The following essay by Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of the French photographic journal Rhinocerotique as “L’etat d’hipster.” The original was accompanied by morgue photographs of the late Dash Snow, an American artist. Owing to copyright uncertainties and American libel laws, the photos could not be reproduced here. It was translated from the French by Henry Brulard. (Our thanks go to J. Bricmont for calling this piece to our attention.)
A company of porcupines crowded themselves very close together one cold winter’s day so as to profit by one another’s warmth and so save themselves from being frozen to death. But soon they felt one another’s quills, which induced them to separate again. And now, when the need for warmth brought them nearer together again, the second evil arose once more. So that they were driven backwards and forwards from one trouble to the other, until they had discovered a mean distance at which they could most tolerably exist. — Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga und Paralipomena, II. Teil, XXXI., “Gleichnisse und Parabeln” (As quoted in Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego)
The problematics of analyzing “hipster” were recently affirmed in an account of n+1 Magazine’s symposium, “What was the Hipster?” related by Rob Horning. Though the facts of this bizarre event are, by now, well known to all, I must relate the essential details: When n+1 failed to deliver the symposium’s promises of either an exuberantly carnivalesque King Kong-like display of the hipster in chains (the hipster as un-Prometheus) or a phallogocentric explication of the hipster phenomenon, the gathered multitudes rioted, pointing accusatory fingers at n+1 and each other. The denunciations were as total as they were swift, and were larded with all the bombast and caricature of a show trial.
Indeed, the event was reminiscent of a tactic used by the American police apparatus to entrap those with outstanding warrants: the offender receives a card in the mail telling him that he has won a big-screen tv or similar “big-boy toy” and that he must pick it up at a certain location. When he arrives to redeem his prize at the appointed time and place, he his promptly handcuffed, placed in a paddy wagon, and delivered in carcerem (of course his actual incarceration, as we know from Foucault, was achieved by the inscription of his name upon the card). Perhaps the editors of n+1 had just such a thing in mind when they planned the event, but lost their nerve at the last moment.
In his analysis of the fiasco, Mr. Horning identified the true nature of the analytic dilemma presented by this word, “hipster,” and its cognates:
It’s impossible to obtain objective distance from hipsterism; if you are concerned enough about the phenomenon to analyze it and discuss it, you are already somewhere on the continuum of hipsterism and are in the process of trying to rid yourself of its “taint”—as n+1‘s announcement of the event noted. We all had a stake in defining “hipster” as “not me.” I thought that would be the core of the discussion, the paradoxes of that apparent truth.
The nature of the beast, then, is that “hipster” is always presented as an objective phenomenon and never as a subjective stance. If there is no objective “distance” (physical or temporal) from which to analyze hipsterism, then we must look instead for a subjective one. That is, assuming the position of S over s in the Lacanian algebra, we must posit a critico-analytical stance that places itself squarely within the “taint” of hipster. This taint, as such, is felt not by the hipster — who has not yet revealed himself — but by the one capable of uttering “hipster,” as the ejective enunciation of the utterance “not me.” The analysis must therefore start from the perspective of this subject, the hipster, as the “not me” who is simultaneously embedded in the taint of hipsterism and capable of uttering the utterance “hipster.”
Before we proceed we must pause at the appearance of the “not me.” The not me is, of course, the inutterable utterance of the ungrammatical voice. As such, and this should be obvious to all, it is none other than the objet petit a, the ersatz phallus of the hipster’s mother. And this is why, through the object of the mirror, the mask of the hipster’s desire always figures hipster as the effeminate male upon whom a linguistic act of irrumatio must always already have been performed.
Read in this light, the hipster’s symbolic and pseudo-ejaculatory utterance of “hipster,” is nothing more than the original of the signal of the taint of hipster: conceived as a danger to the “scene” and the autonomous self. At this point the author’s ears, and perhaps the reader’s too, begin to burn. I am certain that you must feel the heat rising.
It should by now be obvious that the utterance “hipster” finds its analogue in the sobbing flight of the debutante who arrives at the dance only to discover that another girl is wearing an identical dress. The debutante’s double calls into question her own sense of self. In order to avoid Girardian annihilation and rejoin her self she must flee from the sight of her double. But what would it mean if the debutante had planned the entire social disaster, including the existence of her own double and her ridiculous exit, in advance? The utterance “hipster” presents us with just such a scenario.
The hipster, then, as the not me, the objet petit a, is a sort of double who “enters through the out door” and allows the hipster to maintain the image of his own individuality, but only as the dislocated site of imagined and imaginary resistance. The taint of hipster is the vehicle of this resistance that, through the magic of surplus value, contains within itself the voiceless ejecta of the Lumpenproletariat, as seen through the gaze of the bourgeoisie. Insofar as this gaze is capable of forgetting history, it transmutes antagonism into agonism. That is, liberation is presented, or rather presents itself, as both the head and the tail (but not the body!) of ouroboros, who must now be shackled, but not “to” itself or its own body.
What the hipster, now as the S in the Lacanian algebra, finds in the taint of hipster is the terror of cooptation by the mainstream. And hipster, as the projected invention of the hipster’s own cooptation, exists as a sort of skinwalker who is able to transform individual autonomy and the authentic “scene” into lifestyles and bogus demographics. These threats to the scene and autonomy imperil and attempt to unravel the hipster’s unconscious, which is in the familiar form of the Borromean knot.
The Borromean knot, as you no doubt know, is a series of three rings that will be completely severed if any one ring is severed, resulting in psychosis. Hipster and its utterance exist as manifestations of the sinthome or “symptom,” the fourth order in Lacan’s model of the Borromean knot (see diagram). The symptom is that ring that must come into existence when the knot itself is threatened. Hipster, is that place where the real, the imaginary and the symbolic combine into one. The hipster, known only through the utterance “hipster,” is, then, the overcoming of an individual as well as a cultural psychosis, through an act of individual and group projection in the strictly Freudian sense.
* * *
Follow Generation Bubble’s link feed on Twitter: account name “GenBub_tweed.”
And join Generation Bubble on Facebook: group name “Generation Bubble.”