Friday, 2 April 2010

Adventures in hipsterland

A few nights ago, I attended the Hauntology debate at Cafe Oto in Dalston. It was packed with twenty-somethings wearing brogues, drinking organic cider and discussing the traumatic nature of technology. I wasn't even allowed to instantly hate everyone, because some of my friends were there, and I may have cadged some of their pomegranate seeds interesting japanese sweets and nice cigarettes.

The debate itself was excellent, for a definition of excellent that does not exclude two hours of shuffling and quiff-scratching whilst four chirpy white guys in nice shirts discussed their favourite bits of salvaged culture. Dance tracks that sample the laughter of long-dead studio audiences. The crackle and hiss of vinyl superimposed onto digitally produced music. An exhibition based on rotting photographs found in a skip. The death of futurism and the end of history. Found objects, found art, old fads and crazes resurrected and shambling in the strip-lit malls of our imaginations, looking for brains to feed on. A paranoid ontology, haunted by revenants from a past it won't shuck. Hauntology.

Adam Harper, who was persistently referred to as 'a member of a certain generation' (he's 23, like me, and you should all read his blog because it's clever and important) had the most interesting things to say. He believes that this sort of cultural reclamation can be progressive, and it can be utopian. He dared to express some genuine excitement, and was hissed at to mention the word 'hipster'. One word that stuck in the craw of the panellists and the audience, however, was 'retro'; hauntology, the reasoning goes, is not just a special strain of retro, but something else entirely - a nostalgia fostered deep in the psyches of the generation born after the end of history, a terror at the prospect of creating our own culture even as we are surrounded by an abundance of technologies with which to effect that creation.

Hauntology is a pitch-perfect orthodoxy for a new generation of smart, suspicious hipsters. Douglas Haddow said it best in 'Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilisation':

"Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group – using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion. An amalgamation of its own history, the youth of the West are left with consuming cool rather that creating it..The dance floor at a hipster party looks like it should be surrounded by quotation marks.The dancers are too self-aware to let themselves feel any form of liberation; they shuffle along, shrugging themselves into oblivion"

What Haddow and others spotted in the mid-noughties was the sharp end of a cultural phenomenon that has now diffused into the mainstream, substituting a timid irony for authenticity in political as well as creative arenas. It is this sort of thinking that allows young people with nice haircuts to remain convinced of their own alienation from the overculture whilst voting for the Conservative party.

Let's not forget that Boris Johnson rode into City Hall in 2008 on a wave of irony. LOL, Boris! Isn't he a leg-ernd? What a dude! Look at his hair! He's even on Have I got News For You! 'Lolboris' political recalcitrance goes hand in hand with contemporary British hipster culture, as does deliberate political apathy, refusing to vote as a silent, solipsistic protest at the futility of, well, everything, sort of. Most of the young people I spoke to on Thursday night were not intending to vote at all, although there were a couple of Tories in fake-fur boleros and oversized spectacles. The overwhelming impression is one of horrified intransigence, like a party held on the central reservation of a major motorway. Everything is moving so brutally fast in both directions that any movement more decisive than a small ironic shrug might knock us into the oncoming traffic.

Without courage, our generation is doomed to another decade of political disenfranchisement and shit music. But courage is - crucially - not something that we are incapable of demonstrating. Our boldness and our innovation break through in the most curious of ways. The most important contribution of the evening came from Jesse Darling, a young artist in the audience* (as transcribed it in my best scrawly shorthand):

"I don't think we're all scared of the future. In fact, I think Generation Y is constantly looking for ways to cite itself. You talk about crackly soundtracks and mold-growing photographs, but a digital track doesn't crackle; a JPEG doesn't decay. It doesn't have the decency. Your technostalgia is nothing to do with me."

*Who was, for some reason,clutching a five-foot foam-rubber crucifix in one hand and a pregnant friend in the other, like some manic re-imagined Spirit of Easter come to eat all your branded chocolate and shout at you.


  1. I really don't get it. What's it all about?

  2. Why do I think 'Weimar' ?

  3. Hi, it's Joseph. I was on the panel with Adam and Mark. Glad you liked the shirt.

    The talk of hipsterdom raises a bit of a wry smile, I have to say. If only you knew! I honestly think all of this is a lot less contrived than you might think. Much of it has happened by coincidence, which seems to be a particular feature of this area - I've experienced it quite a bit myself. What's more, I believe (actually, we can safely say I 'know' here) the cultural connections formed by the makers of this music to be charged with love and genuine enthusiasm, which aren't concepts I would generally associate with self-conscious hipsterdom.

    I wouldn't underestimate the ever-present magical/supernatural aspect of all of this business either. For some it may work as a neat metaphor, but I'd wager that in many cases it's the result of a deeply felt (and highly unfashionable) esoteric curiosity.

    Finally, as a friend pointed out to me towards the end of the evening, what is often missed is that this music can be, well, quite funny. There is an often less-than-subtle self-reflexive humour at work, and as we all know, one thing fashionable sorts find incredibly difficult is being laughed at, by themselves or others...!

  4. Hey Laurie, Joe!

    I agree with Joe, I wouldn't really place hauntology or those who frequent Oto within the usual pejorative connotations of hipsterism. Of course hipsterism is dangerously relative (as Zone Styx Travelcard recently tweeted, 'Hipsters are always other people'), but hauntological irony is more of a tragic post-utopianism or a Utopian conjecture than hipsters' sneering retro-fetishism.

