Hipsters are Dead, the Counterculture is Dead

In 2009 Adbusters (v. 81) published a letter I had sent them. I learned about this from someone else, but I never looked for it myself because seriously, who over the age of 17 reads Adbusters? Today I finally got a chance to take a look, and discovered that they only printed the first two paragraphs. Now I know how writers all around the world must feel when an uncaring publisher just flat out butchers their work. I’m sure they had the best of intentions, probably they liked my letter but wanted to make room for other letters amongst the mess of their faux-zine design, but still, I’m sufficiently annoyed that I’m going to reprint the entire letter here. Unlike some things that I wrote years ago, I still believe this letter to be mostly accurate.

I know two people who would have been called counterculture in the 60s. They were in an indie band in high school and were devoted to music as a way of life and not just a hobby. One of them no longer plays music– perhaps a of recognition of modern cultural nihilism. The other, with the benefit of well-connected parents, networked his way onto an indie label.

The counterculture as the Beat Generation and Boomers knew it was always an artifice. It could not have existed without a liberal society that provided room, board, and soapboxes. Yet it was, at the same time, energized by something that was not a brand or a set of rules. Out of the blue, my friend’s mom described to me what it was like to drive through Georgetown in the 60s, where anti-war rallies often closed the streets. There were people sitting on the sidewalks, wearing whatever was hip, openly smoking pot and handing out flowers to the drivers and passengers. A librarian at my college told me stories about how back-to-nature adventurers in upstate Minnesota would share the copy of the Whole Earth Catalog at the library, since they didn’t have the pocket change to buy their own copy. Merely by rejecting the norm, these people became memorable to those they encountered. Believe it or not, “hippie” was not a brand they had decided to apply to themselves, but a legitimate, ad-hoc creation.

Adorno writes about the culture industry as an inevitable process. The existence of mass culture creates reification (the changing out of a passion for a brand). True music is an experience without a name, that cannot be bought or sold. Brand-name music– 50 Cent, the Backstreet Boys, the first eight bars of Beethoven’s 5th– is not an experience but a commodity, meant to be associated with some other kind of knowledge about the context of the song or the individuals involved in its production. Mass culture created the opportunity for a mass counterculture, but only temporarily. Since anyone can reify a cultural artifact, counterculture was quickly consumed by political and commercial use. This led to punk, which aimed to be a movement resistant to commercial exploitation. Already the goal of the counterculture had been downgraded from transformation to resistance, but this was also consumed. Subsequent movements were on a lesser and lesser scale, until finally we arrive at the modern “indie” subculture which glorified the unsanded, unpolished ugliness that commerce and politics were wary of putting their hands on. If you judge the counterculture by the strength of its response to the mainstream, indie is pitiful. It is purposefully below-par in its output, subservient or nihilistic in its outlook, and weak-willed and twee in defense of itself. The bare qualification for whether something is “indie” is resisting “selling out”: that is to say, whether an artist prevents his production from merging with the mass culture. This absurd cat-and-mouse game might be kept up for a few more years, but after Napoleon Dynamite the cause is clearly hopeless.

It occurs to me, reading the Adbusters article “Hipsters: The Dead End of Western Civilization”, that there is nowhere to go from here. People are spending their weekends superficially pretending that they are still part of the cool and have not merged with the mainstream, when they clearly have. The consumption of indie counterculture means the last barrier has been knocked down and now anything that can be created is automatically considered mass culture, just with a varying amount of popularity. The Internet makes the mass culture participatory and allows happy, compliant consumers to define their own meaningless subcultures. Reification is ubiquitous; even Adbusters cannot seem to imagine a world without it, and they have proposed their meager “Blackspot” brand as a way to “culture jam” brands that represent a less progressive way of living. Instead of fighting the idea which the brand stands for, the children who imagine themselves to carry on the counterculture are hurling stones at the brand.

What exactly will happen in the next ten years? It kind of makes you wish that civilization does come grinding to a halt. To say that the purpose of civilization is to manufacture consumer products, or make life comfortable, is not utilitarian: it is actually ignorance of what truly provides utility to people. True, everyone wants a certain amount of financial stability. But that is because it makes life more beautiful to be free of financial worries. If beauty is sucked out of life by the mass culture, turning music, art, and language into a set of “memes” which have no meaning by themselves, then civilization is actually taking us downhill.

