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The International Writers Magazine: Comment on 'Cool'

The Sanctity of Cool: and the threat of modern hipsterism
• R. J. Cowan

They are modern society’s coiffed pariahs, the poseurs you love to hate. They are vultures of culture—the personification of style’s suffocation of substance, snark’s snuff of sincerity, jaded irony’s preemptive strike on perspective. They are the vacuous trend-chasing children of privilege, the young and the soulless. They are walking, talking empty T-shirt slogans. They are the scourge of 21st-century humanity, fakers of funk in form-fitting jeans and Nike Dunks. They are hipsters.
XXL Magazine

 ‘Cool’ is an unusual topic. It seems to be one of those elusive phenomena that once you acknowledge it, it disappears, like Magic Eye images or an explanation of irony. While the subtlety of the phenomenon cannot be underestimated, it is not beyond analysis. And like many social curiosities, it tends to only be discussed in a time of crisis, or when someone is making lots of money off of it.
To be ‘hip’ is usually synonymous with ‘cool’. The divergence occurs when what becomes on-trend supersedes its cool origins; the trend becomes a movement in its own right, with the sociological and artistic foundations becoming redundant. The style or aesthetic is taken out of its context and is appropriated.

Nonetheless what is considered hip is usually indicative of what society at that time considers cool, avant garde and bohemian. It’s this relationship between the current hip and those practicing, modern hipsters, that have led to some alarming discussions. Time Out New York, hardly a fire-brand publication, printed the article ‘The Hipster Must Die’, and the more radical periodical, Adbusters, published ‘Hipster: The Dead End of Civilisation’. Websites full of scathing criticism have arisen and conjured a mass following. The trend against anti-trend has been too pronounced for even the broadsheet to ignore, and the Guardian issued ‘Why do people hate hipsters?’.

But something more subtle has been touched on here too, the style that is supposed to represent substance – the way of cool. As a result, an unavoidable debates emerges – ‘what is cool?’
The intuitive response to such a question is something like ‘to display a quiet confidence or grace under pressure’ or ‘to be affiliated with urban youth culture’. But these characteristics may be necessary for cool, a more considered investigation reveal that they are far from sufficient.

An historical enquiry into cool can reveal some insight. It could be said that the origins of cool can be found in the 15th century art movement ‘Itutu’, practiced by the Yoruba and Igbo West African civilizations. The aesthetic being one of poise, smoothness and calm. Although one can go back further, much further, to see such an aesthetic. Gautama Buddha after several days of constant meditation seemed to take cool to a new level. So much so that he decided to dedicate his life to telling people about it. It caught on fast, and quickly entire populations in South and East Asia were focusing on how they could be more calm, more relaxed, more aware and more self-controlled.

Europe was not untouched and the sprezzatura art movement was epitomised by Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, where her posturing is one of grace and mild detachment, but also of slight deviance. The practicalities of cool were utilised by the Turks and their ‘Anatolian smile’, the term to describe the mannerism that was used to display no specific emotions and therefore leave one’s company unsure of the subject’s intentions.

But cool really went global and became a major unspoken social movement following the Second World War. The spread was due to American cultural influence, mass African American urbanisation and the proliferation of jazz. American GIs, when stationed over-sees throughout and following the War, made a strong impact on local cultures. Their challenging of traditional moral and religious beliefs, along with their tendency for hedonism and relaxed disposition, conjured the interest of local youth and left an immutable impression.

Norman Mailer’s seminal essay, ‘The White Negro’, published in 1957, investigated the notion and nature of the post-war hipster. Mailer posited that the 50s hipster was on a perpetual path of discovery and adventure – a path contrary to that of the ‘square’s', the hipster’s antithesis, who seeks conformity, security and comfort. The mind-set of the hipster, although perhaps not self-aware of their own ideology, was one of rebellion against the social norm of a “single mate, the solid family and the respectable love life”. Whereas the previous generation of youth were merely adults in the waiting – imitating and emulating their parents, this new youth, the post-war hipster, dissented and forged their own norms, style and identity.

As the essay’s title suggests, Mailer proposed that the hipster was only truly born when a three element fusion occurred, “a menage-a-trois was completed—the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the ‘Negro’, and the hipster was a fact in American life”. Mailer wrote that “the Negro” in 1950s urban United States was in an almost constant state of survival, often subject to oppression, violence, discrimination and poverty. In the absence of any over-arching moral code, like that of nationalism, having seen the hollowness of such notions, and with such uncertainty and insecurity, the post-war urban African American became an existentialist. He embarked on a continuous search for meaning, alongside an acute appreciation for the present, knowing that the future was not promised.

An entire post-war-generation-youth “contained adventurers who had absorbed the lessons of disillusionment and disgust of the Twenties, the Depression, and the War.” It was the ethos of an oppressed minority, aware of danger, impermanence and death, combined with a youth that was seeking new more transcending norms, that produced modern cool: a set of mannerisms, language and artistic and hedonistic pursuits. These pursuits were not necessarily for their own end, but were borne out of a courageous search for meaning and deeper spiritual investigation, in the context of moral vacuum and hostile environment.

The demeanour of relaxation combined with focus emerged from the context of dissent and oppression – the artists, African Americans and dissidents were either inherent targets of authority, in the case of racist institutions, or conscious subverts of authority, by means of their lifestyle or politics. As such, the style of cool was one of mild defiance. The ironic detachment sent a statement, a statement of stoicism against those in power that wish to objectify them. It was subliminal enough to hopefully avoid persecution, but psychologically powerful, as well as unnerving for the viewer, for one was unable to predict behaviour with such an ambiguous veil.

