I read some good books last fall and I wrote about two pages on each of them. They were grad school assignments but they have a more blogger vibe about them then a full academically sound paper which wasn’t the purpose of the assignments. Since they relate to some of my last few posts I think it’s a good idea that I throw them on Danger Brain. Maybe it’ll help to shed light on where these ideas are coming from and why. There are a few of them, so just like I did for the well liked Blogaboutech Mixtape series (which is long overdue for a new entry. I know.) I’m giving this series a name. After all, it’s… Kind of a Book Report.
Jean Baudrillard’s theory of a hyperreality is so bold and his writing style so seductive that Selective Writings is really difficult to put down. However, his ideas present such a different way of looking at the world that a week or two just isn’t enough time to adequately write a critique of it. Yes, I read it in a week. I know. Bad idea.
Honestly, I wouldn’t know where to begin this book. It feels like it is written more to inspire conversation, to introduce a new lens to use when thinking about society in the 21st century. Baudrillard doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to definitively prove his theories. As a result, some of his theories are not explained well enough to lock down his hyperbolic claims making them difficult to swallow. For example, I was fascinated by and a little confused with his use of the term “code” in reference to the images we see on television but the idea wasn’t clear to me.
He is no doubt an interesting theorist and I fear that discussing his work at face value would see me tripping over a number of things that I didn’t quite understand. However, there was one idea that resonated with an aspect of culture that I’ve been following lately: hipsters.
Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacra, the idea that hyperreality creates a world of self reference is indicative of the hipster movement. Actually, that is exactly what the criticism of hipster-ism has been. For clarity, a hipster is eloquently described by Christy Wampole of the New York Times as an:
[U]rban harlequin [who] appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.
This is an opinion shared by a lot of people who have observed and written about hipsters. It is not uncommon to hear people casually clowning a hipster passerby. I’ve done it many times myself. Hipster culture is annoying. Its central theme is to borrow from any cultural item (clothes, colloquialisms, etc.) and use it as if ones self is a collage of everything. The result is that hipsters often look like they’re dressed for a Halloween party and they talk like they are aware of many things but understand very little.
Remixing or re-using cultural items of another age are not entirely uncommon. My generation, for example, is known for using the jazz and blues era in our (hip hop) music. The difference, however, is that hipster culture (according to its critics) does not offer anything new and in the absence of providing anything to culture it mocks everyone else’s.
Queue Mrs. Wampole once again. She believes that hipster culture is the result of our societal proclivity towards irony, a result of the new technological age.
Life in the Internet age has undoubtedly helped a certain ironic sensibility to flourish. An ethos can be disseminated quickly and widely through this medium. Our incapacity to deal with the things at hand is evident in our use of, and increasing reliance on, digital technology. Prioritizing what is remote over what is immediate, the virtual over the actual, we are absorbed in the public and private sphere by the little devices that take us elsewhere.
While reading her article I couldn’t help but think about Baudrillard’s idea of the world consisting of self-referential signs. The hipster style could be described the same way. In fact, the only thing missing from her biting critique of hipster culture is the lack of any mention of Baudrillard as his theories align themselves perfectly with this cultural phenomena, one that no one seems to understand but most people hate.
It is certainly fodder for Baudrillard’s claims but Wampole does provide some interesting and potential counter ideas particularly of his dangerous belief that no one dominates in the world of hyperreality (That idea was even difficult for me to swallow and this is where his loose writing style and complex ideas made me feel a tad lost in the brief introduction to his work). She ends her article stating that “people may choose to continue hiding behind the ironic mantle, but this choice equals a surrender to commercial and political entities more than happy to act as parents for a self-infantilizing citizenry.”
I wonder what Baudrillard would say about that.