#hipster: On a mysterious subculture

by Katharina Korbach


What is a hipster?

Nearly nobody seems to be able to define the term. It was Norman Mailer who made a first attempt by describing the hipster in his essay “The White Negro” as somebody who “divorce[s] oneself from society, exist[s] without roots [and] set[s] out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self”1. For sure, there has been a shift in the sense of the expression since then. But what exactly makes it so difficult to define the hipster of the 21st Century?

One of the main problems may evolve from the numerous contradictions that exist within and around the subculture as well as from the hipster being so multifaceted and versatile. If we look for example at the hipster’s relation to society it is essential to consider the complete freedom in our Western world on the one, and the restrictions caused by certain standards and requirements, especially on the job market, on the other hand. Additionally, mainly due to americanisation and globalization, a so-called One-World-Culture gets created and a person’s individuality tends to fade.

Being afraid and unable to cope with the countless options and expectations, the hipster develops a protected space to act out freely its desires, focusses on being unique and on differing as widely as possible from the mainstream. Consequently, hipsters usually don’t want to be described as such what makes it even more difficult to find definitions.

By making specialness the central value, the hipster tries to create meaning what, from my point of view, cannot possibly lead to any profound satisfaction. “To be an existentialist, one must be able to feel oneself- (…) one’s desires, one’s rages, one’s anguish”, Mailer writes in his essay. A strong personality consists of values by which one is convinced and the main criteria by which they are chosen should not be if they differ from the current opinions of society or not. Therefore, all the hipster finally achieves is what I would call a superficial individuality; something that is pretended rather than to be felt from the inside.

Ironically, as soon as there are several hipsters with comparable values and status symbols, the hipster is again only part of a group and the aim to be outstanding is still not fully attained. Contrarily, there exists a strong dependance on the mainstream as the hipster secretely hopes that everything stays exactly the same in order to keep the kind of “specialness” that can only be maintained in comparison to the “boring” ordinary.


Instead of actively changing society’s drawbacks, the typical hipster protests in an indirect and unpolitical way by using appearance to underline disagreement.

In this context, the hipster’s approach is to bridge the gap between the old and the new as a reaction on the widespread concept that we constantly have to adopt the new and, therefore, to let go the tools that constructed our lives in the past. You may for example see a hipster using a Macbook, but listening to old-fashioned music on it. What resonates in a contradictory behaviour like that are the self-mockery and irony that are essential to understand the hipster subculture. The culture industry reacts on these concepts as well as on the concept of nostalgia represented by the hipster by selling for example second-hand clothes or albums of contemporary artists on vinyl records. So, from a commercial perspective, hipsters simply build a new target group with certain preferences and are therefore ironically still a part of the economic system and the consumerism that they originally reject.

Another interesting sociological field to look at is the strong antipathy to hipsters that can be observed recently. It was only in 2007 that the magazine Time Out published an editorial called “The Hipster Must Die” and in 2011 the New York artists Greenspan and Fine established so called “Hipster Traps” all around the city.


It may be justified to accuse the hipster of being inauthentic or even narcissistic. But as members of the subculture are usually neither actively hurting anybody nor breaking any rules the current dimension of aversion is still quite astonishing. Maybe the core of the matter are the widespread desires that the hipster reflects, like avoiding certain norms or preserving the advantages of the past.

I suppose it is primarily the uncertainty and unpredictable proportions of future developments -may they concern climate change, economic crises or wars- that create the current precariousness within the youth and drive young people towards the past rather than the future. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu already declared that social identity evolves from the difference which is asserted against “what is closest [and] represents the greatest threat”. Thus, the prototype of the hipster seems to be the ideal enemy that we can “invent in order to define ourselves against it”.

So finally: isn’t everybody of us at least a little bit of a hipster?

Annotated bibliography: 

1. Marsden, Rhodri: “Hipster Hate is everywhere – but is there a little bit of them in all of us?” (18.09.14): This is another article that I think is outstanding as it is not only trying to define the hipster but is also asking the question, if the hipster is maybe rather a construct of ideas than a real existing phenomenon. Apart from that aspect, the text goes into the matter of hipster hate; where it comes from, what kind of problems it brings along and if there are even some characteristics that the majority of the society and the hipster have in common.


2. Greif, Mark: Wer waren die Hipster? Eine transatlantische Diskussion. Berlin, Suhrkamp 2011: In different formats, like essays, panel discussions or lectures, this book offers a good overview on the various ways to look at the hipster. It contains several texts from a conference at the New School in New York that took place on 11th april 2009 to converge a definition of what makes up hipsterism. Apart from that, local differences are highlighted by looking for example specifically at the Berlin hipster.

3. Ikrath, Philipp: Hipster – Versuch einer Begriffsbestimmung (Wien/Hamburg 2013): In this essay from 2013, Philipp Ikrath from the Austrian Institute of Youth Cultures, tries to find a definition of the hipster by primarily emblazing the origin of the term. Therefore, Ikrath compares the way Mailer defined the hipster in 1957 with the characteristics that he considers to be essential for the hipster nowadays. He goes into central concepts of the subculture like irony or the longing for individuality and, as far as possible, approaches what I would call a scientific classification of the hipster and his attitude towards life.


4. Hipster Cup Festival Berlin: The Hipster Cup Festival in Berlin reflects, like maybe no other event, the hipster‘s mentality, especially the irony that resonates the subculture. By rummaging on the website you can have a look at the line up and can get a good feeling for what kind of music the typical hipster listens to. Besides that, the highlight of the festival are contests that include newly invented disciplines adapted to the hipster culture, like iPhone throwing or skinny jeans tug of war.


5. Hipster BINGO: This website offers a collection of Bingo cards that can be printed and used in public spaces where hipsters are likely to spend their time. I chose the site as a resource as I think the cards can give you a good overview of typical characteristics and items that make up the appearance of a hipster such as the mustache, tight pants or vintage cameras. Apart from that, you may get a feeling for the mockery of the hipster subculture that the game evokes.




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