European Import Has Cars Spinning. Heads, Too
by Andrew Keh
NYT, Nov. 19, 2010
Traffic is going in circles. Armed with mounting data showing that roundabouts are safer, cheaper to maintain and friendlier to the environment, transportation experts around the country are persuading communities to replace traditional intersections with them.
There’s just one problem: Americans don’t know how to navigate them.
“There’s a lot of what I call irrational opposition,” said Eugene R. Russell Sr., a civil engineering professor at Kansas State University and chairman of a national task force on roundabouts, sounding mildly exasperated in a telephone interview. “People don’t understand. They just don’t understand roundabouts.”
But many are being forced to learn, 25 years after Clark Griswold captured the public’s unease with roundabouts in “European Vacation,” spending a full day circumnavigating London’s famous Lambeth Bridge roundabout — “There’s Big Ben, kids! Parliament!” — unable to escape its inner lane.
The Department of Transportation does not keep statistics on roundabouts, but experts agree that they are proliferating rapidly. They point to Wisconsin, which has built about 100 roundabouts since 2004, and plans to build 52 more in the 2011 construction season alone. Maryland is closing in on 200. Kansas has nearly 100.
All told, there are about 2,000 roundabouts in this country, most built in the last decade, according to Edward Myers, a senior principal at Kittelson & Associates, a transportation engineering and planning firm.
That does not mean they are usually well received.
For instance, residents of Quentin, Pa., near Harrisburg, were distraught to learn last month that a stoplight intersection in town might be turned into a roundabout.
“I just foresee a lot of accidents,” said John Horstick, 61, who owns the Quentin Haus, a nearby restaurant. A petition circulated at the restaurant garnered hundreds of signatures in a matter of days.
Kitty Schaeffer, 81, said she was worried about large trucks navigating the circle. “Let’s just have a light there, and when the light changes, you just go,” she said.
Public opposition could squelch the proposal.
Rodney Gernert, 39, was not persuaded by the success of roundabouts in countries like France, which has more than 30,000.
“Just because something works in one culture, doesn’t mean it’s going to work in another culture,” said Mr. Gernert, who teaches about world cultures at nearby Cedar Crest High School. “In our country, we don’t hang animals in our storefronts like other cultures. Food is different. Transportation, patience, people, their temperaments, are different from country to country.”
Modern roundabouts are ring-shaped intersections through which traffic flows in a counterclockwise pattern. Cars entering a roundabout must yield to those already inside.
They first appeared in the United States in the early 1990s, according to engineers, who emphasize that roundabouts are not the same as traffic circles or rotaries, like Columbus Circle in New York or Dupont Circle in Washington. Traffic circles usually operate at higher speeds, and some have traffic signals within their rings.
The many traffic circles in New Jersey seem to have tainted perceptions of roundabouts for millions of Americans east of the Mississippi River.
“People say, ‘Hey, you ought to drive in some of those terrible monstrosities in New Jersey before you build them here,’ ” said Mr. Russell, of the roundabout task force. “Now, I don’t disagree that they are monstrosities. But they also aren’t roundabouts.”
Roundabouts are deemed safer than traditional intersections because their design precludes most high-risk situations. “You virtually eliminate right-angle crashes and head-on collisions, and the collisions that do occur tend to be much less severe,” said Anne McCartt, a senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Numerous studies have also found that replacing lights and stop signs with roundabouts can reduce harmful emissions by more than 30 percent because there is less starting and stopping.
Despite these benefits, a circuitous pattern still seems to emerge whenever a community is faced with the specter of a roundabout. Fear and suspicion are manifested in petitions and tense town meetings — and over time they generally mellow into something resembling approval, acceptance or, just as desirable in the world of transportation engineering, apathy.
Three years ago, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety published a study titled “Long-Term Trends in Public Opinion Following Construction of Roundabouts.” After interviewing 1,802 drivers in six communities, the researchers reported that, on average, only 34 percent had supported roundabouts in their communities before construction. But shortly after the roundabouts were in place, the number rose to 57 percent. After a year or more, the number increased to 69 percent.
In September 2009, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation started from the beginning with plans for a roundabout in Mosinee. The agency held a public information meeting to discuss the possibility of installing one near the bridge that serves as the primary artery into the town’s commercial district.
The response from the residents was tepid. Many residents, particularly older ones, were perturbed by the change.
“People gossiped, they speculated, they complained — ‘Why do we need it? This is ridiculous!’ ” said Michelle Ringhoffer, 41, the owner of a nearby bookstore. “But once it was in, they said, ‘Oh, that wasn’t so bad.’ ”
The roundabout opened last month, with only a few hiccups.
“People were constantly stopping, and the people that weren’t supposed to stop were trying to wave you in,” Ms. Ringhoffer said.
Other drivers kept traffic flowing, but not always in the right direction.
“The other day I saw someone going the wrong way in it,” said Steven Grim, 56, a longtime resident. “The wife and I looked at each other like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ ”
There Will Be Blood
By Paul Krugman
NYT,November 22, 2010
Former Senator Alan Simpson is a Very Serious Person. He must be — after all, President Obama appointed him as co-chairman of a special commission on deficit reduction.
So here’s what the very serious Mr. Simpson said on Friday: “I can’t wait for the blood bath in April. ... When debt limit time comes, they’re going to look around and say, ‘What in the hell do we do now? We’ve got guys who will not approve the debt limit extension unless we give ’em a piece of meat, real meat,’ ” meaning spending cuts. “And boy, the blood bath will be extraordinary,” he continued.
Think of Mr. Simpson’s blood lust as one more piece of evidence that our nation is in much worse shape, much closer to a political breakdown, than most people realize.
Some explanation: There’s a legal limit to federal debt, which must be raised periodically if the government keeps running deficits; the limit will be reached again this spring. And since nobody, not even the hawkiest of deficit hawks, thinks the budget can be balanced immediately, the debt limit must be raised to avoid a government shutdown. But Republicans will probably try to blackmail the president into policy concessions by, in effect, holding the government hostage; they’ve done it before.
Now, you might think that the prospect of this kind of standoff, which might deny many Americans essential services, wreak havoc in financial markets and undermine America’s role in the world, would worry all men of good will. But no, Mr. Simpson “can’t wait.” And he’s what passes, these days, for a reasonable Republican.
The fact is that one of our two great political parties has made it clear that it has no interest in making America governable, unless it’s doing the governing. And that party now controls one house of Congress, which means that the country will not, in fact, be governable without that party’s cooperation — cooperation that won’t be forthcoming.
Elite opinion has been slow to recognize this reality. Thus on the same day that Mr. Simpson rejoiced in the prospect of chaos, Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, appealed for help in confronting mass unemployment. He asked for “a fiscal program that combines near-term measures to enhance growth with strong, confidence-inducing steps to reduce longer-term structural deficits.”
My immediate thought was, why not ask for a pony, too? After all, the G.O.P. isn’t interested in helping the economy as long as a Democrat is in the White House. Indeed, far from being willing to help Mr. Bernanke’s efforts, Republicans are trying to bully the Fed itself into giving up completely on trying to reduce unemployment.
And on matters fiscal, the G.O.P. program is to do almost exactly the opposite of what Mr. Bernanke called for. On one side, Republicans oppose just about everything that might reduce structural deficits: they demand that the Bush tax cuts be made permanent while demagoguing efforts to limit the rise in Medicare costs, which are essential to any attempts to get the budget under control. On the other, the G.O.P. opposes anything that might help sustain demand in a depressed economy — even aid to small businesses, which the party claims to love.
Right now, in particular, Republicans are blocking an extension of unemployment benefits — an action that will both cause immense hardship and drain purchasing power from an already sputtering economy. But there’s no point appealing to the better angels of their nature; America just doesn’t work that way anymore.
And opposition for the sake of opposition isn’t limited to economic policy. Politics, they used to tell us, stops at the water’s edge — but that was then.
These days, national security experts are tearing their hair out over the decision of Senate Republicans to block a desperately needed new strategic arms treaty. And everyone knows that these Republicans oppose the treaty, not because of legitimate objections, but simply because it’s an Obama administration initiative; if sabotaging the president endangers the nation, so be it.
How does this end? Mr. Obama is still talking about bipartisan outreach, and maybe if he caves in sufficiently he can avoid a federal shutdown this spring. But any respite would be only temporary; again, the G.O.P. is just not interested in helping a Democrat govern.
My sense is that most Americans still don’t understand this reality. They still imagine that when push comes to shove, our politicians will come together to do what’s necessary. But that was another country.
It’s hard to see how this situation is resolved without a major crisis of some kind. Mr. Simpson may or may not get the blood bath he craves this April, but there will be blood sooner or later. And we can only hope that the nation that emerges from that blood bath is still one we recognize.
by Andy Martin
NYT, November 21, 2010
I ought to have known better than to have lunch with a psychologist.
“Take you, for example,” he said. “You are definitely autistic.”
“I rest my case,” he shot back. “Q.E.D.”
His ironic point seemed to be that if I didn’t instantly grasp his point — which clearly I didn’t — then, at some level, I was exhibiting autistic tendencies.
Simon Baron-Cohen, for example, in his book “Mindblindness,” argues that the whole raison d’être of consciousness is to be able to read other people’s minds; autism, in this context, can be defined as an inability to “get” other people, hence “mindblind.”
Autism is often the subject of contentious and emotional debate, certainly because it manifests in the most vulnerable of humans — children. It is also hard to pin down; as a “spectrum disorder” it can take extreme and disheartening forms and incur a devastating toll on families. It is the “milder” or “high functioning” form and the two main agreed-upon symptoms of sub-optimal social and communication skills that I confine myself to here.
Was Wittgenstein hinting that autism is not some exotic anomaly but rather a constant?
A less recent but possibly related conversation took place during the viva voce exam Ludwig Wittgenstein was given by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore in Cambridge in 1929. Wittgenstein was formally presenting his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” an already well-known work he had written in 1921, as his doctoral thesis. Russell and Moore were respectfully suggesting that they didn’t quite understand proposition 5.4541 when they were abruptly cut off by the irritable Wittgenstein. “I don’t expect you to understand!” (I am relying on local legend here; Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein has him, in a more clubbable way, slapping them on the back and bringing proceedings cheerfully to a close with the words, “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.”)
I have always thought of Wittgenstein’s line as (a) admittedly, a little tetchy (or in the Monk version condescending) but (b) expressing enviable self-confidence and (c) impressively devoid of deference (I’ve even tried to emulate it once or twice, but it never comes out quite right). But if autism can be defined, at one level, by a lack of understanding (verbal or otherwise), it is at least plausible that Wittgenstein is making (or at least implying) a broadly philosophical proposition here, rather than commenting, acerbically, on the limitations of these particular interlocutors. He could be read as saying:
Thank you, gentlemen, for raising the issue of understanding here. The fact is, I don’t expect people in general to understand what I have written. And it is not just because I have written something, in places, particularly cryptic and elliptical and therefore hard to understand, or even because it is largely a meta-discourse and therefore senseless, but rather because, in my view, it is not given to us to achieve full understanding of what another person says. Therefore I don’t expect you to understand this problem of misunderstanding either.
If Wittgenstein was making a statement along these lines, then it would provide an illuminating perspective in which to read the “Tractatus.” The persistent theme within it of “propositions which say nothing,” which we tend to package up under the heading of “the mystical,” would have to be rethought. Rather than clinging to a clear-cut divide between all these propositions ? over here, the well-formed and intelligible (scientific) and over there, the hazy, dubious and mystical (aesthetic or ethical) ? we might have to concede that, given the way humans interact with one another, there is always a potential mystery concealed within the most elementary statement. And it is harder than you think it is going to be to eliminate, entirely, the residue of obscurity, the possibility of misunderstanding lurking at the core of every sentence. Sometimes Wittgenstein thinks he has solved the problem, at others not (“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem,” he writes in “Tractatus.”) What do we make of those dense, elegiac and perhaps incomprehensible final lines, sometimes translated as “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent”? Positioned as it is right at the end of the book (like “the rest is silence” at the end of “Hamlet”), proposition number 7 is apt to be associated with death or the afterlife. But translating it yet again into the sort of terms a psychologist would readily grasp, perhaps Wittgenstein is also hinting: “I am autistic” or “I am mindblind.” Or, to put it another way, autism is not some exotic anomaly but rather a constant.
I am probably misreading the text here — if I have understood it correctly, I must be misreading it. But Wittgenstein has frequently been categorized, in recent retrospective diagnoses, as autistic. Sula Wolff, for example, in “Loners, The Life Path of Unusual Children” (1995), analyzes Wittgenstein as a classic case of Asperger’s syndrome, so-called “high-functioning autism” ? that is, being articulate, numerate and not visibly dysfunctional, but nevertheless awkward and unskilled in social intercourse. He is apt to get hold of the wrong end of the stick (not to mention the poker that he once waved aggressively at Karl Popper). An illustrative true story: he is dying of cancer; it is his birthday; his cheerful landlady comes in and wishes him “Many happy returns, Mr. Wittgenstein”; he snaps back, “There will be no returns.”
Wittgenstein, not unlike someone with Asperger’s, admits to having difficulty working out what people are really going on about. In “Culture and Value” (1914) he writes: “We tend to take the speech of a Chinese for inarticulate gurgling. Someone who understands Chinese will recognize language in what he hears. Similarly I often cannot recognize the humanity of another human being.” Which might also go some way towards explaining his remark (in the later “Philosophical Investigations”) that even if a lion could speak English, we would still be unable to understand him.
Wittgenstein is not alone among philosophers in being included in this category of mindblindness. Russell, for one, has also been labeled autistic. Taking this into account, it is conceivable that Wittgenstein is saying to Russell, when he tells him that he doesn’t expect him to understand, “You are autistic!” Or (assuming a handy intellectual time machine), “If I am to believe Wolff and others, we are autistic. Perhaps all philosophers are. It is why we end up studying philosophy.”
I don’t want to maintain that all philosophers are autistic in this sense. Perhaps not even that “You don’t have to be autistic, but it helps.” And yet there are certainly episodes and sentences associated with philosophers quite distinct from Wittgenstein and Russell, that might lead us to think in that way.
The philosopher may tend to interpret what people say as a puzzle of some kind, a machine that may or may not work.
