The Hipster and the Hippocampus

The Hipster and the Hippocampus

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.

With the arrival and departure of the last Weezer album, Pork and Beans, concluded without incident,
This is no longer provocative.

This is no longer provocative.

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.

The bourgeoise talent for missing the point.

The bourgeoise talent for missing the point.

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.



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.)

Boy, are they going to be surprised to find out it's just the ocean.

Boy, are they going to be surprised to find out it's just the ocean.

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 . . .

Get the power. Make your lives extraordinary.

This is where you forgot your keys.

This is where you forgot your keys.

35 Comments on “The Hipster and the Hippocampus”

  1. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Sorry, Fenzel, but, as a faux-hipster, I have to punch holes in your argument. That is, your argument is backwards. You describe the reasons for hipsterism starting in the first place, and you describe why it died, but you didn’t

    a) Define what a hipster is (and I think there are many definitions)


    b) Prove sufficiently that the movement has, indeed, died.

    The fact that Weezer’s latest album didn’t do well doesn’t really prove that second point.

    The notion that people can like Batman sincerely doesn’t really prove that point, either. The most recent Batman movies can’t be ironized because they are legitimately good. Trucker hats, on the other hand, can be worn ironically because they are legitimately ugly.

    I never particularly believed that any hipster could treat any cultural artifact with pure irony, anyway. On other posts, we’ve been talking about the concept of “earony” (irony + earnestness), and I think that’s what hipsterism entails. Yeah, I’m going to sing Journey ironically, but only because Journey is hella sweet.

    I don’t think hipsterism can die when “we” grow out of it, because “we” refers to various generations. Maybe our generation (Y, or whatever we are) is no longer hipster (I disagree), but that doesn’t mean that the generation just entering college now can’t discover irony and trucker hats all over again. There’s a saying that the Golden Age of science fiction isn’t the 1950s but 12 years old (I also disagree with that, by the way). Maybe the Golden Age of hipsterism isn’t the 20-oughts but 20 years old. Something to consider.

    Plus, despite your interesting arguments about the brain, I think it’s impossible to say people naturally grow out of hipsterism. Sure, trucker hats will eventually grow passe, but there are always new pastures for irony. As long as there are new shitty songs on the radio, or new politicians to mock, or new kitschy things from twenty years ago becoming pseudo-popular again, there will be ironic enjoyment. Plus Family Guy is still on TV to help us out.

    What you maybe can argue is that hipsterism is being co-opted by the mainstream, what with the popularity of ipod commercials, skinny jeans, and Vampire Weekend. But I wouldn’t say that hipsterism is dead because of it, either. It’ll only be dead when, say, my mother starts listening to Vampire Weekend on her ipod while wearing her skinny jeans. Then all irony will be sucked out of hipsterism, or the irony will come full circle, making hipsterism itself an ironic concept. But then in twenty years or so, people will start ironically mocking hipsterism, thus starting the movement all over again, albeit in a different form.

    I can see it now: it’s the year 2020, and a new college student decides, for fun, to Rick Roll a friend. The friend laughs, thinking, “Oh, Rick Rolling! How 2000’s kitsch! How wonderfully ironic!” And then they start wearing Thundercats shirts and trucker hats ironically, not to make fun of the original Thundercats or people who wore trucker hats on the farm, but to make fun of hipsters who wore Thundercats shirts and trucker hats ironically in the first place. Then we will have entered the realm of the post-post-post-modern, and I will be happy.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to Pitchfork and read their list of top 100 albums.


  2. fenzel #

    a) I link to a definition of hipsterism in my first paragraph.

    The fact that this definition, from a primary online authority, is worthless and irrelevant, reinforces that a formal definition leads us farther toward clarity and more toward wasting our energy insisting on falsehoods.

    Bogging down in what exactly hipsterism is would just lead us into entless semantic squablling and keep us from saying anything at all, and, as I wrote at the beginning of the piece “using an epistemology incapable of refuting itself.”

    If what a “hipster” is has become shattered and multifarious and just another sort of thing that can come out of day-to-day experience, then I would say that, yes, “hipsterism” as a distinct movement, which was at one point unneeding of a formal definition, is now dead.

    Formally naming a movement is like building a giant skyscraper. When somebody does that, it’s usually a sign that they’ve passed their peak and have moved into inexorable decline (see Chrysler, Sears, Pan-Am and the French Republic).

    b) I came to bury hipsterism, not to praise it.

