Low-tech Practices and Identity

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.

23 thoughts on “Low-tech Practices and Identity

  1. Well put. It seems at best odd and at worst misleading to use the hipster psyche as a lens for making sense of what Jurgenson terms “low-tech.” (The reverse – using “low-tech” as a lens for making sense of the hipster psyche – would be the more logical approach.) A hipster’s choice to use a Brownie camera isn’t very interesting and I suppose can probably be explained in terms of identity management. The choice by a photographer like Sebastian Schutyser to use a pinhole camera to photograph hermitages in remote Spain – http://www.sebastianschutyser.com/engels/ermita.html – is interesting, and one of the reasons it’s interesting is that it has nothing to do with identity management. It has to do with careful technological, aesthetic, and personal considerations and with, as you put it, seeking “a certain form of engagement with the world that is its own reward.” Retro posturing is the reductio ad absurdum of the profound human search for engagement with the world.

  2. terrific post!

    however, i very much disagree with the conclusion (and this is a point i should have made in my original post). when i say “hipster” i do not mean an identity category that some people belong to and some people do not. that is how you are using the term, pointing to non-hipsters using low-tech *not* performing but instead as a respite from performativity.

    i disagree. everyone and no one is a hipster. “hipster” is a tendency that everyone is implicated into some degree. everyone is a hipster to those less hipster than them. and there will always be someone more hipster than you that you can point to in order to avoid the classification yourself.

    what this entails is that the hipster tendency to perform identity distinction is not something limited to those kids downtown in funny clothes. no, that cultural tendency (meme?) is diffused throughout American culture to varying degrees. for example, the analysis of low-tech having to do with identity distinction is not just about hip young kids but also has to do with restaurants with the faux-retro feel, with the rise of suburban middle-american bee keeping, down to Chiptole and other middle-end fast food chains using exposed duct work and lighting to seem more authentic and hip than Taco Bell and other low-end fast food spots.

    see: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1669220/the-current-rage-in-branding-fake-authenticity-is-now-a-okay

    most importantly, i do not see any evidence for the claim that there is some special non-hipster group outside of identity performance and the processes of distinction. i think the hipster category is most often deployed in order to simultaneously construct the opposite, this imaginary non-hipster category. (this is akin to how Foucault discusses the construction of mental illness as being really about the construction of the normal). the hipster is a myth, one that lets us falsely claim some kind of non-hipster authenticity that was never there to begin with.

    1. Thanks Nathan, and thanks for the stimulating and vigorous reply as always. You’re right to say that I took yours and P. J.’s posts to be dealing with that particular class of individuals — “those kids downtown with funny clothes” — that most commonly receive the hipster label. So I take your point here and agree that it shifts the discussion. However, I will point out one aspect of my post above that I think answers your objection, analogously as it turns out.

      If we set aside “hipster” as a set of people with certain proclivities, and instead use “hipster” to denote a tendency — let us call it the tendency toward identity performance and its discontents — then I would add that my point also is not necessarily about a class of people, but about a tendency of certain practices to momentarily arrest the imperative to construct identity by so engaging our attention that we are lost in what we are doing. So then it is not so much that there is some special class of non-hipsters (although I might on another occasion also want to argue for this claim) but that there are moments of non-hipsterism, and that these can arise out of the engagement with certain kinds of objects/practices.

      1. non-hipsterdom: “a tendency of certain practices to momentarily arrest the imperative to construct identity by so engaging our attention that we are lost in what we are doing”

        i like and have a small disagreement that using tech is almost ever about losing the imperative to construct identity. what experience can be had if not filtered through our *self*? a self informed by history, politics, social structures and relations, etc? the only example i can think of would maybe be Foucault/Bataille’s “limit experiences” where through sex or drugs or whatever you can momentarily stand outside social processes of subjugation. but i will guess that you are not thinking of these radical moments, but just the phenomenological difference between using a modern or olde-school espresso gadget?

        perhaps the better way to phrase this would be how certain technologies make us more or less performative and bound to identity construction? (and leave behind if there are non-performative actions) i’m not sure how to judge other’s behaviors as more or less performative, and i would probably question strongly those who would feel compelled or capable to arbiter reality as such.