    Even in the US, where hauntological aesthetics most resemble hipster fetishism (note Ariel Pink's recent appearances on the satirical blog 'Hipster Runoff'), the mission is very much a mystical, even quasi-religious one of truth and transcendence achieved through a process of (im)perfection ( that has roots in US Romanticism, Emerson and Charles Ives - irony, yeah, but quite a weird sort of irony really.

    Re: funny hauntology - it's all about Moon Wiring Club's 'Marmalade Sun'.

    It's a really broad aesthetic movement and proper fascinating (, I'll do you a copy of my hauntology mixtape...

  5. Interested by the references to importance. In what sense are these discussions important?

    In what way are apathetic intellectuals disenfranchised?

  6. Yo.

    It's JD, aka the Spirit of Easter.

    First: we are all hipsters. Embrace the demographic so as to deconstruct it, or risk the worst [philosophical] sin: denial of self (there ain't no subjectivity here). We're young and culturally savvy. We know our brands. We judge one another by the just employment of these. We're consumers - all of us - of ideologies, drugs, musical artefacts, sexual identities, memories not our own. Walking through the junkie part of New York's East Village with a friend, I reflected aloud on my own trajectory - from drugpunk squatter to agit-art hipster. "But you've always been a total hipster," he said. "Squatters and junkies are hipsters too."

    But who gives a fuk who's a hipster and who isn't; that's beside the point, here.

    I'm not much into -isms or -ologies, either, but I'm inclined to agree with Adam in the quasi-religious aspect to hauntology and technostalgia. I believe that we're hard-wired as a species to seek out meaning - something sacred, something transcendent - and yet the PoMoMachine mercilessly deconstructs every ideology and ideolatry; seamlessly absorbs every radical motion or aesthetic, spat out as commodities. The Extreme Jux aesthetic makes a joke of the sacred/profane binary while making use of the same to shock and appall; except that now, of course, the joke is that it shocks and appalls nobody.

    So what could still be sacred?

    Something that cannot be commoditized or [further] deconstructed: in other words, our waste artefacts, our obsolete articles, our garbage and decay.

    There's a particular materiality in this, but quasi-religious or mystickal thought lends itself particularly well to a generation who live in the antecedent-yet-unprecedented dimensionality of digital dreamtime, and stare into a pretty stream of metaphors at pictures which are not even quite air, while at the same time avowing we believe in science. What we mean is that we believe in magic. We, as a culture, believe in magic AGAIN.

    I'd recommend Fischer's "Digital Shock" for more on that; it takes a dim view and I don't, but it's a nice juicy read and might go along nicely with a bit of hauntology discourse.

    Penny: I don't remember rightly but I think I meant "site", rather than "cite."

    xxx Jesse Darling

  7. But Jess - we're not all hipsters. I'm 38; Joe's 34; Fisher's, well, grey, and so are most of the musicians who make this music. Advisory Circle's a Wiccan, for god's sake - I'd argue that for at least some these musicians this movement is actually not only quasi-religious but tied in, as Joe argued, with a genuine esoteric curiosity, and in some cases a coherent set of beliefs, not posed but deeply felt. Penny's original question - 'to what extent does the panel feel that the hipster is the logical product of the hauntological project?' (paraphrased) - was way off, though looking around the room I can see what might have tempted her to ask it. It's my contention that the majority of the people present didn't actually have a stake in the music itself - particularly since they saw fit to talk all the way through the actual performances - but rather in the theoretical ground implied by the use of the term 'hauntology'. If it was called 'Corn Circle music', it mightn't be being covered by the Wire, and wouldn't have drawn the crowd that it drew last Thursday. I guess it's true that everyone considers himself a music critic these days, Wire readers most of all; but the moment the actual texts were in the room, it was very clear that (as I've said elsewhere) magic, rather than panicky post-historicity, was in play.

  8. So I'm well not cool enough to comment on hipsterism or owt like that. But here's an interesting question - how many people do you reckon voted Boris because Boris was on TV, was funny, was a bit self-deprecating, a bit comedy, maybe even a bit post-modern-he-gets-politicians-are-mocked-and-mocks-himself-postmodern? It was a fairly big strand of some leftists' thoughts during the mayoral election - how much is it actually reflected in reality, in votes? How much was the 'irony' a cultural phenomenon as opposed the one that reflected itself in voting patterns?

  9. There's also this which I kinda agree with:

  10. "Let's not forget that Boris Johnson rode into City Hall in 2008 on a wave of irony."

    Do you really think people voted for Boris "ironically"? I doubt that even applies to twentysomethings, let alone the electorate as a whole.

    By the way, Hauntology isn't a word.

  11. Grown-ups and pagans are hipsters too :P

  12. So Generation X gives way to Generation Y which eventually gives way to Generation Z. What happens then? Do we flip back to Generation A like modular arithmetic? Hmm.

  13. Jesus rose, I had my concerns when I heard you were having a book published by Zer0.

    Glad to see you've yet to go native, keep it up please: it'd be a shame to see you submerged into the Fiscerian borg & start bracketing words like (unwhole)some kind of (sub)moron.

  14. @JM

    "Kinda?" Quite the ringing endorsement there.

    I actually like Haddow's piece quite a bit. I just think that the obsessive focus on the aesthetics of capitalism is problematic.

    And for the record this is pre-job interview googling (the only form of masturbation that yields some social gain).


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