Hipsters, low tech, and the quest for authenticity — what do we make of the interplay among these three phenomena? In two recent posts at Cyborgology, P. J. Rey and Nathan Jurgenson addressed this question in an exchange of overlapping perspectives with competing points of emphasis. I encourage you to read each piece, but here is how I would characterize their respective arguments.
Rey, for his part, advanced the thesis that hipster fixation on lo-tech gear is mostly about achieving a sense of mastery over technology, a mastery that is mostly unattainable over more complex contemporary technology. This mastery also affirms a sense of individuality and independence. Rey concludes:
“The hipster low-tech fantasy–”the dream of the 1890s“–is one of escape from the complex socio-technical systems that we are highly dependent on but have little control over. It is a fantasy of achieving the most radical expression of individual agency: the opt-out.”
In his response, Jurgenson argues that Rey is focusing on the wrong thing. To put in Aristotelian terms, the retro-tech is accidental, identity construction is the essence. The really important dynamic is not the hipster fixation on low-tech, but rather the imperative to construct an authentic, individual identity. Of course, shifting to Hegel-ese, the contradiction that constructs the desire is the inherent inauthenticity of constructed identities; the goal, under the conditions it is pursued, is unattainable.
Reading these two posts, particularly Rey’s initial offering, I was reminded of categories employed by the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann. Borgmann, whose thinking about technology arises from his engagement with Martin Heidegger, distinguishes between devices and focal things. Here’s the difference as I explained it in an earlier post:
Writing about technological culture, Borgmann distinguished between devices characterized by a “commodious,” accessible surface and a hidden, opaque machinery below the surface on the one hand and what he calls focal things on the other. Devices are in turn coupled with consumption and focal things are paired with focal practices. Focal things and practices, according to Borgmann, “gather our world and radiate significance in ways that contrast with the diversion and distraction afforded by commodities.” In short, we merely use devices while we engage with focal things.
With those distinctions in mind, Borgmann continues, “Generally, a focal thing is concrete and of commanding presence.” A commanding presence or reality is later opposed to “a pliable or disposable reality.” Further on still, Borgmann writes, “Material culture in the advanced industrial democracies spans a spectrum from commanding to disposable reality. The former reality calls forth a life of engagement that is oriented within the physical and social world. The latter induces a life of distraction that is isolated from the environment and from other people.” On that last point, bear in mind that Borgmann is writing in the early 2000s before the onset of social media.
Borgmann’s categories enjoy some interesting points of contact with Rey’s analysis. The notion of a commodious device, for example, that presents what we might call a user-friendly surface while hiding an inaccessible complexity below that surface tracks with Rey’s sense that hipsters have turned to low-tech in order to engage with technologies over which a certain degree of mastery can be achieved.
The objects in themselves are not, therefore, mere signifiers in a what is essentially the work of identity construction as I take Jurgenson to argue. Not too long ago I offered a few disorganized reflections on the sources of the modern imperative to construct one’s identity. This imperative arises, in part, from the erosion of traditional social structures that functioned as anchors for the self. It is a by-product of the solidity of the premodern world dissolving into the liquidity of the postmodern, to borrow Bauman’s metaphor. That said, it would be a mistake to conclude that we are always involved in the work of identity construction in equal measure. In fact, I think this is where Borgmann’s phenomenological analysis of the commanding presence of focal things may prove most useful.
Borgmann, if I understand him correctly, distinguishes between focal things and devices mostly on the basis of the sort of engagement they require. Simply put, a focal thing demands more of one’s self than a device. We are mere users of devices, focal things invite us to become practitioners. The paradigmatic focal thing for Borgmann is a musical instrument, and this example is particularly instructive.
It is possible for a musician to have the experience of losing themselves in the act of playing a musical instrument. In other words, in such focal practices the imperative to construct one’s identity is counteracted by the very nature of the focal thing and its attendant practice. It is, of course, possible to argue, and in fact very likely, that the pursuit of musical skill is itself an instance of identity creation. But the nature of the practice itself, if the testimony of practitioners may be trusted, finally resists that impulse. We might imagine the same to be true for a wide range of practices, particularly as one approaches a level of expertise in the practice and find themselves “in the flow,” which is to say in a state of almost non-conscious action. This state, phenomenologically, would appear to be the polar opposite of the hyper-self-consciousness that the performance of identity assumes.
I should add that such practices are not necessarily limited to the low-tech or the analog. I imagine that for the expert coder or computer programmer, for example, may find themselves similarly taken in by their work.
I am reminded once again of a passage in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:
“It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to . . . the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. . . . I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”
Conrad’s Marlow captures neatly the dynamic of Borgmann’s focal things and practices. They are not finally about the performance of an identity, and they may even allow for an entirely different approach to the matter of identity. As Marlow puts it, he values what is in the work, namely “the chance to find yourself.”
It is the desire expressed by the lyrics of what might possibly be a rather hipster-ish band, The Head and the Heart:
“I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade.
Like ridin’ around on railcars and workin’ long days.”
My interest in these matters, however, is not tied to an exploration of the hipster psyche. In the limited case of the hipster, Jurgenson may very well be right, it is all performance all the way down. But I believe that Rey is also right in focusing on the low-tech objects that are the paraphernalia of hipster culture. They are not insignificant in themselves even if the hipsters have stumbled upon this reality accidentally.
Happily, the world is populated by more than hipsters and it includes those who find in their analog and low-tech practices something more than an opportunity to perform a particular identity, they find a respite, momentary perhaps, from the imperative to perform. Moreover, it is not mastery that they are after, but rather a certain form of engagement with the world that is its own reward.
Update: Some further thoughts on authenticity here.