        1. this is more of a comment on the comments, sorry, but i reckon it’s still relevant.

          ‘everyone makes distinctions’ okay… and? …if it is true, it’s also just not very interesting. especially when it’s missing, as it tends to do in American translation, the class analysis to which it was linked throughout Bourdieu’s work (and even there it tends to be reductive and uninteresting). those restaurants are catering to a specific class of people, the gentrifiers downtown with enough disposable income to endlessly seek out the funny clothes and the faux-authentic. they do not appeal to, and so do very little to shape, the tastes of the vast majority of people. even if the existence of such places implies that those who don’t ‘get’ what they’re about are not ‘hip’, i’d be willing to bet that the latter don’t lose much sleep over this particular aspect of their exclusion (even less the interior design choices of Chipotle).

          all feats of classification are not equal, and these discussions would be a lot more interesting it they addressed the power differentials involved in particular acts of classification. is it ‘elitist’ or ‘exclusionary’ of me to identify/classify the practices of a certain class of people, say, gentrifiers, conspicuous consumers, ‘cultural creatives’, and so on (and perhaps even to reject them as best I can)? saying ‘everyone is everything and nothing’ is not only vacuous, it elides these crucial distinctions.

          ‘everyone is performing’… again, not a very interesting point unless it’s linked to some more specific set of questions. ‘performativity’ was a subversive thing to argue for in the eighties and nineties when it was tied to attempts to denaturalise gender roles, but now that it’s become a key part of the ‘creative economy’, and so unavoidably linked to the maintenance of the (classed, racialised, and gendered) status quo, I wouldn’t toss it around so easily. in the current context, it’s performance of a very particular kind that is highly valued, having everything to do with the value-systems embedded in our social media spectacle (obsession with self-image and promotion, the capacity to speedily process information and cogently discuss the latest books/movies/tv/gadgets, collaborative ‘participation’, heated but not particularly effective political discussion). again, there are large swathes of people whose lives are not determined by such values; most simply cannot afford to cultivate them, still others choose not to do so. because they do not value these specific modes of performance, they do not materially contribute to the reproduction of this ‘performance economy’ (and their wages and work prospects probably suffer for it too).

          the hipster is not a ‘myth’. (in fact I’d argue one of its key ideological gestures is to try and convince others that it is, or that ‘everyone and no one is a hipster’). if i may be so bold- hipsters are young-ish people who enjoy a relatively high degree of economic, social and cultural capital and who use those assets principally to reproduce themselves and their standard of living. my (and others’) attempt to identify this trend is not the same as the 17th century physician and his high-bourgeois cohort discovering (themselves) in the image of ‘rational man’ and then constructing and locking up the ‘mentally ill’. alas, i do not have to power to put away the gentrifiers.

          nathan, you’re analysis is not value-neutral- to claim that it is, that you the social scientist somehow stand outside of moral arbitration, is an important and value-laden distinction. Foucault’s histories centred on the outcast, the disenfranchised, or, the processes by which they became perceived and talked about as such- in many cases the victims of the emergent (social) ‘sciences of man’. Implicit in his (and Butler’s) projects was a defence of such groups against the universalising claims of Enlightenment values, its philosophy and its political and sexual-moral economy. More often than not, your ‘value-neutral’, power-flattening perspective- everyone is a hipster, performance is all, and indeed, reality is augmented- seems to me to be little more than a defense of the values of Silicon Valley and the class(es) that directly sustains their power.

          sorry for the confrontational tone. it’s late.

  3. “but just the phenomenological difference between using a modern or olde-school espresso gadget?”

