Counter-to-what-culture?

This morning I started reading the Jameson classic, Post-Modernism.  Five pages into the book —  one of ten on my summer academic reading list — I realized that among other things my list is far too ambitious for a mere three months already dotted with work, school, and an often sacrificed social life.

But speaking of social life (don’t worry, this will eventually relate to Jameson), I met a lovely new friend this weekend named Jonathan.  Jonathan braved an early morning bootcamp class along with J.R. and I and after bonding through the grueling workout that ensued (one that left my hamstrings quite irritable), he invited us to lunch. Always looking for new acquaintances in the ever-transient district, J.R. and I gladly accepted his invitation.

We had first met during a fitness class and thus, our initial impressions of Jonathan and his impressions of us were, in some sense, unusual.  We all donned wicking sports shirts and spandex-like shorts, accompanied by sweat stains, sunscreen streaks, and hair styled by the overwhelming DC humidity.  So when we met up post- workout, with our “normal” clothes no longer selected for their utilitarian functionality, we more or less saw one another for the first time.

After a few moments of conversation Jonathan announced that he liked my “counter-culture” look.  More than anything, I imagine that this comment was in reference to my necklace, a black plastic medallion that (no joke) reads “Post-post-modern.”  This got me thinking about the whole cultural phenomenon I’m studying with hipsters.  Specifically, Jonathan’s comment reminded me of that nagging question that comes up whenever I consider whether hipsters are, in fact, a counter-culture or a subculture. After all, how can any subculture successfully represent themselves as an “alternative” to the masses when their signals are achieved through consumption, the same framework used by the Abercrombie-wearing Joe Schmos that hipsters seem to judge.

As we swapped jokes, stories, and most embarrassing moments over lunch, I had to wonder whether Jonathan still considered me to be “counter-culture.”  Moreover, I wondered what this label really means in terms of how we categorize or identify one another based on dress.

Jameson writes of postmodernism, in contrast to modernism, as a massive “dilation” of the cultural sphere or what Benjamin calls the “aesthetization” of reality.  Jameson argues that the post-modernist no longer experiences culture as a tradition, a feeling, or a memory, but rather sees culture as a “thing.”  Culture, in other words, becomes a product — a commodity used to express oneself  to the world.

Without meaning to single Jonathan out, I have to wonder: If he considers me to be counter-culture, what culture am I really “counter” toward?  If his initial impression was limited to my aesthetic presentation — the clothes and accessories I wore — than I could not be considered much different than most of my American counterparts.  How could I be counter-to-a-culture when, like most people, I use consumption as my tool to (for better or for worse) communicate my aspirational identity?  In other words, can we forget about the means when critiquing the method?

I’ve been told that the post-modernist lens is considered largely passe by academics.  Well, color me an academic luddite, because I think Jameson’s arguments very much apply to today’s cultural context.  If hipsters are a reference point to consider questions of identity representation, how do we explain the hipster culture, the hipster aesthetic, and the existence of hipsters?  Are they, as Jameson would likely contend, merely hyper-consumers who use retro objects to create meaning anew, ignorant of historical context?  Furthermore, are Americans so entrenched as consumers that we cannot see culture as anything other than the “consumption of sheer commodification as a process” (x)?

I may not know the answers to these questions by the time I finish Jameson’s book, but one thing is for certain.  Anyone studying culture today must consider consumption and identity to be interdepent elements, difficult to parse through any kind of analysis.  Whether it’s worth the time to unravel these threads for the purposes of my research remains to be seen.

Lauren Alfrey

Lauren worked as the Managing Editor of gnovis in 2009 and graduated with an MA in Communication, Culture and Technology from Georgetown University in 2010. Lauren is currently a doctoral student in the Sociology Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Lauren joined gnovis and CCT after working for three years as an online fundraising and advocacy consultant for progressive nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to her professional work, Lauren graduated with honors from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she majored in Communication and minored in Art History with a focus on women's representation in print advertising and high art.