It was Socrates who noted, after a lifetime of studying and learning, the surest thing he knew was that he knew nothing. That’s how I feel this week, as I prepare for an intellectual task for which I am categorically unequipped. I’m sure you’ve heard the news already, but on Thursday, March 26, the Wisconsin Union Directorate Music Committee is sponsoring a panel discussion on… hipster culture. I have been tapped as the moderator. But after a year spent sharing an office with the Music Committee, seeing firsthand what hipster culture is all about, the surest thing I know is, I know nothing about hipster culture.
Quoctrung Bui, the former Music Committee director, assures me the committee is a welcoming oasis for hipsters and non-hipsters alike. And Patrick Tilley, the current director, has spent the year recruiting a diverse assortment of people, many who could do without hipster culture. But when the chips are down, it is fairly clear where the Music Committee stands on the issue. I know this because while defending himself, Bui had to yell over the stirring melodies of Wavves, NinjaSonik and Deerhunter emanating from his computer. And when the argument concluded, an endless sea of flannel swarmed into the office to back him up.
But I digress. Maybe I’m just upset because in my endless quest to find true love, my gaydar has been permanently distorted by the hipster community. I’m flattered by the invitation to act as ringleader for a discussion of Madison’s most elusive and misunderstood identity. This weekend, I even took a break from my “scene” to mingle at The Pub with the Music Committee. I played Police Trainer. I ate popcorn and drank $2 cups of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I talked with Dane County Supervisor Wyndham Manning about his “Jesus Was A Hipster” beard-growing campaign. (Wyndham is a panel participant, if that sways you.) It was a delicious experience. The folks at indieQueer didn’t even miss me.
But wait. There are hipsters at iQ night too. Tons of hipsters — far more than at The Pub. Dreamy, immaculately gay hipsters. Hmmmm. What gives here? Do I smell a contradiction? The hipster elite — the Tilleys and Mannings of Madison — spend their weekends at the most relentlessly-straight establishments in the city, unaware they preside over the aesthetic standards by which most of gay Madison functions. There is a coherent sociology thesis here somewhere. I just don’t know where to find it.
So let me admit it: I have no idea what a hipster is. I don’t think hipsters know what hipsters are. But that doesn’t change the fact that something like hipster culture is readily apparent and identifiable to everyone. To quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Is it possible that hipster culture exists because it has no definition? (This is a serious intellectual inquiry, guys.) Maybe “hipster” is really just a useful cultural red herring — a postmodern umbrella identity designed to bring together people with divergent tastes, quirks and sexualities. I don’t buy the notion that hipsters have similar tastes in anything. There may be pockets of hipsters who converge on some things, but there isn’t enough overlap to convince me.
News of contradictions within “hipster culture” should come as news to no one. My only point is maybe these contradictions are the point. “Hipster” might not be a lifestyle to be lived but an identity to be owned — not really defined by clothing or musical styles but by the quirks and eccentricities you are willing to accept in yourself. Perhaps “hipster” is an individual, not a group label, suggesting a plurality of expressional forms and contexts cutting across other social identities. Hipsters have varying degrees of wackiness, but I have to believe that everyone claiming the hipster identity is committing some small act of liberation — putting themselves out there, aspiring towards some degree of authenticity. (Yes, it’s ironic to attempt authenticity by dressing alike, but maybe a small capitulation is necessary for a broader liberation.)
And with that, I have definitively waxed philosophical. I realize that I sound tongue-in-cheek. I honestly do not mean to. Part of being a citizen in a complex society is realizing and understanding the identities that people embrace or dismiss, even if these seem stupid or trivial. Hipsters get a bad rap. But are they trying to tell us something? I have no idea. I do know that on March 26, I might as well be moderating a discussion on battle strategies during the Boer War. No doubt this article has angered many people for whom being a hipster is something different than I’ve described. If you want to discuss, show up on March 26 at 6 p.m., Memorial Union TITU. I’m just the moderator.
Eric Schmidt is a senior majoring in political science and legal studies. Want to educate Eric about the ways of hipster culture? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or attend the hipster panel on March 26 at 6 p.m., Memorial Union TITU.