by Dr Steven Threadgold, University of Newcastle
The study of ‘youth cultures’ has had a troublesome and fluctuating relationship with class. In general, the foundational subcultural studies and more recent work continuing that tradition has been critiqued for (among other things) over-romanticising working class practice; finding ‘resistance’ everywhere; and having an unhealthy focus on the ‘spectacular’ while disregarding the ‘mainstream’. Work done under the loose banner of ‘post-subcultural’ studies (including ‘scenes’ and ‘neo-tribes’) has been critiqued for giving too much heed to fluid notions of identity; ignoring structural constraints; and over-romanticising ‘choice’ in consumer culture. At the same time, studies of ‘youth transitions’ have consistently highlighted how family background, gender, ethnicity, access to quality education, and geographical location continue to shape the choices and risks that young people face.
In Australia, the figures of ‘hipster’ and ‘bogan’ have become quintessential floating signifiers of young (and not so young) people participating in an array of consumer cultures. They enable distinction to be performed and ascribed while eschewing the very notion of class. Both terms are mostly used as a pejorative towards various taste cultures. The hipster is a global figure, while the bogan is native to Australia. The hipster tends to equate with middle class endeavours and is at least allowed a reflexive irony that sees the term often used in a quite playful way. On the other hand, like its UK cousin the ‘chav’, processes of symbolic violence have seen the bogan rapidly become a key cultural folk devil. Beverley Skeggs asks: How can class be spoken and known, both directly and indirectly, across a range of sites? These figures are indicative of how class is made and of the ways the boundaries between them are fuzzy sites of cultural conflict. I want to propose that tracing and analysing how figures such as hipster and bogan are put to work will add a new perspective for analysing the nexus between youth cultures, youth transitions and class.
Am I a Hipster or a Bogan?
I have had my own anecdotal experience with the figures of hipster and bogan. I like playing and watching sports; I’m very partial to a sausage roll (entrée) and a meat pie (main); I drink a lot of beer; I wear thongs at every opportunity and have been pretty much wearing the same thing fashion-wise since the mid-1990s. Apparently, this is bogan stuff. On the other hand, I like bands of which you have probably never heard; I buy LPs and tapes (that’s right, tapes); I go to gigs sometimes in places that are not really ‘venues’; I have become something like a coffee snob. Apparently, this is hipster stuff. This was summed up well in one week when I was having a beer after a gig with a friend in the inner-west suburb of Newtown, Sydney. He asked was I going to drive back down from Newcastle to go to another gig the next weekend. When I replied that I couldn’t because it was the start of the cricket season next Saturday, he said ‘Cricket! Cricket’s for bogans’. That weekend at cricket, I was asked by a teammate what I did last weekend. I said, ‘I went to see R.I.P Society gig’. He replied, ‘what the hell is that… you’re a bloody hipster Thready’. It is exchanges like these along with the growing use of figures like hipster and bogan in the media that led to asking questions like: Just how ‘floating’ are these floating signifiers? What do they mean and what purpose do they serve? Is this the way class is produced and policed in a so-called ‘classless’ society?
In the past two years I have gathered pages and pages of hyperlinks to articles, memes, opinion pieces, parody videos and news items and other online media that use these figures in a lot of different ways. Hipsters and bogans are legion, I’m adding to my catalogue every day. This analysis will be part of my research monograph with Routledge, called Youth, Class and Culture.
Following the work of Imogen Tyler, I’m using the term ‘figure’ deliberately: they are not only stereotypes, clichés, memes, targets, scapegoats, folk devils, stigmas… they are all of these things at once. I began thinking of them as ‘floating signifiers’. But this made me uncomfortable as we are referring to ‘people’, not ‘things’. So this led to the use of the term figure, what Tyler calls a figurative method.
If one was to define the bogan from media constructions, you would end up with a collection of the following traits:
- Blue collar manual work
- Racist, sexist, misogynist, violent etc.
- ‘Aggressive’ ‘masculine’ traits regardless of gender – (A threat!)
- Feckless: ‘doesn’t give a fuck’
- Conspicuous tastes
- Mindless consumers, not cultural producers
- Obvious tastes: brands decide what is cool.