    But also note that it is many years too late to say that “hipsterism is being co-opted by the mainstream” – hipsterism within mainstream culture used to have a real vitality, which I think in our rush to define things we didn’t like to see go back into existence, we have forgotten.

    That moving in and out of this sort of consideration of culture – using hipsterish aesthetic values whenever it seems vaguely appropraite – is now something pretty common, and that it is finding its greatest expression on classic rock radio stations further reinforces the idea that there is nothing special or contiguous about whatever the coroners decide to officially call hipsterism after they finish the autopsy.


  3. fenzel #

    that should have said “farther away from clarity,” ‘natch

    And also, see the paragraph where I talk about not despairing and moving on with your life ;-)


  4. fenzel #

    I guess a better way of saying that whole first part would be:

    “Hipsterism is complex and difficult to define, and that any such definition could only become clear after the intellecual space occupied by the movement or trend by that name has reached and receded (permanently) from discernible limits.

    Thus, I don’t feel that it’s necessary to define hipsterism before I say these other things I want to say, which I think are more interesting and less self-defeating, at least for the moment, than marking the exact size and shape of the aforementioned movement’s dessicated husk.

    Were we to insist on defining hipsterism before saying anything else, we would never stop trying to define it until we got bored of it and moved on to something else, which, it turns out, both mainstream culture and maven culture have already done.

    But once we have freed ourselves to say other things we want to say that we think are interesting or useful, then we can go back later and definte hipsterism whenever we like to our hearts’ content, because that would be a potentially enjoyable exercise in overthinking.”


  5. Mike #

    My first thought upon reading your first paragraph: “So the Red Album was really called ‘Pork and Beans’?” So there you go.

    Speaking of Weezer, I am reminded of that time in middle school (or junior high if you prefer) where you pretend to like things that everybody else likes legitimately in order to fit in, which is basically the opposite of hipsterism. I think we need a word for this.

    And speaking of context, that Picard scene surely has less impact as a 4-minute clip than it did in the original episode. I say this, of course, with no memory of the specific source.


  6. Eddie #

    The era of hipsterism is dead because it isn’t an ironic inside joke anymore. The best way I can think of to describe this is to compare this with the equally amazing, other OTI post I read just a day ago about Heath Ledger’s Joker’s Magic Pencil Trick:

    Nerdy Kid who really likes T-Cats
    Nerdy Kid who can now pretend to be Cool Kid
    (newly)Cool Kid spreads his newfound coolness until it’s not an inside joke anymore and everyone gets that 80’s hipsterness is actually very cool…
    Thereby killing hipsterism and causing the legitimate cool kids to start new inside jokes where the “Cool Kid” is once again just nerdy.

    What was cool (members only jackets, aviator sunglasses- hence, nerdy kid) is now passe and far too mainstream for the original Cool Kids, who as we dissect this are finding the new ex-cool thing they can fashion into an now-cool-again inside joke and so on and so forth.

    The MILF effect (really just a fun way of describing suburbia) claims another victim. You were so close when you described needing affirmation, then seeing a million on the L… then you attributed it to source amnesia and took in a whole other direction. No one forgets where it came from, it’s just easy to see who’s jumped on the bandwagon and… it suddenly got really stuffy in here.

    Now let’s think about whether Hipsterism came about all on its own (meth’d up emo kids who decided they were gonna go their own way and copy fads from 20 years ago), or whether there were companies who stood to rake in quite the finder’s fee for creating an inside joke of a ‘culture’ in order to kill it by selling ratty jeans to suburban tweens at ridiculous prices.

    And the real question- what are these coolhunting companies looking into next, and how the hell can I cash in on said fad? Should I be stocking up on BeeGees shirts and bell bottoms? Victorian dresses? White Poofy Pirate shirts?


  7. William Li #

    As a cog-sci undergrad, turned dotcom failout, turned reformed hipster, I have to express a tremendous amount of envy for how well you expressed this argument, wrapping in the cardassian thing, the Hopi Indian thing (time as rhythm), and the relationnship between truth and memory as cause by the brain thing.

    I used to infuriate my classmates at Rice by simply replying to their repetitions of learned dogma “well if its a fact I believe it” and never explain what I meant. In fact, it was a phrase that I heard some actor paid to look like an ordinary person giving a testimony say in the “we gave Alka Seltzer Cold Remedy to these Green Bay Packers Fans” commercial circa 1991.

    My point is, I don’t know if I agree with you but I can’t fault your presentation style.


  8. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Eddie: Good idea on the Victorian dresses, which are coming back in style, but only for members of the growing Steampunk movement. That’s probably too nerdy for hipsters, though. I think you should stock up on 90s retro clothes. I’m betting that’s the next step.


