G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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Sociological Images links to a video about the differences between nerds and the types of hipsters that co-opt nerdom. The topic has been visited a million times, but I think this is one of the better presentations. The gist of the argument is that hipsters “cherry pick the things they think are neat” whereas nerds are more earnest and effusive in their behaviors and in the ways they choose to spend their leisure time. Nerdom is an end; hipsterdom is a means.
I turned to my copy of American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent who had a chapter on hipsters which he called “the cool nerds”:
What we have right now, in Brooklyn, the Bay Area, Portland, East Los Angeles – neighborhoods where bourgeois young people work at magazines, movie studios, TV shows, Web sites and advertising, so that cultural trends work like weather at sea, offering the newcomers a chance to prove themselves, upending the complacent – is a similar choice on the part of the privileged to identify with the outsider. The outsider in this case is the nerd, because nerds are people incapable of, or at least averse to, riding cultural trends. When your greatest fear is that you will become a loser because your intuition will fail to keep up with tastes, you embrace the nerd like a harmless teddy bear who’s the one creature in the whole wide world who would never to anything to hurt you.
For being a fake nerd, like being a white Negro [Nugent was discussing hipsterism in the context of Norman Mailer's "The White Negro"], can be a way of putting even more distance between yourself and the object of your imitation than there was before. In the imagination of the fake nerd, the nerd is attractive because he is unaffected, untrendy to the point of primitivism, a kind of inert noble savage. Going through life making the exertion of affecting noble savagery make you feel even less a noble savage than you did before. Being a fake nerd leaves you less of a nerd.
You hear fake nerd conversation. It follows a model. You bring up an “obsession” or “total fascination” with a purportedly unfashionable subject…This is a way of whipping out cultural capital, but not in the same way as leaving guests in the living room to retrieve a hollow-body guitar or a first edition of To the Lighthouse…It’s the cultural capital of quirk.
Unlike the Negro of the ghetto, and unlike nerds who were destined to be nerds because their parents were nerds or because they were frail or because they have high IQ and low sociability, hipsters choose to slum it. To affect a persona or an identity that the very same people they are emulating might not actually choose for themselves if given the option.
And that’s why hipsters are derided. They skim the easy stuff of the top of whatever genre or group they want to emulate at the moment without putting in the hard work of being what they are emulating.