The Null Device
US author Benjamin Nugent has written a book titled "American Nerd", about how the nerd/geek stereotype was adopted as a badge of hipster identity:
Being sixteen, I thought to myself: How do I rebel against this? How does my generation do something new? How do we construe this epoch as a rotting husk adrift on dark waters, so thatwe can make our own creative endeavors seem romantic? One answer is purism. When eclecticism is your parents’ thingyou revisit old genres and deliberately maintain their integrity (these genres may have once themselves been considered hybrids, but a really long time ago). Freak folk is the rock-criticism name for my generation’s exploration of folk music. New garage means my generation’s take on mid-1960s guitar rock. Nu wave means my generation’s take on early punk and new wave. In these albums, there is no hip-hop or jazz or Texas swing or house or any of the other flavors previous generations loved to mix. The sort-of-true clichés about what hipsters like—trucker caps, mustaches, Pabst Blue Ribbon, mullets—play with the idea of old school. They connote sophistication and cosmopolitanism by screaming, “We are not cosmopolitan! We are not culturally sophisticated!” This is an anti-Bobo trend, and one aspect of it is the flowering of nerdiness as an aesthetic.Nugent cites Norman Mailer's The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster, and posits the analogy between the Afro-American stereotype of the 1950s and the nerd stereotype of today. Part of this is as a sort of Rousseauvian noble savage, unsullied by sophistication, and thus all the more valuable for sophisticates to appropriate the identity of. Part has to do with the treadmill of commodification, where things that were once signifiers of being on the cultural forefront get marketed to the mainstream and become ubiquitous, and those genuinely at the forefront have to do something different to differentiate themselves from the suburban consumers wearing their old costumes, hence adopting outsider identities. The fact that the outsider identity is considered deeply uncool by the mainstream (consider all the hipsters with rustic-looking beards making primitive folk music on their iBooks, when the trendies are into angular, skinny-legged indie rock that sounds like The Clash or whatever and the mainstream are into thugged-out commercial hip-hop) also helps; and it also has a useful peacock-tail effect, demonstrating one's fitness through an act of stylistic bravado, and essentially saying "I'm so with-it that I can afford to do this", or perhaps "I know something you don't":
Dressing like a punk was not a solution. Everyone knew that aesthetic was helping to move twenty-dollar Warped Tour tickets. There was no reason to even consider hip-hop; nobody who lived in a city with cable television and billboards could doubt that was a movement working in collusion with business culture to sell suburban teenagers stuff, even if was admirably forthright of rappers to dress like gay Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton executives and sing about how purely commercial their motives were. Of course in all of these movements, hip-hop included, there were artists in garrets, making music for the music, but nobody wanted to run the risk of being mistaken for one of the kids who fell for the marketing.Of course, the idea of hipsters and trendies adopting the "nerd"/"geek" identity (which, apparently, consists of wearing prominent spectacles and cardigans) does sound somewhat absurd; a bit like that article from some years ago that said that the "intelligent" look was in in Los Angeles, and consequently the glamorous people were buying books and carrying them around, unread, as fashion accessories. Or will the behavioural trappings of nerdiness become de rigeur amongst the cool set? Will Dungeons & Dragons or vintage video games become essential subjects to mention to enhance one's coolness, much like krautrock or Donnie Darko? Will we eventually see replica Curta calculators for sale alongside Lomo cameras at hipster lifestyle accessory shops?
Momus' latest New York Times Post-Materialist blog post is about fixed-gear bicycles, the latest hipster must-have after turntables and Lomo cameras, and, like them, a translation of lo-fi into the realm of physical transport, and a refusal to capitulate to bourgeois practicality:
The fixie cult demonstrates that limitations are what give a thing flavor, and that stubborn simplicity can be a sort of charisma. People love these bikes because of what they can’t do as much as for what they can. In that sense they join analog synths, vinyl record players and Lomo cameras as lovable retro lo-fi must-have. In addition to the charm and fashion kudos these bikes deliver, there are other advantages. Not only do they run cleaner than cars, you don’t even have to park them when you reach your destination. Just hang them on the wall and call them art.Even more interesting than the article is Momus' blog entry about it, which elaborates on some of the points:
Code of honour: I often find myself defending as new forms of honour things that others dismiss as fads. What do I mean by that? I think it's already encoded in Alin's self-portrait. His accident, here, isn't just a random misfortune. He "wears his wounds with pride". Like a soldier wounded in a battle fought in the name of a just cause, he feels there's something more important in life than mere safety. In fact, you could almost see cycling, and its attendant aesthetic, as "something worth dying for". The New York Times actually removed the phrase "to die for" from my text, replacing it with "must-have". But I wasn't just making a gruesome joke about cycling being dangerous. I really meant that it was important that fixie cycling -- like skateboarding -- is both difficult and dangerous. To understand why, you really have to go to non-Western places, places where Being is more important than Having, and where people -- including scary people like suicide bombers and kamikaze -- place higher values on certain ideals, certain codes of honour, certain loyalties, certain aesthetics than on life itself. Or you have to go to the chivalric codes of the middle ages. Cycling is, after all, a mechanized form of chivalric equestrianism.
Viral ecology: There's a danger that making people ecologically-conscious can end up preachy and worthy. What you need is something viral, something viscerally compelling, something cool as fuck, which is also something green. And fixie bikes are that: viral ecology with the urban credibility of skateboarding and the rebel cool of smoking combined. No more sermons! On yer bike!
Distinction strategy: We were talking earlier this month about shifts in graphic design style as a sort of distinction strategy, a game of catch-up in which one set of designers keep throwing wobblies, keep embracing ugliness and absurdity in order not just to "make it new", but to put a comfortable distance between themselves and the client-pleasing coffeetable hacks who hobble along behind, copying and pasting. The fixie trend is also a distinction strategy. It's a way for hipsters to say "I'm not just another suburban bozo with a car". But it's also a way for the West to say to China: "Okay, you all have cars now. Well, we're onto something else: bicycles." Which is ironic, since the West used to laugh at China for wobbling around, in its billions, on bicycles.
After the recent wave of films reprising 1980s films. such as Indiana Jones and Rambo, some speculation on other sequel possibilities we may soon see:
"Back to the Future IV"
The sequel: Teenage Marty McFly Jr.* (Michael Cera) and best friend/secret crush Madison Tannen (Evan Rachel Wood) discover Doc Brown's DeLorean hidden in a storage shed and take it for a joy ride, accidentally landing in 1985.
In this only-loosely-tied-to-the-originals “reboot,” the two nerdsters attempt to fit in by adopting the styles and lingo of the day. (Madison: “Seriously, 'Gag me with a spoon?' People actually said that?”) They try on various period clothing in a mall-set montage and crash a raucous high school dance featuring Huey Lewis and the News.
The sequel: “The Big Chill” as envisioned by Judd Apatow. Screwball antics ensue when the original cast reunites at the funeral of Jake Ryan, tragically killed in a car crash. (In real life Schoeffling now makes furniture in Pennsylvania, so his character only appears in flashbacks.) Divorcée Sam has a teen daughter of her own and the father is—wait for it!—Farmer Ted.