For the hipster, we have:
- Tertiary educated
- White collar ‘creative culture industry’ workers
- Hipster Racism, Hipster Sexism (even Hipster Marxism!)
- ‘Caring’ ‘effeminate’ traits regardless of gender, metro-sexual (A Wimp!)
- ‘Cares’, but ‘whatever’
- ‘Authentic’ tastes (for distinction purposes)
- Likes the idea of ‘artistic creativity’, even if its PR or ads
- Obscure ‘artisan’ tastes, often predicated on some type of cultural appropriation
- ‘Effortlessly’ cool but actually trying really hard.
I have also found that specific ‘things’ and activities become associated with each figure (I know some of these categorisations may be arguable, as are the above traits, but go with me here…):
|Musical taste||Like music from commercial radio and JJJ||Like bands that don’t yet exist… and community radio.|
|Music Festivals||Big Day Out, Groovin’ the Moo, Fat as Butter||ATP, Laneway, Harvest, Sound Summit, Sugar Mountain, Meredith|
|Cars||V8, American or ‘big’ cars||Hybrids and hatchbacks: ‘small’ cars|
|Tattoos||large tattoos||ironic tattoos|
|Reality TV||Loves Reality TV||Loves Realty TV ‘ironically’|
|Magazines||Zoo Weekly, NW, Guns and Ammo||Frankie, Monocle or The Smith Journal|
|Drinking||‘Binge’ drinking: cheap beer, wine and spirits in pubs and nightclubs||‘Refined’ drinking: Boutique wine and beer, cocktails bars and cafes|
|Food||Fast food||Organic food|
|Coffee||Gloria Jean/Starbucks||Artisan traditional lever-poured|
|Skin||Fake tan||Pale skin|
|Hair||Rat’s tails||Bavarian Lumberjack beards|
|Geography||Outer suburb living||Urban inner city living|
|News sources||The Daily Telegraph/Today Tonight||SMH/Guardian/ABC|
|Politics||Politics: ‘Fuck off we’re full’ ‘We grew here, you flew here’||Politics: Facebook ‘Compassion Olympics’|
|Shopping||Shops at Westfield megamalls||Shops in Op Shops or ‘cool’ suburbs (in Peru)|
|Clothing||Branded clothing||Vintage clothing|
|Reading habits||Doesn’t read books||Pretends to read books|
The hipster crosses borders and is used globally, while bogan is a specifically Australian term that has cousins in other countries (such as chav, redneck, ned, white trash). They are used in contradictory ways to individualise and even pathologise widespread social, economic and political developments and problems.
I have been looking at two specific areas of popular media: 1. News and opinion pieces. 2. Parody and satire.
- News and opinion pieces
The moral and symbolic economy of ‘opinion’ in mainstream media sees the use of hipster tend to allow for reflexivity, irony, self-knowing and ambivalence. Bogans tend to be abjectified as vulgar, aggressive, disgusting and undeserving. The hipster is used as a ‘straw man’ to provoke (mostly) discussions and debates about sexism and racism in popular culture or the efficacy of so-called green consumerism or artisan production (Silly hipster, has some issues but is not so bad, at least they are not a bogan). The bogan provokes (mostly) disgust and denigration: they have the wrong tastes, the wrong values and have the wrong morals (The bogan will king hit you and drive off drunk in a Commodore wearing Ed Hardy).
But who are the Commentariat? What is at stake with the use of each figure? The hipster has taste homologies with the members of the Commentariat, so maybe the hipster is a bit too close to the bone. The bogan is talked about, but has little voice of its own. The bogan is kept at a social distance: there are not too many working class members of the Commentariat. Following Bourdieu, these figures classify and they classify the classifier.
