Algorithms Didn’t Kill Hipsters; Poptimism Did
Plus: Another classic Arnold assigned!
Hey everybody, just a reminder that Peter, Alyssa, and I will be at the Crystal City Alamo Drafthouse on Tuesday, May 16 for the 7:30 PM showing of WarGames. We’ll be taping an episode of Across the Movie Aisle! There are only ten seats left and they’re in the front row, but that’s great news since it means you’ll be closer to the three of us while we do the show. You’ll be able to see the fear of public speaking in my eyes! It’ll be wonderful.
Earlier this month, Sam Kriss wrote an amusing essay about the death of hipsters, the rise of nerds, and the oncoming death of nerds. Whether or not you agree with the specific distinctions made by Kriss—and lord knows, if you bring it up to someone steeped in nerddom, they’ll ackshually you to death about it—the broad strokes feel more or less right. The “hipster,” as an idea, was someone annoying but useful in that “hipsters” writ large helped surface new and sometimes good cultural products in an age of cultural overload; the “nerd,” as an idea, is someone annoying and useless in that their appreciation for mass market glop is both trivial and annoying.
(I was seared by a spark of recognition when Kriss described “the unbearable, ungodly enthusiasm” of the “nerd”; it’s the face of the YouTube dork, eyes wide, mouth agape, hooting and hollering and pointing at the thing he loves as he faces the camera, pop ephemera lining the walls behind him.)
Again, I’m not so interested in the specifics of what constitutes the “nerd”; Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex ably pushes back on the idea that the “nerd” is confined to people who like and list and manically sort and obsess over things that are “bad,” as Kriss puts it. I’m more interested in the decline of the hipster and rise of the algorithm and how tastes have mutated over the last few years. Because I don’t think it is algorithms per se that have killed hipsters so much as the all-encompassing imperative of poptimism.
At its core, poptimism is the idea that because a thing is popular, that means that it is good and should be celebrated. Originating in the world of music, poptimism was a reaction against “rockist” ideals (that is, the suggestion that rock music was more authentic and genuine because it was made by people who could actually play instruments and wrote their own lyrics). Poptimism has spread beyond music and is at least part of the reason why, for instance, you see constant demands that comic book movies get best picture nominations. (In the world of movies, we might shorthand it as the Marvelist vs. the Scorcesian.)
As W. David Marx notes in his book, Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change, poptimism has intertwined with a variety of cultural omnivorism that encourages people to embrace the most popular fare from all genres. And this is where the algorithm comes in: it feeds people a steady drip of the most popular things and assures you you’re good for enjoying a diverse array of sameness. The algorithm itself was merely empowered by a general attitudinal shift that rendered the specific thing the hipster did—help mold artistic taste—irrelevant.
But, and this is important, taste distinctions still matter. Social rank demands fealty to certain ideals of taste, even if artistry isn’t the taste that matters. “Omnivorism, for all of its rejections of ‘taste,’ still presupposes that cultural choice can change society,” Marx writes. “Consumerism can support allies, shame enemies, and deny prestige and financial support to oppressors.”
In the modern cultural landscape, “the hipster” has been replaced by what might be called “der kommisar,” and der kommisar has a few general rules for how to appreciate culture:
1. Artists should create content that promotes progressive political views and reveals unconscious biases against oppressed groups.
2. Gatekeepers should work to represent minority voices by elevating minority artists.
3. Consumers should only buy artworks and goods with progressive values that are created by upright individuals.
4. Majority groups should never profit on styles or stories that originate within minority groups.
5. Critics should decanonize antiprogressive artists and their works, and question aesthetics associated with high-status distinction.*
This might be summed up with the following line from Marx’s book: “art should avoid being for art’s sake when social equity is at stake.” The quality of artistry matters less than supporting artists who think the right things and say the right things and make the right sorts of art on the approved sorts of topics, and as a consumer of art your status in certain circles is judged by how well you hew to those priorities.
I don’t think you can really understand much of the last decade or so of cultural writing—or, for that matter, cultural production—if you don’t understand this dynamic and how poptimism, omnivorism, and identity politics have all spun together to change, at the very least, how people talk publicly about the art they consume. I am hopeful that, at least on the margins, this sort of thing is starting to ebb. But we’ll see.
*In case the block quote doesn’t make that clear enough, that numbered list is from Marx’s book
I reviewed Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant this week, which is a fairly intense fictional portrait of the debt America owes to the Afghan interpreters we abandoned to the Taliban. I hope you check it out.
In my review, I linked to a pair of pieces by Will Selber about the plight of Afghan interpreters. I’m linking to them again here because I really think you should read them. The abandonment of these allies is a stain on America’s honor.
On tomorrow’s Bulwark Goes to Hollywood, I’m talking to Matthew Ball about The Streaming Book. I know from painful experience that only one-tenth of one percent of you will click on that link, but I nevertheless ask kindly that you read it before you listen. You don’t have to read it before you listen; the podcast is conducted as if you haven’t read it. However, if you want to understand how we got where we are in the streaming wars—and why it’s early yet in said wars—you really should read it.
The public domain is a mistake.
It’s very funny to me that Warner Bros. is like “we have this movie about the Flash, called The Flash, and it’s the best superhero movie ever, because, if you watch the trailer, you’ll see that it’s a Batman movie.”
Steven Spielberg thinks it was a mistake to cut the guns out of E.T.
Assigned Viewing: True Lies (Apple TV+)
I feel like I’ve assigned this before but I can’t find it in the archive and this James Cameron classic is so infrequently available that I am okay with assigning it twice if I have in fact assigned it twice. True Lies is a great movie—big budget action comedy of the highest order—that has been swept away by various cultural imperatives (der kommisars hate this movie, I promise you) and also James Cameron’s refusal to put it (or The Abyss) out on 4K.
Oh True Lies. I was 8 years old when I first saw this on VHS and immediately loved it. It was one of those dad-son bonding movies, though I didn't understand until I was a bit older why my old man liked the Jamie Lee Curtis hotel scene the best.
Not gonna lie, Bill Paxton's performance was fantastic. "I'm not a spy. I'm nothing. I'm navel lint! I have to lie to women to get laid, and I don't score much. I got a little dick, it's pathetic!"
Classic. Absolutely classic.
I do think there is a countervailing feeling to poptimism that because something is popular those in the know must deride it. One reason I like Sonny's reviews even when I disagree with him he doesn't fall for this.