

Forget Teds and Mods, and Rockers and Skinheads and Punks and Hippies – the new subculture on the block was inhabited by – we spent some time deciding on this fictional name – by Jukers.

And what did Jukers do? Well simple. They went into pubs and cafes and trashed juke boxes that had stopped playing rock n' roll music. So if your juke box didn't have at least a couple of Little Richard tracks, or some early Elvis, or a bit of Eddie Cochrane, then the jukers could be after you.

We even managed to insert news of the 'juker' menace into a couple of articles we wrote and were gratified on one occasion – actually on occasion we heard a conference speaker allude to the threat that jukers posed to law and order. Wonderful.

Well my fictional 'jukers' came back to mind when I encountered a new research article in the Acta Sociologica journal called Late-modern hipsters: New Tendencies in Popular Culture. Hipsters – hipsters – hipsters? Weren't they those seventies jeans that you had to keep pulling up? No, I learnt they were a very distinctive subcultural group.

So what exactly were their principal characteristics? BBC Three's comedy series The Revolution Will Be Televised – provided some hints:

The animal kingdom is full of exotic creatures but the most mysterious species, without a doubt, is that of the hipster and to examine their strange behaviour I’ve come to their natural habitat – East London. I’ve spotted a hipster here who is wearing almost pure tweed, ironically of course, and he’s carrying a camera which is incredibly retro…. here we go. As you can see here this hipster here has just thrown on a completely random selection of garments in the desperate vague hope that at one unspecified point in the future it may end up being cool. Almost all hipsters are 25 or under, even when they’re 40. This hipster is actually wearing a pair of Reebok Classics. Now he’s not from an estate and he’s not a chav but he does this out of a sense of irony.

Well are you getting a sort of picture of a hipster in your head? Someone wearing self-consciously dated clothes, owning deliberately low-tech equipment, and doing it all with a sense of irony.

But let me expand on all that because I can talk to the author now of Late-Modern Hipsters. He's Bjørn Schiermer, who’s Assistant Professor in Sociology at the University of Copenhagen and he now joins me on the line from that city.

Bjorn, add a little bit to my – to my rough sketch, what else – how would I recognise a hipster if I bumped into one in the street?

Bjørn Schiermer:
Well firstly I thank you for inviting me into the programme and thank you for an entertaining introduction. Well hipster culture is no traditional subculture, it’s less uniform, it has less sharp contours and borders, there’s more space to the individual and there is a requirement for individual expression to a larger degree than in the traditional subculture. And yet of course some preliminary signposts may be posted, okay, if you bump into a hipster nowadays you will see a big beard I think and maybe a small knitted cap, big glasses, retro style as you said, nerdy look. First and foremost self-composed, not something you can buy in a department store as a kind of fixed uniform.

Laurie Taylor:
You're looking at these people in Copenhagen, do they have particular places that they go to – I’m speaking about really rather like exotic animals – but is there a place like a watering hole for hipsters?

Bjørn Schiermer:
Yes of course there are, even if it’s not this traditional subculture the funny part of it is that we all know, so to speak, at least in Copenhagen, in Scandinavia, in New York where these people gather and yes I know the places of course in Copenhagen and I think everybody does.

Laurie Taylor:
Now you say it’s been largely overlooked, it certainly has been largely overlooked, it was almost a new phenomenon to me. Why have sociologists overlooked it?

Bjørn Schiermer:
That’s a good question, permit me to just to situate this question, it might be useful to know that the term hipster has as many hits on Google as the term sociology as such. So there’s an enormous kind of interest outside academia for this phenomenon. And it’s not mirrored in the inside, it’s not mirrored in sociological circles. Basically I haven’t found anybody who’s really interested except for myself.

Laurie Taylor:
One of the reasons it would seem to be is that they’re really not exactly a counter culture are they, they don’t seem to be premised against anything particularly?

Bjørn Schiermer:
No, it’s not a counter culture, I call it a conserva-culture for a reason I would like to expand on but I would also like to talk of – about – a bit about irony. To get back to your questions, I think there are two main reasons for this ignorance on the part of the sociologists. One is a lack of understanding of irony, philosophers and men and women of literature devoted lots of attention to this phenomenon but in spite of the fact that irony is really – it’s an incredibly strong social tool – to catch an irony from a stranger really creates a strong social instant bond, so to speak. In spite of this fact sociologists have not really been interested in irony…. if you want to know anything, if you want to understand about popular or contemporary popular culture you have to know something about irony.

Laurie Taylor:
How do I know that when I see a hipster and they’re sporting an ancient Walkman that they are sporting it ironically rather than because they actually love the damn thing and are against progress?

Bjørn Schiermer:
Yes, well you can’t know of course, I mean one of the great things about irony if it really has to create this social bond is that you don’t explicate, so to speak, that you are ironic. But the question you ask points towards another dimension to hipster culture which is that you don’t know it’s irony, it might be an authentic temptation, an authentic attempt to – well to redeem or to rescue some object from the recent past that maybe should not have – well been discarded….

Laurie Taylor:
So if I come across hipster aesthetics, for example those cheap flying ducks on the wall – all these iconic things, do I have to ask to find out if they are ironic or not?

Bjørn Schiermer:
Yes but there is a certain reason I think why exactly these ironic objects are chosen in the first instance: there’s a certain sociological background, certain sociological reasons why irony is engendered in the first place.

Laurie Taylor:
Are these people protesting in some way against progress? Are they simply saying we’re not going to be early adopters, we’re not going to join in the trend? Is it a preservation of the old?

Bjørn Schiermer:
Well one might well coin it in those terms, but I would talk about it a bit differently. There’s an ironic side to it on the one hand and then there’s another side to it and this is this redemptive side... an authentic appreciation of the styles, the expressions, the sensibilities, the technologies of the past and this is what I call a progressive conservatism. So just let me continue a bit on this one. This is when the hipsters explore not what the former generation appreciated or indulged in, but what the former generation should have appreciated but did not.

Laurie Taylor:
You’re doing a very good job promoting the hipster ethic, but let’s abuse the hipster for a moment shall we.  Here’s one piece of abuse, this comes from somebody called Joe Mand, an American blogger and comedian:

Everything they do is ironic: from the clothes they wear to the TV shows they watch, to the stupid facial hair they grow – it’s all an endless joke. There is no substance behind any of it. Hipsters rebel against a shallow, materialistic, directionless society by being shallow, materialistic and directionless.

Not much liked are they, Bjorn?

Bjørn Schiermer:
No, I think it’s a very good question; why is…

Laurie Taylor:
Why is there so much antipathy?

Bjørn Schiermer:
Yes - why is he so angray? I think we’re dealing with a simple dynamic. The hipsters that he depicts thinks they’re original, substantial, that they express themselves while he says that in fact all they do is amount to a certain cliché. So precisely where the hipster believes he is expressing himself, fashion or collective dynamics show their ugly face and I think this is kind of what provokes the rage of Mand. What he does not see is that this is a very hipster-like reaction in fact. It's a claim to originality and authenticity and a critique of its absence. Of course, Mand is not a hipster himself, but if he were he would have embraced these excesses with warm and loving irony, celebrating with other hipsters the weaknesses of the individual in the face of collective powers and the excesses of the bombast….

Laurie Taylor:
We have to stop there with your very fine vindication of - and really an unanswerable vindication of - hipster culture: this man needs to be a hipster in order to understand being a hipster.

This discussion was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Thinking Allowed on June 18th, 2014. You can listen to the full episode online.





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