Hipsters and Sincerity

WP_20150302_19_44_36_ProI recently read R Jay Magill’s Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion That We All Have Something to Say (no Matter How Dull) (2012). The historical timescale from the Protestant Reformation to postmodern hipsters would prompt tuts from more serious historians, but I have always liked this type of broad history. With certain reservations, of course. The book was a pleasant and light read sitting on the bus or tube commuting from my East London lodgings to town. It was easy enough to finish in time for my trip to Williamsburg’s hipster haunts in Brooklyn. Despite the hip title and its ironic hipster-critique-of-hipsters idiom, the book was an entertaining exercise in Lovejoyish history of ideas in popular form.

The religious origins of sincerity as a concept were explained rather quickly, but this was not a big problem for someone who was raised Lutheran. Those who were not might need more, but any number of works about the subject can be found in any decent library or bookstore. The writer who was revealed to be at the root of the modern secular concept of sincerity was Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). His way of approaching writing in his Essays (1588) was to confess his weaknesses and to mock his own human frailties in a self-conscious manner. He had principles and moral codes of conduct, but despite these he wanted his readers to know that he was a human being like everyone else. He made mistakes, did stupid things and sometimes failed to live up to his own standards. The one standard he held dearest in his essays was his unwavering sincerity. Magill calls Montaigne “the first modern sensibility—a figure self-ironizing of his social role” (39). Others have called Montaigne the first modern subject and despite the hyperbole this is not too far from the truth. Montaigne was very privileged in that he was able to speak and conduct himself freely. He was wealthy and well-connected, but these were not the only things that created his privilege. He was brave enough to withdraw into his chambers to write the Essays even though his services were in great need.

I have spoken to professors who have lamented the fact that they cannot really speak their minds because they are part of a machine that requires them to watch their words very carefully. CEOs and politicians are usually in the same boat. We think of these people as some of the most privileged in the world, but the truth is that their social roles force them to censor themselves in order to maintain their position and to keep up facades that support their underlings. I doubt that many are somehow malicious and do this out of spite, but they rarely have the privilege to speak or write like Montaigne. In a way, they are less free, although I am fairly sure the remunerations are quite adequate to justify any pangs of insincerity they may feel. It would be silly to think of successful people as victims of the system they maintain or their own success within the system. There are privileges like sincerity and there are other kinds of privileges—to think of privilege in terms of one overriding privilege to rule them all would be sloppy and infantile.

So what has all this to do with hipsters? I took away two things from Magill’s concluding chapters. First, we live in a world that has returned to very harsh values. Magill writes insightfully about a generation of overeducated and, yes, privileged young people who have seen the onset of the War on Terror and destructive recessions. The English or Arts major has the wrong degree for wars or cut-throat business transactions. What do you do when you find yourself in a hostile environment like this? You mock the world around you and ridicule the absurdity of a weltanschauung that makes 1984 and American Psycho look like Disneyfied imitations of modernity. What else can you do but use the one freedom you have. Secondly, hipsters are the new Puritans who have a hostile attitude towards cowardly fake sincerity. This is in itself ironic, because there seems to be less and less of the real thing around. The marketplace has noticed that sincerity sells and has packaged it into cute consumable packages. We are all at the mercy of these trends, fake or not.

The political rhetoric of the business elite is a dead world. Puritans can be tedious, especially those of a bureaucratic mindset, and few deserve more sympathy than the Patrick Batemans of the world. If you find yourself between the suits and Puritan ideologues the best option is to drop out of society like the hippies or the early Puritans who escaped to America. Berlin has been a hipster hotspot recently. I have heard Paris might be the next one. The cynics among us would say that there are no more Americas to escape to and that dropping out in the digital age is near impossible. But the place to escape to is perhaps of secondary importance. Your escape might be the Internet and a cup of coffee in the middle of the night. What might be more important in the long run is that a generation of people have once again learned to see their society as a place to escape from. There’s nothing cynical or ironic about that.

0 Responses to “Hipsters and Sincerity”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: