and, more importantly, with its world dwelling in a cultural space between irrelevance and exhaustion, I think it’s about time that we, perhaps a year or two late, declare that hipsterism is over.
And I don’t mean “so over” over, using an epistemology incapable of refuting itself. I mean over like when your mom has come over to your friend’s house and you’re six and it’s been time to go for ten minutes and she’s starting to get pissed. “It’s over, Peter, get in the car,” over.
And as with the fall of all great empires, that makes this time for armchair anthropologists to pick apart its corpse. Or, if we’re feeling less like vultures or consider trucker hats less than Imperial — make fun of its former halfhearted iconoclasm. Resistance is, after all, futile.
My take on why the reason you like your Thundercats shirt now is fundamentally different from why you liked your Thundercats shirt in 2002, plus why ‘90s techno will never die, after the jump —
Memory is Discovery, and Rhythm is a Dancer
Remembering things is a cool thing to be able to do. I know I get a lot of mileage out of it.
More specifically, my hippocampus gets a lot of mileage. And so does yours.
Hey, how about a music video by SNAP!
Oh, I know that song. That song was done by SNAP!? Who the eff is SNAP!?
Moving on . . .
Memory is Discovery, and Recall is Confirmation
This blog post was inspired and prompted a while ago by this article in the New York Times Magazine (don’t worry if you can’t access it; it’s not important, and I’ll talk about it anyway) about the functioning of the hippocampus and campaigning.
Inspired by the travesty that was the 2004 U.S. Presidential campaign season and by a little oversimplified cognitive science, the article sought to explain why people seem willing to believe things they know are false, as long as they are repeated over and over again.
It also encouraged people who are fans of now President-elect Barack Obama (like the Times) to proactively repeat that Barack was a young man when he discovered Christianity. You know, that he has been very Christian since he was a young man. That, as a young man, he became really Christian, because he discovered Christianity as a young man.
As the campaign came to a close, we all saw that this is pretty close to how Obama handled things. He stayed calm and pretty much just repeated the same thing over and over again, and his opponents tried to do the same. But the environment changed too quickly in ways that were inconvenient for his opponents, and he was able to stay consistent and on-message better than they did. That was one reason he won. By the end of it, the substance of all the arguments that had come before didn’t really matter. There wasn’t much of a substantive economic debate (more than what there was wouldn’t have mattered). People only remembered the constancy.
Ugh. Such intellectual dishonesty. I feel dirty. I need some Picard to wash the taste out of my mouth:
And also some more SNAP!
When you encounter something and remember it, you’re learning something about your environment, or about yourself, or about something else, or maybe about Cardacian interrogation tactics. And when you’re learning stuff, there really is no substitute for experience. You may have a good reason to think it may or may not be true, but there’s no better way than to find out for yourself.
Hell, let’s run with this Cardacian thing. Why not?
I have it on pretty good authority that Cardacians don’t really torture their prisoners like that, because they are not real (I know, I hate to break it to you). Therefore this torture scene was an act that never happened (except, you know, in George Orwell’s 1984.
But you don’t know the difference between television and real life intrinsically. You have to learn it, and then you have to confirm it. The more you confirm it, the surer you are. The way you tell whether something is real or not is through repetition. You find something out and remember it, then you confirm it by recalling that memory, investigating it, rewriting it over and over in your brain (which you do every time you remember something), hearing or seeing it again, talking about it with people, etc. You confirm your memories by repeating them. Remembering things is a function of recalling them and confirming. Recall is confirmation. Just like Rhythm is a Dancer.
And once a memory is good and confirmed, once it’s been a repeated a whole bunch of times, the task of managing it moves from your hippocampus out to your cerebral cortex, where it is stored as a longer-term memory.
The problem? Your brain primarily thinks of this memory as “confirmed” (just like a three pound wrinkly Jamie Hyneman). It doesn’t necessarily remember why it’s confirmed, to what degree it deserved to be confirmed, what it meant in the first place, where it came from, or anything specific anybody said that was related to it. This is called “source amnesia.”
If you artificially stimulate the process of recall, regardless of the context, you drive a memory toward confirmation, where you can potentially manipulate people through source amnesia, and while it is certainly a disorder in the extreme, it also occurs, perhaps under less definitive formal terminology, over the normal course of thinking about stuff.
For example, if I went back to what I said previously, and talked about how I really don’t have any reason to believe that Obama discovered Christianity as a young man. You know, if I mention that I don’t even know Obama, young, Christian or otherwise, I didn’t really researched the candidates all that well, I don’t know whether Obama was Christian as a young man or whether he was Christian as a much younger man, even than that, no matter how young or Christian that might be . . .
Well, first, I sound a lot like a cable news pundit (MESSAGE!).
