The Null Device

So many insiders on the outside

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?

There are 1 comments on "So many insiders on the outside":

Posted by: Greg http://spill-label.org/blog Tue May 27 09:38:13 2008

> "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."

This is one of the running gags in "Kath and Kim" - things that were once edgy being adopted by the great unwashed. Hence these characters' pseudo Eastern mysticism, coffee culture, iPods, natural medicines, organic diets and so on. These once-were-hip items are in the show because (a) it's funny to hear them discussed in working-class Australian accents, and (b) it takes the piss out of the early-adopters themselves, implying that their cool differentiators don't so much mark them out as cool, but merely as early-adopters in the marketing sense.

If you accept that cool is simply the advertisement of oneself as an early adopter, and that cool things eventuall

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