Sunday, September 08, 2013

Geeks Versus Hipsters: Scattered Speculations on the Affective Economy of Popular Culture

Image from The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martin

There are two basic models of affective orientation towards popular culture. The first is the nerd, or more properly, the geek. I prefer the latter term because it shifts the focus away from content, comic books, sci-fi, etc, and towards the relationship of intense identification and pleasure; a relationship often summed up by the phrase "geek out."Framed in such a way the geek contrast nicely with the hipster, the latter is defined less by content, beards, bands from Brooklyn, etc., than by an affective relation of either irony or detachment. The hipster would not be caught dead wearing the band of the shirt that he is going to see, while the geek shows up at the convention in full costume of her favorite character.

Despite these differences at the level of affect, one hot, one cool, the geek and the hipster are each engaged in the same Sisyphean task: they are each trying to preserve a singular relationship to a mass produced commodity. This can be seen in their common concern with origins, with what something originally meant. In geek culture this takes the form of an obsession with canon, with the original design or origin of a superhero, while in the world of the hipster this is the famous "I liked them before they were cool." The turn towards the origin is perhaps an attempt to preserve not so much the sanctity of original meaning, but original encounter--the first moment one discovered a new film, a new band. The initial enthusiasm and wonder of a first encounter is the basis of all attachments. On this axis geek and hipster can be differentiated on how they try to sustain an initial experience, a founding passion. Geeks hold onto that initial moment of fascination and wonder, extending them into various projects and recreations. Who can be bothered to care about the Star Wars prequels when they are working on braiding the wookie hair on their Boba Fett costume or arguing about fanfic. The hipster moves on, finds a new band that has not become too cool to be cool. Eventually this ceaseless movement, the seeking out the unspoiled and obscure, exhausts itself in irony.

All of this can be understood as a critical rejoinder to Bernard Stiegler. One of the central ideas of Stiegler's critique of contemporary society is that the culture industry leads to a general disindividuation. Stiegler's argument on this point primarily focuses on the intersection of technology and memory. The more we watch the same things, listen to the same things, and remember the same things, the more that memory structures our future impressions. Experiences cease to be singular, individuated become standardized. There is perhaps no better confirmation of Stiegler's thesis than the rise of references in such comedy as Family Guy and the Scary Movie franchises in which the citation of some popular culture icon or image passes for humor. This form of humor only works, which is not to say it is funny, if people share the same references, if difficult father issues immediately connotes Darth Vader and so on. 

On this point (not surprisingly) I find myself more in line with Spinoza than Stiegler.  The fundamental difference is that we strive to maintain our singular existence, our specific relation to the culture that we consume. I think that this is the backdrop of all arguments about popular culture, all of the cries of "ruined my childhood" that greet each new remake, the petitions to recast some film, and so on. These are all futile struggles to retain the singular dimension of an association and memory. They are futile for two reasons. First, as Spinoza argues, it is always a failed project to want other to share the same singular associations as me, to want others to love as I love. These others are just as singular in their striving as I am. Every reader of every book has their mental images of its characters, images that will almost always be out of sync with the casting of the film. Second, and more specific to the culture industry, there is no interest on the part of the industry in the singular association that a given individual has to its products. The demographic is too small. Or, more accurately, these singular interests are the raw material of its products. They exist only to be processed.

One could argue that this process eventually turns geeks into hipsters, as enthusiasm gives way to cynicism and eventually irony. Irony is the last refuge of singularity in a world of standardization. One can always claim that they meant something different, appreciated it on a different level. Irony is an eternal distance from every identification. It is a way to deal with the shifting marketing of all attachments. The nostalgia that compelled someone to get an autobot insignia tattoo can be disarmed by a few ironic references to the acting abilities of Shia Lebeouf. Irony is defense strategy to deal with a world of remakes and punk anthems turned into Nike commercials. I suppose that one could argue that if irony is the extreme point of the hipster, then some kind of breakdown of consumption and production is the extreme point of the geek, the point where fanfic becomes fiction. Geeks contend with the shifting terrain of consumption by becoming producers, even if they are only producers of their own bastardized version, fanfic and cosplay. Geeks endeavor to transform the pseudo-activity into activity. 

On the image above, this post was to end with a brief and admittedly geeky review of Brian K. Vaughn's The Private Eye and The World's End, but that will have to wait for another post. I still like the image of hipster senior citizen. 

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