Friday, September 24, 2010

Nietzsche and the Hipsters

So there I was, people, in the lobby of one of Our Fine College’s academic buildings, slouching against the wall by the vending machines while waiting for my man Parksie to drag himself down from his office and head off with me to our usual dive for drinks with the mad scientist and whoever else might wash ashore at our table. As usual, Park had left a 45-page printout job until the last minute, so I had time to kill and nothing to read but the student paper. The article that caught my attention was a student journalist’s angry blast at hipsters. The gist of the argument was that hipsters were hypocrites: they craved social interaction as much as anyone, but acted as if they were too cool for it, sitting at the sidelines of events and looking on ironically. The best image in the article was of hipsters sitting on the benches near Chicago’s North Avenue Beach, looking on and commenting snarkily as the square community frolicked, preened, posed, and beach-volleyballed the summer away in a spectacle of glistening bodies, shimmering eros, and casual athleticism.

It’s an interesting theory, and probably has something to it, although I think, in the end, the hipster position on group social interaction is more complicated than the article made out. I think the best way to get at what’s going on with the hipster standoffishness vis-à-vis big partying crowds is to take a look at what Nietzsche had to say about similar issues in The Birth of Tragedy.

Apollo and Dionysus

Nietzsche begins The Birth of Tragedy with his famous distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian ways of experiencing the relationship between the self and the other. “Let us think of them,” says Nietzsche, as the “worlds of dream and of intoxication, physiological phenomena between which we can observe an opposition corresponding to the one between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.” For Nietzsche, the world of Apollonian experience is like the world of the dream — although it’s important to note that Nietzsche thinks of dreams in a different way than many of us do. He doesn’t mean immersion in a strange, intense reality — he means quite the opposite. He thinks of the experience of a dream as an experience that we know isn’t real, and that we watch at a distance, knowing it can’t really touch us. “For all the most intense life of this dream reality,” says Nietzsche, “we nevertheless have the shimmering sense of their illusory quality: That, at least, is my experience.” So the Apollonian experience of the world beyond us, is one in which we have a clear sense of boundaries: I stand over here, the other stands over there, separate from me. It is a spectacle I watch, and if I’ve had enough, all I have to do is close my eyes, or turn away. Nietzsche elaborates the point by referring to Schopenhauer’s great book The World as Will and Idea, and invoking the Hindu notion of Maya (very roughly, the world of individual phenomena, which the enlightened see through, in order to grasp the fundamental unity of all things):

…concerning Apollo one could endorse, in an eccentric way, what Schopenhauer says of the man trapped in the veil of Maya: “As on the stormy sea which extends without limit on all sides, howling mountainous waves rise up and sink and a sailor sits in a row boat, trusting the weak craft, so, in the midst of a world of torments, the solitary man sits peacefully, supported by and trusting in the principium individuationis” [principle of individuation]

So there’s Apollonian experience: one feels separate from the world, safe in the little inflatable lifeboat of unsinkable selfhood as it floats above all the otherness — all the things and forces and people — of the stormy world around that little yellow boat.

It is the rupturing of the sense of selfhood and separateness — the sinking of the rubber dinghy — that leads us to Dionysian experience, which Nietzsche defines as “the ecstatic rapture, which rises up out of the same collapse of the principium individuationis from the innermost depths of a human being, indeed, from the innermost depths of nature.” That is, we experience the Dionysian when we feel the collapse of the barrier between ourselves and the other. It’s no surprise, then, that Nietzsche calls this an intoxication: it’s a trippy, puddle-of-people at a Manchester rave from the Factory Records era kind of thing he means to get at. Social barriers collapse, the idea of personal space is destroyed, and everyone is not only equal, but united as one (if you’ve ever been in the crowd at a football game when it crosses the invisible line between “a bunch of people in one space” to “a crowd that cries out as one” you’ve been in the presence of Dionysus). Here’s how Nietzsche puts it:

Now the slave a free man; now all the stiff, hostile barriers break apart, those things which necessity and arbitrary power … have established between men. Now, with the gospel of world harmony, every man feels himself not only united with his neighbor, reconciled and fused together, but also as one with him, as if the veil of Maya had been ripped apart, with only scraps fluttering around in the face of the mysterious primordial unity. Singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher community: he has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the verge of flying up into the air as he dances. The enchantment speaks out in his gestures.