  9. Gab #

    Class argument again: Myriad trends and “cool” things come from contexts completely misconstrued and de-contextualized by those making them cool, yes. But some are nerd things (like _Thundercats_ or Nintendo NES), and others are related to class. Crocs. John Deer shirts. Those trucker hats. You see kids with parents making 6+ figures a year dressing down because it’s “cool” to have holes in their jeans and wear out-doorsey accessories, but they’d never know how to dig in a garden, use a tractor, or drive a truck; and they sometimes don’t even know what the logo they’re wearing means, only that it’s considered cool now (I’ve seen this happen). I find it kind of insulting, and then insanely hilarious, to look in the window of a Macy’s as I walk down the snowy street and see fur-lined Crocs. What the F*** can a person really *do* in the snow wearing Crocs with fur on them? They still have holes, for Pete’s sake. Stuff like that is insulting because it completely disregards the original purpose or function and the group associated with it, and then insanely funny because it proves how incredibly blind and ignorant the bourgeois hipsters are- they’re *so* off in their quest to be cool, I find it laughable. (Another great example: John Deer-themed Prom, in Seattle. And within the last three years or so.)

    I’m shocked you didn’t have a link to this in the post, though:

    But this sll makes me wonder, is a person above the age of thirty wearing a Disney cartoon character on their shirt being a hipster, or are they being pervy (you mentioned dirty old men, briefly)? And I specifically mean Disney, since Disney caters to every age group with characters originally marketed as “family,” and thus kiddish. You see adult-sized Thundercats shirts, and you see adult-sized Tinkerbell, too. But does Disney stand outside the realm of “hipster” and just fall under the umbrella tree of The Popular Culture? I do so “ever wonder, what could happen under, under the umbrella tree,” after all… (Why I felt compelled to make that reference, I have no idea, but there it is. Brownie points if you get it, seriously.)


  10. Eddie #


    One of my best friends growing up is an adult Disney freak. He got married recently at Disneyland. His new house (that he works at a normal adult job to pay for) is completely decked out in Disney memorabilia- we’re talkin’ Mickey Mouse silverware, daffy duck fine china, cartoon movie posters… I don’t get it and I never will. There’s a market there, and I know he pays full price for every last Disney POS he owns.

    I don’t know if I’m more repulsed, or jealous of all those dolla dolla bills NOT passing through my fingers…


  11. Stokes #

    Isn’t the logic circular here? If the joy you get from wearing a thundercats t-shirt ironically is the same as the joy you get from wearing a thundercats t-shirt unironically, then yes, over time the joy will be reinforced and the cause will fall away (and all elements of irony with it). But if ironic joy is fundamentally different from unironic joy, then it’s impossible for repetition to turn one into the other, since only “ironic joy” would be reinforced. If hipsterism can be erased by this process, it was never a distinct way of looking at culture to begin with.


  12. ericb #

    I think Eddie is getting to the point. The point which just happens to be somewhere in what Mike already said, but the wrong way around:

    “Speaking of Weezer, I am reminded of that time in middle school (or junior high if you prefer) where you pretend to like things that everybody else likes legitimately in order to fit in, which is basically the opposite of hipsterism. I think we need a word for this.”

    I don’t think this is the opposite of hipsterism at all. I think it’s the genuine article. At least hipsterism circa ‘right now’ and possibly on its last legs (which is maybe fenzel’s point in the first place).

    Let’s put it another way: what we have been calling “irony” is really just insincerity.

    Let’s put it yet another way: the hipster is someone who is afraid to like what may be perceived as uncool, and so he wraps it in a shroud of so-called irony. The geek, however, is at least sincere in liking whatever speaks to him, whether it may be cool or not.

    And, one more time: this is also what people (unconcerned with hipsterism or geekiness, let’s just call them ‘people in their (emotional/physchological) thirties’) refer to as “guilty-pleasures.” Things they feel that they shouldn’t like, and therefore make a point of qualifying before expressing any fondness for them.


  13. fenzel #


    Good point. I’d say that the thing that slips away isn’t joy, but intellectual engagement. You are left with the sentiment, but not the calculation that preceded it, which is important both to the artistic experience central to the aesthetic values we’re discussing and the vitality of this (poorly identified on my part but still historically interesting) cultural movement/moment/trend.

    That if the joy becomes disengaged from its intellectual forebears, as it does from source amnesia, while experientially it may seem similar, it’s more culinary than epic and loses the distinctiveness it had in the first place.


