By Nick Mizer
Over at the Savage Minds blog, Alex Posecznick has been writing a thought-provoking series on “Anthroplogists as Scholarly Hipsters.” You should go read it (I’ll wait), but at the core of the series is this comparison between the hipster, who holds that “as soon as non-hipsters have heard of band X it is no longer superior to band Y,” and the anthropologist, for whom “discovering powerful theoretical lenses (the equivalent of the next great band or fashion) produces cultural capital…but jumping on the bandwagon too late can be labeled cheap opportunism.” I think his diagnosis is fairly accurate, but it got me thinking about what geeks might have to offer in this conversation, and I think that it has to do with the ironic. Irony plays a major part in hipster identity, and Alex has acknowledged this, but as byrdmcdaniel, a commenter on part four of the series, suggests, there might be more discussion to be had in that area. I’ll be following Alex’s lead and starting with some definitions.
I really like Byrd’s (can I call you Byrd?) definition of irony in the hipster context: “the circulation of goods without an emotional investment in their history or deeper cultural context,” because it speaks to one of the key points of contrast that are often made between “hipsters” and “geeks.” My working definition of “geek,” as I’ve given it elsewhere is ““individuals who bond with one another over a shared exuberance for creative consumption of their cultural interests.” There are holes in this definition big enough to fly an ancient dragon through, but it highlights one of my favorite things about geek culture: exuberance. This is what Hank Green calls being “allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff…like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it.” Or, as RamonaGirl, a commenter on an old Patton Oswalt article (in which Patton was actually being kind of hipsterish about geek culture, now that I think about it) said, what has always made geek culture fun is our ability to “focus on the things no one else notices and learn to love them as the things that make all the difference.”
So there’s this difference between “hipster” and “geek” that has to do with enthusiasm and investment on the one hand and irony and detachment on the other. This might be part of the reason that so few people self-identify as hipsters, not just because it has negative connotations, but part of what we mean by “hipster” is someone who refuses to invest themselves in that act of self-identification. To identify as a hipster is already to express too much enthusiasm for that identity.
I’ve been tossing out the idea of a geek anthropology (where geek is the mode, not the subject) since my first post on the blog, and I’ve never really delivered on it, except hopefully in the sense that my videos might demonstrate some of what I think I mean by that. In the next few posts I’ll be taking another stab at that, trying to lay it out a little more clearly and also to relate it to some of the problems identified in Alex’s posts.
I leave you with a bit of ethnographic evidence for the distinctions between hipsters and geeks: