The Conquest of Cool – a revisit to Thomas Frank’s account of business culture, counterculture, and the rise of hip consumerism… (And how American Apparel ruined the Hoodie)

A friend recently tweeted “artsy photo shoot on 98th? Upper UES, new home to hipsters.”

While it may be true that hipsters have made a new home, I have a different theory:  I argue that their new home is really a grounded footing in mainstream popular culture.  Whether it is in the Upper UES or suburban America, the hipster style is now and has been for a while, ubiquitously trendy.   And as I write this, the argument can be made is the Hipster as we’ve known it is (arguably) dead.

Over the past few months, countless articles have documented the demise of the Hipster as we know it.  In October of this year, New York magazine ran an article by Mark Grief under the headline “what was the hipster? [emphasis added].” Offering a historical analysis of the rise and fall (and the rise again and fall again) of the hipster – the article examined how media has absorbed Hipsters into the mainstream of pop culture. If some of you are throwing your tattooed fist into your black Americano, you are not the only one. The article showed up everywhere, a frenzied dialogue ensued. People were tweeting it all about it, posting links across Facebook (the link went viral across all my friends’ status updates).  Publications like the Village Voice reacted swiftly, nit-picking at times Grief’s case studies but really they stressed further that this is really nothing new, for example the 1960s was also a golden era for the Hipster – with musicians like Bob Dylan showing how subcultural movements can progress quickly into the mainstream zeitgeist.

While I don’t want to sit here and bandy back and forth on a topic that has been deliberated to death (I think I might gag if I read another article about Hipsters, and I am also thoroughly disappointed in myself for adding to this debate) – I am still curious to examine what Thomas Frank has called (and also the title of his book) “the conquest of cool.”

Frank describes how a culture industry relies on an anti-establishment ethos to ensure the cycle of commodities. Big Businesses need the Williamsburg hipster backlash against culture to sustain culture. As slogans are uttered against a hegemonic structure, culture industries readily usher them into its ideological framework. The creative revolution propels consumerism.

(As a completely difference topic, but related nonetheless: even media pundits are arguing that Wikileaks is going to save the crisis in journalism – revolution fuels growth).

Recently I gleefully came across another piece (by Grief as well) in the New York Times, using none other that LSE’s sociology department’s preferred theorist (and also NYU’s Rodney Benson’s personal favorite) Pierre Bourdieu to examine how symbols and cultural clues are used to distinguish (and at times, blur) class lines.  Indeed, the Hipster (coming from a mostly white, middle to upper class background) appropriated many icons of American working class culture to define their fauxhemian lifestyle (for example, think PBRs, lumberjack shirts, unicorns, and trucker hats).  Under the umbrella of “irony,” anything goes, and the kitsch ephemera is legitimated across new build condos and rodent ridden lofts in the hipster playgrounds known as Williamsburg and Bushwick.

But as Grief points out, in turn these “ironic” symbols have also become reabsorbed, with many mainstream icons “acquiring subculture as if it were ready-to-wear.” Grief uses the time when Paris Hilton sported a trucker hat as an example.

Indeed – for a Hipster, the minute something is perceived and even labeled as cool, it immediately loses it’s cultural capital. (Ahem, yes that was some Bourdieu thrown in there for you – I wouldn’t have it otherwise).  But to continue: cools value is diminished as it achieves an economic surplus (ahem, could that be a hint of Marx in that argument?)

Even Frank argues that hipsters have a “burning consciousness of the present” (p12).  So when pundits declare something as the it think, the now, its immediately is cemented in the past.  What’s en vogue quickly becomes mundane.  Indeeed, think of the blogger Hipster Runoff’s constant chastise of the “lamestream” as Justin Bieber sports an American Apparel hoodie once adored by Williamsburg Hipsters in the summer of 2007/8.  Yes, I can turn around and argue that it American Apparel ruined the hoodie as their aggressive growth across cities worldwide spun them near bankruptcy countless times…

Either way, you begin to see a circuitous, almost tautological loop of referencing..

So message to all the dying Hipsters out there, in sum: your f**ked.

Even channels like the Independent Film Channel and Sundance are far from being the free-spirited, savvy thinkers they claim to be: they’re really just a part of Cablevision.  Even the big cats out there know to keep tabs on those quirky kids (said in a Jack Donaghy voice).

Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer – that kinda thing, right?

But this is exactly Franks point: big businesses rely on the quirky, the ironic, the hip, savvy and  rebellious to sustain a cycle of consumption. In the same way fashion houses and publications need the Style Rookies and Sartorialists of this world, businesses are quick to realize that rules need to be broken in order to be made.  Yes, as I write that I realize that probably sounds like something you would see on one of those cheesy No Fear shirts in the 1990s, but point proven: Rebellion sells… The obvious example – just think of the ubiquitous face of Che Guevara.

But as Frank points out, hipsters have always looked uniformly defiant – whether it be through plaid shirts, a carnival of brightly colored sweatshirts, and skinny jeans – a walk down Bedford Avenue is more like a real life runway show of the Urban Outfitters catalogue.  You may scream at me “but it’s vintage!” like that justifies anything – it only proves my point further. Revolt is close friends with Co-opt, and whether your vintage is real or a fake, your subversion is now homogenous.

I’m going to sign off now, and am embracing myself for a deluge of criticism and attacks of hypocrisy, but hey I’ll completely fess up: I probably dress like all those hipster plebeians out there.  And I’m aware of that – cause as it stems from my childhood fear of not fitting in and dude, I gotta tell you – I totally feel those social pressures of conformity when I go out drinking in Billyburg…


I’m Still Here, …or the film where Joaquin Phoenix looks like Slavoj Žizek

Whatever one wants to call it: Film, Mockumentary, or Performance Art – I’m Still Here is a sublime bend through a hyper-realized culture of American celebrity. Joaquin Phoenix plays a fictionalized version of himself, transforming his suave celebrity image into “JP” – a man who is mentally unstable, overweight, and a drug abuser pursuing a career in Hip Hop.

Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix’s transformation into JP

Directed by Phoenix’s close friend and Brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, I’m Still Here tracks Phoenix’s “retirement” from acting and shows his struggle, and eventual failure, of becoming a rapper.  Phoenix’s “breakdown” is artfully fabricated; viewers see that uncomfortably tacit interview with David Letterman, a disinterested meeting with Ben Stiller, and painfully awkward conversations with Sean Combs.  As the film transgresses, Phoenix’s appearance grows more unkempt: a expanding and unsightly belly, crazy hair, unwashed clothes and…

And wait a minute….

OMG! Phoenix looks like…. SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK?!?!

But JP’s rambling tirades, the monologues….

OMG! He’s acting like… ŽIŽEK?!?!

Poster for the Žižek! documentary

But then all the critics are asking just what is real… Wait a minute… is Affleck/ Phoenix/ JP “interrogating the real…?”

OMG! I’m Still Here is philosophizing like… ŽIŽEK?!?!

I’m Still Here is an improvisation on the real, and according to Affleck – it is a fake. The film is a warp on reality – and as a New York Times critic puts it, the film offers viewers not a single “wink” to confirm the absurd.  There are plenty of scenes with drugs, nudity, hookers, and sex – that all indicate Phoenix truly became JP, taking the blows (sexually and mentally) of a celebrity losing control.  Phoenix takes method acting to the extreme, leaving reviewers wondering how far JP pushes himself to the limits of fact versus fiction.

However, it is this dialectic tension of fantasy and reality that drives the films narrative (and yes, can make it very Žižek-ian).  There is an inherent doubling against the real and surreal, which I’m Still Here delicately refers to.  On the one hand we have Phoenix, and on the other we have JP: each are intertwined in a definitional matrix against the other.  In psychoanalytical terms, Phoenix is the ego, JP the body.  Like Jacques Lacan’s analysis of the mirror stage, Phoenix’s subjective state ontologically struggles with the physical crisis represented in JP.

We see Phoenix in his hotel room gaping at his performance on Letterman, and later we see Phoenix’s remorse as he watches Ben Stiller and Natalie Portman mock him at the Oscars.  In another scene, Phoenix is reading reports of himself from the web, and he appears shocked as he realizes he has lost all credibility (or cultural capital as Pierre Bourdieu would put it), and instead slipped into becoming a national joke.

