Phil Ford on Hipness

A Conversation With Phil Ford

“Hipster” tumbles off the tongue like an iPhone from an assembly line: we enjoy its many applications, but we evade the issue of origins. Enter Phil Ford, historian of hip culture. “I’ve gotten in conversations with people who are like ‘wait, there are black hipsters?’” he said to me. “People don’t even know. People think hipsterism is something invented in Williamsburg in 1998. Which is insane to me, but whatever.”

dig In his new book, Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture, Ford details the roots of the hip sensibility, tracing it from the emergence of the term hip in reportage of the 1930s through the sensibility’s widespread emergence via “mass counter-culture” of the 1960s. A historian of sound and auditory culture in the United States during the Cold War, Ford has embarked on more than a couple romps through the archives: his source material includes newspapers, recordings, essays, cartoons, and a slew of enticingly titled hip “little magazines”: The Needle, Neurotica, Berkeley Barb, Fuck You.

A history of hipness? If you think that sounds S-Q-U-A-R-E, I agree. But hipness is relative, as Ford rightly points out, and there’s no “real” hip, only hipper than ____. And Dig, in relation to most academic texts, is decidedly hip: it’s more sincere, more authentic, more rising from need. Rather than saying this is hip, this isn’t hip, Ford is interested in the distance between these two things — in movement, or the processes by which things become hip.

Ford is most interested in the special role that music and sound play in the hip sensibility. From bebop and the Beats to the early sampling projects of John Benson Brooks, Ford explores “sound as something that people think of as this raw, unadulterated bearer of human experience.”

What is at stake in the discourse of hipness, Ford argues, is resistance. Throughout the book, he explores the “countercultural mystique,” by which hipsters all imagine themselves uniquely able to see through the lies of mainstream culture. Ford points this out, but not because he is some sort of apologist for squares. A sincere critic of contemporary neoliberalism, he minced no words when he described his view of our times: “I believe that there is something universal, even essential to human beings that is being calculatedly starved, beaten, and killed in the official regime of calculative and materialist rationality that underwrites the hyper-capitalist world we live in.”

For Ford, hipness is no mere historical process; it is “a living sensibility, and its great artifacts and documents still shape a contemporary sense of expressive, social, and political possibility.” Hipsters, in their posture of self-positioning, make “space for play,” room for alternate meanings to creep in that relieve us from the bounds of everyday life.

“From within hip culture arises a critique of our habitual ways of deriving meaning from the world,” he writes in the end of the book. By this, he means that hip culture promotes a critique of our own experiences as such. Ford suggests that while the hip sensibility breeds a number of follies (elitism, exclusion, empty critique), this practice — the experience of one’s own experience — offers us a way out of the systems that define and limit us. He said, “This, to me, is the most valuable thing to reclaim from hip culture.”

A Book About Hipness

If you are resistant to the idea of a book about hipness, then you should probably read this book. You’re not the first person to react this way to a book like Dig. “Some people who have something invested in the hip mystique hate my stuff,” Ford said. And who could blame them? For someone interested in experiencing their own experience, writing a book doesn’t seem like the most direct route. Drugs, music, sex — embodied, pleasurable things — seem like better options.

This apparent cognitive dissonance — a book about hipness — is not only on Ford’s radar but is in fact central to his understanding of the hip sensibility. For the hipster, Ford suggests, sound and language are in constant tension. We desire the immediacy of direct experience and the visceral engagement that sound offers us, but we nonetheless always try to capture this experience in language: in zines, in blog posts, in Tweets, and in books.

It is this ultimate reliance on language that marks hipness as an intellectual sensibility. Ford views hipness as a cognitive style, as a set of habits of mind and self-conscious tropes of expression. So, the history Ford writes in his book is primarily an intellectual history. With this in mind, it becomes clear that a book about hipness is not a contradiction at all. As Ford put it, “[Academia and hipness] go together like two peas in a pod. From the beginning there’s been this sort of symbiotic relationship. This sensibility was made for academia. It was made for the intellectual culture of the Cold War, and it still is.”

Ford compared hipsters to professors, saying, “The resentment that is frequently leveled against hipsters is pretty much of the same character of resentment that’s leveled against professors. So I’m anticipating at least some book reviews that are going to find it comically incongruous — unlikely, whatever — they’ll find it hilarious that some professor is writing about hipness and probably hate on me for that. Because it’s sort of like two different concentrations of cultural capital: hipster cultural capital and professorial cultural capital. Professors aren’t paid very well, and yet everyone recognizes that there’s still a reason why people are trying to go to graduate school, even though it’s not very well compensated, because you may not be wealthy in financial terms, but you’ve accumulated some cultural capital or you have some kind of authority.”