    No, that’s not it at all. What I have in mind, following Borgmann and also Hubert Dreyfuss, involves a set of practices, not merely an act (and certainly not such a trivial act) … practices that do in fact constitute identity while not thereby being performative. Dreyfuss, building on Merleau-Ponty, talks about these as “unreflective actions.”

    It seems that the contingency of identity is being equated with the performance of identity, but I think that might be a mistake. In any case, if we agree that the experience of identity arises out of historical conditions, then it follows that the imperative to construct identity is a historically contingent experience. To claim that everyone is a hipster and thus everyone is inauthentically performing their identity, problematically imports the peculiar conditions of late, western modernity onto the rest of humanity. I would venture to say that a rural peasant in any non-western society of your choosing, struggling to eek out an existence from the land is not by plowing their field thereby performing their identity.

    Perhaps more thoughts tomorrow, but as it stands this has been a fruitful exchange. My thanks to you all for reading and adding your comments.

    1. “To claim that everyone is a hipster and thus everyone is inauthentically performing their identity, problematically imports the peculiar conditions of late, western modernity onto the rest of humanity”

      but i tried to make clear that i was talking about modern American culture. also, the low-tech movement PJ and I are trying to describe is a very specific contemporary American fascination with low-tech (rise in bikes, film cameras, typwriters, etc). i’m still unsure how, in this context, we can claim that some special folks are outside of identity performance (who, we can assume, rightly look down on poser-hipsters).

      1. Which just goes to show how precarious communication in this medium can be. I understood you to be making a more universal claim. It certainly seemed, though, from your comments that we had at least left the specific case of the low-tech user. Once we began debating whether everyone is a hipster, then we were no longer talking about just those folks with the funny old bikes.

        I don’t necessarily want to draw this discussion out indefinitely, as I know that combox debates can grow tedious. For my part, I presently question the grounds on which we can claim that everyone (every American?) is performing their identity (actively?) at all times. This seems to impose a useful sociological theory indiscriminately on a more diverse, complex reality. To borrow poet Wallace Stevens’ apt phrasing, this threatens to become a one-idea lunacy. In any case, we’ve gotten quite far from the modest claim I was making in the initial post which is simply that, for a time, engaging in certain activities can arrest the self-consciousness implicit in performance of identity. I like the way Rob Horning summed it up, it’s the “self-involved reveries of consumption” vs. the “self-forgetting focus of engagement.”

        Perhaps you all can take this up when you hold the social media salon, which I would love to attend were it not so far!

        1. yeah, would be great for the salons! if i ever do one in florida… (you are in florida, right?)

          anyways, yeah, let’s wind this down, and i’d conclude that i’ve done a poor job explaining the term performance, too quickly assuming a shared understanding. and clearing this up is not appropriate for blog comments, so best to move on, but will give it a short try here….

          “This seems to impose a useful sociological theory indiscriminately on a more diverse, complex reality”

          this really gets at it: the perspective–that the self and identity are recent historical inventions, are something that is constructed by social location, and therefore a performance rather than the expression of something natural or purely authentic–in no way attempts to hide the complexities of reality. instead, the project seeks to explore the infinite *differences*, the various flavors of performance. saying that identity is constructed/performed based on the infinite complexities of social location might be said to be incorrect, but certainly not inherently “indiscriminate.”

          two final points of consideration for future posts:
          1- are identity construction and performance the same thing? i think the former implies the latter, especially given that performances are often unconscious ala Goffman, but am open to hearing more on this.

          2- moving past the debate over whether anything is non-performative, i certainly agree that a terrific research question has to do with those processes that involve more or less focus of the self on the self, more or less intense subjectifications.

          1. if the upshot of your project is the claim that things are infinitely complex (an empty truism), then you’re not discriminating, you’re just holding up a mirror to reality- there are differences (duh), and then there are significant differences, and you have to convince us why the ones you’ve chosen to focus on are significant. enough of this Baskin-Robins sociology. if it’s merely a matter of proving that ‘everyone has prefers a certain flavour, and those preferences exclude other flavour preferences’, then, well, you haven’t really said anything very insightful.

            you should also grant that the hipster and its various fetishes represents a very tiny, very privileged slice of “American culture”.