- Parody and satire
When it comes to examples of satire and parody, what we find funny needs to be considered an important aspect of symbolic and moral economies. Generally, the sociology and philosophy of humour has outlined three interlinking theories of humour: Superiority theory (ethnocentrism, colonialism, sexism, racism, classism, schadenfreude etc.); Relief theory (Release of pent up nervous energy, pleasure over repression); and Incongruity theory (juxtaposing what we know and what takes place in the joke) (see Critchley). I would argue that (most) satire and parody that focus on the bogan – Things bogans like; Bogan Pride; Housos; Kath and Kim; Upper Middle Bogan; Bogan Hunter – tend[i] to maintain a social distance that results in ‘laughing down’. When it comes to those that invoke the hipster – Stuff white people like; Portlandia; Bondi Hipsters; Nathan Barley; The Hipster Games; The Bedroom Philosopher: ‘Northcote (So Hungover)’ – there tends to be a social homology that produces ‘laughing with’. As Skeggs points out, some people can use race, class or femininity as a resource [hipsters] whilst others cannot because they are positioned as them [bogans]. Tracing how the figures of hipster and bogan (and other figures like them) are summoned and portrayed across a wide array of popular culture can help understand how forms of parody and satire serve to ‘make class’.
It is also interesting to look at instances when the two figures become blurred. One example is around some of the commentary on Hobart’s MONA gallery, which has been positioned as both a Hipster’s Disneyland and Art for Bogans. It’s a Hipster’s Disneyland as it has confronting modern art inside an amazing architectural feat where you can drink boutique beer in a city that previous to MONA opening, not many mainland people went to. It is Art for Bogans because you receive an iPod that gives you information about the art. Of course, only bogans lack the cultural capital to understand what a poo making machine; a wall of vaginas or a sprinkler that shoots out words actually means. David Walsh himself seems to be portrayed as a hipster millionaire (as opposed to the former Boganaire, Nathan Tinkler). The gallery sells a beer that playfully engages with these issues, while one of the exhibitions, Roman Signer’s Engpass, has had garnered its own permanent public comment:
Another example of where the symbolic aspects of hipster and bogan become blurred is in the non-genre of ‘dolewave’ (for commentary see here and here and here and here), where as a commenter under one of those linked pieces points out: ‘linking aesthetic interest with political leaning is not a straight line’. Dolewave has bogan-esque iconography – VB, singlets and flannos, the dole, lazy etc. – while actually producing hipster-ish products: LPs, tapes, small gigs, blog-buzz etc.
Some preliminary thoughts
Bourdieu’s work has shown how power works through misrecognition where the privileged see their own position as legitimate and assume it’s ‘naturally’ ascribed. As Skeggs argues, the reverse is also true: ‘Those at the opposite end of the social scale are also misrecognised as having ascribed and essential characteristics’. The work of Stephanie Lawler, Beverley Skeggs and Imogen Tyler has done much to uncover the affective qualities of contemporary class relations. Lawler analyses ‘expressions of disgust at white working-class existence and explores what they might tell us about middle-class identities and identifications’. Tyler’s ‘revolting subjects’ shows how ‘figures’ – in her case, chavs, ‘gypsies’ and refugees – are used in processes of social abjection. But while these figures engender revulsion, the labelled and scapegoated also revolt from these representations. Skeggs’ work traces the shifts in discourses towards the working class from the respectable to the vulgar, where morals, values and tastes become the weapons of symbolic violence that work to legitimise the unequal, unsustainable and unjust manifestations of a rampant neoliberalism with no real political opposition.
Recently, my thoughts about inequality and precarity have been haunted by this decades old claim from Deleuze and Guattari:
‘there are no longer even any masters, but only slaves commanding other slaves . . . The bourgeois sets the example … : more utterly enslaved than the lowest of slaves, [s]he is the first servant of the ravenous machine, the beast of the reproduction of capital . . . ‘I too am a slave’ – these are the new words spoken by the master’ (my addition).
