June 1, 2010

Legitimation and Hipsterism

Could a universalistic linguistic ethics no longer connected to cognitive interpretations of nature and society a) adequately stabilize itself, and b) structurally secure the identities of individuals and collectives in the framework of a world society? Or is a universal morality without cognitive roots condemned to shrink to a grandiose tautology in which a claim to reason overtaken by evolution now merely opposes the empty affirmation of itself to the objectivistic self-understanding of men? Have changes in the mode of socialization that affect the socio-cultural form of life perhaps already come about under the rhetorical guise of a universalistic morality that has lost its force? Does the new universal language of systems theory indicate that the “avant garde” have already begun the retreat to particular identities, settling down in the unplanned, nature-like system of world society like the Indians on the reservations of contemporary America? Finally, would such a definitive withdrawal mean the renunciation of the immanent relation of motive-shaping norms to truth?
— J├╝rgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, 1973

There is an umlaut over the “u” in Habermas’s first name, and this gives him special license to speak in an almost indecipherable language. But in a nutshell, what he discusses in his landmark work of social analysis is the conflict between old-world systems of group “legitimation” that are rooted in myth, religion, and also in theories and narratives of history, and a new form of “social chaos” (or “contingency” as he calls it) that comes at us with the force of nature and requires a redoubled effort on the part of the social sciences to get a grip on it. Society, in other words, has become a “force of nature” in its own right, and a threatening one at that, and none of the old tropes of the human sciences are adequate to dealing with it.

We now live in a global society that has huge problems like global warming and massive oil spills. These issues render group identity, even national identity, trite and even meaningless. Habermas identifies what he calls “steering mechanisms” that are necessary to control a global society. These mechanisms necessarily trump all the other forces of society, however ancient and instinctive those forces may be. Thus, a sense of communal identity seated in history and culture is always being buffeted by a larger force — faceless but also human — that we call globalism, social chaos, or alienation. And sometimes we call it gentrification. Yet gentrification is not purely a force of globalism or “contingency.” It is that, but it has a “group-identity” component to it as well, and the group that is most emblematic of gentrification is that of the artists and hipsters.

I have my own “legitimation theory” of the hipster population in Brooklyn, and this is that they provide the “religious foundation” of gentrification. By no means do they furnish all of the parts and players in gentrification, that process is global, as the industrial revolution in Brooklyn of the past was global. But the artists and hipsters established the cultural and ideological background of gentrification.

For most of the 20th century, artists comprised a sub-social category with its own religion. That religion was derived from the philosophy of aesthetics. This society of artists and its religion orbited around the international bourgeoisie and a framework of institutions known as “the art world.” Many of the members of this society lived in well-known bohemian neighborhoods in cities around the world. In the latter part of the 20th century, and into our own, we now see the art religion becoming an organizing principle for whole urban communities and townships.

This expansion of an art ideology that was relatively free-floating, into a methodology of actual urban space, necessarily involves gentrification. The difference between an art ideology that merely resides in the culture of certain bohemian enclaves, and an art ideology that migrates into the fabric of a city, is the difference between a city that has gentrified and one that has not. In time, “gentrification” will be understood in this more specific light. Today, the word is still colloquial and is only vaguely understood as meaning change or development or upheaval. But gentrification is that form of “urban development” that is underscored and propelled by the ethos of hepitude.

But I hypostasize. I claim that an ideology can be reified as a real thing — a neighborhood — and that what is really meant by gentrification is no less than the migration of the social history of art into the social history of larger and more substantive physical communities. If this is to hypostasize, then I stand accused — hypostite! But we have seen this phenomenon before in Brooklyn on a smaller scale, in the self-contained social and ideological ecosystems of the Hasidic and orthodox Jewish communities.

I was in the hipster population of Williamsburg when it was smaller than the local Lithuanian community, and I saw it grow to about the size of the Italian community. For decades, discussion of artists in Williamsburg concerned a pre-conceived Williamsburg with which the artists were somehow to be reconciled. Now the whole of North Brooklyn must be reconciled with the artist and hipster culture.

This brings the question of legitimacy to bear upon the artist and hipster population. Their legitimacy was never deeply examined in Williamsburg; since it was assumed that they were legitimized by whatever societies they came from, in whatever parts of the world. By contrast, the legitimacy of the other “ethnic” groups was considered present and self-evident. But the legitimacy of artists and hipsters as a discrete “religion” in Brooklyn is an important point.

Consider the fact that Hasidic Judaism was founded in the 18th century, and it is no older than the modern aesthetic philosophy formulated in Europe at that time, which provides the foundational thinking of almost any artist or hipster you care to pick out on the streets of Bushwick — whether they know it or not.

Photo: The L Train approaching Lorimer-Metropolitan, Williamsburg, 5/30/10