Moleskine Willie: Aesthetics in Pursuit of the Counter-Culture of the Bourgeoisie
by Penelope Farthing-Byke
Notably absent among the paroxysms of contradiction regarding contemporary hipsterism is much attention to its origins. At once we decry the silly beards and mustache wax, the artisinal paperclips and the endless PBRs and we indulge all this stylistically and, importantly, financially.
Artisinal stuff just tends to be better than its mass-produced corporate counterparts, and since most of us grew up on the latter, we're understandably interested in the change. It is not as if the bar for overcoming corporate rot has been set that high anyway: curly fries seeping mysterious trans-fats, no matter how cheap, are easily bested by locovorious potatoes lovingly cooked in duck fat and lightly sprinkled with pink salt mined in the Carpathians no matter how dear.
Laying aside, for a moment, matters of “genuineness” or “authenticity,” we see here something that people really seem to want: an object to which someone has paid attention, something unavailable at the big-box store that dominates the local strip mall. Notable, too, is that those hipsters we so love to hate and hate to love are themselves the products of this backlash, having been born of minivans and drive-thrus, soccer teams and Sam's Club. Hipsterism is what helicopter parenting hath inevitably wrought.
As much as we may see this as a warning, it puts contemporary hipsterism directly into the complex dance of culture and counter-culture with which we have been familiar forever: Boomers raised on Dr. Spock and within the relative comfort of an expanding post-war economy grew into the hippies of the '60s, rejecting the consumer culture that provided the ease with which they could critique it, using the enriched upbringing they received to become the very helicopter parents Millennial hipsters rejected in turn. The Gilded Age kids of the Gay '90s morphed into the flappers of the '20s, crashing the ship of wealth via reckless endeavors and spawning The Greatest Generation whose hard-bitten upbringing helped turn the Nazi tide.
Privilege—or the illusion of privilege—produces a backlash, it would seem, and, broadly speaking, a rejection of the values and the styles expressed by the culture of one's origin.
But, clearly, this is not the complete picture. As Fitzgerald so well noted and so well embodied, the grand party of the '20s led not just to the Great Depression but to a massive cultural shift. The turmoil of the 1960s and the recession years of the 1970s and early 1980s threw the Boomers into a mode of arch and virulent conservatism from which we suffer to this day. The tremendous comfort and promise of the current hipsters' formative years have been dashed by a reality of economic uncertainty and instability as their parents' conservative politics take hold in the form of austerity and income inequality. The hipsters' early adulthood has revealed a nasty divergence: the promise of corporate America as an endless font of desirable objects and free-prize-laden Happy Meals that characterized their childhoods was the prelude to the tragedy of dead-end call-center jobs, disappointingly vapid tech-sector work, and the almost total disappearance of traditional, middle class white collar work. Highly educated and info-rich, hipsters are merely making the best of their not-so-plenteous situation, parleying skills in home-brewing or fancy toast into trend-driven vehicles they drive back into something resembling the middle class.
By this measure, hipster style is as much personal marketing tool as personal statement: the beards and tats, the cat-eye glasses and the vintage spats say “Yeah, I'm a small business man, but I'm not a freakin' sellout, man.” Thus they attempt to bring meaning back to aesthetics, another something largely lacking in the highly stylized vapidity of the decades that birthed the hipsters of today.
The success or failure of this semiotics, this attempt to express lange via the tropes and forms of parole, is beyond the scope of this piece, but the place of it within the culture/counter-culture duality is a step toward that analysis.
Big beards and working class attire have long taken on symbolic significance in the United States. Proto-hipsters like Walt Whitman were prone to practicing such things as carpentry, but found attractive the aesthetics of their practice and tools:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the
deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the
morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown[.] (lines 1-9)
By late in life, supremely bearded and unspokenly gay, Whitman's working class affiliations set well with a nation in love with its own upstart nature: comfortably contradictory, the U.S. of the 19th century seemingly “contained multitudes,” from the patrician East Coast to the rough and tumble West, where a man could make a living fishing one year and homesteading the next. Ever-hopeful, ever-resourceful, and unconcerned with the niceties of comfort or the fussiness of razors, the poetry of American life could be lived directly, and in the rough.
This aesthetic is, it should be said, always available to the American, even if what it represents is not, and its message is used by leftists and rednecks alike, though who “The Man” is and what he demands varies from case-to-case. For both political and practical reasons, this aesthetic reappears in the 1930s. The Depression pushed many out of work and back into a cobbled-together existence so celebrated by Whitman: all their meager possessions packed into bindles, their lives of steady work at an end, thousands of men and a few women took to the tracks to find what living they could.
Hobo culture, with its own lingo and signs, its Rock Candy eschatology and its repurposing of folk music via simple instrumentation provided a newer, sadder iteration of what the US had come to celebrate as its authentic heart. Reduced to only that which might fit in a bandanna, and with grooming a costly luxury, the hobo could just let it go and let it grow: hard necessity was the hobo's message of opposition to the mainstream, the bourgeoisie.
As with all cultural currents, however, this aesthetic found its way streaming into the good graces of the more comfortable masses whose sympathies might have bent toward the sort of “freedom” such desperation had become romanticized to represent. Thus musicians such as Boxcar Willie may be seen within the Whitmanian tradition:
I lost all my money
In a crooked poker game
Now I'm going home
On this old freight train
I got the boxcar blues
Shuffle on down the tracks
(Shuffle, shuffle on down the track)
I got the boxcar blues
And Lord, I may never get back
Well, I am so lonely
I think I could die
These ain't cinders
Tears in my eyes[.] (Martin lines 1-13)
Consider, as well, the almost forgotten iteration of this aesthetic—not the hippies of the 1960s but the Beats of the 1950s. Nostalgic for that freedom, and picking up on its oppositionality to the growing corporatism around them, the Beats recognized those around them tuned in to something Other, and the word “hipster” actually came into its own. From Kerouac's recasting of the hobo as gear-headed speed freak Neal Cassady to Ginsberg's (now outspoken) homosexuality and Whitmanian beard, the Beats, whose lives were dominated by the spectre of the apocalyptic techno-war that was World War II, gathered American oppositionalism and counter-cultural aesthetics into something of a pointed attack. As diffuse and bland as the hippie message became, the Beats seem, perhaps ironically, to have had their shit together and to have known with certainty what they were about.
The current batch of hipsters, as much as they seem to know what they are up to at the individual level, seem not to have bothered with developing any collective force—and seem utterly uninterested in doing so.
To be sure, the current hipster aesthetic is an admixture of past expressions of counter-culturalism and the latest in corporate techno-sleek: for every janky beard and sleeve-tattoo, there hums the latest iBling, the meanest Tweet, and an undercurrent of libertarian hate for all the meritocracy forgot.
We should not be surprised by all this: after all, the Beats availed themselves of film and, later, of video, embraced car culture and “better living through modern chemistry.” There is no evidence that oppositional forces are, or mean to be, among the Luddites. But it is also not clear that current hipsters have much of a sense of irony about the still strong corporate world their addiction to upscale technologies goes to support.
The Moleskine notebook, an example of which I must admit I own, seems to embody what the contemporary hipster is all about. Simultaneously retro and right-now, possessing the Moleskine sets the hipster into a tradition at once bohemian and and accepted, both artisinal and devoted to the worship of the inexorable gods of profit.
Martin, Lecil (“Boxcar Willie”). “Boxcar Blues.” King Of The Road: 20 Great Hits. Suffolk, 1980. LP.
Whitman, Walt. “I Hear America Singing” (1867). The Whitman Reader. Ed. Maxwell Geismar. New York: Cardinal, 1955. 5-6. Print.