These days I am hunkered down on Division St. in SE Portland, watching my bank account diminish and joining the legion of young people trying to live off of humble service sector jobs. SE Portland is like college plus, indelibly young and hip and alternative. What’s enjoyable to me, coming from the Midwestern hamlet of Kalamazoo, MI, is that here you can more readily see the legacy of all the weird shit that happened in post-war American culture. At Kalamazoo College and institutions of its ilk, the modernism-postmodernism level of the Inferno is taken to fully account for what people are talking about these days. Trouble is, it’s a specific and limited territory on the great map of the arts, and I still can’t fully explain what modo and pomo are anyways. Pastiche > grand narrative, and I noticed that people like to Otherize/romanticize folk traditions, yeah…

What I know is that when I was young and impressionable and male I was given Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to read and even now, after many more adventures in literature, I am still trying to understand the vague category of “cool,” because that’s what I see when I see Portland, a cool place, and what does that mean? Is cool a drug fueled sense of freedom? An attitude, a set of clothes, or is it simply the triumph of one genre of music over another?

Furthermore, why do I care? Am I trying to lay claim to some proximity to cool? Probably, also, recently I have had a few experiences that have clarified my perspective, namely, completing undergrad and traveling within the banal limits of my own country. I’m adopting the pretension to take the pulse of my times. I’m searching for an anthropological explanatory principle, what can account for 21st century migratory patterns? At some point in the evolution of culture there emerged this thing called counter-culture, a response to normative life and self-expression, and it had everything to do with philosophy, that is, questioning values and considering new paradigms. It’s dialectics all the way down.

I’ll start with an abbreviated history of “cool,” completely fabricated with no rigor whatsoever. Way back in 40’s, “cool” was Jazz (capital J), an inner sanctum presided over by black musicians and white “beats,” hipsters that got it, it being it, you know? These were the ones to say “no” to the white American Dream of the nice home and garden in the suburbs. “I’m not buying it,” they said, and took to the road. This began the counter-cultural crusade against the “Man” and the “System,” and the search for “Eastern” responses to the concept of profit. Replace the drug induced improvisation of Jazz with the drug induced improvisation of the Grateful Dead, and the hippies grew the fomenting beatnik lifestyle rebellion into a mass culture event. In my mind, punks represent an urban response to the hippie pastoral, the same anti-authoritarian ethos but equipped for basements rather than geodomes. Ethnically speaking, these subgroups were all predominately white, a trend culminating in the hipster, an agglomeration of beatnik, hippie, and punk, but seemingly divested of a political agenda.

Because of their apolitical stance, it is typically necessary to denounce the hipster at this point in order to save face. Either the hipster is dead (http://nymag.com/news/features/69129/), or the hipster is the diabolical blight of civilization, (http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/79/hipster.html). This absence of political vision is saddening but understandable. It is the logical outcome of a generation that grew up with the blatantly venal Bush administration carrying on with such an idiotic and unchecked vigor that politics actually became implausible. This hipster agnosticism, I want to point out, has resulted in a more moderate, tepid, sense of rebellion; in the process of trading the inheritance of a punk “underground” for a cozy, liberal, “grassroots” approach, the hipster has done away with the anti-Capital revolutionary core of the counterculture.

Now, capitalism qua (relatively) free-market is, technically speaking, the system that eats all other systems and shits them out as consumer goods, my favorite example being Che Guevara T-shirts. Che, a people’s soldier and die-hard communist, also has an Alexandrian melting gaze that sells really well. The Che brand is his legacy (http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1535), and that says it all.

With the advent of the modern hipster, the beatnik-hippie-punk-hipster lifecycle has run its course, and we now have the “cool” brand as the legacy of white counter-culture. Beatnik plaid and glasses, the hippie diet, punk piercings, etc. coupled with other products like “good beer,” have come together to complete the counterculture lifestyle rebellion and make the entire package available for those with a selective consumption pattern and a disposable income, and everything available within the present status quo. Cool has come full circle to become what it always was, the off brand.

The point to be made is a weary moment of realpolitik. 50 years after the first push for green energy in the 60’s , some of those at the top of our oligarchical food chain have finally learned that alternative projects are a good investment. “The They” are (barely) starting to put their money into the counter cultural off-grid style. The holistic scene is gaining credit. With a grotesque display of wu-wei, Capital stands to benefit from those that opposed it. The next wave of free-thinking is likely to be entrepreneurial rather than revolutionary, a transformation of business model rather than a transformation of society. Whatever, Capital, fuck you anyway.

I want to close with the Hegelian understanding of modernity. For Hegel, modernity is the age that becomes its own becoming, it is the last epoch, an epoch marked by an awareness of constant rather than periodic transition.  For Hegel, this marked the triumph of democracy over feudal divine right because the self-conscious becoming of modernity reveals human beings to be agents of change. The modern impulse is the perspective of history, the notion that living people make and re-make the world, rather than simply inheriting a fixed tradition, as was held in the classical and medieval epochs. Consequently, the people, the democratic populous, became the focal point.

In a Portland inspired parallel, having ridden out an entire boom and bust economic cycle (the post-war prosperity of the beats to the current recession era hipster) coolness has now become its own becoming. It is no longer a symptom of the socio-political moment, but a self-sufficient noosphere. After the advent of the hipster the consumption of alternative products is a viable telos on its own, not just a side effect of existential habits. The conclusion is simply that a dichotomy between culture and commerce, authenticity and business acumen, is a false one. The issue of our economically and environmentally conscious contemporaneity is a politics of consumption.

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