20 November 2012

Old Thoughts on Hipsters

[I wrote this for a communal blog run by the Yale Federalist Party about two years ago.]

There was a period of about two and a half years when I could write only about what I was writing, when everything devolved into a hyper-self-conscious narrative about the construction of narratives, the limitations of text, and the problems of communication in general.  Everything was a half-ironic apology for its own statement, and maintained two definite assumptions: (1) that everything said was obvious to every possible reader; (2) that there remained an insurmountable gap between my mind and “yours.”  The consequence of this apologetic self-consciousness was a lack of content matched only in the writing of scribblers like Jacques Derrida, but it was given content by the two assumptions, which together establish a task for the writer.  If you’re sharp, O Reader, you will realize that this task is the task of the self-conscious hipster in all of us.  In fact, it is the crisis underlying the hipster culture: how can I express myself without being trite?

Now, this phenomenon, which I call the basic crisis of hipsterness, arises from something like the perpetual exaggerations and lies of the mass media and the bland repetitiveness of industrial culture. These give rise to a pessimism about the meaningfulness of communication and doubts about the possibility of authentic expression. Given these doubts, the modern dualistic person takes the alienation of his soul from his body and realizes (with modern philosophy) that meaning is alienated from signifiers, so that the way to be authentic is to communicate self-consciously, and the way to communicate that one is self-conscious is to do things which are ridiculous but not be ashamed of them, so that it is clear that one is doing them only ironically. Thus in order to bridge the gap between meaning and signifier, one has to sever the two and graft meaning onto a new signifier, often the opposite of the old one. This is “irony” in contemporary usage. The ironist does something and implicitly says “I’m not really doing this; I’m ironically doing this.”

However this has two consequences: first and most obviously the ironist is incapable of expressing values positively, because his communication never really gets past sarcasm. Second, the increasing gap between meaning and signifier forces the ironist to buy into a strong idea of interiority.  The result is a kind of kierkegaardian despair, which looks like the kind of writing I described in the first paragraph. It is utterly contentless, except in its descriptions of its own formal qualities, descriptions which are themselves blighted by the plague of hyper-interiority.  Interiority becomes a sort of postmodern defense mechanism, which assumes the existence of an insurmountable barrier protecting the self from intrusion by others. The individual cannot be understood, and thus cannot be judged, cannot be held accountable. Therefore, the thought goes, his freedom in his own sphere is absolute.  However, the ironist is nonetheless human, and as such requires fellowship. But he cannot go outside the limits of his own sphere, because to do so would involve re-attaching meanings to their original signifiers, and this, he worries, means submitting his authentic, proper self to the inauthenticity and cliche which is the medium of all intersubjectivity. So he remains alone.