            “Kathy Edin, a sociologist at Harvard who studies urban poverty and family life, is one of the most prominent critics of the emerging adulthood theory. The notion that an entire generation is consumed by the desire for “identity-based work” is, she said, “completely ridiculous.” “The myopia is galling,” she added.”


            k i’m done.

      2. re: “the low-tech movement PJ and I are trying to describe is a very specific contemporary American fascination with low-tech”

        I’m not sure there’s anything specifically contemporary or specifically American about this at all. Hasn’t a “fascination with low-tech” been a recurring theme of hipster identity since at least the neoclassical hipsters of the 18th century?

        1. “the neoclassical hipsters of the 18th century”

          Leads me to ask, has anyone written a history of the hipster sensibility? Might be an interesting contribution to the history and sociology of technology in the right hands.

  4. Though I’m not familiar with the theorists quoted extensively herein, I’ve been following the Cyborgology debate with great interest, as the concepts of ‘authenticity’ and identity interest me greatly, especially in relation to my own thoughts on what sociologist Adam Possamai called the ‘hyper-real religions’ – Jediism, Matrix-Otherkin and the like.

    That there is a performative aspect to public personae seems undeniable, but the degree (and the amount of conscious attention paid) differs drastically, from person to person, culture to culture. The “Yes, We’re All Individuals” impulse so often derided in Hipster circles – both within and without, I note! – surely relates strongly to the search for identity in postmodern times, as Jurgenson earlier noted. But sometimes, the choice of tech isn’t mediated solely by its expression of one’s personality – often, it’s simply a striving for *kit that works*… tools one can use effectively based on how much technical ability one is willing (and has the time) to assimilate. Much use of Apple kit over Android, for example, is based on simplicity of access to the basic functions one needs without having to get under the hood.

    Of course, this can be fetishized too. As William Gibson noted in ZERO HISTORY, there is a thriving market of supplying pseudo-military clothing and kit to what have become known as “gear-queers” – who can perhaps be described as the military-industrial Hipsters. This in turn has directly influenced the companies who actually supply the military…

    I’ll end on questioning the use and general application of the concept of authenticity itself: for me, there’s no better critique of same than the monologue in the Warren Ellis comic DOKTOR SLEEPLESS, issue #5, which ends:

    “Authenticity is bullshit. Never more so than today. We can be anyone we can imagine being. We can be someone new every day.

    You know why we never got any respect in this town? See if any of these sound familiar:

    ‘You should be happy with who you are.’ ‘Be yourself’. ‘That stuff is just fake.’ ‘Don’t get any ideas above your station.’ ‘Take that shit off.’ ‘Dress Properly.’ ‘Why can’t you be like everyone else?’ Yeah?

    We are not real enough . We are not authentic to our society.

    But you know what? Back in the days before the internet, a kid called Robert Zimmerman said, “Fuck that, I’m going to be the man I dream of being. I’m going to be someone completely new and write about the end of the world because it’s the only thing worth talking about.” And that was one guy in Minnesota, in the same decade the telecommunications satellite was invented. Imagine what all of us, living here in the future, can achieve.

    Be authentic to your dream, be authentic to you own ideas about yourself. Grind away at your own minds and bodies and become your own invention. BE MAD SCIENTISTS.

    Here at the end of the world, it’s the only thing worth doing.”

    1. Your “kit that works” point is well taken. Presently, as I mentioned in my last comment below, I’m dubious of the notion that we are always performing. Nathan may be right, he and I may be using “performance” equivocally. In any case, it strikes me as rather obvious that our choices may simply be motivated by finding gear that works rather than signaling some aspect of our identity. It is analogous to Freud’s quip: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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