The judgment of taste and the “hipper crowd of shushers”

I was tickled to see today’s NY Times article in the Fashion section, “A Hipper Crowd of Shushers,” about how hip and cool younger librarians are now, in contrast to a generation ago. Throughout Kara Jesella’s article there are specific markers of hipness that distinguish the new breed of librarians as superior to their elders in matters of taste, in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense of of the word (See his Distinction : A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste).

But how incredibly annoying it is to see so many people, in 2007 especially, linking hipster aesthetics with progressive politics. (You see it throughout the NY Times article.) The Baffler magazine was revelatory in its exposure of the commodification of “rebellious” cultural identities in issue after issue during the 1990s, and I continue to be surprised to see how generally naive so many people still are about the social meaninglessness of their badges of cool other than as assertions of cultural superiority. (Read Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler if you haven’t seen these essays.)

I am sorry but if I were outside I would have to spit on the ground about this. There is nothing about tattoos, knitting, going to bars and having drinks with cute names, reading comics, wearing granny glasses, or being cool in general that has ANYTHING to do with being politically to the left. At one time, “hip” meant something political, but those times are dead and gone. Being cool is fine, have fun, enjoy it, but be aware of the function of taste in social distinction, and if you think your hip aesthetic choices constitute a critically based response to the world we live in, then you should think again and think hard. (Not that there is any conflict necessarily between being a hipster and being a progressive, but it’s not a credential, any more than looking like an insurance agent, which is kind of what I look like, is evidence of bad politics.)

The article definitely belongs in the Fashion section, where it is.

39 comments on “The judgment of taste and the “hipper crowd of shushers”

  1. I’d have to blame the article’s author for shining such a superficial light on these “hip” librarians. I’m sure that there is much more to them and their politics than what is presented in the article. Many of my politically left friends are also “hipsters”, (actually, that word is outdated, I beleive the term “scenesters” is more accurate), and outside of the bed-head, tatoos and thrift shop fashion, I consider them deep thinkers and politically aware. As you said, it is in the fashion section, where it belongs.

  2. Excellent analysis. And it is nice to see the great Thomas Frank and The Baffler mentioned. I would add Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, which is a more comprehensive critique of the counterculture.

  3. The article really annoyed me. The “hip” librarian talk has been going on for some time….. at least 10 years. I’m a hip librarian and i’m a socialist as well. But I don’t need to wear a certain shirt or get a tattoo to prove it. This self-consciousness is kinda sickening…..

  4. As someone who talked to the author of this article at length about politics, I think the problem was that the publishable article was about hipness but the article the author *wanted* to write about was about progressive politics. When I spoke to her, I didn’t even know I was commenting for an article in the style section, and I half wonder if she even knew she was writing an article for that section either.

    I agree, fluffy article, but if it can get a little more attention to the leftist aims of some librarians, I’m all for it. There’s nothing threatening about the hipster association, it’s just silly.

  5. Jessamyn and Martin too: it was people she interviewed who drew the connection between progressive politics and looking cool and liking things that are cool, not the author. It’s not just a silly mistake – the problem with it is that it is alienating to progressive librarians who don’t have those priorities, and especially alienating to older librarians, who may be just as progressive but who are actively excluded through this trope about “hip new breed librarians.”

  6. Nice post; this really gets into rich territory.

    I’m not sure that Jesella contends that there’s a causal relationship between “hipness” and progressive values. I’m mentioned in the article, which correctly states that my values (“social activism”) were part of what led me to pursue an MLS/MIS. Tastes and interests are certainly problematic where politics are concerned, but I would argue that my interest in media, which Jesella codes as hip, informed my decision to get an MLS as much as my values did.

    Then again, politics necessarily inform our interests, patterns of consumption, and aesthetic choices. How do we tease those apart?

  7. How does politics inform our aesthetic choices, Pete? I think it really doesn’t to the extent that a lot of hip young people think it does, and furthermore, I think for a lot of younger people especially, aesthetic choices can be mistaken for political commitments and actions.

    And Pete, it was not your interest in media that got you mentioned. There’s a picture of you DJ-ing!! How does your taste in music follow from your interest in social activism? Do you play particularly political dance music? I’m sorry if that’s snide, but what is the connection between your tastes and your politics, besides the fact that you believe strongly in both?

  8. Jeez, Rory. There’s really no need to be nasty.

    I’ll quote this, just so we’re clear: “my interest in media, which Jesella codes as hip, informed my decision to get an MLS as much as my values did.” DJing obviously got me mentioned in the article. DJing is one of many things related to media that I am interested in so I unconsciously folded the one concept into the other. Sorry for the confusion. Regardless, my point was that two distinct areas of interest led to my getting an MLS.