  14. fenzel #

    One of the big problems I’ve run into with this post is the word “hipsterism,” which I resisted defining, for reasons I laid out beforehand (that I wanted to talk about other stuff, and I didn’t want a semantic argument with no likely resolution to prevent me from talking about that other stuff).

    But hipsterism can refer to a bunch of different things. Three of which I know, and three of which are very different:

    1. It refers specifically to a sort of post-new-wave club kid culture that was a lot more “genuine article” than pretty much anything I’m talking about.

    2. It refers to a more mainstream cultural moment that I would place roughly between the turn of the millenium and, say, 2005, which was characterized chiefly by the ironic enjoyment by burgeoning adults of things that society wouldn’t let you enjoy in your adulthood. One of the main parallel trends to this definition, which recalls hipsterism definition #1, was full-on worship of “the 80s” (the semi-fictional decade) and all its accoutrements entering the mainstream. It was a movement across music, culture, movies, fashion, etc., and, at the time, it was both hard to define and hard to miss, because it was at once very much ingrained in the mainstream and also a very noticeable change in how the mainstream operated.

    I would say that Kill Bill exemplifies this sort of aesthetic value (obsession with authenticity and counterfeiting and with reclaiming and legitimizing the substandard by reimagining it, as well as ironic intellecutal/visceral enjoyment of entertainments that were not intended to be intellectual), although it’s hard to divorce it in particular from sort-of-mainstream indie rock.

    3. I think that people a few years younger than me and on down have a different idea of what a hipster is, and the closest synonym from my generation for it is “poser.”

    A hipster by this definition is an insincere gourmond who seeks out and devours a great deal of kind of cruddy, unremarkable media, fashion, etc. in order to appear on the cutting edge. I get that sense from both urbandictionary and some of the other reading I’ve seen on the Internet (as well as some of these comments).

    The word in senses 2 and 3 always had a bit of the pejorative to it, but it seems to have changed.

    Perhaps sense 3 emerged from the decline of sense 2 – that younger people saw older “hipsters” and imitated them for their own sake rather than in reference to whatever the older hipsters were referencing, which led to an emptiness of purpose and insincerity that came to be condemned by amateur social critics (by which I mean, kids in high school).


  15. fenzel #


    Thank you so much. That is definitely what I’m trying to do with stuff like this.

    Not so much to make a point that demands agreement, but to find fun new ways to talk about what we want to talk about, so that the article itself is a fun, creative, engaging exercise that brings out ideas the way we experience them when they are vital and interesting – kind of jumbled together, with a great deal of “system,” but not just repeated systematically.


  16. Gab #

    Fenzel, the insincerity you’re talking about is what makes things shaky for me. Is a person that genuinely played and love(d) Nintendo NES a hipster if they wear a shirt with the controller or a Mario mushroom on it? I don’t really think so, and your idea that people about your age and younger thinking “hipster” and “poser” are synonymous is pretty accurate, at least for me and my “definitions.” Whenever I hear “hipster,” I associate it with a lack of understanding and/or affection. I don’t think placing a person that enjoys wearing the shirt because they really get it under the same category as someone wearing it for the sake of wearing it is fair to either party, but especially the former. Maybe “justified” isn’t quite the right word, but a person that actually watched _The Smurfs_ or _Rainbow Bright_ and enjoyed it when they were little has more clout when wearing the logo than someone that didn’t. And it is especially unfair when the sincere person liked it *before* it was all over Hot Topic displays and stuff (I still have *original* _Nightmare Before Christmas_ toys, thank you very much), for it’s taken for granted that they recently “discovered” whatever the pop-thing is by most because that’s how most “discovered” it themselves.

    Maybe it just irks me because I’m still reeling over all of the posers I knew in college. But I really don’t think someone like me (and I’m assuming you) that actually watched _Thundercats_ as a kid is being a hipster when they go out and buy the shirt at Hot Topic. I think the hipster is the person that only knows what _Thundercats_ is because they saw the shirts nowadays and wanted to get “in” on the new “trend.” I see me/us as harping on the new mainstream quality something from our youth has taken on.

    Which brings me back to the class argument (sorry). Some of the trends, I’m ok with. I’m fine with merchandise for a show or movie or game (I’ll explain in a sec). But I don’t think the “dressing down” aspect of hipsterism is ever justified. It makes a mockery of those less fortunate and/or of the work lower-class Americans do. A farmer strives to look his/her best when in public, and especially outside his/her own close community, so yeah, while a John Deer hat or shirt may be worn into town, they wouldn’t wear it if they ever had the chance to go to Starbucks. Yet that John Deer logo has become a status symbol for brats from the burbs, so they wear it when they get their Venti lattes. And it’s trendy and cool to go shopping at thrift stores… using a BMW as the mode of transportation.