Think about all those face-painted, howling Bears fans: by day they’re mild-mannered desk jockeys, toiling in cubicles as members of the lonely crowd. But at the game, they’re free to act in broader, more ecstatic gestures, and they’re relieved of self-consciousness, since in some significant way they’ve been relieved of selfhood, having been immersed in a crowd. Chanting together, dressing alike in their fan gear, probably drunk, and responding to the same plays with the same emotions: the pleasures of Dionysus are the pleasures of the ecstatic release from selfhood, and the dissolving of the self/other distinction.

If you’re out to retain a sense of self-identity, you’re only going to see the Dionysian crowds with something like horror. As Nietzsche says:

…the servant of Dionysus will be understood only by someone like himself! With what astonishment must the Apollonian Greek have gazed at him! With an amazement which was all the greater as he sensed with horror that all this might not be really so foreign to him, that, in fact, his Apollonian consciousness was, like a veil, merely covering the Dionysian world in front of him.

Apollo Recoils

Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness provides an example of the complex recoiling of the Apollonian man at the sight of a Dionysian crowd. It’s too bad the whole racial aspect of the passage (white Apollo, black Dionysus) makes this kind of dicey as a classroom example of Apollonian reaction to the spectacle of Dionysian experience — but if we can put that aside, and put aside the idea that Apollo is somehow better than Dionysus, which isn’t really present in Nietzsche or Conrad, the passage really does get at the psychology of the phenomenon. Here Conrad’s character Marlow looks at a tribal gathering from the deck of a steamer heading up-river into mysterious territory:

The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there -- there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were — No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it — this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there 
was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you — you so remote from the night of first ages — could comprehend.

Chinua Achebe rips Conrad pretty hard for this passage, and you can read the detailed descriptions of the socio-religious meaning of tribal rituals in his novel Things Fall Apart as a kind of writing-back against Conrad. Achebe’s got a point. But for now I want to concentrate on something else: the way the Apollonian subject, Marlow, floating down the river in his steamship (one wishes the boat were named the Principium Individuationis ), feels very much outside the group that is clearly experiencing, for itself, a kind of Dionysian unity. He’s repelled by the spectacle. To some degree, this is because it is strange, and makes no sense to someone who stands apart from it (just as bare-chested, face-painted, bellowing football fans often seem like flabby, gesticulating asshats to people who aren’t into football). But there’s more: there’s the creeping fear that he, the Apollonian subject, isn’t entirely unlike those Dionysian revelers. There’s a fear that he may in fact be like them, and this is a threat to his sense of identity. He doesn’t want to disappear as an individual, he doesn’t want to give up his selfhood to the mass, but he feels, when he sees and hears the Dionysian spectacle, that it just might be possible. His sense of separate, self-contained subjectivity trembles.

Hipster Apollo

But what, you ask, does this have to do with hipsterism? I suppose it’s this: that image of the bench-sitting, snark-making hipsters at North Avenue Beach is really an image of Apollonians looking on at a kind of semi-Dionysian crowd. Hipsters standing on the edge of parties with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, too cool to dance and howl with the rest of the partiers are, in their way, figures much like Conrad’s Marlow. Their sense of distinction — of being, well, hipper than the masses, is an Apollonian phenomenon, a manifestation of the principium individuationis.

I don’t mean that this is a bad thing. In fact, there is a lot to be said for Apollonianism. Critical thinking, the questioning of widely-held opinions, the cultivation of dissent, and such immunity as we have to propaganda, advertising, and mass hysteria all depend on the cultivation of Apollo. When I teach Nietzche’s Birth of Tragedy in my seminar on literary theory, I always end up saying that the seminar room itself, with its emphasis on critique, analysis, and informed opinion, is a temple of Apollo, just as surely as Soldier Field (that’s where the Bears play, oh football-disdaining Apollonian intellectual) is a temple of Dionysus.

I’m sure social class enters into this somehow. Hipsters, as a rule, are either the products of, or bound for membership in, the professional wing of the American middle and upper-middle class — or, more likely in this age of decreased social mobility, they find that the professional class is both their origin and their destination. It is in these classes — among the lawyers, doctors, scientists, teachers, academics, policy analysts, consultants, and the like — that critical thought is most prized. This is not to say that such classes have a monopoly on critical thought, just that they often tend to hold it up as a primary virtue, and consider it an essential part of their identity, and put it ahead of such group-oriented virtues as rootedness, patriotism, and group identity. Hipsters will sometimes simmer with resentment at the implication that their critical, individualist subjectivity is a product of membership in a group — to imply group identity is, after all, an affront to the principium individuationis itself.

Anyway: there’s nothing wrong with professional-classness, or at least nothing more wrong with it than with any other kind of class identity. And it is worth noting that those nations with the most developed professional classes are the least likely to fall into authoritarianism, though that can, and has, happened to bourgeois states in times of severe crisis — you know the examples. Generally, though, I’m glad the professional classes are there, and not just because I have a lawyer and a doctor and an accountant. I’m glad they’re around because they provide a pretty deep reservoir of critical thinking.

The Distrust of Crowds

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the virtues of Apollo is to haul out an old William Carlos Williams poem, “The Crowd at the Ballgame.”  It shows us one of the most benevolent crowds imaginable. I’m with George Carlin on the difference between baseball and football fans — baseball is much less conducive to the more violent outbreaks of Dionysus than is football.  But even here, there’s a menace inherent in the Dionysian unity of the home-team fans, one visible only to those whose particular identities keep them from being entirely absorbed into that unity.

Here’s how the poem starts:

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them—

all the exciting detail
of the chase

and the escape, the error
the flash of genius—

all to no end save beauty
the eternal—

So far, so good: the crowd is clearly Dionysian, in a gentle way (when they are “moved uniformly” they lose that standing-apartness that is the essence of Apollonian experience).  But watch out!  As the poem continues, the danger inherent in Dionysus becomes clearer:

So in detail they, the crowd,
are beautiful

for this
to be warned against

saluted and defied—
It is alive, venomous

it smiles grimly
its words cut—

The flashy female with her
mother, gets it—

The Jew gets it straight— it
is deadly, terrifying—

It is the Inquisition, the

It is beauty itself
that lives

day by day in them

This is
the power of their faces

It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is

cheering, the crowd is laughing
in detail

permanently, seriously
without thought

Okay! There it is!  The unity of the crowd is several things.  For one, it is “without thought.” That’s the intoxicated state of unity for you — indeed, to be free of selfhood, self-consciousness, and the need to think is one of the goals, and in some instances one of the virtues, of the Dionysian crowd.  I mean, who among us hasn’t left some sporting event or concert (I mean a rock concert, not the Apollonian silence and paralysis of the classical concert) refreshed and renewed, having hit the “reset” button on our individual subjectivity by losing it, for a moment, in a crowd?  But thoughtlessness is also dangerous, and this crowd, like all crowds, is about unity, not analysis.

Of course the thing about unity is that it isn’t really unity.  Unless the entire population were to enter into some universal rapturous state together, the unity has a border to it, and leaves some people out.  It’s significant that Williams gives this insight to three characters in the poem: the Jew, the “flashy female,” and that woman’s mother.  The reason the Jewish character would understand that crowds are not inclusive seems clear enough: the historical experience of Jewish people would render the character sensitive to the fact that crowds aren’t inclusive, and that those excluded by crowds are vulnerable.  But what about the “flashy female” and her mother?  I suppose their insight into the limits of a crowd come from objectification.  That is, a crowd is a kind of collective subjectivity, a single identity for multiple bodies (that’s why it can “mov[e] uniformly,” like one organism).  But if you are a “flashy female,” you’ve been objectified — seen as a body to be possessed, or acted upon — probably be whole groups of guys at once.  Imagine here some 1950s-era scene where the hot chick sashays past a lineup of Rebel Without a Cause tough guys, who leer and wolf-whistle collectively.  You’ve felt yourself not as part of the Dionysian collective subject, but as an object they might pursue.  You’re sensitive to what it’s like not to be in the group, but to be on the outside, and a bit vulnerable.  The mother of the “flashy female” knows all this too, and is protective of her daughter, probably feeling the daughter’s vulnerability more than the daughter herself does.

So, to haul all of this back to our neglected hipsters: I think there’s much to be said for the habit of alienation such people cultivate.  The world needs those who dissent from the pleasure of crowds.

The Distrust of the Outsider

Just as the Apollonian distrusts the crowd, the crowd distrusts the Apollonian, self-possessed outsider, with his refusal to join in the fun.  This crowd-friendly, outsider-distrusting mentality was, I think, behind the anti-hipster sentiment of the article I read in the student newspaper as I waited impatiently for my colleague to get his shit together.  But where does such sentiment come from?  Elias Canetti knows.  Consider a passage from his strange, rambling book Crowds and Power, which is composed of a giant set of riffs on the nature of Apollo and Dionysus.  Here, he tells us that crowds, in their Dionysian smashing-down of boundaries, can become destructive, and turn on those who have not joined (or cannot join):

Windows and doors belong to houses; they are the most vulnerable parts of their exterior and, once smashed, the house has lost all individuality; anyone may enter it and nothing and no-one is protected anymore.  In these houses live the supposed enemies of the crowd, those people who try to keep away from it.  What separated them has now been destroyed and nothing stands between them and the crowd.  They can come out and join it; or they can be fetched.

Yikes.  And there’s more!  The crowd can be particularly cruel to those whom it considers members, or whom it thinks ought to be members — if those people dissent, and refuse or renounce membership:

An attack from outside can only strengthen the crowd; those who have been physically scattered are more strongly gathered back together again.  An attack from within, on the other hand, is really dangerous….  Everyone belonging to a crowd carries within him a small traitor who wants to eat, drink, make love and be left alone.  As long as he does all this on the quiet the crowd does not make too much fuss about it, the crowd allows him to proceed.  But, as soon as he makes a noise about it, it starts to hate him and fear him.

So: if a crowd thinks you ought to be a member, joining in the collective Dionysian loss-of-self, but you refuse, choosing to follow your individual desires and cultivate difference, you’re a threat.  It’s not that you could attack physically the crowd and win — the crowd is secure in numbers.  It’s that you propose that disunity is possible, and that membership in the crowd is somehow undesirable.  You threaten the idea of unity, and what’s more, you make one of the main pleasures of the crowd — unselfconsciousness — impossible.  If we all lose our inhibitions and borders, we can all behave in ways we generally feel too inhibited to behave.  We can go apeshit in an eroticized, boozed-out Mardi Gras blur, lifting our shirts and throwing up on the sidewalk, making out with passers-by and otherwise cutting loose from our individual inhibitions.  Or, at a football game, we can shout and leap around and feel camaraderie with people we don’t know as individuals, because we’re not at the stadium as individuals — we’re all there as fans together, wearing team colors and cheering for the same touchdowns.  But add someone who dissents, and looks on without joining, and you’ve added someone who, intentionally or not, judges the crowd.  And it takes a hell of a thick skin to remain unselfconscious while being judged (I owe this observation to my wife Valerie, who has to put up with me muttering about Crowds and Power when she’s trying to eat breakfast).

Which brings us back to the hipsters at North Avenue Beach.  If the cavorting beach crowd notices them, it surely notices them with some disdain.  Who wants to be gaped and snarked at?  Or consider those dancing and boozing at some party.  Why wouldn’t they be hostile to the snickering hipsters in the corner, whose very attire signals ironic distance from the crowd?

Contradictions of the Apollonian Hipster

Of course the very fact that there is recognizable hipster clothing, and known hipster neighborhoods, gathering points, and the like indicates a contradiction at the heart of hipsterism: in standing apart together, hipsters are both rejecting and seeking group identity.  They want to form that contradictory entity, a group of individuals, a Dionysian fusion of self-sufficient Apollos.  I imagine we’ve all seen the symptoms of this attempt to square the circle.  I can think of a few of examples off the top of my head.

—  I remember walking down the street near Myopic Books in a particularly hipster-saturated part of Chicago, on my way to give a poetry reading with the redoubtable Don Share.  As I passed a giant American Apparel store, two hipster-looking types (wearing what for all the world looked like American Apparel hoodies) looked into the store’s windows, snickered, and one, in full arch irony, said “oh, let’s go shopping at American Apparel.”  “Yeah, right” snickered the other, in reply.  These were people who belonged to a demographic that populated the area, a demographic that had supported a large American Apparel store.  But they’d be damned if they’d be considered part of that demographic.  I’m pretty sure they had moved to a hipster zone to be with the likeminded, but they wouldn’t want to lose their individuality and merely, you know, be with the likeminded.

— I remember chatting with an über-hip experimental poet with a pretty high-amp academic position.  She told me how much she hated the fact that the neighborhood where she had just moved was gentrifying.  I was (and probably still am) enough of a clod to point out that she was part of that gentrification.  I don’t think she’s ever forgiven me.  Why would she?  As a hipster, or demi-hipster, she wanted to live in an appropriately hip, edgy neighborhood — to point out that by doing so she was becoming a part of the gentrifying group she disdained was to assault the hip individualism she was cultivating.  I should point out that I have total disdain for the rich bastards who surround me in my glossy commuter town, but there are plenty of perspectives from which I, myself, appear as a rich bastard, so I’m no better than anyone else, really.  Hell, I’m fully prepared to admit I’m worse, since I’m the one who was a dick about someone else’s contradictions.

— One really need look no further than the Facebook group “Hipsters who hate other hipsters for being hipsters," a group with close to 40,000 members, to illustrate the contradictions of hipster consciousness.  I mean, the group embodies a wonderful self-reflexive knowledge of the clash between the Dionysian desire to be in a group with other hipsters, and at the same time to distance oneself from any kind of group identity (as a good Apollonian will do).

Can Hipsters Dance?

So, where does this leave us? As I stood there waiting for Parksie, student newspaper in hand, I was pretty sure that I knew: there was a fairly simple dichotomy between Apollonian hipsters and the Dionysian crowd, with a gulf of animosity between them, and a bit of irony about the phenomenon of hipsters dressing and acting like a group, but resenting each other for it. Hipsters stood at the edge of the party, snickering at the crowd, and wary of their own peers for being hipsters. The crowd danced the night away, happily unselfconscious until they noticed the hipsters standing by the wall, refusing to shake it to the music.

Later, though, after I’d laid my thesis down for Parksie, and we were driving home with the windows down and the new Grinderman album thumping away on his crappy car's savage speakers, he drew my attention to a new development, one that may shake the foundations of my argument. One of his students, a hipsterized DJ for the college radio station, had just tapped out an essay called “Hipsters Can Dance.” Next time we head out to the bar, I’ll ask Parksie to bring me a copy.


  1. And now, Mad Magazine and the hipsters, June 1959:

    Check out the reading habits of the "Ordinary Non-Conformist"; teaser: "boring literary journals"!

  2. So much of this goes a long way towards explaining the contradictions in the culture surrounding, if not entirely containing, the Beats, the hippies, and Woodstock/60s culture.

  3. Between Nietzsche and Mad Magazine, you can pretty much account for most phenomena...


  4. I kind of like your student's theory. In my writing or anybody else's, however exalted or arcane, it's never a bad idea to remember that we none of us escape being human.

  5. Anonymous4:52 PM

    Archambeau: I came across this post through a Byzantine conduit that began with me reading a new post on the New York Times' Opinionator page, titled "How to live without irony" (check it out--it's gotten a hell of a lot of negative press), and ending with the student whose paper led you to write this post in the first place sending me this link.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article. Bravo!