Consider, for example, Sartre’s classic one-liner, “Hell is other people.” Wouldn’t autism, with its inherent poverty of affective contact, go some way towards accounting for that? The fear of faces and the “gaze of the other” that Sartre analyzes are classic symptoms. Sartre recognized this in himself and in others as well: he explicitly describes Flaubert as “autistic” in his great, sprawling study of the writer, “The Family Idiot,” and also asserts that “Flaubert c’est moi.” Sartre’s theory that Flaubert starts off autistic and everything he writes afterwards — trying to work out what is in Madame Bovary’s mind, for example — is a form of compensation or rectification, could easily apply to his own work.
One implication of what a psychologist might say about autism goes something like this: you, a philosopher, are mindblind and liable to take up philosophy precisely because you don’t “get” what other people are saying to you. You, like Wittgenstein, have a habit of hearing and seeing propositions, but feeling that they say nothing (as if they were rendered in Chinese). In other words, philosophy would be a tendency to interpret what people say as a puzzle of some kind, a machine that may or may not work.
I think this helps to explain Wittgenstein’s otherwise slightly mysterious advice, to the effect that if you want to be a good philosopher, you should become a car mechanic (a job Wittgenstein actually held during part of the Great War). It was not just some notion of getting away from the study of previous philosophers, but also the idea that working on machines would be a good way of thinking about language. Wittgenstein, we know, came up with his preliminary model of language while studying court reports of a car accident in Paris during the war. The roots of picture theory (the model used in court to portray the event) and ostensive definition (all those little arrows and labels) are all here. But at the core of the episode are two machines and a collision. Perhaps language can be seen as a car, a vehicle of some kind, designed to get you from A to B, carrying a certain amount of information, but apt to get stuck in jams or break down or crash; and which will therefore need fixing. Wittgenstein and the art of car maintenance. This car mechanic conception of language is just the sort of thing high-functioning autistic types would come up with, my psychologist friend might say, because they understand “systems” better than they understand people. They are “(hyper-)systemizers” not “empathizers.” The point I am not exactly “driving” at but rather skidding into, and cannot seem to avoid, is this: indisputably, most car mechanics are men.
If Wittgenstein is suggesting that philosophers are typically autistic in a broad sense, this view might explain (in part) the preponderance of male philosophers.
My psychologist friend assured me that I was not alone. “Men tend to be autistic on average. More so than women.” The accepted male-to-female ratio for autism is roughly 4-to-1; for Asperger’s the ratio jumps even higher, by some accounts 10-to-1 (other statistics give higher or lower figures but retain the male prevalence). Asperger himself wrote that the autistic mind is “an extreme variant of male intelligence”; Baron-Cohen argues that “the extreme male brain” (not exclusive to men) is the product of an overdose of fetal testosterone.
If Wittgenstein in his conversation with Russell is suggesting that philosophers are typically autistic in a broad sense, this view might explain (in part) the preponderance of male philosophers. I went back over several sources to get an idea of the philosophical ratio: Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” (about 100-to-1), Critchley’s “Book of Dead Philosophers” (30-to-1), while, in the realm of the living, the list of contributors to The Stone, for example, the ratio narrows to more like 4-to-1.
A psychologist might say something like: “Q.E.D., philosophy is all about systemizing (therefore male) and cold, hard logic, whereas the empathizers (largely female) seek out more humane, less mechanistic havens.” I would like to offer a slightly different take on the evidence. Plato took the view (in Book V of “The Republic”) that women were just as philosophical as men and would qualify to become the philosopher “guardians” of the ideal Greek state of the future (in return they would have to learn to run around naked at the gym). It seems likely that women were among the pre-Socratic archi-philosophers. But they were largely oracular. They tended to speak in riddles. The point of philosophy from Aristotle onwards was to resolve and abolish the riddle.
But perhaps the riddle is making a comeback. Understanding can be coercive and suffocating. Do I really have to be quite so “understanding”? Isn’t that the same as being masochistically subservient? And isn’t it just another aspect of your hegemony to claim to understand me quite so well? Simone de Beauvoir was exercising her right to what I would like to call autismo when she wrote that, “one is not born a woman but becomes one.” Similarly, when she emblazons her first novel, “She Came To Stay,” with an epigraph derived from Hegel ? “every consciousness seeks the death of the other” ? and her philosophical avatar takes it upon herself to bump off the provincial young woman she has invited to stay in Paris: I refuse to understand, to be a mind-reader. Conversely, when Luce Irigaray, the feminist theorist and philosopher, speaks — again paradoxically — of “this sex which is not one,” she is asking us to think twice about our premature understanding of gender — what Wittgenstein might call a case of “bewitchment.”
The study of our psychopathology, via cognitive neuroscience, suggests a hypothetical history. Why does language arise? It arises because of the scope for misunderstanding. Body language, gestures, looks, winks, are not quite enough. I am not a mind-reader. I don’t understand. We need noises and written signs, speech-acts, the Word, logos. If you tell me what you want, I will tell you what I want. Language is a system that arises to compensate for an empathy deficit. But with or without language, I can still exhibit traits of autism. I can misread the signs. Perhaps it would be more exact to say that autism only arises, is only identified, at the same time as there is an expectation of understanding. But if autism is a problem, from certain points of view, autismo is also a solution: it is an assertion that understanding itself can be overvalued.