    I think the hipster trend has lumped both kinds of propaganda together, but I don’t think that should be the case. There’s a difference between wearing a shirt with an image from _Labrynth_ on it versus a fake garden worker shirt. Especially since, when you go down to the foundations of the origins of each, one would still be acceptable in public while the other wouldn’t- and by this, I mean nobody would curl their nose at me if I said I just watched _Labrynth_ last night, but if I said, “I’m a gardener,” to someone wearing the wannabe Parks and Recreation Department shirt or something, the other person would at least mentally say, “Ew.” Media like movies, games, shows, or even books, can be fully accepted, but not occupations or living situations- there is a limit on the former which will always lead to ridicule, contempt, or mockery. You know that show _Dirty Jobs_? none of the stuff those people do is stuff people really want to talk about (let alone would ever be willing to do themselves), but the cool thing is to play dress up as if you did it for real. Thus, I get angry. Since there is always going to be a limit to how *much* of the occupational things can be “acceptable,” I don’t think they should be thrust out there and marketed the same as logo tees and bobbleheads. Once you get beyond the logo, it’s not “cool” anymore there; but you can go all the way to the actual game or movie.

    Yay verbosity.


  17. Siwi #

    @Gab–really good point about “dressing down,” and something I’d never really thought about. Is there a component of the trend, though, that is inspired by a legitimate reaction against, say, J. Crew ($150 sweater) or whatever else bourgeois kids are, class-wise, “supposed” to be wearing? It doesn’t necessarily prevent its being condescending and hypocritical, but there may be another dimension there.

    @fenzel–I get why you wouldn’t want to get bogged down in the definitions, but I think it helps a lot to detangle the different senses of it. But I can’t help but wonder if mlawski has it right, and 20-whatever is the golden age of hipsterism. It certainly seems unlikely that there is something that intrinsically makes Thundercats beloved in a different way than Howdy Doody was.

    Which makes me want a more thorough explanation of that “Why did Hipsterism happen” subheading. Because, let’s face it, we’re not that special.

    That adbusters article contains some very interesting perspectives, but it’s shot through from beginning to end with this idea that hipsterism and the present are endpoints. The “dead end of Western civilization,” according to the title.

    “We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization.”

    Last generation? Really. Good luck with that apocalypse that’s apparently going to prevent our ever having children and becoming the past. Just like everyone else in history.

    So making clear that I think hipsterism is not an end product of a series of counter/sub-cultures but the latest in an ongoing series of counter/sub-cultures, still why this version, now?

    My hunch is that it relates to “a convergence, provoked by new methods of communication, between the dissemination of popular culture and the dissemination of personal social interactions.” I think perhaps the changes referenced here have meant that we as a generation have had a more shared and more public late-adolescence than any generation in memory (see, I am capable of thinking we’re special, but only in really specific ways).

    If we imagine that everyone has to grow up and everyone kind of doesn’t want to, then perhaps everyone has always had to grow up together but have usually not had as much of an opportunity to resist it together, by, for example, blogging about the ninja turtles and hearing others say “right on! I remember/recognize/validate you for that” until they’re emboldened enough to wear the shirt in public and therefore reinforce both the memory of watching and the memory of being validated online.

    Final note: in the movie “Babes in Arms,” the kids have a serious riot, I mean bonfire and marching and burning furniture, over… not being allowed to hold jobs to support their families and contribute as productive members of society. I don’t think ours is an irresponsible generation, but… dude. What’s that about.

    Sorry for the ramble, hadn’t chipped in yet on this one and had a lot of unconnected responses!


  18. Rachel #

    Fenzel- I think some of your ideas need further development to develop your ideas a bit more before speaking with such authority.

    1) You say you don’t want to get lost in the semantics of defining the very thing you spend the whole post criticizing. I don’t this approach this sustainable. I am glad that later in the comments you at least provide a provisional definition. I think it is important to define what you are talking about.

    2) Thundercats is not a good example of a hipster thing; I associate it far more with fanboys, which is arguably a subset of youth culture, but is not a hipster. No one at a misshapes party would wear a thundercats shirt and frankly, I did not recognize the t-shirt in your post-I did not immediately recognize it as a thundercats shirt. So much for thurndercats and hipster identification!

