A writer who misuses a word probably feels a lot like an attorney who overbills a client by a small amount — say, a few grand. It’s not the end of the world; certainly he’s not the only person in his position ever to make such a mistake. It could go completely unnoticed. But still, it’s sloppy and unprofessional, and ought to prick at the conscience.
My own slip-up involved the word hipster. In a recent blog post. I used it to refer to well-educated, upper-middle-class women who treated their settled affluence with a kind of defensive irony. They’d shouldered their kids halfway up Exeter’s waiting list, but were still edgy enough to call their husbands, “Bitch,” even to their faces.
A generous judge might allow I’d grazed the taget, but I still shot well wide of the bull’s-eye. To straighten me out, a friend posted me a link to an article by Douglas Haddow titled, “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.” According to Haddow, hipsterism has its own kind of anti-orthodoxy:
Take a stroll down the street in any major North American or European city and you’ll be sure to see a speckle of fashion-conscious twentysomethings hanging about and sporting a number of predictable stylistic trademarks: skinny jeans, cotton spandex leggings, fixed-gear bikes, vintage flannel, fake eyeglasses and a keffiyeh – initially sported by Jewish students and Western protesters to express solidarity with Palestinians, the keffiyeh has become a completely meaningless hipster cliché fashion accessory.
The American Apparel V-neck shirt, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Parliament cigarettes are symbols and icons of working or revolutionary classes that have been appropriated by hipsterdom and drained of meaning. Ten years ago, a man wearing a plain V-neck tee and drinking a Pabst would never be accused of being a trend-follower. But in 2008, such things have become shameless clichés of a class of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class.
This obsession with “street-cred” reaches its apex of absurdity as hipsters have recently and wholeheartedly adopted the fixed-gear bike as the only acceptable form of transportation – only to have brakes installed on a piece of machinery that is defined by its lack thereof.
Lovers of apathy and irony, hipsters are connected through a global network of blogs and shops that push forth a global vision of fashion-informed aesthetics. Loosely associated with some form of creative output, they attend art parties, take lo-fi pictures with analog cameras, ride their bikes to night clubs and sweat it up at nouveau disco-coke parties. The hipster tends to religiously blog about their daily exploits, usually while leafing through generation-defining magazines like Vice, Another Magazine and Wallpaper. This cursory and stylized lifestyle has made the hipster almost universally loathed.
Hopefully, Mr. Haddow will forgive me if I don’t take him completely at his word. He was 28 when he wrote this, and there’s something fishy about anybody under 30 who can sound so stern and censorious about people who aren’t harvesting organs. But after subtracting a few adjectives, a credible picture emerges. Hipsters make a lifestyle of insouciance. They pull it off by making statements pre-empted of meaning, and by having a lot of mindless fun. Not the Attic Greeks, by any means, but not the Visigoths, either.
Now that I’ve had the code spelled out to me, I can pick out the hipsters from my own school days. As I recall, they were among the people I admired most. I’d spent most of my life trying to figure out how to be cool, only to abandon the project for a kind of premature middle age. Like the master archer in the Zen parable, who becomes so used to shooting invisible arrows that he can no longer recognize a bow when one is set before him, the hipsters appeared to have transcended cool. This transcendence hinted at scar-free souls. The fact that some wore, for example, thick, plastic non-prescription glasses meant they’d never had to wear the thicker prescription kind.
My personality being so rigid that I expect my thoughts to snap off before they make if halfway out of my head, I couldn’t help envy the hipsters’ comfort with incongruity. They’d spend Saturday nights E’d out of their minds, then roll into the seminar room Monday evening with a dazzling PowerPoint presentation. They’d mastered the seamless double life. Me, I’d spend all Saturday night E’d out of my mind, and most of the following day agonizing over it. My presentation would end up looking exactly the way the presentation of a débauché, should look. I couldn’t do my homework, but I could write a morality tale.
If hipsters have their own Book of Leviticus or Summa Theologica, it’s never been written, probably never been recited, and doesn’t need to be. Everyone who needs to get it, gets it. I may break written rules for the fun of it, but I’ve never been able to grasp the unwritten kind in the first place. One evening a few years ago, I attended a party at the home of a group of hipsters who are also card-carrying swingers. The overlap between the two groups isn’t terribly large, which makes more sense than professional moralists might suppose. From what I understand, swingers — like BDSM enthusiasts — regulate their lifestyle with its own jargon, corresponding to its own very precisely defined set of roles and expectations. Hipsters just…seem to know what to do.
At the party, nobody was pairing off. One girl was soaking nude in the hot tub, however, and of the eight or so people present, I could count a dozen potential pairings. I began chatting up a girl, Before long, I was stroking the ends of her hair by way of complimenting her on its length, or its color, or something. A chiseled-looking African American man (who had no hair of his own) took me firmly by the shoulder and marched me out the door. It turned out he was her boyfriend, and the jealous type. I went meekly, wishing he’d taken the trouble to punch me, just so I’d feel something besides embarrassment.
Cut forward a few years. I’ve joined the Church, and am sitting at a table, during some Lenten parish function, eating onion soup next to a pretty girl wearing an exalted look. We’re talking about Phoenix’s bishop, Thomas Olmsted. I think I hear her say, “He’s pathetic.” I tell her, no, he’s not pathetic, and prepare to add that his glasses might be a little ungainly (although they’d look perfect on a hipster).
“No,” she said. “He’s prophetic.”
Can you feel the culture shock? Over the course of just a few short years, I went from admiring people who live by obscure codes, and who contradict themselves effortlessly, to living among people who see the world as an endless series of polarities. Everyone’s either prophetic, or is helping to generate the smoke of Satan. People talk about being blessed and Catholic identity and modern-day holocausts. Nobody’s just a douchebag anymore.
I wouldn’t say it’s any harder to commit faux pas here, although there’s much less ambiguity about what they are. Just yesterday, I blogged about a man in Kansas City who declined ordination to the diaconate, pleading a lack of confidence in his bishop. I ended by noting that the man’s refusal should “hit the bishop where he lived,” meaning it should make him re-assess his job performance. A reader responded that the process of vocational discernment shouldn’t include the question of when to give a performance review to the local bishop. Fair enough, I guess, and certainly better than being manhandled by a Ving Rhames lookalike.
At this point in my formation, so many of the Church’s concepts, so much of her vocabulary, though intelligible strictly on an intellectual level, seems not to correspond very closely to anything I know of life. The Church’s view doesn’t seem threatening or hostile, just very, very strange. I find myself in a prolonged state of wait-and-see. And you know what? Drifting around in that state of calm detachment, trying on the ideas and the argot for size, makes me feel for the first time in my life like a hipster. Really, someone should have told me.