Here’s a scary thought: What if there were a formula that could take your age, education level, income level, proximity to a city center, and field of employment and spit out a prediction for how skinny the jeans you’re wearing right now are? Or how likely you are to eat organic? To drive an SUV? To believe a car crash would make a more beautiful subject for a photograph than would a woman-with-kitten? To be or not to be… a hipster?
Well, hate to break it to you, you delightfully original little snowflake you, but there kind of is. And it’s been around for a long time. In this Sunday’s “The Hipster in the Mirror,” from the NYT Book Review (ahem, how predictable is it that I save that section for last? eek!) Mark Greif writes about he and his colleagues’ experience investigating “the contemporary hipster”–and the fiery debate that arose, once they went public with their endeavor:
The responses were more impassioned than those we’d had in our discussions on health care, young conservatives and feminism.
(No! Not feminism!!)
I wondered if I could guess the root of their pain. It’s a superficial topic, yet it seemed that so much was at stake. Why? Because struggles over taste (and “taste” is the hipster’s primary currency) are never only about taste. I began to wish that everyone I talked to had read just one book to give these fraught debates a frame: “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste,” by Pierre Bourdieu.
What’s so fantastic about Bourdieu’s work? Check it:
Bourdieu chose to make it his life’s work to debunk the powerful classes’ pretensions that they were more deserving of authority or wealth than those below. He aimed his critiques first at his own class of elites–professors and intellectuals–then at the media, the political class, and the propertied class.
“Distinction,” published in 1979 was an undisputed masterwork. In it, Bourdieu set out to show the social logic of taste: how admiration for art, appreciation of music, even taste in food, came about for different groups, and how “superior” taste was not the result of an enchanted superiority in scattered individuals.
…Over several years in the 1960s, Bourdieu and his researchers surveyed 1,200 people of all classes and mined government data on aspects of French domestic life. They asked, for instance, Which of the following subjects would be most likely to make a beautiful photograph? and offered such choices as a sunset, a girl with a cat or a car crash… The statistical results were striking. The things you prefer–tastes that you like to think of as personal, unique, justified only by sensibility–correspond tightly to defining measures of social class: your profession, your highest degree and your father’s profession.
Ahem. Rather a harsh blow to the ego, no?
I mean, of course we are each of us a special little snowflake. And our work in this world is to figure out who we really are, way deep down, and then figure out a way to be her. Which is why this is so disturbing — I mean, I kinda thought becoming my own little special self was what I’ve been doing: I attributed the fact that I like to listen to NPR on my morning jog to the fact that I am a news geek. That I only eat meat that I get at the farmers market to fears over hormones and Food, Inc.-spawned disgust. That I have bangs because if I deal with them, I can rightfully ignore the rest of my hair and still look cute–and a little bit younger. That I think a car crash might make a more lovely photo than a cliche sunset or girl-with-cat to the fact that I made a brief cameo at a photography school in the early ‘aughts. But… is that really the truth? Or am I just a pawn??
In a way, the whole thing gets me thinking about the best (in my clearly conditioned opinion, anyway) exchange in The Devil Wears Prada, when a decidedly unstylish, somewhat uppity, real-journalist-wannabe Andy is knocked down to size by the evil editrix Miranda. Check the dialogue (thanks Wikipedia!), and you’ll see what I mean:
[Miranda, To Andrea] This… stuff? Oh.. okay. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out–oh, I don’t know–that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? (I think we need a jacket here.) And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Causal Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.
That’s what’s so funny–especially in light of the almighty hipster. That even when we’re styling ourselves as above-it-all, well, we’re just not. Which is not to say that we are all mindless followers, because I don’t think I really believe that, though I do take issue with anyone who chooses to order a PBR when there’s Guinness on tap. I guess my point is this: everything is worth thinking about, everything is changeable. Even who we think we are. And if that’s the case, perhaps we’d do well to cut everyone around us a little bit of slack, too.
I have this friend who lives in San Francisco, in the Marina–a very nice neighborhood. She loathes hanging out in the terminally trendy Mission–not because it’s beneath her, but because she feels the hipsters are judgmental. They say they’d never live in the Marina, it’s too uppity. Yet they also won’t talk to her when she finds herself there and in need of a coffee fix, because she’s a lawyer and dresses as such. So, who’s uppity?
Here’s a bit more from Greif:
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. Of course this is a terrible lie. And Bourdieu devoted his life to exposing it. Those who read him in effect become responsible to him–forced to admit a failure to examine our own lives, down to the seeming trivialities of clothes and distinction that, as Bourdieu revealed, also structure our world.