It is a point that Wittgenstein makes memorably in the introduction to the “Tractatus,” in which he writes:
I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems [of philosophy]. And if I am not mistaken in this belief … it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.
Which is why he also suggests, at the end of the book, that anyone who has climbed up his philosophical ladder should throw it away.
Andy Martin is currently completing “Philosophy Fight Club: Sartre vs. Camus,” to be published by Simon and Schuster. He was a 2009-10 fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers in New York, and teaches at Cambridge University.
What Was the Hipster?
by Mark Greif
New York Magazine,Oct 24, 2010
If I speak of the degeneration of our most visible recent subculture, the hipster, it’s an awkward occasion. Someone will point out that hipsters are not dead, they still breathe, they live on my block. Yet it is evident that we have reached the end of an epoch in the life of the type. Its evolution lasted from 1999 to 2009, though it has shifted appearance dramatically over the decade. It survived this year; it may persist. Indications are everywhere, however, that we have come to a moment of stocktaking.
Novelty books on the order of Stuff Hipsters Hate and Look at This Fucking Hipster began appearing again this year, reliving the hipster’s previous near death in 2003 (titles then: A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster; The Hipster Handbook). Institutions associated with the hipster label have begun fleeing it. Dov Charney, CEO of American Apparel, announced in August that “hipster is over” and “hipsters are from a certain time period.” Gawker proposed to substitute a new name for the hipster by fiat—approving, after some consideration, the term fauxhemian.
Elsewhere—and especially in Europe—the deathbed scene looks more like an apotheosis. One German paper rounded up that country’s most recent reports of hipster emergence: “The current issue of the magazine Neon sees them at a club in Moscow, the Berlin Tagesspiegel spotted them yet again this week in the bars on Oranienstraße, Taz reported that in the ‘US hipster scene’ it’s cool to dress like Indians, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung knows that in Stockholm they are drawn to the district of Södermalm, Geo Saison had drinks with them at a bar in Prague, Die Welt found them in Australia from Sydney to Brisbane, the Sunday Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung knows the Parisian ‘Hipster-labels,’ and the weekend edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung commented recently that ‘big-city hipsters’ are now decorating their apartments with taxidermy.” The hipster has been reborn, too, in the American shopping mall, where Hot Topic sells thick-framed lensless eyeglasses to tweens and Nine West sells a “Hipster” sandal.
A key myth repeated about the hipster, by both the innocent and the underhanded, is that it has no definition. In August, after noting that the New York Times had printed hipster as a noun or an adjective more than 250 times in the previous year, Philip Corbett, the paper’s grammarian, wrote an open letter to the newsroom warning against its use. He certainly could have objected that it made for lazy headline copy, or that a derogatory term was being misused as praise. Instead, he objected that it wasn’t clear enough what the word means.
We do know what hipster means—or at least we should. The term has always possessed adequately lucid definitions; they just happen to be multiple. If we refuse to enunciate them, it may be because everyone affiliated with the term has a stake in keeping it murky. Hipster accusation has been, for a decade, the outflanking maneuver par excellence for competitors within a common field of cool. “Two Hipsters Angrily Call Each Other ‘Hipster,’ ” a headline in The Onion put it most succinctly.
The longer we go without an attempt to explain the term simply and clearly, the longer we are at the mercy of its underlying magic. In the interest of disenchantment, let me trace a history and offer some definitions. If we see the hipsters plain, maybe we’ll also see where they might come undone.
When we talk about the contemporary hipster, we’re talking about a subcultural figure who emerged by 1999, enjoyed a narrow but robust first phase until 2003, and then seemed about to dissipate into the primordial subcultural soup, only to undergo a reorganization and creeping spread from 2004 to the present.
The matrix from which the hipster emerged included the dimension of nineties youth culture, often called alternative or indie, that defined itself by its rejection of consumerism. Yet in an ethnography of Wicker Park, Chicago, in the nineties, the sociologist Richard Lloyd documented how what he called “neo-bohemia” unwittingly turned into something else: the seedbed for post-1999 hipsterism. Lloyd showed how a culture of aspiring artists who worked day jobs in bars and coffee shops could unintentionally provide a milieu for new, late-capitalist commerce in design, marketing, and web development. The neo-bohemian neighborhoods, near to the explosion of new wealth in city financial centers, became amusement districts for a new class of rich young people. The indie bohemians (denigrated as slackers) encountered the flannel-clad proto-businessmen and dot-com paper millionaires (denigrated as yuppies), and something unanticipated came of this friction.
The Lower East Side and Williamsburg in New York, Capitol Hill in Seattle, Silver Lake in L.A., the Inner Mission in San Francisco: This is where the contemporary hipster first flourished. Over the years, there developed such a thing as a hipster style and range of art and finally, by extension, something like a characteristic attitude and Weltanschauung. Fundamentally, however, the hipster continues to be defined by the same tension faced by those early colonizers of Wicker Park. The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual—the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skatepunk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twentysomething, the starving artist or graduate student—who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.
