As much as we all like to complain about hipsters (including so-called hipsters), hip trends tend to insinuate themselves in every context. Academia, for example, whose participants imagine themselves beyond the common hipster culture of clothing fashion, is not immune to this problem. Theory tends to develop in cycles of hipness, and one can chart the development of various journals and institutions––what is being published, what projects are considered worthy, who is getting a job––based on what is in at a given time and place.
Having been a part of academia for a decent amount of time, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and sometimes dabble in a variety of chic theoretical fashion currents. And though my general concerns are mostly such that I have doomed myself to being “left behind” by the tides of fashion, there are a few moments where my concerns have happened, luckily or unluckily, to overlap with what happens to be in fashion, or a few years out of fashion, to at least perceive these cycles of theoretical hipness.
When I was doing my undergraduate degree Baudrillard, for some reason, was fashionable––maybe a little bit of Debord if you were feeling slightly “transgressive” and wanted to give academia the finger without really giving it the finger. Then there was Deleuze and Guattari, intersected with some Hart and Negri––right when Empire was all the rage. Another trajectory of Butler and Spivak was strong enough to get some papers published and some careers solidified, if you acted quickly. There was also that dead-end of Carl Schmitt that I never understood (I really didn’t see how the insights of a fascist were useful) but that some people are still pursuing. Following this there was Agamben, still a viable pursuit if you’re running in the right circles. Yet another direction: Nancy, who is still blossoming as a theoretical fad if you have the stomach for that kind of thing. And then there is Zizek, Badiou (who I do happen to follow because he most directly concerns my discipline), Ranciere…
Theory as fashion, academic work following hip trends, is unavoidable in academia. Suddenly one day everyone who wants to be everyone is reading the same work, or at least referencing the same theorist, just like whatever is the normative fashionable look these days. Ten years ago everyone who was everybody was carrying a copy of 1000 Plateaus; today they are carrying around something by Zizek or Badiou (but usually not, when it comes to the latter, Being and Event or Logic of Worlds which aren’t really all that much fun); tomorrow it will be something by someone else––the shelf life on what is hip is only a few years.
I can’t really complain about this because I am part of this very problem, and the desire to be part of what is hip is, unfortunately, quite unavoidable. After all, the abstract hipster is defined as hipster by avoiding, critiquing, and trying to outrun the very problem of hipness that s/he rails against: “you think you’re hip, well I’m avoiding your hipster real altogether by doing something so beyond cool it is the essence of the new cool!” Academic theory is no exception, and we all want to be fashionable because we all want our work to matter and the only way we can understand its mattering is in terms of what is currently fashionable.
This is why I have always found every joke about hipsters, no matter what the context, somewhat suspicious. If someone complains about hipsters, and disparages what these hipsters are doing (whether it be in the realm of banal fashion or the realm of academic fashion), then I cannot help but feel that what they really want is for themselves to be accepted as the true measure of coolness. Indeed, every critique of hipsters, which is a rather vague category of being if it is even a category at all, emerges from the very context that is being critiqued. Only hipsters complain about hipsters because who the hell else cares about what or what is not fashionable enough to waste time complaining about it? Television shows such as Portlandia are a perfect example of the hipster disgust of hipsterism. And in the context of academia we have the graduate student who complains about everyone studying Badiou because s/he is certain that only s/he can understand Badiou because s/he was reading it “before it was cool” and thus has a truer grasp on the material.
So rather than try and avoid the problem of hipness, why not try to make a radical politics that spills beyond the theory that is currently hip fashionable again? Why not make revolution hip? Why not make communism hip? Why not make People’s Wars hip? That is, rather than complaining about how nobody in academia is following revolutionary movements in the world because they are two misguided by their pet theoretical concerns––rather than complaining about how the popular fashionistas don’t give a shit about class revolution––why not try and make these things take on the veneer of a hip coolness that will only become “uncool” when the petty-bourgeois as a class realize that they are being sent down to the countryside and it is too late to embrace another fashion trend? Maybe I’m being tongue-and-cheek, suggesting something similar to what I once wrote about branding communism, but it is worth considering.
To be honest, I’m getting tired of people complaining about hipsters and academics complaining about hip theoretical trends when these things seem to be unavoidable. You cannot escape this kind of popularization because you are not an isolated individual unaffected by what is or what is not popular. And since the ruling ideas of the ruling class produce, in every historical context, popular values, one way to fight this is to struggle to make a counter-politics also popular.
I mean, do we really want communism to remain at the margins of popular culture, to be forever branded as unhip (although thanks to the work of some “hip” theorists there is some reversal to this trend), and ourselves as unique (but secretly and “truly” hip) militants to a cause that will always remain alternative and underground? It’s not hard to get the feeling that some marxists want communism to retain its unhip hipness, so that they can be the true and unrecognized “cool” struggling against the mainstream and thus feel superior to everyone else. This is a pretty uncommunist way of being communist: we should be struggling to make it hip so that people want to rally to its banner; we should be struggling to popularize its hipness so that it eventually becomes mainstream.
To be fair, the problem of hipness is a problem that only emanates from a certain sector of first world society thanks to the imperialist-derived “culture industry”. But those of us who are communists at the centres of capitalism, because we cannot escape the vicissitudes of the culture industry, should find a way to make some of its aspects work in our favour rather than just opting-out and pretending that we can avoid this problematic. If we want to produce a counter-hegemony than we have to struggle to make communism hip, but in a decidedly non-ironic way, so that it is no longer seen as some throwback to cold war politics. And if we want to avoid the perceived problems of culture industry hipness, we also have to make a revolutionary communism seem cool rather than an anything goes movementist communism that lacks the means to actually build communism.
I mean, back during the cold war, anti-communist reactionaries at the centres of imperialism were terrified by the possibility that communism would be perceived as more cool than capitalism, that everything that defied conservative fashion was a secret communist plot. Maybe we need to give them this plot again so that they are terrified that the communist monster is hiding under every cultural bed.