Thursday, March 3, 2011

On "Hipsters"

[This is not really related to Jerusalem per se, but is partly inspired by one of my classes and by the following article, “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization” by Douglas Haddow ( If you are able, perhaps it would be wise to read the article first so you have a bit of an idea to what I am responding here.]

Hipster-ism (my word), while perhaps a dead end to “Civilization”, is not the dirge for human society. I actually believe hipster-ism is a healthy and good movement to hit the West, a purging of power politics that has plagued every revolutionary culture.

Hipster-ism is the first cultural movement to finally accept the critique of the post-modernists: there are no universal truths. There are only localized values, and none of them can claim to be transcendent. Of course, the protesters of the sixties and seventies claimed to know this as well. They showed that America’s claim to be on the side of freedom and the good was belied by Vietnam. The hip hop culture mentioned in the article spoke against the racism and classism entrenched in Western society.

But while they taught their followers that universal truth did not exist, these movements did not apply that lesson to their own position: neither egalitarianism, communism, equality, democracy nor peace have any more claim as the “best” way than do their opposites. These “post-modernists”, while rejecting the ultimate truth claims of Modernism (of progress, Western Civilization, etc.), simply substituted their own truth claims: if you’re for the war in Vietnam then you’re evil! If you’re capitalist you’re evil! We will oppose you and defeat you until our way reigns supreme!

Both sides, Modernists and post-modernists, used the same tool: that of power. Whether achieved through violent or nonviolent means, they both desired to control civilization. They only differed on what the power would be used for.

But now! Hipster-ism! Hipsters take at face value the critiques of post-modernism, and lay hold of no truth claims at all! They revel in hypocrisy: while denouncing capitalism, they will drink Coke to be “ironic”. They “deny their own existence, while wearing its symbols”—why? Because they, unlike all the movements of punk, the hippies, and African-American culture, refuse to be subsumed within a firm movement. They know their truth claims have no universal hold, and do not want to be grouped in a revolution. "I'm not comfortable with that term [hipster]," one hipster says to Haddow in the article. She can’t explain why—because hipster-ism has no creed. There’s no list of beliefs. There are Christian hipsters (the Emergents), atheist hipsters, artsy hipsters—the common thread between them all is a rejection of the established. They reject Communism just as much as they reject capitalism—because both make claims of universality that hipsters know is false.

Some hipsters. America, c. 2011
“Non-committal, shallow, unimpressed, faux, resigned, ironic, indefinable, shrugging”; these the words used in this article to describe hipster-ism. Hipsters undermine their own “culture” and refuse to believe in it. This is exactly the phenomenon I’m learning about in my philosophy class right now. French philosopher Jacques Derrida argues that the West needs “deconstructive language”. Deconstructive language undermines itself, so that it cannot be used to dominate others. Rather than, for example, a language of “freedom” and “democracy” that says anything (including war) is justified to spread liberty, hipster-ism is ironic and doesn’t take a stand on anything. You won’t see hipsters fighting policemen—that would be too firm a position to make. They’ll just wear their Che Guevara T-shirts while drinking $14 mochas. Thus the language of both affluence (the mocha) and socialism (the T-shirt) contradict each other.

The result? “With nothing to defend, uphold or even embrace, the idea of "hipsterdom" is left wide open for attack. And yet, it is this ironic lack of authenticity that has allowed hipsterdom to grow.” Douglas Haddow is critical of hipster-ism. But I believe that it is an important and vital change for the West, and one that may open up space for a real community.

Hipster-ism is open to all; with no belief set anyone can join so long as they refuse to be part of any other ideological movement that would set itself up as superior. And like all humans, they crave companionship and a sense of belonging, yet they don’t want to sacrifice their non-ideals. This gives Christians, an enormous opportunity—a culture that wants nothing more than to be accepted and loved without having to subscribe to a set, armed revolution. If we look at Jesus we see he was not passionate about any agenda—he was passionate about people.

This is what the prophets in the Bible are all about. “Who cares about your religion!” Isaiah screams in Chapter 1. “What about the widows and orphans?!” There’s a focus on people, not movements—regardless that the movement being described was originally set up by God himself. Abraham is commanded to murder his son, which would violate every institution of ethics in the world. But the important thing was not to be a part of the system—it was to obey God. Any system of laws must be thrown out, lest we worship and obey those instead of God Himself. The Bible is a story of God trying to make his relationship with humans personal, trusting, and intimate. The Jewish Law only shows how broken that relationship is—the true ideal is for pure union. Prophets use contradictory, deconstructive language to show this. The lion lies down with the lamb, there are three Personalities in one God, God comes down to our neighborhood in human form, the Church is the Bride of Christ.

Hipsters somehow grasp this truth. They establish a culture of irony, of contradictions, a prophetic culture. Without ideology, what’s left? Just people. And this is where Christians can come in. People crave a freeing, non-judgmental community, where they can live, laugh, eat, play, and love. Christians should establish communities like this and show the true freedom that comes with forgiveness of sins, release of guilt, and unconditional love.

My analogy isn’t perfect. Unlike hipsters, Christians do have a revolutionary mission—to spread God’s good news of love to the loveless and freedom for those in chains of fear and sin. But unlike communists, environmentalists, capitalists, or those who want to democratize the world, Christians use anti-political instead of political means. They use love instead of coercion. That is what is supposed to make Christians different, and all the political battles waged to “protect” or “advance” Christianity run completely opposite to the example of Jesus, who died like scum rather than lift a single finger to advance his cause through force.

So of course hipster-ism is a dead end to “Civilization”!—it refuses to become a grand project that make the world in its own image. But its critique opens space to care, once again, for people as individuals. People matter, not Civilization. Hipster-ism opens space for communities to exist made of people, radically diverse and different people, bonded only by love. That sounds quite similar to the message heard in Jerusalem about 2000 years ago. It’s time we hear it again.  

1 comment:

  1. Andrew,
    I couldn't read the mentioned article online, but I enjoyed your post. Ripple is trying to be a community that loves people and builds relationships: "People crave a freeing, non-judgmental community, where they can live, love, laugh, eat, play [pray?], and love." I agree! Jesus is our example of loving people where they are, as they are, and calling them to a new way of life. Blessings to you!