Hipsters as the Foot Soldiers of Capitalism?

Stephen Pritchard writes, in a recent article to the Guardian…

“It is the establishment that now sees the hipster as the embodiment of autonomous, small-scale capitalist expansionism. But it is not just the hipster cast in this role. Artists are the neoliberal state’s troops. Artists make the first move into post-industrial, post-welfare state wastelands like brownfield sites and council housing estates and sow the seeds of cultural capital. They attract hipsters before, eventually, being displaced by them and their new middle-class neighbours. Both the artists and (some) of the hipsters – the ones who haven’t “settled” yet – will move on, exploring, breaking away (again), developing new potential sites for capital “investment”. And so the cycle of gentrification starts over again.”

But is there something more to a work?

Surely today’s aesthetic and cultural industry looks to the faculty of taste to identify intimacies and differentiate nuances to develop new products and markets. It draws on the productivity of consumers participating in the sociality of taste to valorize these products and markets, and it deploys the meaningfulness found in taste’s pleasures and intimacies to combat the alienating effect excessive economic rationalization has had on social life.

Taste, and it is manifested by its foot soldiers, the contemporary so-called ‘hipsters’, however, provokes a set of crises all its own, crises that ignite the incongruence between aesthetic relationality and the social relations of capital. In doing so, ‘hipsters’ come to reveal the fundamentally incapacity of taste to serve quietly in the role in which it has been enlisted by the aesthetic economy.

The tensions ‘hipsters’ instigate play out in the friction between taste and aesthetic purchase, and, as such, provide a real material challenge to the promise of the aesthetic economy. They play out when one senses that one has been fooled or ripped off by an inauthentic experience, when one’s community is revealed to be a market niche, set in motion as a means of social control, and when the struggle for a better, more beautiful
life ends in despair and isolation.

Taste identifies pleasures, but it also records pain.This friction it records is recognized by Pierre Bourdieu as a sense of symbolic violence. Taste drives the acquisition cultural capital, but only because it is, at first, a critical faculty, one that, despite the burdens it is asked to carry by capitalism and state planners, is still capable of sensing and bringing to light the concrete conditions at the source of general alienation.

The crises that emanate from the judgment of taste unfold from two related contradictions at the center of what makes taste so useful for the aesthetic economy. The first is taste’s insatiable search for the new and different, which rubs against its pursuit of likeness and identity. The second derives from taste’s aim to produce objective, universally valid truths, through a subjective and free register. These contradictions drive taste and make it an agent of social change. The dynamism of these contradictions positioned the aesthetic at the heart of  Enlightenment philosophy, and today, as the engine of the aesthetic economy. This dynamism also placed taste at the center of critical theory, making it the troubled subject in the work of Theodore Adorno, and in the sociology of Bourdieu.

The edifice of the aesthetic economy, as Stephen Pritchard writes above, was built as a strategy capable of redeeming a political economy in crisis. But such an edifice is on shaky ground, it will inevitably buckle under pressure to contain the vitality of taste the ‘hipsters’ are driven to provoke, forcing the cycle of gentrification to begin again.

The question for the next hipsters’ will be: how might the next cycle of development position taste, as a tool in the production of restricted Value, or as a means to discern the beautiful?



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