These are scenes that show Phoenix watching himself, or rather Phoenix, as JP, but really as Phoenix watching JP (yes, this character mirroring is a bit of a mind fuck). There is Phoenix as the real Joaquin, and JP as the apparition or the fantasy.   Like the Lacanian mirror, JP and Phoenix contract into each other. I’m Still Here pulls on this dynamic of identity formation, using the role of celebrity in popular culture as the fantastical device for othering.

In Žižek’s essay, “Connections of the Freudian Field to Philosophy and Popular Culture”, he writes:

“What is the problem with fantasy? I think that the key point, usually overlooked, is the way that Lacan articulated the notion of fantasy which is ‘OK, fantasy stages a desire, but whose desire?’ My point is: not the subject’s desire, not their own desire.  What we encounter is the very core of the fantasy formation is the relationship to the desire of the Other: to the opacity of the Other’s desire. The desire staged in fantasy, in my fantasy, is precisely not my own, not mine but the desire of the Other.  Fantasy is a way for the subject to answer the question of what object they are for the Other, in the eyes of the Other, for the Other’s desire.  That is to say, what does the Other see in them? What role do they play in the Other’s desire (p58)?”

I’m Still Here shadows a peculiar, almost self-fulfilling prophesy of a celebrity fuelled by a desire, fantasy and obsession.  Are we seeing Phoenix consumed by a desire for JP and ultimately a need to repel a fantasy that exists both for and from himself?  Or is the film playing with the megalomaniac, celebrity urgency for status, fame, and fortune? One scene shows JP performing at a Miami nightclub, attacking a heckler in the audience. He screams out to the crowd: “We have a bitch in the audience,” and “I’ve got a million dollars in my fucking bank account, what the fuck have you got?”

By engaging with the heckler in the audience and making remarks about his affluent status (as Bourdieu would claim, his economic capital), JP’s defense ultimately reveals his paranoia over losing his well, cultural capital. As a rapper, JP has no musical cred.  And slowly, Phoenix, as JP, is losing credibility by becoming JP.  Arguably, were JP a child making these remarks on a playground, teachers would dismiss his outrage as the result of low self-esteem.  He is paranoid, vulnerable. But according to Žižek, the paranoia JP experiences would be symptomatic to his identification for the desired Other.  For Žižek, desire is the paranoia – and I’m Still Here slips into a car crash version of self-compulsion, obsession and the paranoid.  Or, the paranoia could be symptomatic of the drugs Phoenix (allegedly, does he really) consumes (one of the hot questions for the press)…

Really, I’m Still Here becomes a semantic and metaphysical trap: unknowing, unsure.

The guessing, the questioning to the process of constructing an image, this desire with knowing, or the fantasies constructed by now knowing, is what I believe to be the whole point of the film.

In Žižek’s documentary, A Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema, Žižek claims that cinema is the ultimate parable art that dictates the terms and conditions for desire.   Again, another doubling emerges: film becomes Phoenix’s mirror, offering retracting images of a media obsessed with, well – images. Every scene is scripted, each reality staged, every identity purposefully constructed is for the sole purpose of the movie.  Affleck’s exercise of constructing an image becomes instead a process for deconstructing an image.   And in this further Žižek-ian twist, I’m Still Here uses film precisely as a catalyst and text for not just JP’s desire, but a media obsessed with a desire for celebrity. Which Phoenix revealed (looking more clean cut and trim) in last week’s interview with Letterman as his and Affleck’s motivation for making the film.

But behind JP we know there is still Joaquin Phoenix, hidden underneath the mumbles of rapping, disheveled beard, and pudgy face: as perhaps the movie’s title “I’m Still Here” indicates.  Of course, there is the argument that the clean-shaven and buff image of Joaquin Phoenix that the media know is as much a construction as JP is.  And the loop of analysis and over thinking goes on…

For a final thought…

Anyways…  if Joaquin Phoenix can transform himself into a man who looks like Žižek, I can’t help wondering what Žižek would look like if he were to transform himself into a man who looks like Joaquin Phoenix…

Žižek, S.  “Connections of the Freudian Field to Philosophy and Popular Culture,” from Interrogating The Real, ed Rex Butler and Scott Stephens, 2005.