Hipsters hardly need a professor to affirm them as hip, and yet, they do need some authority to push back against. Ford mentioned Anatole Broyard’s 1948 essay “Portrait of the Hipster,” saying, “He was the one who really nailed this dynamic first, he says the problem is, in effect, that the authority of the hipster comes from the fact that his position is at a remove from the mainstream consensus idea of American society. The authority of his perceptions comes from his positioning, his elliptical, outsider orbit.

“The problem is that the authority comes from nowhere, if we’re thinking in this binary scheme of somewhere/nowhere. But then, recognition is somewhere. And then getting recognition becomes this problem. Because, on the one hand the whole point of a counterculture is to establish some space for cultural freedom. And for that you need authority and legitimacy. But cultural legitimacy undoes the very authority that makes the whole enterprise possible in the first place. That’s the paradox, the dilemma that the hipster is caught in.

“You see this often at the Experience Music Project [Conference on Popular Music]. I think it’s done great things for writing on popular music. The idea of getting critics and scholars together in the same room is a really good one. That being said, I remember this one year, a lot of the rock critic types were saying ‘well, we don’t really need the academics. It’s okay if they’re there, but they’re not leading the conversation, they’re not where it’s at.’ It was a way of reading the academics out of the movement or at least assigning them a subordinate place in this scene. There was a lot of posturing: ‘Academics are out of touch, they’re not really a part of these scenes, they’re writing about it as if it is an academic abstraction.’ It was this kind of comedy of manners where the academics are treated as if they’re these interlopers or these barely tolerated squares, who don’t really get it, man!

“But at the same time, the whole reason the academics are there is that they do confer this kind of intellectual legitimacy on the enterprise. You have some of these hipster rock critic types who were making a performance of their disdain for the cultural legitimacy that they so obviously craved and needed. That’s why we were all there at the same time! I don’t want to turn this into my own little anti-hipster thing. But suffice it to say, there are multiple ironies that we can’t help but stumble on when we start thinking systematically about this sensibility.”

Hip Privilege

One such irony is the widespread assumption that contemporary hipsters are spoiled trust-fund kids. This, as Ford said, “was never anyone’s assumptions about the original hipsters, who didn’t have any money at all, not much money, who were scuffling for money.” As Mark Greif has noted, the term today describes people across the economic spectrum, from the philistine wealthy “acquiring subculture as if it were ready-to-wear” to a serving class of hipster bartenders and boutique clerks whose aesthetic knowledge compensates for economic immobility. But nonetheless, hipness remains bound up in what Ford calls “class ressentiment.”

While we may claim to hate hipsters because of their unearned wealth, hip privilege is based on something besides money alone — something elusive. Ford said, “I’m not going to deny any sort of privilege, but my point is that the resentment of the hipster is partly resentment of whatever kind of fluency with cultural symbols that [hipness] represents. So it’s class antagonism, but it’s not entirely along the lines of economy. Although the very simplified version of it, the bonehead hipster-hating that you see — the internet comments, the blog comments — does tend to be like, ‘Wah, I bet he’s just another trust-fund kid.’ But that’s just a way of nailing down a general inchoate sense that these are people who have some kind of privilege.”

So what exactly is this privilege, that we all long for and resent? The constant throughout hip history, Ford suggests, is a “space for play,” an attitude of refusal to be “part of the same work structure as the rest of us are in.” Whether as byproduct of inherited wealth or as expression of ideological resistance to exploitative systems, hipsters find the freedom to seek “little somewheres within the vast nowhere.”

Hipster in the Mirror

I opened my last post by saying that the category hipster includes everyone I know. That probably sounds either smug as fuck (check out all my cool friends!), or at the very least disingenuous, given that examples of seemingly absolutely un-hip people abound: Congresspeople, Neo-Nazis, people who yell at people riding bikes. But I was inspired, in part, by Ford’s book, in which he argues that hipness is not just pervasive, but is in fact “the most influential aesthetic ideology of the second half of the twentieth century.”

“All anybody ever needed to do to write the book that I wrote was simply to look at themselves in the mirror. Just look at yourself in the mirror,” Ford said to me. He explained: “The claim is that in a sense, everyone is a part of this sensibility. It is kind of unavoidable. So when I see this hipster-baiting that you see all over the place on the internet, I find funny the pretense that the people engaging in that are somehow not involved, as if the little memes that they are passing around are not themselves expressions of this sensibility.”

