The Hipster as Bartleby

The only cultural phenomenon bigger than that of the hipster is our need to analyze it

The Hipster as Bartleby

Perhaps nothing has more power to annoy, confuse and disgust the general public than the towering figure of the ‘hipster’—that brand of individual devoted to tactics of false individuality, a figure almost transparent were it not for the fact that it is to be found in groups, always en masse, a testament to the very lack of individuality which the hipster makes it his creed to deny.

But what is the hipster, really? There are as many theories as there are human beings, or at least it seems. To define the hipster seems to have become the goal of society, and it is rapidly becoming one of those subjects which one is not allowed not to have an opinion about. ‘The New York Times’ took a stab at it a few weeks ago in an essay analyzing the true nature of the beast. But, characteristic of the ‘Times’, it began with an intriguing question (Do hipsters even really exist?) but didn’t take very long to stoop to the level of French philosophy to find the answer. The fact is, as much as the often antiquated ‘Times’ would like to have its finger on the pulse of things, the true origin of the hipster pre-dates anything they can drudge up in their archives.

In 1853 Herman Melville published his novella ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.’ It was the simple, pseudo-metaphorical tale of a man who loses interest in basically everything for no reason at all, and ends up dying because he no longer has interest in eating food. Melville was writing in the golden age, when it was possible to write books about characters which no one in the world could possibly relate to on a direct level. Still the questions that surrounded the work on publication are still with us now when we read it, namely; What the hell was Bartleby’s deal?

It’s the same question you might well ask of a person whose choice of identification with some non-existent ‘counter-culture’, represented by indie music and ill-fitting clothes, seems to go against their upbringing as a privileged child brought up in yuppie-dom. For though his loyalty to certain indicators of taste is the hipster’s most recognizable trait, it seems something more that defines him (or her)–something ambitionless and antinomian, a need to define oneself in terms of what one is not, to stress the negative, and to exist solely because something else does. To be ‘counter’, in some way. To be ‘not’.

Which is not to say ‘directly opposed’. For for the hipster to actually oppose culture would be for him to make a stand which would completely undercut his entire identity, that identity which relies so heavily on taking none but a symbolic stand, a sort of passive resistance; by existing in obnoxious, not oppositional, relation to the culture that he refuses to worship. Bartleby’s tagline is ‘I would prefer not to’, and when challenged, asked to perform some function that is necessary to his work, or his continued existence on the planet, this is the only answer he can give. Not a firm stand, not a true ‘fuck you’ to the man, but a refusal accompanied by a suggestion. The suggestion of a preference–if Bartleby would prefer not to, assumedly there is something else he would prefer doing? But no. What he prefers is only the negative, the ‘not.’ It is itself only allowed to exist because a positive state exists to counter it.

Case in point, the hipster persona. Making a stand that can be easily ignored, refusing to acknowledge its own existence to the point of total delusion, and most of all, allying itself with the things that have no other merit to them but the fact that they are, or in some way stand for ‘not’. Bartleby’s fate is sealed in the end by his many and eccentric refusals. One can only wonder what growth, maturity and change will do for the individual weighed down in youth by the hipster persona. Or will the denying power of hipster-ism deny them the prospect of aging as well, and make of the new generation a sort of lost-boys conglomerate?

Who can say.