    To that end, I never claimed that my interest in media led to my interest in social activism. If you want to know, being raised by religious progressives did. What I said was that, “politics necessarily inform our interests, patterns of consumption, and aesthetic choices.” Cultural production and aesthetics are used to express affiliations, abstract notions, and reinforce value systems. I am not saying that my wearing a green polka dot shirt makes me an environmentalist. I am saying that I can express affiliation with that shirt, or make a decision about purchasing it based on whether it’s made with slave labor, the political contributions of the manufacturer, etc.

  9. The problem is that aesthetic choices express affiliations that are empty of meaning outside of a cultural game.

    “Cultural production and aesthetics are used to express affiliations, abstract notions, and reinforce value systems.” I think this is not quite true. Aesthetic choices express these things in an “as if” sense, that is, the point of them is classification. There is not necessarily any connection to real beliefs in a lived sense.

    One way to look at it is the difference between words and actions. As people live in a way that is more mediated by cultural products there is less and less of a requirement for people to actually MEAN anything by it in terms of their life when by their dress or their choice of music they indicate a cultural affiliation. It is not even a matter of posing, because those cultural affiliations have lost their content anyway. But this doesn’t mean that nothing has any meaning. There are choices that are not a matter of taste but a matter of politics and ethics. It is actions that matter. Displays of aesthetic classification are a substitute for real actions for many people, and instead function as a claim to cultural superiority.

    It is a question of substance.

  10. What offended me the most was the implication that young style-y people are agents of change in the library profession, pretty much by virtue of their style. If you wrote that a new batch of hip young teachers, for example, were some sort of breath of fresh air in the teaching profession, you’d be laughed out of town.

    The coolness of librarians is epic, and has all to do with courage and professionalism. I AM a tattooed librarian, but when anybody over the age of 17 thinks I’m cool because of it, I know they just don’t get it. You’d like to think that the New York Times would attempt to get it.

  11. I should add that in terms of Bourdieu’s ideas, the idea of hipness we are talking about is not a working class aesthetic that is reacting against dominant taste, but an aesthetic of middle and upper middle class young people who are asserting, though this kind of hip aesthetic, their independence of the problems of working class people as well as of the ordinary demands of settled middle class life. They are asserting, in general, they have the freedom, because of their class, to devote themselves to leisurely things – majoring in art or literature in college, pursue an academic life, regarding mainstream culture from an ironic yet comfortable distance, etc. There may be a certain questioning of middle class values implicit in hipness insofar as it does not appear “conservative” – and a certain flirtation with social groups that carry a source of anger and authenticity – but there is never any sacrifice of that display of class status as the “young literati,” to use the author’s phrase….

  12. Rory – that there’s a difference between words and actions is certainly true, but that doesn’t mean that the words don’t matter. We can’t divorce the two when we’re talking about action in a social, and by extension political, context.

    I agree with you about culture being used to empower specific populations, particularly when we start favoring those who are affluent enough to afford what is “hip,” but saying that the aesthetic choices are “empty of meaning outside of a cultural game” implies that we should consider action outside any understanding of that cultural context. That simply doesn’t work, particularly if you want to understand how those choices tie in with the assumptions or methods behind a specific action. Examples of what I’m thinking of would include socialist realism, neue sachlichkeit, imagery adopted by political bloggers, or even the design you chose for your own blog. All of those aesthetic choices involve deeper expressions of the values at work and potentially serve to tie a given expression into a broader movement.

  13. What I have found, in observing people, is that those aesthetic choices do not necessarily involve deeper expressions, except perhaps at an affective level that does not necessarily translate into commitment. It seems to me that so often those aesthetic statements of classification (“See me: I am this“) actually substitute for the reality that should matter. The kind of statement it makes means nothing if it doesn’t show that “Here is a person who is going to act certain ways politically, stand up for certain things politically, make certain sacrifices and take certain risks politically, act in solidarity with other people where it counts, organize with people for political goals,” etc. In the 1960s people took real risks in wearing long hair and wearing clothes in the rebellious style. Today many people don’t realize that the situation has changed, and think that their aesthetic choices make a statement in the same way. They no longer do, because all of these rebellious style choices have been coopted. Already when I stopped watching TV a few years ago, it was hard to find any hip kind of music that wasn’t being used in a commercial. The reason is that advertising agencies had figured out that it was smart to hire 20-somethings with pierced septums to work on ad campaigns and pick the music. They had realized that to reach a market sector they needed to use people who were a part of that market sector. The result is that aesthetic choices are no longer a way of expressing opposition. Consumer capitalism has just become too nimble and quick at coopting everything. But this is only depressing if you look for politics in personal aesthetics. Politics is still there, and as always it requires organizing, effort, sacrifice, and courage. Those are things that looking cool does not require.

  14. For the second time, I’m not talking about wearing a shirt, except as a mark of affiliation. If you don’t think aesthetics have a role in politics, I’d point you to the entire field of cultural history. There’s a reason that repressive regimes take control of the arts when they come to power and censor work that doesn’t have explicitly political content.

    I suspect that you understand this, and even agree, but want to gripe about “kids these days, with the hair and the music.” Looking back to your post (“at one time, ‘hip’ meant something political”) and your first response to me (“a lot of young people… “), I guess was your point this whole time.

  15. Well, it is true that I am getting older and my perspective on this stuff has changed. However, what I am saying is based on two important areas of literature: Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas about taste and social distinction and the ideas of Thomas Frank (and other contributors to The Baffler) about the commodification of the style of rebellion. Mainly what I’m trying to do is apply their ideas to “hip young librarians” as a cultural feature. I’ve done the best I can in comments on a blog over two days. Finally, I just want to encourage people to look into these threads of literature.

  16. The irony of this argument is that, by saying that wearing long hair was once tied to being progressive, you accept the thesis that such a political/aesthetic confluence is possible. Further, and again ironically because of your comments about culture being used to empower specific groups, your argument moves to negate the agency of people younger than yourself by asserting that your cultural experience is the only genuine one, politically. It’s worth meditating on the fact that these are, in fact, conservative positions.

  17. I think there is a conflict between Bourdieu’s theory and Frank’s, in that Bourdieu said taste is always about classification and distinction, while Frank is speaking specifically about recent history, and you’re right in seeing that I haven’t sorted out this conflict. I think they key may be that for Bourdieu, statements made through taste can be counter-hegemonic, as in the strong belief that working class people have in their tastes. The 60s counter-culture was making a statement that was also counter-hegemonic in that it was a real challenge to the power structure. My argument is that present day hipsters are not counter-hegemonic in their display of taste at all, for one because rebel style has been coopted (Frank), and for another because they are upper middle class people who are simply using it to assert their power in society (Bourdieu). Note: I am not saying that they are using culture to empower themselves. Their power is structurally based; they are using taste and style simply to communicate it. I am thinking about things like elite tastes in post-rock or whatever genre or artists one feels is culturally superior. This kind of perception of taste, if you meditate on it, is not at all tied to political commitments but to participation in a game where the point is to display your cultural superiority. Think about your opinions about the records you play. Are your opinions, especially the subtle ones, based on politics and ideas? Or are they based on confidence in your social position and a wish to declare it?

    Far from negating the agency of people younger than myself, I am raising a question about what they are actually doing – fighting the class structure or defending it.

    And of course it is also past time for me to acknowledge that I’m making vast generalizations about things that are infinitely varied.

  18. I think Rory hits the nail on the head when he mentions ‘action’. Lifestyle, aesthetics, fashion, blog templates, et cetera are no substitute for writing letters to city and county councilmembers, and/or state and federal representatives; they are no substitute for voting, for attending rallies, or for marching, shouting, and potential arrest in the name of social justice; they are no substitute for actually attending city and county council meetings, for being civicly engaged and active, for organizing and participating in social and political groups in your community, or for being active in your neighborhood association; they are no substitute for running for office, be it at the local, state, or federal level.

    I have been frustrated with armchair activism for a long time, whether it be with a tiny community of bloggers I knew who went back and forth and actually believed their insular conversation was making real change (even if it did offer a forum for refining a message, they were preaching to the choir, the dialog was circular), or whether it be hipsters drinking lattes or homebrew and dropping neo-Marxist theory.

    If you want to make a difference, quit worrying about what you look like, what you listen to, what your friends look like, and where you hang out, and go out there and make a difference. Get out of your comfort zone and engage those who willing to listen to another perspective.

    Four sayings: 1) nothing ventured, nothing gained; 2) fortune favors the bold; 3)actions speak louder than words; and 4) lead by example.

  19. Thank you for an excellent discussion. For somebody who (a) actually comes from the rural underclass of southern Kansas, complete with free lunches in high school and a mother who still, unironically, lives in a mobile home; (b) has tattoos and (c) a newly earned library degree…oh and (d) very left-wing politics, and finally (e) a suspician of anything the new york times considers “hip” (anybody remember the film Hype?), I found the discussion that followed healthy and stimulating.

  20. To go with the discussion:

    Birdsall, W.F., “A Progressive Librarianship for the 21st Century”, Progressive Librarian 28 (Winter 2006-2007): 49-63

    Buschman, J. (2003). Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited.

    Samek, T.(2007) Librarianship and Human Rights: A Twenty-First Century Guide. (Chandos, 2007).

  21. I think that this discussion would benefit from clearer definition of political and hip.
    Hip is a very imprecise term and can include a disparate array of categories. Obviously, considering oneself “hip” has nothing to do with leftist political commitments. I think that Thomas Frank’s criticism of the corporate individualism often expressed during the late 90’s tech boom is spot on. The individualistic impulses of 60’s rebellions were easily adapted to fit the fit neoliberal ideological climate of that time period. However, I would argue that groups with a shared aesthetic sensibility can have a profound social critique and practice. I would suggest that these groups could more properly be understood as subcultures. There are apolitical subcultures and explicitly political subcultures. There are plenty of examples of subcultures acting in political ways during the past 30 years. Often, these groups struggle to redefine the notion of what is “political.” Autonomist social movements in Europe and North America have been at the forefront of the antinuclear, antifascist and global justice movements. Kids growing up in the shadow of the neighborhoods destroyed by Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway reclaim abandoned space, start making their own culture only to have it co-opted, and turned into the global cultural phenomenon call hip hop. While it is legitimate to criticize a movements practices and subcultural tendencies, there are countless examples of subcultures that have, and do, act in political ways. There is a great deal of writing on this topic.

    That being said, I thought that the NY Times article was pretty vapid. I am sure that they interviewed sincere young librarians with strong political commitments. But the frame of the piece was set, and the writer picked quotes that supported that frame. That is what most major media outlets do. How many times have you read coverage of a war protest only to read quotes designed to make the protesters look like juvenile malcontents, or out of touch hippies with no legitimate critique? The frame of the article was that there are young, traditionally attractive, “hip” people that are librarians too, and a few of them even think about the social responsibilities of library and information professionals. Which, all things considered, is not that bad. While people quit entering the profession because they might not feel cool enough to be a librarian?

  22. Phil – I currently work for a progressive non-profit, have knocked on doors before the Iowa caucus, phone banked, tabled at events, marched in protests, gathered petitions, volunteered for and donated to any number of campaigns, and have followed politics since I was seven years old. Hell, I was at the DCCC’s victory party on election night ’06. Don’t tell me that an interest in media and aesthetics somehow makes me an “armchair activist.”

  23. In response to Phil’s comment, not being an “armchair activist” seems to necessitate taking on “big” provable
    action. For instance tit for tat actions which will produce a viable result or are extremely visible. i.e. you write a letter and in turn you receive a response. Very often, actions which have a great deal of impact are performed on a smaller scale.
    Actions such as volunteering at a small local organization, as being open to being helpful when it’s not easy or convenient. In certain contexts it’s as simple as being kind to your neighbors. I’m thinking specifically of examples where those who are labeled as “different” change presumptions based on behavior. Such as an older person saying “gay people are ok” as a result of the gay couple who moved in next to them mows their lawn or takes out their trash or shovels the snow off of their porch. Sometimes wielding a shovel is a political action.

    This then begs the question, when we say real change, what do we really mean? All change isn’t visibly political, but almost any action can have a political impact
    which doesn’t have immediate, quantifiable, results.

    My main point is I’m not sure what about this article, which does not address political action at all besides those mentioned talking about being progressive, would make a reader point to the folks mentioned and say, “armchair activist!”

  24. I will state that I was not saying that Pete is an armchair activist, but I must admit that the discussion did bring to mind frustrations I have with many “hipsters” who do fit the mold of the armchair activist.

    I also wholeheartedly agree that small acts are as important as larger acts.

    Maybe it’s a statement on my writing skills, or maybe it’s the medium, but I’m struggling to articulate myself.

  25. I’ll echo Phil…. I’ve been ranting about something that has bugged me for a while but I don’t want anybody to take it personally, because I don’t know the people involved; they may all be good counterexamples to what I’ve been saying.

  26. What we wear is more a function of age then of political ideals or even of career. Should we dress like our library peers who are 30 years our seniors? Clothes have nothing to do with it. I’m just as dowdy on the inside….despite the appearance.

  27. reported on another list (is it true?), and of possible interest:

    > What neither the Sun or Times articles mentioned is
    > that the event hosted by the group was a benefit for
    > Books Through Bars –

    and from yet another list, various other takes on the article:

    Wide-ranging library/archives blog-related discussion of the “Hipper Crowd of Shushers” article:

    The Free Range Librarian:

    Information Wants to Be Free:

    Pop Goes the Library:

    Kendrak’s Attack:


    Eric Childress:


  28. In response to Jim and Emily. Lots of young people don’t play the cooler than thou game, and lots who do lose at it. I am middle aged, but I know that young people aren’t all the same, and some care about being cool more than others.

  29. response to Marc (number 32) “is it true”:

    I was the poster to another list quoted re the Books Through Bars connection – and I can at least substantiate by this posting from the Radical Reference site, where a RR member affiliated with BtB, but not Desk Set, posted information about the then-upcoming event.


    Incredible how this has traveled across the librarian/archivist listservs.

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