August 11, 2010
This summer when I took the train up to Montreal for a conference, I sat next to a scruffy hipster dude in his forties who told me he was from Brooklyn. The whole ride he lamented the lousy hipster kids who had moved into his ‘hood, saying they turned a dirty patch of city space into a slice of Martha Stewart. He told me the real people in every city hate the gentrifiers, but no one knows how to stop them, and he never realized I thought he was one of them, before he started talking.
The idea that the “real” world is something other than the one in which we are actually living seems to be at the heart of the counter-culture American experience and, like most American desires, this one too has been co-opted by corporate America.A recent Urban Outfitters store which opened inNew York Cityharkens back to the good ol’ days of neighborhood mom n’ pop stores, its outdoor facade shows a hat store and a bodega, as well as numerous other shops that would possibly be around today, were it not for stores like Urban Outfitters, which have ended up buying out the locals.
Much has already been said to criticize the hipster obsession with irony and how it often undercuts actual real world dilemmas. My point is not to ask whether or not hipster fashion provides a skewed view of reality; of course it does. My interest lies in whether or not it is ever possible to render the real world through art and why it seems to be so important to so many writers and artists to try. A recent article at Bitch Magazine called, “Feminist Intersection: On hipsters/hippies and Native culture”pointed out the problem with native fashions being co-opted for a predominantly non-native audience. The article argued that this co-opting was dangerous, in that many people using the fashions were unaware of the actual roots of the items they were wearing. The author argues that this type of appropriation rendered important symbols utterly meaningless. While I agree that the appropriation of Native American symbols is absolutely problematic, I also wonder at where one does draw the lines of demarcation at which things are real and which are imitation. Our obsession with authenticity is all the more troubling when one recognizes that the notion of cultural purity is in many ways a myth- cultures borrow from one another all the time. Oftentimes there is a distinct and specific power dynamic that renders that appropriation obviously reprehensible, but many times the co-opting of another’s reality may be seemingly benign, or, at the very least, made to seem less problematic than other types of appropriation. A religious Jew may view my wearing of a Star of David with a mini dress as inauthentic, since I am not a truly observant or practicing Jew, while I may view my wearing of it as symbolic of my cultural background. Likewise, when a friend of mine discovers he is 1/10th Jewish and begins to start to co-opt the symbols I actually grew up with, is this an act of sudden appropriation or reverence?
The seduction of the real is linked with the slipperiness of reality itself and the writer’s preoccupation with it is linked to the constant desire to imitate and display it. This is certainly not a new phenomena- the urge to showcase the real goes back to the Ancient Greeks. One new aspect, though, relates to how the use of technology currently filters the real. Is social media, like Facebook, damaging our capacity for real relationships? Many people seem to think so. In reality, I think the unease with Facebook comes not from the destruction of “real” social interaction, but the fact that Facebook behaves as a mirror to firmly illustrate just how paltry most of our relationships in a modern consumer culture are to begin with. Does the public display of the trivial ways in which we make or break acquaintances or friendships diminish it further? Or does it simply highlight how many of our social interactions are conventions, rather than built on genuine feeling? Is this a perversion of the real, or a complicated re-telling of it?
The process of rendering this type of “real” is always a process of distancing, of creating a kind of amusing other, completely content in the present moment of experience, for whom the experience of the world is fundamentally unchanging. For example, many talk of going to places in their “pristine” condition, as in, “Let’s all go to Cuba/Kenya/Vietnam before it changes!” as if the people who live in these places are all happy to retain the current status quo, to give us the experience of the realness of their lives we have all read about in books and seen on the travel channel.
Perhaps the problem is that our own realities never feel real to us. We’ve simply lived them for so long, they lose that essential “realness”. As a Latin American Jew, I never felt particularly mainstream American. Both my parents came from relatively poor backgrounds and for them the real world was the suburban lifestyle, the American dream they longed to attain. For myself, the dream worked backwards, and I was drawn into the real world of their youth, with the curiosity of a snobby 18th century explorer, eager to chart my course and capture the real lives of the people who came before me.And now it works the other way too- after years of living in Suburbia, my parents think fondly back to their youth and imagine that world as the real one, and I think back to my own childhood growing up and look around and think this suburban world has its perks too- free of the self absorbed artists, filled with people who have real lives, working in real places, using their real hands, their real bodies on sturdy little sunshine splattered hammocks. I tell this to my father and he laughs and gently chides me, saying that he can remember a time when, in my youth, I told him I wouldn’t be caught dead working an office job, being spoon-fed teaspoons of the American Dream. It’s a reality I can’t remember feeling, let alone saying, and it surprises me that a real aspect of who I am is no longer real to me at all.