I rediscovered this quote on a blog that was discussing how CEOs of multinational companies may be earning ridiculous salaries, but they are not happy: ‘For these CEOs, work is closer to an addiction than something they are forced to do’. While a somewhat extreme example, as precariousness becomes normalised for even the well-educated middle classes, the figures of hipster and bogan also serve to highlight social processes of continuity and change as they illustrate new forms of class based anxieties. Told from an early age that investing in education will lead to a career, satisfaction and happiness, there is a sense of injustice in the middle class now faced with a casualised, upwardly-credentialised labour market. At the same time, the cashed-up bogan is earning $200k a year and all they do is dig up coal! How unfair! The ‘bogan’ therefore taps into fears and insecurities of the educated middle classes, producing a form of ‘downward envy’ (Everingham) in the same way ‘boat person’ (allegedly) taps into the fears and insecurities of working class western Sydney. Lawler’s middle class ‘disgusted subject’ in particular is really useful here: the ‘narratives of decline and of lack present in such representations can be seen in terms of a long-standing middle-class project of distinguishing itself’. When they are figures of parody the bogan ‘can be read in terms of what or simply who a particular society is subordinating, scapegoating or denigrating’ (Critchley).
On the other hand, the ‘hipster’ plays a dual role: it represents a kind of pop culture clown that allows the middle class to both reflexively laugh at itself alongside an ambivalent and somewhat sheepish recognition of the cruel optimism of consumer culture. For Berlant, a relation of cruel optimism ‘exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing’. As ‘middle Australia’ finds the so called good life harder to achieve, or, at least feels or perceives that it is more difficult, a relation of cruel optimism exists between the promise of happiness and the epistemological fallacy of ‘normal’ or ‘smooth’ youth transitions.
The figures of hipster and bogan exist somewhere between Bourdieu’s ‘logic of practice’ and Deleuze’s ‘logic of sense’. They make the thinkable sayable. They are the logos of precarious affect. These figures are codes that act as a kind of dog-whistling proxy for our reflexively modern anxieties.
It is very important to understand the affective and emotional ways these cultural ‘struggles’ colour day-to-day existence. If the political is always aesthetic, as Ranciere argues, then these kinds of ‘figures’ are very important politically as they are invoked daily in numerous ways that provoke both symbolic and material/physical violence whilst obfuscating the real causes of social problems. Essentially there is no such thing as a hipster or bogan. I’m not saying that steroid-filled boofheads far-too-keen for a fight or skinny jeaned guys with overly manicured beards don’t exist. I am saying that the attachment of stereotyped figures to various cultural tastes and traits are a lens to view how class is something that is both used and produced through struggles over an array of cultural activities, artefacts and values. For social scientists, class isn’t something that should (just) be measured. Shedding light on the ways classes are relational categories produced through constant symbolic and moral struggles – a cultural politics of emotions if you will – enhances the understanding of complex contemporary forms of distinction and the ways they work to legitimise material inequalities.
Bio: Steven Threadgold is a Senior Lecturer and Head of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Newcastle. He is a founding member of the Newcastle Youth Studies Group; was co-convenor of the TASA Sociology of Youth thematic group from 2011 to 2013 and Academic Editor of Youth Studies Australia in 2011-12 and is on the editorial board of Journal of Youth Studies. His research interests focus on inequality and youth, especially the interplay between class, risks and governmental discourses. His most recent research projects are on young people’s construction of ‘DIY Careers’ in networked music scenes and on the ways figures such as ‘hipster’ and ‘bogan’ are invoked in media to perform distinction whilst eschewing the very notion of class. His current writing projects are a research monograph for Routledge called Youth, Class and Culture; a co-edited collection, with Lisa Adkins and Caragh Brosnan, for Routledge called Bourdieusian Prospects; and a co-written introduction to sociology primer for Cambridge University Press with Dan Woodman.
Click here to hear a recent interview with Steve on Brisbane radio station 4ZZZ.
[i] Please note: I’m aware of some of the problems here with the way I have positioned these examples, as with all the categorisations above. They are all fuzzy, but at this stage that is also kind of my point. For instance, Bogan Pride is somewhat ambiguous in its intentions, in that the creator has claimed it is somewhat of a defence of working class identity. Middle Class Bogan parodies the middle class as much as the working. Some claim Kath and Kim to be a feminist text. Like the ‘Chav pride’ movement and echoing Tyler’s double meaning of ‘revolting’, there are also some very recent examples of a more playful and ironic use of bogan, where even some politicians critically engage with it using it for forms of class politics. These ambiguities certainly make an analysis more complex. That said, following Lawler’s disgusted subject, I would hazard a guess that a general middle class audience would be ‘laughing down’ at these texts (and not ironically).