Hipness Through the Ages

I see that Scott McLemee has a link to B&W on his site – on account of how I had links to his site. It’s like ping-pong. No but really, I feel like mentioning it because he mentions the hipness thing.

We share a distaste for that “hipness unto death” which has become such a nuisance of urban life. Maybe it always was? I don’t know. On reflection, it does seem that Rousseau was complaining about it, quite a while back.

Yeah. And Elizabethan satirists, too, come to think of it. Ben Jonson had great fun with the subject in ‘Every Man in his Humour’ and Ditto Out of his Humour. He was really interested in fashion, and wickedly funny about it. His friend (and slightly resented rival) Shakespeare was not as interested as he was (to judge by his chosen subject matter at least) but he was interested. Hamlet has some pointed things to say about the fashion for child actors at the Blackfriars Theatre (not surprisingly – they were the competition). ‘There is Sir an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapp’d for ‘t. These are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages – so they call them – that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.’ Sounds very hip, doesn’t it? A little kinky? And there’s a fair bit about fashion in the Sonnets, too, especially the dread of more fashionable – hipper – new poets displacing him in the affections of Lovely Boy. And Juvenal had some dyspeptic things to say about fashion and hipness, if I remember correctly – well he must have, it’s such a Juvenal kind of thing, hipness.

It’s not a completely unserious point though. Even apart from the sheer irritatingness of the lust for being hip, there is a real epistemological issue underneath. It’s too obvious to bother saying, of course, and yet it doesn’t seem to be universally understood: hipness is not a good criterion for what’s true. But there are people whose writing would lead one to swear that they think it is. ‘Naive and old-fashioned’ is a phrase that’s used a lot to discredit opponents – a phrase that always makes me feel as if someone has emptied a jar of ants down the back of my shirt. Itchy.

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