Hipster haters almost always come from the same milieu as hipsters themselves. Ford noted the irony of this, laughing, “When I see people who are like ‘fucking hipsters, hipster douchebags,’ going on like that, I’m just like — and this is hardly an original thought, I just saw a web comic that made this exact point — you’re not actually separate from the thing you’re trying to understand.”

This was true in the early years of hipness as much as it is today. The earliest hipster bashing came from black journalists in the 1930s who were concerned with self-representation in the face of pervasive racism. Ford said, “The very earliest traces of the hipster in cultural reportage were in the social observation columns in African-American newspapers. Some of it is a kind of tolerant amusement, like in Dan Burley’s early columns. Dan Burley is someone I’m hoping people take more seriously, an African-American columnist, but also a jazz pianist and important figure for reporting WWII news from Europe. He might have been one of the first black foreign correspondents, and he wrote a lot in this column Back Door Stuff.

“Burley is casting the same amused, half-mocking, half-affectionate eye on hipsters as he is with every other social type that he encounters in Harlem. With other writers, you see a genuine kind of annoyance or even contempt. A lot of this stuff is happening during wartime between 1941 and 1945, so these idle draft-dodging, unpatriotic, shady, insolent, affected people, they’re bad. And in a particularly African-American journalistic context a lot of it has a very ‘racial-uplift’ orientation, and from the point of view of these writers who are concerned above all with the ‘progress of the race,’ these guys seem like kind of bad advertisements.”

Demystifying Hipness

Critiques of hipness generally come from within, which makes sense given that self-awareness, or self-positioning, is central to the hip sensibility as Ford lays it out in the book. He defines hipness as the “perspective of perspectives,” or a tendency to always view the world from a critical or ironic distance. Put another way, it is the impulse to view oneself “in but not of” a certain culture.

The irony is that, if we buy into Ford’s claim that we are all embedded to some extent within the hip sensibility, it becomes really hard to talk about it with any sort of clarity. We are constantly wrapped up in, as Ford put it, “all of those contradictory feelings of love and loathing and attraction and repulsion, resentment and craving for acceptance, all those sticky high-school emotions people experience around hipsterism.”

He spoke about people’s resistance to any discussion at all of hipness. He said, “Sometimes if I’m encountering someone, say from the boomer generation — someone who’s really invested in the idea of the 1960s and their participation in it, like ‘we really believed in something then’ — they don’t want to see a sensibility held up to the light of scrutiny. They want to see it as their own ineffable uniqueness and wonderfulness. They don’t want anybody to come around with this demythologizing jive saying, well, the reason you thought that was because it was in the air, and you read the right books, and you and your friends understood yourselves in a certain way, in a kind of aestheticized way. Nobody wants to be told that. Because it makes it sound like, ‘oh so what you’re saying is I’m a big phony?’

“At the same time there’s other people who pride themselves in being great big fierce hipster-haters, and like to pride themselves on being so unillusioned like, ‘yeah, I can see through their bullshit man!’ and who somehow crazily think that I’m like some kind of, uh, some kind of cheerleader for hipsters! They manage to get that idea, that I’m some kind of fluffer for the Weltanschauung!” (He quickly added, “God, I hope you don’t write that down in the thing. What a weird phrase that was.”)

He continued, “The whole thing is to try and see this neither with hatred nor with sentimentality. There are so many books that are so sentimental. Writing a book about the Beats is the closest thing they can get to hanging out with the Beats. And that is, you know…boring. It’s not interesting to me. Then you also have these people like Tom Frank and Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter who wrote really valuable books, but I feel those go too far in the other direction. They’re so unrelentingly caustic that they just reduce the [hip] sensibility to a set of sociopolitical postures, and they’re impatient with the complexities of the expressive culture that this sensibility has produced. The trick is to not give into these very contemporary emotions of mingled resentment or craving for acceptance, or wanting to belong. It’s about hanging loose with this material and seeing it like a historian.”

“But,” Ford added after a pause, “Most people don’t give a shit about history.”

On Writing (and Reading)

If that makes Ford sound like a curmudgeon, he’s quite the opposite. This is a man who, when I asked him about his intended audience, compared writing a book to throwing a huge party. He said, “I almost feel like writing a book, it’s a little bit like — in slow motion — throwing a party, but a very slow, boring party. A little bit like throwing a party where you want everyone to come! You don’t want a velvet rope and a big burly dude telling people that they’re not cool enough to come to your party. I find that there are certain ways of writing which basically function as the rope-line asshole who’s telling people they can’t come in.”