So, if that’s cool, then how does it differ from modern hipsters, and why are people so upset about it.
In a conversation with a friend’s younger sister she described one of her peers, “Oh yea, he’s cool. Some days he’s usually like gansta style, and others he’s like rocker”. The fashion of the hipster is paramount, as there’s nothing more. The unique characteristic of modern hipster fashion is a spasm of style, with a strong emphasis on kitsch, including 50s décor, polaroids, Formica; with sporadic thefts from the beatniks: beards, thick rimmed glasses; along with several ironic gestures: budget t and sweatshirts with juvenile images; or even an occasional pillaging from hip hop culture by way of a high top sneaker.
As Mark Granfield described, in his book ‘Hipstermattic’
Retro was cool, the environment was precious and old was the new ‘new’. Kids wanted to wear Sylvia Plath’s cardigans and Buddy Holly’s glasses — they revelled in the irony of making something so nerdy so cool.
Ganfield posits that the hipsterism movement began as a kind of tacit rebellion against current trend and norms:
While mainstream society of the 2000s had been busying itself with reality television, dance music, and locating the whereabouts of Britney Spears’s underpants, an uprising was quietly and conscientiously taking place behind the scenes. Long-forgotten styles of clothing, beer, cigarettes and music were becoming popular again. … They wanted to live sustainably and eat organic gluten-free grains. Above all, they wanted to be recognised for being different — to diverge from the mainstream and carve a cultural niche all for themselves. For this new generation, style wasn’t something you could buy in a department store, it became something you found in a thrift shop, or, ideally, made yourself. The way to be cool wasn’t to look like a television star: it was to look like as though you’d never seen television.”

Even if it is accepted that this was the origin of contemporary hipsterism, it quickly turned awry. The supposed movement against current trend became a fervent trend in its own right and the pretence of irony soon became tired and impotent as it reeked of conformity and unoriginality. The theorized artistic and social foundations of the hipster trend (antipathy towards pop-culture) simply became a pop-culture itself; the focus was now on the fashion, not the arts, nor the politics, nor social change.
While Mailer talked of the 50s hipster being an amalgamation of the bohemian, delinquent and ‘the Negro’, the modern hipster is an amalgamation of the bohemian, the yuppie and the consumer.

Following the demise of punk and grunge, the sub-cultures of the yuppie and metrosexual arose. Unlike the sub cultures before them, these fads had no underlying narrative or subversive premise; they were hollow and mere expressions of material wealth, pruning, technological advancement and facial creams. The modern hipster continues on this vein, no undercurrent of menace or spiritualism, just quirky bric-a-brac and fervent self-absorption. As posited by Christian Lorentzen in his article ‘The Hipster Must Die’: They are afflicted by that other ism sociologists made an industry of decrying in the 20th century: narcissism. The late prophet of our current moment, George W. S. Trow, posited that television had obliterated the context of American life. The only refuges remaining were TV, God and the self. Young people who live in cities notoriously shun God and television to cultivate themselves.

Unlike previous subcultures where the focus was change or creation or rebellion, and the aesthetic was a symptom of this impetus, contemporary hipsterism has turned in on itself, a fashion for its own sake, entirely self-important, a continual in-joke. The modern hipster would dedicate great time and energy searching for brogue shoes and a waist coast, but would only consider attending a political rally or a spoken word event as an afterthought, and then only to show off the new waist coast and shoes. Sub-culture had turned inverse, consuming itself in fetish of post-modern superficial reflection. The concerns lies in that this subculture is the production of our contemporary society, and what does that say about our current state of affairs.
Douglas Haddow, in his article ‘Hipster: The Dead End of Civilization’ summates well:
An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

But why should this arouse us so? Not all members of society are obliged to seek spiritual transcendence, nor are the expected to protest social norms or be committed to the arts. An upheaval of criticism hasn’t been levied against the common man for not aspiring to do so, nor has it been levied against their chosen fashion sense. So why such derisive criticism towards the hipster?

The style of the hipster bastardises, emasculates and appropriates every sub-culture that came before them. It cheapens and denigrates them. The hipster arrogantly ignores the cultural foundation from which the fashion spurred and instead seeks to consume culture itself, scraping off the surface layer and post it on facebook.

The purpose of the style is the style itself. Too cowardly to take anything seriously, or to commit, the hipster skims across decades of movements and accessorises from each. He incessantly opts out of culture, cowering behind the excuse of irony, while parasitically feeding off all predecessor sub-cultures that were bold in their statements.

It is the sanctity of counter culture and cool that is violated here. For the last five decades each evolution of counter culture has spurred on cultural progression and change, not to mention real political and ethical advancement. Is this now the end point, where the youth are left but to only reflect back on the past, merely make a playlist out of it, and dress up as a pirate? It is the lack of originality, the cowardice, the self-absorption, narcissism and conformity that offends. The modern hipster emits the veneer of rebellion, of innovation, of bohemia but offers none.

In the Adbuster’s article ‘ Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization‘, former Vice magazine editor Gavin McInnes, asserted that critics of the supposed hipster were merely those who were “mad at these young kids for going out and getting wasted and having fun and being fashionable”. But that is not the cause for incitement. It is the loud pretence of bohemia that the hipster shouts, only to then scurry behind a Macbook if anyone looks.

© Robbie Cowan

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