    3) Who is shoving Alan Ginsburg down our throats? Certainly not my mother. I think again, not a great example. Alan Ginsburg is a historical footnote- “and here is a strong example of beat culture”. I just think it is not a strong example of what you’re getting at and it is distracting.

    4) “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.” Explain. This idea does not speak for itself. It is far too sweeping.

    5) I think you don’t really distinguish between nostalgia and this hipster sensibility you describe. The reason Thundercats or Rhythm is a dancer are “confirmed” in our minds is because WE LIKED those things as children, and not because we have repeatedly ironically confirmed these memories in our minds. When I hear that snap song, I remember really liking it, and if anything, there is the sad twinge of NOSTALGIA because I am a different person and I can never like this song in the same uninhibited way I once did. I don’t think this is insincerity and I don’t think this makes me morally contemptible; it makes me an adult and not a child, a person who has changed over the course of 20 something odd years. I should hope I do not like things in the same way over the course of my lifetime.

    6) I don’t think you rellay address the class, race and gender aspects of “hipsterisms”. But like you, I don’t care to do the work of developing these ideas at the moment.

    7) Also, you have to let me know what you mean by “epic vs. culinary.” Seriously- is there a way to use culinary I am not aware of? I want to know and start using it!

    Hopefully I am not being too much of a hipster snarkface. But I do take some umbrage with your argument. I know that many of the overthinking it authors are fans of sports montages- a cliche staple of sports movies. I don’t think the way I felt about the aesthetics of the snap! video are any different from your appreciation of a visual cliche. Why are you morally superior and I am morally contemptible? Doesn’t OTI like these sports montages somewhat ironically, horror of horrors? I just think you don’t distinguish between post-hipsterism, nostalgia and this other, more reprehensible form of aesthetic appreciation you define as hipsterism. Until you really develop these ideas, this post just won’t be as damning as you’d like it to be. Make me cry, Fenzel and make me scream “I am a fraud and I have no authentic sense of seeeeeeeelf!!!!!!!” until my neighbor tells me to shut up.


  19. Gab #

    @Siwi: As far as I have seen myself, I don’t think dressing down has anything to do with rebelling against designer labels- they’ll go and wear J. Crew and Banana Republic the next day (or that same day, even).

    And I think another reason it bothers me is the lower-income people are working so hard to try to be like those bourgeois ones and imitate them when they can (buying designer stuff for discount prices at TJ-Max/Marshalls or Ross, getting knock-offs, etc.), while the bourgeois would never want to be like the lower-income people they imitate (by dressing down and wearing fake work clothes) (and those fake work clothes usually cost a pretty penny, too, as do distressed jeans and such, which adds a different dynamic- the fake “cheap” stuff costs a lot- is that irony?). There is imitation on both sides, but it comes from a different place inside, has different reasons. Deep down, it’s just about being “cool” for the bourgeois, while it’s more about the actual lifestyle one wishes to have for working class Americans.


  20. Gab #

    @Rachel: I don’t think your personal inability to recognize a _Thundercats_ shirt makes it a bad example. And not just because I myself recognized it (which I did). No, because it’s part of the hipster trend. Fanboys liked _Thundercats_ when they were young, yes. But do you think those same boys watched _Strawberry Shortcake_ too? Doubtful- it was more likely watched by fanGIRLS. Yet both shows have reemerged in The Popular Culture. Separating the media along gender lines is unnecessary, for they all have reappeared within The Popular Culture for the same reasons- they’re all part of the same trend. True, some images don’t have a following as gendered (i.e. _Willow_ or something), but just because something DOES tend to have a gendered following doesn’t make it less valid of an example for the overarching idea.


  21. Siwi #

    @Rachel: Did you really feel this article was an attempt to condemn hipsters or claim that they lack authentic senses of self? The linked adbusters article certainly does that, but I didn’t get that sense from this post.

    But I do vote for more exploration of culinary and epic; I think epic is decently explained in that wiki article about Brechtian-type epic theatre, the tenets of which sound sort of “duh” these days because (I would argue) they successfully caught on. A strong recent example might be that scene in Mulholland Drive where the lady sings Roy Orbison’s Crying in Spanish wearing a gaudy costume and then faints midway through and it’s not her, it’s a recording? It’s a scene where we are hearing and seeing things that are beautiful, but we are watching how we watch the scene and why we watch the scene at the same time as we are watching the scene. We are hearing layers (like the Roy Orbison-ness of it, and the translated-ness) while we hear the thing itself. It’s not necessarily superior or inferior (in my opinion) to art where we are just watching or listening to a thing for its beauty, but by its definition it requires this other thought level to be operating.

    So the first x times I got rickrolled, I was watching the video but also watching my surprise, my nostalgia, my discovery of the video I’d never actually seen in its 80s glory and I was also watching this new cultural phenomenon. Now I’m to the point where I see and enjoy that video without that theoretical distance (distance is a bad word for it, as is saying it’s an extra layer of thought, because they imply something superior to merely enjoying, by virtue of complication, or something inferior to just enjoying, and I don’t think it’s either.)

    There’s a word of Brecht’s, verfremdung, that is often translated as alienation effect (and paired with discussion of his wanting “emotional distance” for the audience, which sounds super boring). A teacher of mine preferred the alternate translation “making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.” And isn’t that what you go through when you see a theoretically long-forgotten 80s pop song pop up instead of your photoshop tutorial? Or when someone redefines cool to include nerdy things you loved like Thundercats?

    But at a certain point, I lose track of the context of rickrolling and it becomes familiar, recontextualized for the internet. Now I love it as a straightforward part of internet culture, just like hamsterdance. One could argue that for many it has gone from being epic theatre to straightforward enjoyment of something, which I guess is called culinary because nobody’s caring about the context of food?

    So that’s my guess on epic and culinary. I think neither is superior; I love that scene in Mulholland Drive, but that in no way makes me love regular Roy Orbison less.


  22. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Fenzel – You seem to know more about hipsters than I am, so I don’t mean this as a challenge. But do you really think that what makes a hipster is putting old pop culture up on a pedestal? That’s part of it, certainly. But when I think of hipsters, I think mainly of indie rock, most of which sounds absolutely nothing like the music of the 80’s.


  23. fenzel #

    Well, Rachel, I wrote you a wonderful, long response, but Internet Explorer crashed and I lost it, so, sorry, you don’t get anything.

    The one thing I will do is point you in the direction of learning the difference between “epic” and “culinary” as I discussed them. They’re theatrical terms that come from the work of 20th century dramatist Bertolt Brecht –

    In short, epic theatre is difficult to watch and aims to engage the intellect and prompt people to change the world, while culinary theatre (a term Brecht coins with contempt) is easy to watch and aims to satisfy emotional needs and make people content with the status quo.

    The other super-short versions of my answers are something like “My specific examples are fine, but with very little difficulty you can sub in something that’s more relevant to your own personal experience and it will probably still work.”


    “Listen to ‘Right Here Right Now’ by Jesus Jones and then think back to that one summer before 9/11 when everybody was really afraid of shark attacks for no reason, and I think you’ll get a good sense for the pervasive irony of post-Cold War America. Or else just watch _Three Kings_.”

    Oh, and as for 5), I don’t think you’re really talking about the same thing I’m talking about. I was talking about the function of memory in the context of getting older, not the role of memory in forming personal identity. I’m talking about memory qua memory – the act of recall. You’re talking more about a dialectical notion of the past juxatposed against the present, which, while it may be part of how our minds work, isn’t how our brains work.

    The more you tell me that I’m naming the wrong thing, the more I am confirmed in thinking that the thing I am talking about – which I did not just imagine – is dead and gone, and people are just now using the word for the same group of people who used to mean something specific to the culture and have a sort of underlying consensus and are now kind of scattered and not really part of the same culture as each other in an identifiable way. The culture has moved on and they are much less a center of gravity, so the specific things they like matter a lot less in the overall discussion.

    6) I also do not reference my favorite recipe for Snickerdoodles. As much as I reference a lot of stuff, even I can’t reference everything in the world all at the same time.

    Despite name-checking Brecht, I am not a Marxist, and I think Marxism is unnecessarily reductive. Not everything in history about the struggle. Prejudice is not the only thing one can talk about at any given time, and it is possible to have a complete discussion on a sophisticated topic without once mentioning gender or race. Although, to be fair, when I talk about the role of vital, intellectually provocative ideas in general, you can probably gather things like race and gender under that umbrella.

    I mean, if I were writing a book, sure, and maybe I will someday. But it hardly seems fair to criticize me for not talking about every possible thing.

    I don’t think you’re a fraud, Rachel. I think you’re awesome. I don’t think that hipsterism is bad, just that isn’t really vital anymore, and that people have moved on to something else, even if they haven’t named that thing yet (which they only tend to do in earnest after it is over).

    I perhaps suspect that you are not really a hipster – that you are in fact something else.

    I mean, you’re allowed to define yourself, sure, go for it.

    But do you not suspect on some level that you may need a new word?


  24. fenzel #

    @ Matt – I didn’t talk much about indie rock, sure, because I am no authority on it and it is a lot harder to make jokes about it, but I think that a lot of the same stuff applies.

    A lot of indie rock is about context.

    Influence is very important to indie rockers. Confirming or frustrating expectations are very important to indie rockers. The act of intellectually engaging and frustrating an emotional response is very important to indie rockers.

    And I wonder whether, to indie rockers, the music they engage with intellectually at one point in their lives doesn’t lose its currency and vitality and become more of a, as I’ve been calling it, “culinary” entertainment.

    It’s the same arc – the brain disrupting emotional/intellectual emulsions until they become unmixed, the inellectualism sinks, and all you are left with is the emotional memory of your previous intellectual engagement, divorced from its source or context.

    And then, if they move forward from that and look for more and more music to have new experiences with, how sustainable is that? Can you ascribe an aesthetic value to this intellectual pursuit, or is any aesethetic associated with it inevitably doomed, especially after the first couple of reinventions? To what extent can people remain hipsters, and at what point do they eat their own tails and have to look for something else or become something entirely different?

    The more I talk about it, the more I think that a lot of us who have kind of ridden this culture wave in our generation have moved to a new cultural place of media saturation, with a new relationship with newness and with the intellectual enjoyment of media operating under different rules. But I’m not ready to write about it yet.


  25. fenzel #

    @ Siwi

    As the kids say these days —




  26. mlawski OTI Staff #


    Let’s not say “indie rock” like that term means something. Yes, some indie music is intellectualized. Yes, some of it is about engaging and frustrating a certain emotional response.

    And some of it totally isn’t. In fact, some of it is uber-sincere… maybe so sincere it circles back to insincere? I’m thinking of the Sufjan Stevens/Joanna Newsom/Shearwater subset. “Indie” is not a genre! kthx

    -your friendly faux-hipster, currently listening to Okkervil River (whose lyrics are rather intellectualized/po-mo but whose music is wholly unironic and simply fun to listen to)

    PS Where is Ryan Sheely on this discussion? Sheely, we need you!


  27. fenzel #

    Man, this is getting Byzantine. At this point, we need Shechner more than we need Sheely.

    Because when you’ve got yourself a hollowed-out Byzantine Empire that needs its walls flattened, nobody does the job quite like a Turk.

    And he’s about to be a Turk-in-law, so I figure he knows a few.


  28. William Li #

    @fenzel re:Byzantine

    You know for the Turks to take Constantanople took a protracted seige to cut it off from the west and ultimately an overnight portage of an armada of galleys across the Golden Horn.

    I’m just saying.


  29. Jordan Viray #

    @William Li

    Actually the Ottomans had Constantinople well isolated from the West since they had gone and conquered much of Southeastern Europe prior to the siege. They also had fortress “Rumeli Husari” to help blockade the city as well as a giant cannon. It wasn’t an easy fight but cannon > walls


  30. lambman #

    This article was interesting to read but I disagree with 90% of it.

    The article didn’t explain that hipsterism is dead at all, but it did give a nice explanation of how Thundercat shirts and trucker hats had a rise and fall in popularity among hipsters.

    I don’t think this article did much at all to explain what hipsters are, or why the “movement” is dead. The personal, working definition of hipster that I use is no something that is dead at all. I find hipsters to be people who aggressively conform to pop-culture trends of counterculture groups.

    Skinny Jeans have been the choice for hipsters for a while now, some people genuinely like them and some people actually look good in them. Most however wear them not for irony’s sake but because they are popular among “cool” people. They aren’t popular among mainstream suburban types (well, not initially) but popular with musicians and artists so hipsters follow the trend.

    These trends, trucker hats, ironic t-shirts…ect follow the same buying trends as all products Innovators > early adaprters> mainstream> laggards

    “Cool” or “Artists” types serve as the innovators, wearing or doing something in a new way. Then you get hipsters as the early adapters who follow the trends and the trend becomes increasingly popular. Then the trend becomes mainstream and hits the malls and suburbs. Then the trend is dying and only laggards (uncool, middle aged) still follow it.

    The hipster is always the early adapter, they don’t originate the trends and will drop the trend as soon as it catches on with the mainstream. So any particular hipster trend has a very limited shelf-life from the tme hipsters discover it to the time that either the innovators make a new trend or the trend becomes to mainstream for the hipsters to want to participate.


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