In 1996, writer David Foster Wallace published an essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” in Review of Contemporary Fiction. In the essay, Wallace explained his reasoning as to why television had been so successful in maintaining its position in the centre of popular culture for half a century, despite ever-present complaints regarding its lowest-common-denominator content (catering to the “vulgar, prurient and dumb” common tastes of the common man). He argues that if the viewer knows, consciously or unconsciously, that television watching is dependent on voluntary complicity in the “lowness” of the medium, then television must have developed a sophisticated means of keeping the viewer interested – enter irony.
Irony is television’s way of preventing the viewing public from giving in to its (rational) conscientious qualms with an average television dosage of six hours per day. In order to prevent the public from turning the channel or finding new amusements, television has begun to consume itself, making jokes at its own expense in a self-aware scheme that rewards the viewer for being “in” on the joke.
In Western culture, through a sort of cultural osmosis due to massive overexposure, irony has thus become a vital means through which young people interact with the world; nowhere is this more obvious than in hipster culture.
Hipsters, by definition, identify negatively with current popular culture. Something “cool” to the general public is to the Hipster profoundly uncool, and vice versa – by associating ironically and insincerely with things that have fallen out of fashion, the Hipster asserts his or her disattachment to and aloofness from the public’s tastes. This creates a quick-rolling cycle of adoption and abandonment of fashion and music products, because once a fashion item is associated with Hipsterdom the elite must move on: only the subculture’s lowest echelons identify themselves as Hipsters.
Take for example possibly the first ubiquitous symbol of the hipster (besides, arguably, the Polaroid camera): the fixed-speed bicycle. Technological improvement (in gear-shifters that allow uphill cycling, brakes that really work, and non-banana seats) had rendered the fixed-gear bicycle obsolete by the mid 1980s. However, it was readopted by the Hipster as an extension of thrift-store fashion shopping, proving how committed the Hipster was to the uncool, impractical, etc. Upon widespread adoption of the fixed-gear bicycle, however, the cycle has turned on itself and hipsters themselves sneer at the lesser echelons still sweating on their banana seats.
Hipsterdom and its ironic approach to the world is fairly benign as long as it remains confined to the racks of Value Village, hunting for sweaters with elk on them. However, as Rob Horning lamented in “The Death of the Hipster”, nothing is more than a “signifier of personal identity” to the Hipster, because “they reduce the particularity of anything you might be curious about or invested in into the same dreary common denominator of how ‘cool’ it is perceived to be.”
This is where irony, insincerity, and their current manifestation, the Hipster, become a real problem for young people. When every statement, belief, or cause is scrutinized for its “coolness” rather than its real merit or individual appeal, it becomes painfully hard to honestly commit oneself to something without fear of scorn.
Worse still is the association of absolutely anything creative, courageous, innovative, social, or born of any aesthetic but that of the shopping mall or FX Television, with Hipsterdom and the accompanying scorn. Producing a photo project? Hipster. Ordering a fair trade coffee? Hipster. Wearing a hat your girlfriend knitted for you? Hipster. Learning to play an instrument, learning a new language, baking your own bread, ordering a microbrew, going to a locally-produced documentary screening? What are you, some kind of Hipster?
A real-world application of this regretfully, and allegedly accidentally, appeared in my school newspaper, of which I was an editor when the article appeared. The article in question – run directly opposite an article congratulating students returning from volunteering in Africa – dealt with the altogether cynical and unproductive thesis that Africa had become a “fashionable” place for young people to volunteer, and that it was chosen for its sentimental caché rather than any specific real or perceived need.
The problem I had with the article is that it makes no difference why young volunteers choose to participate in programs, only that they participate and grow through helping others. Everyone benefits from these programs when they are properly administered, regardless of the reasons for which the participants have chosen one place over another. To look down upon this experience is as cynical as it is damaging to the well-being not only of the principal benefactors, but also of the potential participants who might be turned away – or the former participants who no longer feel proud of what they’ve done but instead simply uncool.
David Foster Wallace concluded his 1996 essay with a prediction. He suggested that as a reaction to the hipsters’ sneers, a new form of rebel would emerge, characterized by a heartfelt sincerity and an equal indifference to scorn. This would be an anti-rebel, really, with an inward-facing strength rather than an outward-striking insecurity. Thus far however, the Hipster still rules, and the rest of the world’s hatred of his fetishization of the cool continues to cost more than just a flea-market cardigan and a pair of Ray-Bans.
 DFW, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”. A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again, 1996. Wallace explains that although television caters to a “low” set of tastes, that does not mean that they are meant to appeal to “vulgar, prurient and dumb” people; rather that people’s “low” tastes have more in common than their sophisticated tastes.