This is the last (I promise) in a guest blog series that examines scholarly subjectivities in anthropology through comparison with the figure of the ‘hipster.’ Part I focused on defining terms, Part II was about offering critiques from the margins, Part III focused on image and brand, and Part IV was about authenticity and privilege. In this final post, I examine anthropology as the academy’s favorite punching bag.
Nobody likes hipsters. Well, that’s an exaggeration. Wait, not really. Nobody likes hipsters. Even hipsters don’t like hipsters. They are decried, disavowed and debased as useless, smug, latte-drinking elites who contribute little substance to society at large. They mark themselves with obscure ways of dressing and acting, and profess solidarity with the marginal when they may be bringing gentrification to struggling, urban areas. So the rants go.
I am more interested in the cultural figure of the hipster and her/his place in the public imagination than I am in any particular instantiation. As an insightful commenter (Byrd McDaniels) from Part IV of this series noted, the “hipster” of popular culture is more a caricature than a living, breathing, nuanced person. And the act of heaping scorn upon the imaginary hipster Other who refuses to be a part of the mainstream can become a cathartic act of social solidarity 1; both the social conservative and progressive liberal have some harsh words for the hipster. The hipster, however, occupies a self-contradictory and paradoxical position as both a figure to be imitated for their ultra-hipness, and as one to be disavowed for their rejection of mainstream norms; in short, it is a figure that is subject to both mimesis and alterity. As Shumar 2 has suggested, it is a liminal and paradoxical position, in which one is positioned at the margins, but not outside, of the mainstream because late capitalism penetrates all aspects of social life in developed countries. All of the contradictions of earlier posts in this series point to this way of being as partly shaped by this unique position in the social space.
And what about anthropologists?
Anthropologists have explicitly drawn on traditions of the researcher inhabiting liminal positions ‘betwixt and between’ social worlds. But occupying this space produces certain tensions, and I believe the ‘scholarly hipster’ figure represents one way of handling those tensions. We critique a mainstream world that, in the end, we are complicit with.
As a result, lots of people dislike anthropologists. That includes, by the way, other anthropologists. It is striking to me that critiques of the discipline (from both inside and outside of it), seemingly deploy some of the same rhetoric that is mobilized against the hipster Other. That is certainly the case for this recent blogger, who railed against anthropology in response to recent controversial works by Nicholas Wade: 3
…it’s hard to escape the conclusion that refusing to consider the implications of Wade’s argument has everything to do with protecting the academic turf anthropologists have carved out, and nothing to do with scientific inquiry or truth.
He gestures here to what I described in Part II as the propensity for intellectual fads in marginal spaces, which he further decries as obscure and meaningless debates that dominate the discipline and are completely removed from reality. These comments bring to the fore another critique laid at the door of the discipline: its uselessness.
“Uselessness” is probably the critique that I have found has most infiltrated the popular imagination, as anthropology can be found in the Forbes list of useless degrees, the Governor of Florida suggesting the state needs no more anthropologists, despite the revelation that his daughter was an anthropology major, the NYTimes editorial listing anthro as an example of useless college education and even this great Savage Minds infographic written in response to these critics. Like the hipster, we face a public who thinks that we contribute nothing substantial to society while spending most of our time just being cool. Immediate, measurable utility and market value have come to dominate the corporate university, and certain forms of knowledge are privileged in those spaces as a result4.
But is this why they hate us? For being useless and elitist? When I introduce myself as an anthropologist to other figures in/around the academy, I find most listeners to be very inquisitive and engaged. Perhaps it is just civility or common courtesy, but anecdotally, their eyes do not glaze over and drift off as I speak, and no one seems to think what I do is ‘useless.’ The same appears to be true for my colleagues who study anthropology and other ‘useless’ disciplines. This is anecdotal, of course, but this whole dang series is anecdotal.
More importantly, however, I am not entirely sure that they hate anthropology at all. In the public discourse, anthropology has become a convenient symbol of those elements of academia we like least. I’ve come to think that the scorn we receive is less about anything we in particular have done, and more about the contradictory tensions that are embedded in academic structures, in which intellectual hierarchy, intense competition, the industrialization of knowledge production, rampant credentialism, commoditization of self, and the privileging of different kinds of knowledge are endemic. Although this blog series has focused on anthropology, I do not believe that the ‘scholarly hipster’ is unique to this one discipline. In every discipline, there are those who occupy marginal spaces, police academic borders, endlessly seek out and embellish new fads, cultivate intellectual brands, perform smartness and exclusion and seek authenticity in research while distancing themselves from their own privilege. The ‘scholarly hipster’ is not an inherent class of person, but rather a theatrical costume each of us can slip into to achieve particular aims, such as managing our anxiety, resisting mainstream agendas, and establishing a presence in a field.5 The hipster embodies a coolness which requires standing at the margins and being less emotionally invested in mainstream ways of being. I would argue that the hipster thus deploys irony partly as a strategy to manage the vicissitudes and anxieties of subjectivity under late capitalism – it can further serve to emotionally distance the act from the agent. The inability to dance is hidden behind an ironic performance of ‘dancing’ that serves to protect a fragile ego. Behind the performance, however, is the fear of appearing genuinely foolish. And after all, isn’t that the academic’s worst nightmare?