The question arises: What was it about the turn-of-the-century moment that made it so clear—as it was immediately clear—that the character had to have this name, the hipster, which was so fraught with historical meaning? Subculture has never had a problem with neologism or exploitation of slang, from emo to punk to hippie. The hipster, however, was someone else already. Specifically, he was a black subcultural figure of the late forties, best anatomized by Anatole Broyard in an essay for the Partisan Review called “A Portrait of the Hipster.” A decade later, the hipster had evolved into a white subcultural figure. This hipster—and the reference here is to Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” essay for Dissent in 1957—was explicitly defined by the desire of a white avant-garde to disaffiliate itself from whiteness, with its stain of Eisenhower, the bomb, and the corporation, and achieve the “cool” knowledge and exoticized energy, lust, and violence of black Americans. (Hippie itself was originally an insulting diminutive of hipster, a jab at the sloppy kids who hung around North Beach or Greenwich Village after 1960 and didn’t care about jazz or poetry, only drugs and fun.)
The hipster, in both black and white incarnations, in his essence had been about superior knowledge—what Broyard called “a priorism.” He insisted that hipsterism was developed from a sense that minorities in America were subject to decisions made about their lives by conspiracies of power they could never possibly know. The hip reaction was to insist, purely symbolically, on forms of knowledge that they possessed before anyone else, indeed before the creation of positive knowledge—a priori. Broyard focused on the password language of hip slang.
The return of the term after 1999 reframed the knowledge question. Hipster, in its revival, referred to an air of knowing about exclusive things before anyone else. The new young strangers acted, as people said then, “hipper than thou.” At first their look may also have overlapped enough with a short-lived moment of neo-Beat and fifties nostalgia (goatees, fedoras, Swingers-style duds) to help call up the term. But these hipsters were white, and singularly unmoved by race and racial integration.
Indeed, the White Hipster—the style that suddenly emerged in 1999—inverted Broyard’s model to particularly unpleasant effect. Let me recall a string of keywords: trucker hats; undershirts called “wifebeaters,” worn alone; the aesthetic of basement rec-room pornography, flash-lit Polaroids, and fake-wood paneling; Pabst Blue Ribbon; “porno” or “pedophile” mustaches; aviator glasses; Americana T-shirts from church socials and pig roasts; tube socks; the late albums of Johnny Cash; tattoos.
Key institutions were the fashion magazine Vice, which moved to New York from Montreal in 1999 and drew on casual racism and porn to refresh traditional women’s-magazine features (“It Happened,” “Dos and Don’ts”) and overcome the stigma of boys looking at photos of clothes; Alife, the hipster-branding consultancy–cum–sneaker store, also launched in 1999, staffed by employees who claimed a rebel background in punk/skateboarding/graffiti to justify why they were now in retail sportswear; and American Apparel, which launched in L.A. in 1997 as an anti-sweatshop T-shirt manufacturer and gradually changed its advertising focus from progressive labor practices to amateur soft-core porn.
These were the most visible emblems of a small and surprising subculture, where the source of a priori knowledge seemed to be nostalgia for suburban whiteness. As the White Negro had once fetishized blackness, the White Hipster fetishized the violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness of lower-middle-class “white trash.” “I love being white, and I think it’s something to be proud of,” Vice founder Gavin McInnes told the Times in 2003.
This recalled the seventies culture of white flight to the suburbs, and the most uncanny thing about the turn-of-the-millennium white hipsters is that symbolically, in their styles and attitudes, they seemed to announce that whiteness and capital were flowing back into the formerly impoverished city. They wore what they were in economic and structural terms—because for reasons mysterious to the participants, those things suddenly seemed “cool” for an urban setting.
The early White Hipster aped the “unmeltable ethnics” (Irish, Italian, Polish, and so forth), but now with the ethnicities scrubbed off. And rather than an indie or bohemian subculture, it felt like an ethnicity—with its clannishness, its claiming of microneighborhoods from other, older migrants (Chinese, Puerto Ricans, Orthodox Jews), and its total uninterest in integrating into the local populations.
It would be too limited, however, to understand the contemporary hipster as simply someone concerned with a priori knowledge as a means of social dominance. In larger manifestations, in private as well as on the street, contemporary hipsterism has been defined by an obsessive interest in the conflict between knowingness and naïveté, guilty self-awareness and absolved self-absorption. Consider hipster art. At the same time that hipsters were dressing like seventies-model Stanley Kowalskis, they were consuming culture that was considerably more anxious about machismo, heterosexuality, and maturity.
The most exemplary hipster artists are probably the early Dave Eggers, of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) and his journal McSweeney’s (1998), and Wes Anderson, director of Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). These and other artists who were referred to as hipster produced a body of work that was otherwise classed more precisely as “precious” or “twee.” The older Scottish band Belle & Sebastian, not a part of this system at their own genesis, stood at the head of a new soft-spoken, often anti-homophobic aesthetic in music. (Eggers tried to claim the older Flaming Lips as allies. Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, and Joanna Newsom were later manifestations.)
