The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Notes on Hip: Hanson as Sontag

Posted on | January 10, 2013 | 25 Comments

Susan Sontag circa 1965

In 1964, Susan Sontag published a 6,000-word essay in Partisan Review called “Notes on ‘Camp,'” which described a hitherto little-noted phenomenon: A sensibility emerging from the gay subculture and just then beginning to diffuse itself through the world of art and theater.

Sontag was a prodigy: She graduated high school at 15, married sociology professor Philip Rieff at 17, and was both a mother and a college graduate before she was 20. She attended graduate school at Harvard and the University of Paris and was acquainted with such notable figures as Herbert Marcuse and Harold Bloom. By age 26, she was divorced and living in New York with her lesbian lover. Sontag’s reputation as an intellectual whose work helped define the 1960s counterculture began with “Notes on ‘Camp,'” published when she was 31.

One need not admire Sontag — and I certainly don’t — to understand Sontag, and how her work as a critic helped shape our culture.

At any rate, all that is but a pretentious literary preamble to Victor Davis Hanson’s 2,400-word essay about “hip”:

Hip is like “cool”, whose power I wrote about not long ago: a general sense of tapping into the popular youth culture of music, fashion, food, electronics, easy left-wing politics, and adolescent habit. Hipness is a tool designed to justify enjoying the riches and leisure produced by the American brand of Western market capitalism by poking fun at it, teasing it some, dressing it up a bit to suggest ambivalence over its benefits without ever seriously either understanding their source or, much less, losing them. We feel hip at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, but not so much in the organic section of Safeway.
Hip also plays out as professed caring — worrying in the abstract about all sorts of endangered species, starving peoples, or degraded environments. It is being loudly angry at retrograde forces — white males, the rich, gun owners, Christians, family types, and suburbanites, the sorts who ostensibly crafted the toxicity of Western civilization that you are forced to use and enjoy. Yet embrace hip, and all things become possible. . . .

You can and should read the whole thing, if you want to begin thinking seriously about what’s wrong with American culture. Whether it is possible to rescue the culture — to reverse the half-century slide toward complete decadence — is to some extent moot. A big part of the problem is that most conservatives don’t really understand how we got to where we are, and thus are left sulking helplessly (or ranting in impotent frustration) at their own failures. You can’t solve your problem if you don’t understand you problem, and a lack of cultural understanding is perhaps the biggest obstacle conservatives currently face.

It might be helpful to study Friedrich Hayek’s 1949 essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” How weird to realize that Hayek started teaching at the University of Chicago at just about the same time a young student there, Susan Sontag, was marrying her sociology professor.



25 Responses to “Notes on Hip: Hanson as Sontag”

  1. McGehee
    January 10th, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

    It’s like I remarked to my wife and mother-in-law upon seeing a TV commercial (in which a woman sees a magazine cover and says, “‘Are you a cool mom?’ I’m gonna find out!”): If you’re worried about whether or not you’re cool, you’re not cool.

    Same applies to “hip” or whatever they’re calling it these days.

  2. Stogie Chomper
    January 10th, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

    “Hip-ness” is a way of posturing and posing as a member of the elite. It is keeping abreast of changing fashions and fads, and always embracing the most current. However, knowledge of such superficial social phenomena is not enough; one must disdain those who are not as “au courant” as oneself. Hence, it is necessary for the ulta-cool to band together in cliques and clatches, to congratulate each other on one’s coolness, and to laugh derisively at those who fail to live up to the clique’s high standards of superficiality. There is no point in being hip unless one has an ocean of serfs available with which to contrast oneself.

    Back in 1975 there was a singer named Janis Ian who recorded a song “At Seventeen,” which furnished the viewpoint of the uncool. One of those verses was:

    To those of us who knew the pain
    Of valentines that never came
    And those whose names were never called
    When choosing sides for basketball
    It was long ago and far away
    the world was younger than today
    when dreams were all they gave for free
    to ugly duckling girls like me…

  3. M. Thompson
    January 10th, 2013 @ 1:08 pm

    Hanson cements his role as one of the most perceptive commentators in America.

  4. Bob Belvedere
    January 10th, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    At my age, when I talk about ‘hip’ it has to do with a hip replacement.

  5. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    January 10th, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

    I will note that I feel hipper at Trader Joe’s because they have decent stuff at very good prices. The “two buck Chuck” aside (which is still a great value), they have plenty of other deals too on wine, chocolate, etc.. Now TJ is not the best place for all products, but for wine, olive oil, and their various prepared products, it is very good. I also like their winter brew coffee (although you can simulate it with cheaper coffee by grating in some black pepper into your regular coffee before you brew it). But I digress…

    Whole Foods is a major disappointment. I went into my first WF thinking it was some upper end place that might have high quality and hard to find ingredients and produce. But that is not true. But what WF sells is smug virtue. If you are dumb enough to go there and spend 10-50% more on items to make you feel better about yourself, well have fun. I have never been back to WF.

  6. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    January 10th, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

    You know what is hip? Being able to grow veggies on your own, catch your own fish or game, raising your own chickens and harvesting eggs, know what wine pairs well with what you are making (or better yet making your own wine or beer) and preparing everything.