It is, of course, very hip to criticize everything in an ironic way6 because to show a genuine affection for something is to be vulnerable; one must be willing to jump on the new intellectual fad partly to demonstrate that one is ‘too cool’ to be personally invested in something for too long7. From this point of view, all of the hipster-like activity described in this series can be seen as a very rational set of practices for protecting intellectual ego and sense of self. The figure of the scholar has reached such a high standing in our imagination that virtually everyone suffers from some form of imposter syndrome (although it is more prevalent among certain groups and configured differently across the academy). The enactment of scholarly hipster may be some attempt to deflect an internalized sense of not being good enough for accolades received. This may be particularly true for those who “make it” in recent years in the face of the swelling ranks of the chronically underemployed academics. However, it may even be so for those who have not obtained tenure track jobs or financial stability in this still terrible academic marketplace. Living in precarious times, we feel vulnerable, and can at least protect our egos with our hard-earned intellectual capital.
This particular iteration of the scholarly hipster thus emerges from the structure of the academy in late capitalism. It emerges in response to struggles with inadequacy, self-hate, fear, rejection of and resistance to the mainstream, aspiration, doubt, the ubiquitous imposter syndrome, pride, anxiety, huge levels of debt, a dearth of jobs, etc. We are not just “occupants of particular positions or holders of particular identities, but rather the result of complex structures of thought, feeling and reflection.” In short, it is a particular ensemble of responses to scholarly conditions: a subjectivity8.
Producing Scholarly Hipsters
Although we sometimes like to think otherwise, academics are not above the struggles of the human condition. Ortner’s 9 call to introduce a richer dialogue about subjectivities and power pointed to:
The ensemble of modes of perception, affect, thought, desire, fear and so forth that animate acting subjects . . . as well as the cultural and social formations that shape, organize, and provoke those modes of affect, thought and so on.
I argue here that scholars are likewise animated by such ensembles that emerge from our various positions in social structures. And although I think scholarly hipsters can be found outside of anthropology, I also believe that we find ourselves slipping into those roles too often. But our hipsterish position in academia broadly is not the result of “some natural or original will” but rather emerge from and within “a matrix of subjectivity – of (culturally constituted) feelings, thoughts and meanings.”10
Although there may be far reaching implications for other parts of our social worlds (publishing, professional organization, mentorship, departmental organization, to name a few), I am most interested here in the spaces from which we emerge. What are the implications for how we produce the next generation of anthropologists? Must the scholarly hipster be a figure of inadequacy and insecurity, or might it be healthy response to occupying marginal and critical spaces? Regardless, is it surprising that many doctoral students so easily slip into that role, as they struggle with feeling both insecurity and peripherality? What are the institutional rituals, policies and practices that foster and give rise to so many scholarly hipsters in anthropology? If the scholarly hipster is something that we don’t like about ourselves, what alternative subjectivities are there that we could better cultivate? 11
Other posts in the series:
- Part I: What is a Hipster?
- Part II: Critiques from the Margins
- Part III: The Anthropological Brand
- Part IV: Authenticity and Privilege
- One anecdote: My toddler enjoys the PBS Kids cartoon show the Wild Kratts who are a bunch of scientist adventurers who learn about animals and build exciting devices modelled off of them. The cartoon characters are apparently designed from real people, as the real “wild” Kratts brothers introduce the audience to exotic animals in the intro and breaks between cartoons. The good guys are earthy, white, suburban-male-looking dads who love to play with tools. The bad guy looks like a hipster. He is pale, skinny, wears black turtlenecks, has a tiny goatee and is completely disconnected from the world. He builds robots, but lacks the earthy connection to animals and nature. Even PBS is getting in the act of hating on hipsters. ↩
- Personal communications. ↩
- You can find the blogger’s rant here. In particular, he is responding to Jonathon Mark’s Review in In These Times. Savage Minds was pulled into the fray as having “declared war” on Wade’s new book (based on Alex Golub’s brief review on Savage Minds ). Of course, this blogger ignores the fact that both Marks’ and Golub’s reviews were controversial and generated a flurry of comments; also ignored is the diversity of voices that can all be considered anthropological. Ironically, he also mentions this ‘unbelievably stupid’ blog on hipsters as an example of anthropology’s irrelevance, not realizing that he was himself providing an example of precisely the sorts of tensions that I am pointing to in this series. This further delights my inner hipster. The blogger in question also seems to build off of another rant against anthropology that has circulated the Internet found here. ↩
- In my opinion, the piece that best captures the tension of knowledge, the university and the marketplace can be found in Urcioli (American Ethnologist, Volume 35, Issue 2, 2008, Pages: 211-228). ↩
- Nick Mizer over at The Geek Anthropologist has begun toying with the notion of the “Scholarly Geek” which may be yet another theatrical costume of the academy, based on something other than aloof coolness ↩
- I very much enjoyed this editorial piece by Wesleyan president Mathew Roth in the NYTimes, on the politics of learning and the sophisticated cultivation of critical thinking in elite college students. He highlights the ways that the performance of smartness includes a blasé critique of everything and a deep cynicism about the world. I would characterize this as resonating with the sorts of hipster culture that I see among anthropologists, but which are likely prevalent across other disciplines in the university. ↩
- There are things that anthropologists show genuine and enduring passion for. These include dedication to particular communities, ontologies, epistemologies, certain areas of inquiry, and ethical principles that carry well beyond the latest intellectual fad. These are quite refreshing. ↩
- I imagine there were earlier iterations of the scholarly hipster throughout history, reflecting different historical moments and conditions. For example, ‘staking out academic turf’ had different consequences as new academic departments and disciplines were taking shape in early 20th century universities. ↩
- These, and other thoughts can be found elaborated by Ortner (Anthropological Theory, Volume 5, March 2005, Pages: 31-52). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Maybe the anthropologist as geek is a good start. Or perhaps the suggestions here. ↩