The tensions of this art revolved around the very old dyad of adulthood and a child-centered world, but landed heavily on the side of the child. Formally, there was an aestheticization of the mode of pastiche, which Fredric Jameson identified in the early eighties as a characteristic mode of postmodern narrative. Here, however, “blank parody” gave way to a reconstruction of past techniques more perfect than the originals, in an irony without sarcasm, bitterness, or critique. Reflexivity was used as a means to get back to sentimental emotion.
In the nineties, it had become commonplace to assume that one could no longer say heartfelt, sincere things outright, because all genuine utterance would be stolen and repeated as advertising. Whatever anguish this caused seemed gone in the artifacts of the early aughts. The ironic games were weightless. The emotional expressions suggested therapy culture, but hipster art often kitschified—or at least made playful—the weightiest tragedies, whether personal or historical: orphans and cancer for Eggers, the Holocaust and 9/11 for Jonathan Safran Foer
The hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts
By 2003, though, an overwhelming feeling of an end to hipsterism permeated the subculture. It seems possible that the White Hipster was born in part as a reaction to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle—the emboldened anti-capitalism that was the signal youth rebellion of the century’s end. But 2003 spelled the beginning of the Iraq invasion, and a pivot in the national mood from post-9/11 mourning to patriotic aggression and violence. The wifebeater-wearer’s machismo no longer felt subversive, and while the more sinister strain of White Hipster style started to diminish, the artistic concern with innocence turned from human absolution to the fragile world of furry creatures, trees, and TRS-80s.
Suddenly, the hipster transformed. Most succinctly—though this is too simple—it began to seem that a “green” hipster had succeeded the white. Certainly the points of reference shifted from midwestern suburbs to animals, wilderness, plus the occasional Native American. Best perhaps to call this the Hipster Primitive, for linked to the Edenic nature-as-playground motif was a fascination with early-eighties computer electronics and other rudimentary or superannuated technologies.
In culture, the Hipster Primitive moment recovered the sound and symbols of pastoral innocence with an irony so fused into the artworks it was no longer visible. Music led the artistry of this phase, and the period’s flagship publication, the record-review website and tastemaker Pitchfork, picked up as Vice declined. Here are the names of some significant bands, post-2004: Grizzly Bear, Neon Indian, Deerhunter, Fleet Foxes, Department of Eagles, Wolf Parade, Band of Horses, and, most centrally, Animal Collective. (On the electronic-primitive side, LCD Soundsystem.) Listeners heard animal sounds and lovely Beach Boys–style harmonies; lyrics and videos pointed to rural redoubts, on wild beaches and in forests; life transpired in some more loving, spacious, and manageable future, possibly of a Day-Glo or hallucinatory brightness. It was not unheard of to find band members wearing masks or plush animal suits.
Where the White Hipster was relentlessly male, crowding out women from public view (except as Polaroid muses or SuicideGirls), the Hipster Primitive feminized hipster markers; one spoke now of headdresses and Sally Jessy Raphael glasses, not just male facial hair. Women took up cowboy boots, then dark-green rubber Wellingtons, like country squiresses off to visit the stables. Men gave up the porno mustache for the hermit or lumberjack beard. Flannel returned, as did hunting jackets in red-and-black check. Scarves proliferated unnecessarily, conjuring a cold woodland night (if wool) or a desert encampment (if a kaffiyeh). Then scarves were worn as bandannas, as when Mary-Kate Olsen sported one, like a cannibal Pocahontas, hungry enough to eat your arm.
There were also some practical technological withdrawals. As CDs declined, LP records gained sales for the first time in two decades—seemingly purchased by the same kids who had 3,000 songs on their laptops. The most advanced hipster youth even deprived their bikes of gears. The fixed-gear bike now ranks as the second-most-visible urban marker of hip, and not the least of its satisfactions is its simple mechanism.
Above all, the post-2004 hipster could be identified by one stylistic marker that transcended fashion to be something as fundamental as a cultural password: jeans that were tight to the calves and ankles. As much as I’ve investigated this, I can’t say I understand the origin of the skinny jean. Why, of many candidates for fashion statements, did it become ubiquitous? All that seems obvious is that it was an opportunity to repudiate the White Hipster moment, while still retaining the furthest possible distinction from the mainstream. The skinny jean was instant and utter inversion, attaining the opposite extreme from the boot-cut flared motorcycle jeans of the White Hipster. It proved the vitality of a hipster community. It meant that the group impulse would hold, no matter how vertiginous the changes.
Through both phases of the contemporary hipster, and no matter where he identifies himself on the knowingness spectrum, there exists a common element essential to his identity, and that is his relationship to consumption. The hipster, in this framework, is continuous with a cultural type identified in the nineties by the social critic Thomas Frank, who traced it back to Madison Avenue’s absorption of a countercultural ethos in the late sixties. This type he called the “rebel consumer.”
The rebel consumer is the person who, adopting the rhetoric but not the politics of the counterculture, convinces himself that buying the right mass products individualizes him as transgressive. Purchasing the products of authority is thus reimagined as a defiance of authority. Usually this requires a fantasized censor who doesn’t want you to have cologne, or booze, or cars. But the censor doesn’t exist, of course, and hipster culture is not a counterculture. On the contrary, the neighborhood organization of hipsters—their tight-knit colonies of similar-looking, slouching people—represents not hostility to authority (as among punks or hippies) but a superior community of status where the game of knowing-in-advance can be played with maximum refinement. The hipster is a savant at picking up the tiny changes of rapidly cycling consumer distinction.
This in-group competition, more than anything else, is why the term hipster is primarily a pejorative—an insult that belongs to the family of poseur, faker, phony, scenester, and hanger-on. The challenge does not clarify whether the challenger rejects values in common with the hipster—of style, savoir vivre, cool, etc. It just asserts that its target adopts them with the wrong motives. He does not earn them.
It has long been noticed that the majority of people who frequent any traditional bohemia are hangers-on. Somewhere, at the center, will be a very small number of hardworking writers, artists, or politicos, from whom the hangers-on draw their feelings of authenticity. Hipsterdom at its darkest, however, is something like bohemia without the revolutionary core. Among hipsters, the skills of hanging-on—trend-spotting, cool-hunting, plus handicraft skills—become the heroic practice. The most active participants sell something—customized brand-name jeans, airbrushed skateboards, the most special whiskey, the most retro sunglasses—and the more passive just buy it.
Of course, there are artists of hipster-related sensibility who remain artists. In the neighborhoods, though, there was a feeling throughout the last decade that the traditional arts were of little interest to hipsters because their consumer culture substituted a range of narcissistic handicrafts similar enough to sterilize the originals. One could say, exaggerating only slightly, that the hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists, who gained an entire generation’s arms, sternums, napes, ankles, and lower backs as their canvas. It did not produce photographers, but snapshot and party photographers: Last Night’s Party, Terry Richardson, the Cobra Snake. It did not produce painters, but graphic designers. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts. And hipsterism did not make an avant-garde; it made communities of early adopters.
The most confounding element of the hipster is that, because of the geography of the gentrified city and the demography of youth, this “rebel consumer” hipster culture shares space and frequently steals motifs from truly anti-authoritarian youth countercultures. Thus, baby-boomers and preteens tend to look at everyone between them and say: Isn’t this hipsterism just youth culture? To which folks age 19 to 29 protest, No, these people are worse. But there is something in this confusion that suggests a window into the hipster’s possible mortality.
True countercultures may wax and wane in numbers, but a level of youth hostility to the American official compromise has been continuous since World War II. Over the past decade, hipsters have mixed with particular elements of anarchist, free, vegan, environmentalist, punk, and even anti-capitalist communities. One glimpses behind them the bike messengers, straight-edge skaters, Lesbian Avengers, freegans, enviro-anarchists, and interracial hip-hoppers who live as they please, with a spiritual middle finger always raised.
And hipster motifs and styles, when you dig into them, are often directly taken from these adjacent countercultures. The fixed-gear bike came from bike messengers and the anarchist culture of groups like Critical Mass and Bikes Not Bombs. Hipster approval of locavore food (because local cheeses and grass-fed beef are expensive, rare, and knowledge-intensive) brings elitism to the left-environmentalist campaign for deindustrialized agriculture. Even those trucker hats were familiar to those of us who first saw them on the wrong heads in 1999; they’d been worn in punk rock in the late eighties and early nineties, through the Reagan-Bush recession, as an emblem of the “age of diminished expectations.”
Can the hipster, by virtue of proximity if nothing else, be woken up? One can’t expect political efflorescence from an anti-political group. Yet the mainstreaming of hipsterism to the suburbs and the mall portends hipster self-disgust. (Why bother with a lifestyle that everyone now knows?) More important, it guarantees the pollination of a vast audience with seeds stolen from the counterculture. Granted, they have been husked of significance—but couldn’t a 12-year-old with deep Google skills figure out what they originally meant? And might they still germinate?
Something was already occurring in the revivification that transpired in 2003. The White Hipster was truly grotesque, whereas within the Hipster Primitive there emerged a glimmer of an idea of refusal. In the U.K., American-patterned hipsters in Hackney and Shoreditch are said to be turning more toward an ethos of androgyny, drag, the queer. In recent hipster art, Animal Collective’s best-known lyric is this: “I don’t mean to seem like I / Care about material things, like our social stats / I just want four walls and / Adobe slats for my girls.” The band members masked their faces to avoid showing themselves to the culture of idolators. If a hundred thousand Americans discovered that they, too, hated the compromised culture, they might not look entirely unlike the Hipster Primitive. Just no longer hip.