And, second, I’m manipulating you, not because I’m forcing an opinion on you with the power of my will, not because I’m providing a role model for you to imitate, but because I am just causing you to remember something that you’ve heard before. You’re the one actually doing the work. My bluster or attempts to persuade are just a trick to distract you.
The myths surrounding why this sort of groupthink happens (the weak-minded, crazy hypno-spirals, etc.) seem bunkish and overdramatic by comparison.
The more times your brain records something over and over again, the more likely your brain is to move that memory out of your hippocampus, where it will be investigated and tested, and store it in your long-term memory in your cerebral cortex, where, thanks to source amnesia, you will forget that most of the time when I was mentioning that I had heard Obama discovered Christianity as a young man in this article, I immediately followed it with reasons why you probably shouldn’t believe me.
Now of course, what I’ve done here in itself isn’t really brainwashing. You’d need to hear this over and over again not over the course of minutes (or hours in the case of some of my posts), but days and weeks, for source amnesia to really overwhelm your capacity to editorialize your own memories.
But if I put it in every blog entry I wrote for six weeks or mentioned it in every podcast or made you read this blog entry over and over again, and blasted all that stuff into your place of work every day yeah, that would be brainwashing.
Thankfully, overthinkingit is quite a bit more fun, various and voluntary than that!
So, that is a good reason, if you are interested in the sort of civilized discourse where people use things like logic and reasoning and cooperation to accomplish things and go after truth, you should shy away from staying on-message, and you should hesitate to deal with anybody who constantly stays on-message or uses talking points, even if they deny or don’t understand why what they’re doing abuses the public trust.
And also why you should stay on-message and use talking points if you ever want to convince a bunch of people of something and don’t generally give a crap about freedom of thought, fair play, or whether or not you might be wrong.
And why, past the hour-a-day mark, news is worse for your brain than video games.
Back to the Thundercats Shirt
So, what does this all have to do with hipsters?
The hipster aesthetic is obsessed with context.
And why didn’t hipsterism last?
Because in the long term, people tend to forget context.
Even if you’re enjoying something ironically now, over time, the more you repeat and recall and remember, the less you will remember enjoying it ironically, and the more you will just recall enjoying it.
If you’re at this site, chances are you hold a canon of pop cultural material close to your heart. And if you like the site a lot, chances are that it’s a laser canon or the kind that can kill dinosaurs, or, at the very least, a boomstick. But I digress.
If you’ve had the time to go watch Boomerang at one point or another, or actually watch a cheap Hannah Barbera cartoon start to finish (like, Quick Draw McGraw or something equally beloved and heinous) or, God forbid, actually sat down to watch an episode of Thundercats, you know that these things, don’t really, well, hold up, even when they reference the works of Edmund Spenser.
(By the way, I love stuff like this, when the writing staff of some pop show feels compelled to slip nuggets into their work to prove they have bachelor’s degrees in English. Like when they named that character from Smallville Byron. It makes me feel better that TV writers, whom many other writers envy, still feel the urge to legitimize themselves enough to have to do it, and at the same time, it’s one of TVs least secret secret codes. I encourage you to look for it out there in the world. You’ll be surprised what you find.)
Why did hipsterism take place?
Hipsterism emerged from tension in the culture — a group of people was fond of a bunch of things (like Transformers: Beast Wars), but in their own private bildungsromans, these same people discovered new roles they could grow into that would legitimize them, and that the media, the cultural establishment, and, most importantly, their friends and family, had different opinions of whom they should be and pressured them to be fond of different things (like Allen Ginsberg).
And halfway between Transformers: Beast Wars and Allen Ginsberg live people like Chuck Klosterman.
Similar tensions were playing out across the culture, heightened by the rapid shifts in wealth (specifically the inequality of wealth and the rise to adulthood of the children of the baby boomers, heirs to most of the wealth in the world, as well as a sequence of asset price bubbles) and a convergence, provoked by new methods of communication, between the dissemination of popular culture and the dissemination of personal social interactions.
It was a culture moment ripe with irony — the irony of a post-Cold War superpower desperate for new things to be afraid of, the irony of a global culture built for and dedicated to the anti-cultural, and, most importantly, that lovely American irony of the nouveau riche and the pampered irrational bourgeoise.
And hipsterism emerged as a manifestation of that irony — specifically dedicated to savoring the tension between people’s memories of what they enjoyed and might want to be and their ideas about what they ought to be or what was possible.
A trucker was at once a thoroughly undesirable profession held by social misfits and the coolest thing in the world. Who among us cannot remember gesturing out the windows of our school buses to truckers, imploring them to honk their horns? Who among us actually hangs out with truckers on a regular basis? The crew here at overthinkingit love us some Convoy, but I don’t think any of us could begin to put the hammer down even if we were staring down more bears than Timothy Treadwell.
And from that tension comes an irony, and from that irony comes the trucker hat craze.
The aesthetic and artistic concerns surrounding hipsterism on the higher levels of artistic achievement were really not intellectually distinct from other traditions on a macro level. The ideas had been around for a long time. But the art never really dictated the pace of the cultural movement.
The way it played out the culture had a cerebral underpinning that was uncharacteristic of most fashion trends. Not that the people involved had to think much of it, but that anyone who tried to overthink about it even a little would find it difficult to ignore all the metatext.
Check Out the Cool Shirt of My Soul!
Mutual recall and confirmation lay at the heart of this cultural experience for many people (and it’s a big part of this blog as well. You can think of us as post-hipster. We love Batman, but we’re being totally sincere. Mostly.). Confirming that yes, you too watched the Thundercats, yes, you too enjoyed these things you ought to be ashamed of now — it was a source of personal validation — yes, I recognize you and you matter — which is the carrot dangling from every cultural fashion that has ever drawn in those in their teens and twenties, from parachute pants to suicide bombing.
The intellectual confirmation extended to the personal confirmation. Recognition and validation occurred in tandem.
Then What Happened?
Frickin’ years happened, man. I remember (though of course I don’t remember the source, ‘natch. I just list it in my brain as “Confirmed” ) that your average person needs to be validated three or four times a day to be content with the situation. Spread that out over, say, four years, and you’re talking about calling up and confirming the ironic enjoyment of that Thundercats shirt about 5,000 times. And that’s just for one person.
Each time you confirm and remember that ironic reference to the self you really aren’t, but deep down have the urge to be, and every time you conjure and share that inconvenient relationship with your past with someone, it gets a little bit easier. Your hippocampus does a bit less work. The relationship between the ideas becomes a bit less intellectually active.
All that confirmation, all that remembering, and eventually, you’re not recalling the Thundercats at all. You’re recalling the last 2,000 times you noticed somebody’s Thundercats shirt on the L train to Bedford Avenue. (And that was just on Thursday afternoon! Har har!).
Bam! Source amnesia! You remember the pleasure of it, but irony is an intellectual act, a calculation, not a sentiment. It’s a current that flows between charged points. In these cases, the points do not remain charged, and the shame melts away with time. If you do something reluctantly and with reservation enough times, eventually you become pretty comfortable with who you are and the complexity of the act departs.
This is also, by the way, where dirty old men come from, but that’s another post for another time.
Yes, some of the aesthetic surrounding hipsterism persists. We still have Chuck Klosterman, for example. But the cultural freshness of it is gone, the common experience of it has ebbed and died, and it has moved from the intellecual realm of the modern epic to the sentimentalist realm of culinary entertainment along with everything else.
WHAT IS JOHN PROCTOR?!?!
My advice to you if you identified heavily with hipsterism or with other cultural paradigms focused on the ironic enjoyment of entertainments you do not allow yourself to enjoy sincerely: Your cultural identity is doomed, and probably already gone, but (speaking as an Irish American) that’s okay. Moving to the next step is easy and fulfilling. Post-hipsterism is actually a lot more comfortable than hipsterism.
There is a lot to be had in the sincere enjoyment of things. That the veil of irony all along was mostly an exercise in witticism and not critically important to anyone’s metaphysical well-being. That while it may not be a lie to label something as “new,” in the end, there is nothing new under the sun.
Especially not in a Weezer album.
Oh, right, what about SNAP!
Well, the point of SNAP! is that the guys behind the group are invisible behind the music. No knowledge of Michael Münzing or Luca Anzilotti is necessary to enjoy SNAP. 90s techno reveled in its jock-jams facelessness, its enthusiastic but simpleminded appeal to causelessness, and its earnest repetition of a variety of obvious things. It was an art of sources, sure, but not of agency.
(Every time I hear “Don’t Turn Around,” I am just as adequately warned that I should probably stay looking the same direction I am looking and not swivel my head on my neck as the first time I heard it — by which I mean, “sort of.” There is little in Ace of Base’s message that changes with time.)
Just like Domino’s Pizza always gives you the sense it has been pre-chewed, 90s techno comes with built-in source amnesia. Everybody forgot who made it or why it was made before the CD came out of the comically large mid-90s CD burning machine.
And that is why it ages phenomenally well (at least relative to where it was when it started). Because the “where does this come from and why” was never important, and, in the end, the “where does this come from and why” yields to the ravages of time. And since OTI has been all about inspirational speeches lately . . .
They’re not that different from you, are they? Except for the weird haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these musicians are now working for a daffodil fertilization company in Leipzig. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it?
“I’ve . . .
“I’ve . . .
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