In a New York Times article, Mark Greif of n+1 (a journal that I always stumble on coincidentally but that I always come away from a little smarter or a little more something I can’t explain) discusses hipsters, and the general idea of taste-making.
Greif cites a philosopher called Pierre Bourdieu who, in a nutshell, determined through sociological study that taste was determined by economic status more than other more aesthetic terms. He worked, the article says, to “debunk the powerful classes’ pretensions that they were more deserving of authority or wealth than those below.” You’re not special, ie., just because you can afford something that you think is cool but that poor people don’t actually give a shit about because they’re off enjoying the things that poor people enjoy.
So basically taste is arbitrary. It’s not earned. For us baseball fans, taste=wins. Are you listening, Yankees fans? You did not earn your wins. You inherited them. We justify the teams we follow the way a hipster (which certain elements deny even exist or ever existed, like some kind of cultural Tea Party members debunking the president’s right to the office) describes where s/he found a cardigan sweater for 2 bucks, and how long they’ve been a regular at the bar that’s a real dive not a fake dive (in my experience, specifically at Leon’s Lounge in Houston, Texas, you don’t ever want to be at an actual dive bar. It’s awful and soul-wrenching.). You say something like, “I lived in Baltimore for two years when I was a kid and Brooks Robinson once passed me on the highway,” or “I was there when the White Sox won it and my neighbors were all shooting their guns off,” and these are ways to establish the lineage of your taste, to place it in the hierarchy of respectability. Think of the last person who said to you, “I don’t know, I just like them,” about a team from a city that they aren’t from. It’s awkward, and sad. It holds no water.
That story is a pair of pleated Dockers.
You should read the piece, but what I get from it is that you are probably a hipster, especially if you give a shit whether you are a hipster or not:
The attempt to analyze the hipster provokes such universal anxiety because it calls everyone’s bluff. And hipsters aren’t the only ones unnerved. Many of us try to justify our privileges by pretending that our superb tastes and intellect prove we deserve them, reflecting our inner superiority. Those below us economically, the reasoning goes, don’t appreciate what we do; similarly, they couldn’t fill our jobs, handle our wealth or survive our difficulties.
Newsflash, but that’s you. And me, and probably anyone who’s read a word of this blog and many of the other blogs I enjoy and we enjoy. This is the great artifice of the day, the sense that we can build a career in front of a laptop, that the audiences will find us and that we won’t have to hustle our way to a living.
I’d have liked it if Greif discussed the reasons behind the hipster movement, though I’m guessing he does so in his book about hipsters. To me, it’s a reaction to the evaporation of stability even among non-hipsters (if they even exist). There is so little now to cling to even if you didn’t mind working for GM for 30 years and hanging it up that the consequences of an extreme taste go out the window. Tattoos, for example. There isn’t a boss left out there who is protecting the white-shirted virtues of the steadfast scions of the business world. Those fuckers watched their retirement funds circle the bowl, and the only people left who feel remotely comfortable in a world of such fiscal and cultural uncertainty are the ones who realize that some ink on a bicep doesn’t mean shit about keeping or losing a job, because there are barely any jobs to keep or lose to begin with, and if you get a job there’s about an alcoholic’s chance in Leon’s Lounge that you’re gonna leave there on your own two feet.
The above rant may give some indication as to why I can no longer muster any bonafide hatred for another baseball team. My days of Yankee-hating are well behind me, if only because the sort of turmoil and tremored lip that plague the rest of the world are at work on each baseball team, too. In an industry where the staid thinkers, the old dogs, the young powerful analysts all believe they are entitled to a voice in the fray, well they didn’t see it coming that the Giants would win the World Series. The Giants whose lineup was a mixed bag of crap on toast and unproven youth. Them who put together some of the worst signings in the modern era, and whose icon is the runner up for the age’s most notorious villain? This team won it? Everything that everyone thought they knew about success was supplanted by the Giants. The hipsters among us are forced to stare at our shoes and admit that it’s a funny old world and well whatever they won’t be back next year, this was an anomaly. The joke of course being that it’s all an anomaly.
So in a way maybe baseball has a leg up on the rest of the world because there is a very well-defined way to determine who won it. It’s right there on the trophy. The remainder of human existence, sadly, offers no such clarity, and we have to choose whether we’ve won or lost pretty much arbitrarily, on a scale of “people actually believe Glenn Beck” to “well at least I wasn’t physically tortured today” and all that you survey in between. We have simultaneously been trained to lust after cash to do the very stylish and gauche things that we enjoy and to abhor the concept that money equals happiness. The contradiction becomes unbearable, and tattoos at that point seem quaint and simple, a little ink on the skin, nothing special. No, it doesn’t mean anything, I just like it.
I don’t have a tattoo. I like the idea, but I’m stuck in that spiritual limbo in which I enjoy the idea more than the practice. That means that I don’t know what tattoo I would get (even the word “get” has a consumerist bent to it). The design would be secondary to the practice. Hold on, though. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe the practice is the ends. Not in terms of practice makes perfect, or even in terms of the journey and not the destination, because the tattoo is a destination. It’s a permanent mark on a transient body, in a transient world full of transients and transplants.
Maybe I’m being too sensitive. I did go to a talk by the Stuff White People Like guy last night. The site has a way of putting a white people like me on edge, though I wasn’t too edgy to laugh a lot about it all. The guy, Christian Lander, is an odd character who is guilty of the cultural crimes that he’s indexed in depth, while also offering sustenance for the very myths of the generation. He is the figure who got famous and made some money for starting a blog for no reason, based on a meme-level idea that has stuck around just long enough so far for a second book. It’s the new American dream, to make some scratch by making something good outside of the existing corporate structure. But even the guy fell prey to the buzzards, as he told a story about Hollywood agents and TV deals that fell through. He flew too close to the sun on wings of expensive sandwiches. Funny guy, though, and far more entertaining than I had any right to expect.
The hipster (or White Person) is not like the sports fan, in that the sports fan is happy to be labeled a Cubs fan or a BlueJays fan, whereas the hipster doesn’t see such when he looks in the mirror. The hipster prefers to think of himself as an amalgam of attributes built around a sound aesthetic sensibility. The fan doesn’t mind the teal because everyone else is wearing teal. But behind this complacency there is a darker thread of experience, the sort of hypercritical micro-analysis that was once reserved for music and sci-fi nerds. Baseball’s conversations have gone micro, from the water cooler to the Excel spreadsheet. The mainstream is sucked into the specialized world of the misunderstood but envied taste-maker, who decries the mainstream model while building his own model from the ground-up, recruiting a new army until even those once adventurous troops get fat on the gristle of acceptance and burst once again.
No matter what the current trappings, the thing about culture that keeps us held so tight is that it will crumble back into the earth and germinate the next dormant seed. It always does, and sometimes you gotta stop thinking, set on your haunches, and wait to see what comes up.