One very minor correction to this letter: I portray reification as an automatic process, but human beings are never automatic like that. We don’t wake up one morning and flip a switch from “this is meaningful” to “this is pointless”. Nevertheless it is a useful word to apply here. It is interesting to view reification, even though it was proposed by some stuffy Frankfurt School Marxist, as a concept which the counterculture absorbed somehow in the 20th century and applied unconsciously to the birth and death of their own ideas.

What has changed since the writing of this letter? The term “hipster” is surely past its expiration date these days. Where did they go? Obviously the intelligentsia have not vanished as a class. It seems to me that as a reaction to the self-hating hedonism of hipsterdom, many have joined the cult of leftism, the traditional refuge of rich people who want to feel like their lives are a net good. For more details on this, see my post The One Thing You Will Never Learn at a Liberal Arts College. But it seems to me that a large number of people are simply fleeing to the Internet, where a cavalcade of distractions suppresses the depressing thought of a post-hipster “counter”culture. In this way we await a social media revolution, or the revelations of 12/21/2012, or any sort of magical fantasy that will prevent civilization from entering an era of slow decline.

Posted: April 18th, 2011 | Kultur 3 Comments »

3 Comments on “Hipsters are Dead, the Counterculture is Dead”

  1. 1 ESB said at 2:11 am on April 21st, 2011:

    Punk created something that was resistant to “appropriation” by being totally unlistenable. The more something resembles art music, the technical term for what people often call “classical music,” the less it matters if it “sells out.” Witness something like progressive rock versus something like any race music— it is nonsensical to speak of King Crimson being “appropriated,” yet people constantly bemoan hip-hop or jazz “selling out.”

  2. 2 rayhigh said at 3:04 pm on May 27th, 2013:

    Good article. Thanks.

  3. 3 just a guy said at 11:31 am on November 17th, 2013:

    you write: “Already the goal of the counterculture had been downgraded from transformation to resistance….” that is an often mistaken notion that the counterculture had some agenda. true, there have always been those in any bohemian movement who want to “change the world” but once that counterculture can be defined as a counter”culture” these “transformers” are actually the ones who act like scouts for the mainstream. countercultures (at least in the west) were generally first created by those who just wanted to “drop out” as they use to say. their intentions weren’t to make the world a better place, the only intention was to not be a part of the presiding ideology. they move to low rent areas because they don’t want to be so needing money to get by, not just because it was cheap, not as speculators in property, and not with the intention of banding with other drop outs.they just found themselves often in the same areas because of its benefits for those wanting to live on the fringes of society. bohemians were often described as lazy, but it was only lazy to the eye of a worker bee. to the bohemian, he just had a different set of values. the desire to “get ahead” for example, was not where his or hers desires led. the people who later come along after the counterculture gets codified with symbols and mythology (and those codifying it are also miners for the mainstream, they dig out the symbols and extract their meanings so they can be digested into the mainsteam – why? so they can be “cool” which to them is a measure of status, which is all they live for. to join, to belong, to be in with the in crowd.) the transformers are so taken with the underlying message of the counterculture (ideas of freedom and peace) but believe that if the mainstream take on the form (the fashion) of the counterculture, that the beliefs (i.e. the content) will follow. if people don’t have to wear suits to work, but rather casual wear, people will be less uptight and if they’re less uptight we can all work together to make the world a beautiful thing. but once the content is disconnected from the form, the form can be consumed by the mainstream culture. so utopia doesn’t happen. but instead what happens is this cat and mouse game you note, which is all based on the misconception that the form is all you need to be cool and gain status. the content, of course, is anti-status by its definition and that is the game people trying keep going.

    as for punk, again by the time it became an actual counterculture where it was reduced to signs and symbols which could be packaged and sold (see malcolm mclaren), it had lost its ability to be a home for drop outs, the night people, the people who aren’t interested in joining things and seeking status (as defined by the symbols of the counterculture).