He admitted that my question, about his audience, left him stumped. He said, “When I teach I’m always telling people, you have to think of your audience. What’s your audience? It’s not an abstract question. And yet, when I look back on it, I can’t tell you that there was any particular person I was thinking of when writing it. I guess I tried, as much as possible, to make things comprehensible in their own terms. Not assuming that you were initiated into the arcana of the postmodern academy or whatever, because I kind of hate books like that.” (Me too.)

After some thought, I prodded Ford further about his audience. “Who,” I asked, “are you really writing for?” He would name no names, but he finally gave me what I deemed to be a satisfying response: “I want to talk to everyone. I imagine a universal audience, however unrealistic that might actually be.” He reiterated the concluding thought of Dig, which is the value of personal practice: “Practice can be string playing or garage-band guitar playing or cooking or magic (all examples I use), but the exact details are less important than the spirit in which practice is conducted. I would like everyone to ponder this, though I know better than to expect that many people will. But if even one person were to read my stuff and think, ‘You know, he’s got a point — I need to experience my own experience’ then I would feel that it was worth writing it. I can’t pretend I would know who that person might be, though. It could be anyone, I suppose, or no-one. So my message is like a message in a bottle, sent out in hope (but no firm expectation) of a reader.”

He noted the challenges of writing for any particular audience, saying, “I try to make it as accessible as possible, but I have to also confess that I don’t know how people read. It’s all speculation on my part. And some people read very badly. One thing I’m already beginning to realize is that the fact that most people can’t read for shit really limits what you can accomplish as a writer. Throughout the whole long process of writing this book, I’ve presented parts of it at conferences and had conversations with people about it, and it triggers responses that tell you a lot about the person you’re talking to, and not so much about my book. People will read in very tendentious ways, that tell you really more about them than the thing they’re reading.”

Hip Chicks?

This was true for no one more than myself. My own engagement with hip culture and music left me searching for bits of myself among the pages of Dig. As a historian, you spend a lot of time looking for yourself in the past, and as a woman, you’re often left staring into an empty room. And via my engagements with hipness as a living sensibility — as a saxophonist, as a free jazz fan, and as someone who buys most of her music at record shops — I’ve always felt hip spaces to be gendered in a very particular way.

While reading Dig, I found myself asking, as though watching an episode of Girls, which character resembled me. That I cared enough to read in such a manner is a testament to the relevance of the book. But it was nonetheless disheartening to find that its central historical figures — LeRoi Jones, Allen Ginsberg, Marshall McLuhan, Norman Mailer, John Benson Brooks — are guys. Throughout the book, the intellectual “hipster” takes on a masculine pronoun by default. The only woman fleshed out in much detail is a hipster girl, classified as “a girlfriend” of a hipster guy — described as the “wildest of hip chicks” — and defined not in her own voice but by someone else (by Ross Russell in 1949):

She loved sex for itself and was precociously promiscuous. She spoke a language that perhaps less than 1000 citizens of America could understand. She wore weird and often corny clothes. She could be rude to the point of outrageous insolence. She couldn’t hold a job, lived off her family and men, was undisciplined even in her rotten pathetic musical ambitions. Even her common sense was questionable. But she was wonderful! Absolutely wonderful! … It was something ingénue and girlish. Something very very feminine. A joy of living. A constant state of ecstasy over life within the boundaries of the hip jazz world.

While this hip chick is mad intriguing, for some reason I resented her presence on the page. I despised her frivolity and naiveté and willful ignorance. When women appear in the history of hipness they seemed to fulfill the typical roles: rhetorical foils to men, or objects of male sexual desire — Beat chicks craved by hipsters as well as squares. There are few examples of hip female creators: musicians, mothers, writers, or artists. So I loved Dig, but wondered, “Where all the smart, talented ladies at?”

I asked Ford what he thought: is hip history a history of men? He said, in a general sense, no. “However,” he said, “If we’re talking about intellectual history, and this book is a lot about intellectual history, you’re going to end up spending a lot of time with these heroizing dudes. I write a lot about how there’s this stridently competitive intellectual Cold War culture. This Partisan Review flavored part of it, it’s not all of the hip sensibility, that’s this particular story that I’m spending a lot of time on because I’m thinking about how hipness becomes this fundamental coloration to American intellectual life.

“That’s not the same thing as talking about the everyday experience of people. The facts on the ground — who’s lighting up a joint? Who’s hanging out in a cold-water flat listening to Bob Dylan records in 1962? You’re going to find a lot of people of both [all] genders. But I’m not really writing about that lived social reality. I’m writing about how intellectuals are making sense of all that. And in as much as there are intellectuals making sense of all that, it’s taking place within a very masculinist domain. And women’s voices really are being pushed off to one side.”

