Sunday, 8 April 2012

In Defense of Hipsters

This is a re-post of an article I wrote for my student newspaper a while ago:

The term ‘hipster’ is not a new one, having originated in the 1940s jazz scene and at various times being used to describe anything from fans of a certain genre of music to baggy trousers. Nowadays, the definition of the term is still elusive to the point of nebulousness, yet cultural condemnation is prevalent and visceral, echoing and probably even exceeding in volume the kind of scorn heaped on the emo subculture of the mid-noughties. A recent youtube sensation ‘Being a Dickhead’s Cool’, whilst not explicitly mentioning hipsters by their collective title, heaps derision on what hipster culture has become or at least, what the producers of the video imagine it to be. Other websites such as ‘Look At This Fucking Hipster’ and ‘Unhappy Hipsters photo-blog’ are endemic of a kind of cultural backlash against…well, we’re not quite sure exactly.

Looking through the various anti-hipster articles (and there are many, written in respected publications by people who really should know better) one gets nothing much more than a vague sense of misplaced outrage that can be summed up in six words: down with this sort of thing. The Guardian recently tried to find out exactly why people hate hipsters so much, but didn’t get much further than discovering that the author of the ‘Hackney Hipster Hate photo-blog’ was once kept awake by a party and has since dedicated a significant portion of his time to updating his website with pictures of annoyingly fashionable twenty-somethings on the streets of London whom he or she imagines are the sort of people that would go to that party. The fact that an angry nerd didn’t get invited to a party and blames an imaginary demographic isn’t so much of a big deal, but it’s nothing short of bizarre that even respected academics weigh in on a culture which everyone concedes has no actual clearly defined parameters.

The attempts to rationalise irrational prejudices against youth culture aren’t anything new. One can only imagine the kind of poorly written, irreverent vitriol that would have been written had the internet existed during the rise of rock and roll or in the 1960s. ‘Hackney Hippy Hate photo-blog’ is just such a believable image. But it wouldn’t have been clever then and nor is it clever now to caricature an entire sub-culture as if they possessed some omniscient hive-mind consciousness of cool. The conservative press liked to portray the hippy movement as being entirely made up of draft-dodging drug addicts and whilst there was a portion of the hippy movement that were the horrible, spotty drop-outs George Harrison so despised, the fact of the matter is that this perception was an overly simplistic way of denigrating the character of a movement that included some serious activism and dedicated, intelligent and brilliant people.

Generally speaking, though, the problem detractors have with hipsterdom is its perceived smugness. The New York English professor Mark Grief states that hipsterdom’s smug sense of self “…becomes a defence mechanism, if you’re ‘de-classed’ in a city, to stop yourself from winding up at the bottom…” That’s probably true enough, but then again, just about everyone I know who is at the bottom of the social rung tries and justify or even romanticise their social position with smug self-importance. Yet I would much rather sit across the table in a pub from someone with big, thick-rimmed glasses lecturing me on the merits of Sonic Youth and the films of Kurosawa than the downtrodden, reactionary racist who substitutes his lack of cultural capital by blaming the influx of Polish immigrants. Where one uses knee-jerk prejudice to get by, the other immerses themselves in culture. With utmost pretension, absurd idealism and naivete, sure, but then when has youth culture been anything other than pretentious, idealistic and na├»ve? Dare I say it, pretension is ubiquitous by necessity, as the establishment needs an angry, arrogant youth to balance its own scathing condescension.

Not that I think every single young adult clad in the latest TopShop apparel and bragging about their knowledge of Pavement’s B-Sides is the next Martin Luther King and sure some of the involvement in obscure relief efforts may be borne less out of an intellectual concern than a desire to support the cause du joure. Why is that so much of a problem, though? Throughout the BBC’s coverage of the recent student protests in London, reporters frequently conducted patronising interviews with students who didn’t really understand the ins and outs of why they were there aside from a vague sense of outrage that whatever was happening was wrong. Yet to us, it didn’t matter that they hadn’t read the Browne Report and a PhD in competition economics wasn’t necessary to their conclusions, nor should it be.

Ultimately, condemnation of hipsters is borne out of a snobbish inferiority complex from a cultural establishment comprised of predjudicial young adults and holier-than-thou bloggers intent on creating a villain who doesn’t exist (as the lack of an actual definition for what hipsters are proves). Maybe it’s now time to set this kind of childish name-calling aside. We’re adults now, after all.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Brick Breaker: The Daily Mail and anti-feminism

The latest viral sensation, the self-inflicted wound caused by Samantha Brick's absurd piece on the marginalisation of attractive women, has provoked a ton of reactions. The most interesting of which is Hadley Freeman's piece in the Guardian, placing it within the wider context of The Mail exploiting its female writers:

The general motto of the Daily Mail seems to be that a woman's role in life is to be pretty, thin, get married, quit work, have children and, ideally, disappear or die before getting embarrassingly old and fat (it is no wonder the paper loved Diana so much.)
To me the backlash is against the style and subject of the piece, rather than its central thesis. I can imagine there's an interesting article waiting to be written in the pages of Vanity Fair or the New York Times in a 'What is it about 20-somethings?' vein that discusses the ways in which attractive women are patronised and regarded as generally stupid. But taking such a narcissistic tone and littering the article with pictures of yourself will cause a few people to choke on their morning corn flakes. And the author's response to the 'criticism' (if you can call it that) hasn't exactly been graceful.

I ummed and aahed about whether or not to write something on this because as a fourth post on a blog which is ostensibly about serious things, I consider this 'story' to be a fairly trashy one, at least so long as it's approached from the perspective of Samantha Brick as some kind of sacrificial lamb or some effigy of Narcissus to be burned on the pyre of viral media. I think more interesting is its demonstration of The Mail's general use of its female columnists. The last time I remember the Twitternet getting so collectively angry about a piece from the Mail it was an arguably more vapid piece in which Liz Jones retraced the steps of the murdered Bristol student Joanna Yeates. From what I read of The Mail it exhibits a clear tendency to use its female writers to be mouthpieces for its general editorial message that women are vacuous non-thinkers who half-blog about celebrities and their clothing and half-blog about what serious news stories 'mean to them.' It's a trashy propaganda pamphlet and seems unable to do a single story that isn't run through some kind of right-wing 'on yer bike' ideological filter. Best left alone, in other words.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Twittiness of the Day

Mad and bad or just bad?

"To send a political activist to an asylum is more sadistic and more evil than killing him!"

Let's leave aside the obvious questions which arise from Anders Breivik's grandstanding statement above. One of the things which has puzzled me about Norway's only terrorist in the past few weeks (and this probably reflects my background in law) is that I can't decide on what he is exactly. There are inherent problems with defining people as terrorists as it stands, but Breivik doesn't even require an examination of the well-trod terrorist vs. freedom fighter dichotomy. He's a lone wolf of the Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh kind of course, but his peculiar psychopathology distinguishes him from these two in that unlike those two, Breivik is medically diagnosed as insane.

Now, it takes about 15 minutes of reading through literature discussing terrorism to understand that, generally speaking, terrorists are not insane in a medical sense. You can check through Hoffman, Lacqueur, Atran, Crenshaw, etc. I'm not going to bother going through the extensive discussions of terrorist psychology and sociology, because it's largely fruitless, conflicting and unauthoritative. What matters is that terrorists are not traditionally defined as being people suffering from psychotic delusions. They are broadly speaking logical actors who take issue with the state and consider their violent acts as addressing that grievance in some way, shape or form.

The temptation to categorise Breivik as a terrorist largely comes from not only his public statements suggesting some kind of right-wing martyrdom, but his extremely long, rambling manifesto which takes umbridge with people like Antonio Gramsci, Giorgio Agamben, etc. and the wider introduction of 'cultural Marxism' through the Islamification of Europe or something like that. I'll confess, I only read about 30 pages of it (it's over 1000) and the majority of it, where it addressed theorists I was familiar with, was extremely poor in its analysis. Sentences were extrapolated to be entirely devoid of their original context, logic leaped higher than an Olympian pole-vaulter, etc. Sure, the Unabomber also published a (shorter) manifesto which Breivik plagiarised in parts, but something still rubs me the wrong way about calling this guy a terrorist. I would feel more comfortable calling him a mass murderer.

Y'see, if Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer got locked up and in a subsequent interview with some trashy CNN report on "The Mind of a Killer" confessed that they did it because the Democrats reclaimed the Senate, then we wouldn't automatically jump to the conclusion that they are terrorists, even if we entertained the idea that they were just deluded but they're being honest about their motivations. The reason for this is obvious - serial killers like these take obvious pleasure from the killing itself and go to extraordinary lengths to avoid detection so they can continue their spree. Terrorists generally aren't too bothered about whether or not they're caught so long as the job is carried out and in some cases would see capture by the authorities as some kind of martyrdom or at least a legitimation of their struggle against the oppressors. Breivik wanted to be caught and clearly desires publicity, but the fact that he's diagnosed as mentally ill makes me more tempted to put him in a category with someone like Raoul Moat, who a couple of years ago went on a rampage in the North of England because of some issue he had with police officers. The main difference between Moat and Breivik is, obviously, that the former spent no time 'planning' his actions, whereas Breivik clearly thought about his attack. But my point is that both had some kind of quasi-political delusion motivating their actions and both were clearly disturbed people - just in Breivik's case we have an actual diagnosis.

This is more of a political point than a legal point, but I think having charged Breivik with terrorism is an unrealistic assessment of what Breivik actually is and actually serves to confirm his thesis that he is in fact a political agent. The Norwegian anti-terror statute is fairly standard and makes reference to a political mens rea and a disruption of government functions, yadda yadda, but I would submit that a simple charge of murder would suffice. A murderer can have all kind of motivations - madness included, but a terrorist generally operates from some kind of logical basis, which Breivik doesn't. He has a rambling, incoherent manifesto that makes no logical nexus between his acts - the 'logic' is understandable only to himself.

I'm no Charlie Kane, but I have a statement of principles

Not that I'd begin to compare myself to the great fictional newsman of Orson Welles' masterpiece. For starters, I'm totally broke and my flat seems to be converted from a maritime docking port of a Victorian factory of some sort. There's barely enough room to swing a cat and I eat dinner off a coffee table, but it does the job just fine and is adequate for one person. But Xanadu was hardly 'adequate' and I currently don't have any plans to marry the President's daughter, so basically I'm not Charles Foster Kane or William Randolph Hearst.

My only commonality with these guys is that I plan on making something vaguely news-related and set about stating my principles. Though unlike both these gentlemen I don't plan on manipulating the news to create war in Spain. And I wouldn't presume on that power, though in the days of Kony 2012 and Nyan Cat, who really knows where power actually lies? If only Foucault had lived to see this day.

My statement of principles is actually probably better off as a singular declaration: I am to blog about what I see and as I see it in my own way. That's probably the most vague and boring way to start out a blog in the history of the internet, but I would like to shy away from words like 'irreverent' because stuff like that gets thrown around so much by every sad wannabe-hack who thinks they're Charlie Brooker and I would like to think that my blog's editorial style will become apparent. My constitution will be uncodified, basically.

Anyway, enough talk, on with the chatter!