Irony is usually thought of today as a defense mechanism for the socially insecure. But irony is really like the internet or money. It can be put to a broad range of purposes and play a broad range of roles in everyday life. The main feature of irony that makes us associate it so closely with hipsters is that lots of hipsters are essentially downwardly mobile young people who are putting themselves to some practical use, however small or marginal, instead of sitting around getting obese. Sure, lots of hipsters are partying themselves into a stupor while chasing pathetically semiotic fashion trends, but that’s true of millions who aren’t at all hipsters. Turns out, downward mobility is an extraordinarily narrow way of thinking about making radical choices about how to live and why. In some aspects of our lives, we should aim lower. In some, we may have to in order to aim far higher in some others. Survival is not necessarily a state of abjection or desperation. If we occur to ourselves accurately as resourceful, we may find ourselves in fairly high-stakes or high-risk situations with a sense of plenty that makes a mockery of binaries like upward-versus-downward mobility. Hipsters might be our best witnesses to how this works, and how it can work for all of us.
It’s a provocative statement and I’m not sure, even after a few days of mulling, what I think about it. Everything hinges on this account: “lots of hipsters are essentially downwardly mobile young people who are putting themselves to some practical use, however small or marginal, instead of sitting around getting obese.” I know a number of incredibly admirable young people who fit that description, who “put themselves to some practical use” by living among the poor, working part-time for two or three service organizations or Christian ministries. But those people don’t dress or act like hipsters, and they don’t live in or near desirable neighborhoods with funky coffee shops and artisanal bakeries. I don’t think they even drink PBR. And living that way for them is not a stepping-stone to a future in which their screenplay gets optioned or a gallery agrees to show their paintings.
James is exactly, profoundly right when he commends people who are willing to think, and more important act, outside the typical sliding scale of social and economic “mobility” — who can be resourceful and useful, and who experience plenty, while accepting economically marginal conditions. The question is whether this group overlaps with the category of “hipster,” and if it does, how and where.