One hipster woman that does appear extensively in Dig is Diane di Prima. Ford gushed about di Prima’s memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman. He said, “It’s my favorite memoir. It’s so good! Oh my god! It’s so beautifully written! It’s so tenderly observed, so psychologically real! It’s funny, because the impulse of that book is not at all like the impulse of someone like Norman Mailer in The White Negro or Anatole Broyard in his “Portrait of the Hipster,” in that she’s not really interested in analyzing hipsterism as a phenomenon, she’s interested in writing about her life. She’s interested basically in human beings and human relationships — all the small fish that swim through the net of ideological analysis and critique.”

Ford initially presented di Prima as standing apart from the hip intellectual tradition. He said, “It’s a really laddish thing, a boy thing, to try and understand these things in terms of the ideas, and the intellectual history, and so you have these heroic, masculine intellectual types like Norman Mailer who just sort of muscle their way to the front of the queue, and so you’ve got to write about those guys. But some of the most interesting people, like MC Richards — I just have her in a footnote, but she’s one of the most interesting people to come out of the Black Mountain Circles — or Fran Landesman, yet another one, this wonderful lyricist … there are these really interesting figures who are doing these great creative works, but they’re not interested in this heroic business of claiming your place in this evolving historical narrative. They’re playing at sort of a different game. And it would be interesting to spend some time thinking about that game that they’re playing.”

Given that women seem to be playing a different game, I asked Ford: to what extent are the hip habits of mind presented in his book — irony, spontaneity, self-positioning — just masculine or even misogynistic traits that get passed off as universal? I asked with some recent critiques of hip culture in mind: Rick Alverson’s bleak hipster vision The Comedy, and this essay in The New Inquiry, which both depict irony and other tropes of hipster expression as masks for profound misogyny.

In response to the idea of hipness as essentially masculine, Ford said, “It would be absurd to suppose that intellectual aggressiveness is a particularly ‘masculine’ trait. Women (Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Diana Trilling, and Lillian Hellman, for example) played the Partisan Review intellectual-debate-as-contact-sport game as hard as it could be played.” But, he continued, “the above-named female intellectuals didn’t write much about hipness, and when they did touch on it they had other fish to fry. They just weren’t interested in vernacular culture, except as a social symptom. On the other hand, the guys playing that Partisan Review game in the sphere of hip culture were, well, guys.”

Ford explained why he did not write more about hipness as a gendered sensibility: “In some ways I feel like one of the older books in the bibliography, Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Hearts of Men, she just kind of nailed it. She got it right, the first time. It’s almost unimproveable. I read it early on when I first started thinking about hipness. She really nailed it, especially regarding the kind of developing conversation about the hipster in the 1950s where the Man, the establishment, even the nascent anti-capitalism is so much conceived in gendered terms. I write about that in the book.”

After some thought, Ford added, “Perhaps one reason I did not write more about gender is because I feel incompetent to write about it in any way that would not just reproduce the assumptions and easy answers of our own time. Not that I feel especially competent to talk about race either, but the story of how hipness gets assimilated into the American vernacular is so much a story of race one has no choice but to try. The issue of gender is an issue that plays out on the ground ‘where joints are lit,’ but it is muted in the areas I wanted to write about in my book. I never found a way of framing those gender issues in a way that intersected with all the stuff I was writing about the most.”

Longing and Resentment

Ford’s thoughtful responses to my questions about gender made a lot of sense to me. Just as no one thinks the term “hipster” applies to them, I did not want, initially, to feel that a book about hipness applied to me. Who wouldn’t prefer to sit, happily, in the fog of their own mystique? And yet, I grew offended at the slightest sign of exclusion from its reach. Longing and resentment, for hipsters and for hipness itself.

And the more I thought about the book, the more I realized that I was lying when I said I despised that hipster girl who appears in Dig, who I mentioned above — “the wildest of hip chicks,” “ingénue and girlish.” And I was lying when I said I couldn’t see myself in her.

The truth was that I saw too much of myself in her. I wanted to hang out with this woman, whose hipness sprang from the page, this “girl who could be a pal as readily as a loner, who spoke with salty American wit, who was manifestly ‘don’t-give-a-damn,’ who would buy you a drink or loan you a buck or ask you for fifty.” She was blithe, and joyful, and understood how to play. She was me, only moreso. I resented her because I longed to be her. At the very least, I wanted to say to her, “Please be my friend!”

And to Phil Ford, I now wanted to say: how dare you, Phil Ford! How dare you write such a book. How dare you make me experience my own experience.

by Elizabeth Newton