  7. richard mcenroe
    January 10th, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

    Susan Sontag said one thing I whole-heartedly agree with. “If you watch porn for 20 minutes you want to have sex right away. If you watch it for two hours, you never had sex again.”

    After one fourteen-hour editing session I can tell you she is absolutely correct.

  8. richard mcenroe
    January 10th, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

    “Hip” is a mechanism by which young people try to cling to the praise and reward cycle of behavior inculcated in them in the modern school system. As David Mamet put it, spout the right slogan, get praised and rewarded like a lab rat pushing the right lever for a food pellet.

    “Hip” is just a bunch of lab rats looking for the food levers in the outside world.

  9. Rob Crawford
    January 10th, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

    I suspect, however, that not giving a rip if you’re “cool” or “hip” means you are.

  10. Rob Crawford
    January 10th, 2013 @ 4:00 pm

    You at least have to wait for the chafing to heal.

  11. Finrod Felagund
    January 10th, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

    The band Extreme had a song in the mid-1990s called Hip Today:

    you’ll be gone tomorrow
    you’ll be gone tomorrow
    gone tomorrow

    you’re preoccupied
    with the latest fashion
    hip today, hip today

    with wide open eyes
    on the next big thing
    you can cash in
    hip today, hip today

    no never contrived
    it’s an overnight sensation
    a clever disguise
    that hides all of your
    sally’s selling out
    her seashells for souls
    hope i don’t die
    before i get old

    hip today
    you’ll be gone tomorrow
    you’ll be gone tomorrow
    gone tomorrow

  12. richard mcenroe
    January 10th, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

    Nah, figured THAT out in my salad days as Ron Jeremy’s stunt double.

  13. McGehee
    January 10th, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

    Except that would encourage those that aren’t, to pretend they don’t care. Which would make “not giving a rip” also evidence that one is not cool or hip.

    Works for me, actually — since I think being cool, hip, rad, phat or what-have-you, is a profound waste of … pretty much anything worthwhile.

  14. rosalie
    January 10th, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

    You nailed it!

  15. rosalie
    January 10th, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

    When we’re visiting our son and his family in Portland, Or, I sometimes go to WF because we don’t have any around where I live. I find it exciting to go into a store and know that most of their products do not contain artificial ingredients. The same with Trader Joe. WF does have a good restaurant that offers a wide variety of food. We usually end up eating there.

  16. K-Bob
    January 10th, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

    Hah! …probably because of some unfortunate incident several years ago, when playing it cool.

  17. Bob Belvedere
    January 10th, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

    Yup…all those years of standing up and playing guitar.

  18. Steve Skubinna
    January 10th, 2013 @ 9:55 pm

    Nope, what you describe is merely competence. To some that is important, but it isn’t hip. Hipness always involves teetering at the edge of the precipice, it requires a massive undercurrent of drama.

    And to the hip, the deal is to studiously ignore the drama while making sure every observer it focused on it.

    When things get really dicey the hip are lost, and the competent – whom you describe so well – will simply keep going without drama and fuss.

  19. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    January 10th, 2013 @ 11:58 pm

    I was using “hip” in a satyrical way. Next time I will put it in quotations ; )

  20. Patrick Carroll
    January 11th, 2013 @ 12:15 am

    What, exactly, is an “artificial ingredient?”

    I live on planet Earth, and everything here is “real,” as far as I can tell.

  21. Patrick Carroll
    January 11th, 2013 @ 12:19 am

    “Hip” is the new “Noblesse Oblige.”

    Except, you know, without the “noblesse.”

    Or the “oblige.”

    It’s all hat, no cattle.

  22. robertstacymccain
    January 11th, 2013 @ 6:18 am

    Part of what is involved is the loss of institutional authority and social order. Atomized individuals without any sense of belonging must create for themselves something to replace the missing sources of identity previously provided by faith, family and community. The tribal instinct persists, but now expresses itself in self-chosen loyalties to sports teams, pop music performers and various commercial brand items.
    So the great-grandson of the Italian Catholic immigrant from North Boston now thinks of himself as a Red Sox fan, a devotee of hiphop music, a wearer of Abercrombie & Fitch. He is a “gamer” or a “skater” or a Republican or a Democrat or whatever. The point is that, whereas his ancestors derived their identity from traditional and largely inherited institutions, the youth of today seek identities of their own choice, and these new sources of identity are to a great degree related to consumer goods and known through mass media.

  23. Bob Belvedere
    January 11th, 2013 @ 7:53 am

    Well stated, but, ah…it’s the ‘North End’, not ‘North Boston’, paisan.

  24. rosalie
    January 11th, 2013 @ 8:31 am

    I’ve been staying away from artificial color and preservatives in my food for one heck of a long time. Next time you’re shopping, check the ingredients in bread. The bread I make has water, yeast and salt. Most commerical bread has a long list of ingredients that I can’t even pronounce. The one ingredient, L-cysteine, is actually dissolved hair.

  25. Steve Skubinna
    January 11th, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    Sarc tags. Smilies. Emoticons. Just so long as you use ones no longer considered hip.