Voyou Désœuvré

Some classic Adbusters stupidity:

Hipsterdom is the first “counterculture” to be born under the advertising industry’s microscope, leaving it open to constant manipulation but also forcing its participants to continually shift their interests and affiliations. Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group.

The boring point is that this is, obviously, false. The idea of a counterculture arises from the same mid-20th century economic and social changes that lead to consumerism and the modern advertising industry. Hipsterism’s close relationship to the advertising industry isn’t something new at all. What is interesting, though, is how this spurious account of hipsters shows Adbusters‘ characteristically paranoid relationship to consumerism.

In an Adbusting frame of mind, advertising is an ever-present danger. What if our thoughts, those very things we think are most individual, were really placed there by adverts? Wouldn’t that be terrible? The sad thing of course is that this has already happened; the problem with consumerism isn’t that people mistakenly believe they are expressing their identities through their purchases; it’s that, under capitalism, our identities really are bound up with the things we purchase, and the activities our economic positions allow us to do (or prevent us from doing). But part of the way this whole structure materializes itself is through the way in which people continue to act as if their choices were those of authentic individuals, even when they are aware  that consumer choices in general are not authentic: so buying Vice magazine is a meaningless consumer choice, but buying Adbusters is a real authentic expression.

It’s this illusory gap between the self and the capitalist system that allows the system to function (I’m ventriloquizing Žižek again here). Not coincidentally, these ideas of authenticity and self-expression are important parts of the idea of the counterculture (and of forerunners to the counterculture, such as romanticism, another modern bourgeois phenomenon). But this isn’t to condemn counterculture; like many features of capitalism, it’s double-edged, or I hope it is, because there’s certainly no getting outside of it. Adbusters would do well to stop worrying so much about advertizing, and doing a bit more to understand it.

So, I was feeling a bit sorry for the poor hipsters, targets of Adbusters‘ flailing moralism (which reaches its nadir in that article when the author attacks a 17-year-old for being a self-important poseur; I mean, shooting fish in a barrel, surely); might I find myself in the position of defending people who are certainly beyond any defense? Luckily, my fat blogger’s hatred was rekindled by reading this enormously fatuous post by Momus (but I repeat myself):

Not only does Haddow fail to see that hip subculture is a big machine for creating sex and art, he fails to see that being hip can be a sort of code of honour, something sadly lacking in the cultural mainstream. The spiritual sloth Haddow accuses the hip subculture of is actually much more prevalent in the general population, which schlepps about in jeans and listens to shapeless, floppy music and sleepwalks through shapeless, floppy jobs. People in the hip subculture are more likely — like chivalric aristocrats — to pay attention to what they’re wearing, to experiment, to innovate. (via)



  1. geo, 1:14 pm, August 11, 2008

    hey man, saw this adbusters cover while in NYC (home of a particularly pernicious hipsterism). jackie and i did a class analysis of hipsters with some bourdieu (not my idea) thrown in…

  2. Jmo, 1:46 am, August 12, 2008

    I would love to read a class analysis of hipsters via Bourdieu, but only to see if it would be at all possible to do so without falling into the trap of looking only at stereotypes. So many hipsters, so little time…

    A friend of mine is starting research on an economic analysis of the UK hardcore (punk) scene, and it’ll be interesting to see how alternative, if at all, the economics of the subculture are.

  3. voyou, 9:11 am, August 12, 2008

    I’m definitely in favor of a materialist analysis of hipsterism, perhaps along the lines of Owen’s post here. I’m not sure it would necessarily need to avoid stereotypes, though. I think there could be something interesting to be said about the political economy of asymmetrical haircuts.

  4. Jmo, 9:41 am, August 12, 2008

    Having sported one or two asymmetrical haircuts too many, I’d be happy to assist in a case study. Similarly, was a sometimes unintentionally amusing essay titled ‘Shame & Glory: A Sociology of Hair’ by Anthony Synnott, published in ’87 in the British Journal of Sociology, which addresses the importance of hair in sub/youth culture. Didn’t quite help me get an essay on Britney Spears head shaving antics off the ground, though.

  5. Owen, 1:08 pm, August 12, 2008

    May I state before I go on that irrespective of materialist analyses of hipsterdom, I am both very thin and I have an asymmetrical haircut. And I went to Goldsmiths College for 6 years…

    …although I share your disdain for Adbusters, I think one should stress that there have been oppositional elements to subcultures. Often overstated by Birmingham school types, perhaps – but to deny it altogether seems to play into the hands of a certain pomo ‘nothing has ever happened, ever’ logic. Sure, mid-80s B-Boys took money from Adidas, Mods fetishised Italian labels and casuals collected trainers, but all had elements in them which eventually resulted in, oh, Public Enemy or the Sex Pistols, or rave, all of which I would wager induced actual terror in the hearts of our enemies, even if they were of course quickly recuperated. Hipsterdom (vague and amorphous as it is) is to a degree unprecedented in that – like the ‘Young British Art’ of the early 90s which represented perhaps its earliest manifestation – it comes already pre-recuperated.

  6. voyou, 4:51 pm, August 12, 2008

    I certainly don’t want to deny that there have been oppositional elements to subcultures. What I think is wrong with the Abusters article is the attempt to draw a pretty sharp line between these oppositional elements and the consumerist elements, where I think they’re much more closely tied to one another: the things that make a subculture oppositional are related to the things that make a subculture choose particular consumer objects.

    That said, and leaving aside my general dislike of the language of “recuperation,” the idea of hipsterism as “pre-recuperated” does kind of sound right. I wonder why this is the case, though? The YBA’s will-to-recuperation gave them some pretty obvious rewards (fame, money); I don’t see any obvious such mechanism in the case of hipsters.

  7. ben wolfson, 8:20 pm, August 12, 2008

    If the gap between the self and the capitalist system is actually illusory, in what does the awareness of the adbusters-purchaser that, in general, consumer choices are not authentic consist?

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