Tuesday 1 May 2012, 14:11

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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This Thursday Londoners will vote to elect a new city mayor, and I thought it would be a good moment to put up a great documentary about how Norman Mailer stood for Mayor of New York in 1969.

It is a lovely film - directed by a brilliant documentary maker called Dick Fontaine, and beautifully shot in the fluid way of cine-verite back then. But more than that it captures the rise of a phenomenon that has come to dominate (and possibly strangle) western metropolitan society today. It is the rise of the hipster. By this I don't mean the present cliche of the ironic moustaches that live in Hoxton and Hoboken - but a new cultural elite that was beginning to emerge at that time, the rebellious, stroppy bohemians who looked to culture rather than politics to define their identity - and above all their difference from others.

In the film you can see them peeking through in the backdrop of many of the scenes, for Mailer attracts them. In his perverse individualism and rebelliousness - one of his slogans is "We're no good, and we can prove it" - Mailer captured a new sensibility. This was because he combined a revulsion against a tired old culture together with a distrust of the political system, and the hipsters loved it.

But Mailer was a complicated man - and as well as embodying many of the hipster values he was also a perceptive and vocal critic of the new sensibility. Back in 1957 he had written an essay for Dissent magazine called The White Negro. In it he had described how fears of nuclear annihilation had begun to produce a new kind of young alienated being in America. These hyper-individualists trusted only their own feelings and desires and refused to be part of any group or organisation. And in black culture, Mailer said, they found their identity - the culture of the dangerous outsider.

This outsider culture had originally been created, Mailer wrote, by blacks in response to racial oppression and violence. But for the "white negroes" that culture was then co-opted in order to give a meaning and grandeur to their psychopathic narcissism:

"In such places as Greenwich Village a menage-a-trois was completed - the bohemian and the 'juvenile delinquent' came face to face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip. And in the wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry.

So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man's code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro."

Mailer also pointed out that this new breed of "psychic outlaw" could be equally a candidate for the most reactionary or the most radical of political movements. And in the film there is a fascinating scene where Mailer takes on the trades unions on one of the avenues in New York. He tells them that in the past they were a heroic movement - but that now they have become a repressive, stultifying force in society - in particular in the way they are refusing to allow blacks and hispanics to move up society. It is an odd moment because as you watch you realise that it was elements of this rebellious individualism that both Thatcher and Reagan would later harness. And that possibly, if the left had got hold of it earlier, then the history of the West might have been very different.

In the 1970s the phenomenon that Mailer had identified grew massively. And as it did the new cultural bohemians co-opted another outsider culture to give themselves further identity - the gay culture that had risen up in response to homosexual discrimination. Then in the 1980s that bohemian individualism became the driving force that permitted consumer capitalism to reinvent itself - because it offered the ever-multiplying hipsters the objects through which to express their rebellious difference.

Today it is possible to argue that we have all become gay white negroes. We all listen to "edgy urban" music, spend our time in the gym, go shopping and groom ourselves, take lots of drugs, have sex and then spend the rest of the time talking to our friends about the impossibility of finding real love and connection in the world.

Far from an expression of rebellion it has become the conformity of our age. And if Mailer was right - that it was a sensibility originally born out of the existential fears of nuclear holocaust - then it lost its real radical purpose when the cold war ended.

Instead the white negro hipster has actually become one of the central conservative pillars of our time - because their real function is now simply to prop up an increasingly shaky system of credit and rolling consumption.

And one wonders where are the real outsiders of out time? Who are the new "white negroes" of our age?

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    Comment number 1.

    I would argue that 'gay white negroism' or to frame it in a less offensive term, 'metrosexualism', although still relevant, is less a by-product of Thatcherite individualism than feminism, gender equality, specifically women marrying and having children later in life.

    And is this such a bad thing? I'm sure women are far happier with men being groomed, 'buff' and more considerate lovers than badly-dressed sweaty blobs with a belly full of Watneys Red Barrel!

    I hugely admire Adam Curtis but blaming Thatcher and Reagan for everything does begin to get tiresome. I don't agree that cultural communitarianism is dead. Look at the huge increase in music festivals, book festivals and other communal gatherings, attendance of sporting events, the rise of farmers markets and local food ethos.

    Social gatherings are very easy and practically free to publicize thanks to Email, Facebook and Twitter. Witness UK Uncut events and environmental protests and meetings. These happen on a virtually daily basis. Environmental NGOs have regular meetings with government ministers, whose to say groups like UK Uncut won't in future?

    Much more interesting is the question of who are the current outsiders. Well, it's very expensive to be an outsider. But do we actually want outsiders? Isn't it better to have people who are enganged in the political process through the kind of collective actions I've described above?

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    Comment number 2.

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    Comment number 3.

    @timprobert ... "It is an odd moment because as you watch you realise that it was elements of this rebellious individualism that both Thatcher and Reagan would later harness."
    That's all he said about Thatcher, it was hardly the epicentre of the piece and when talking about recent political history in the UK it's difficult to avoid mentioning her name.
    I thought it was interesting particularly in light of the growth of mayor level politics here in the UK that has, in the case of London, become a competition revolving around who is hated less as opposed to who can offer more.

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    Comment number 4.

    This reminds me a bit of the Unabomber's manifesto when he is talking about the "psychology of modern leftism" (http://cyber.eserver.org/unabom.txt) and the growth of identity politics on websites like tumblr where almost radical social justice is becoming meteorically successful.

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    Comment number 5.

    The fear of nuclear annihilation has been replaced with the fear of climate change and the fear of energy insecurity. People pretend to be outsiders because they cannot face the future implications of being part of a social structure that is stagnant or imperilled. Hipsterism, as a cloak for conservatism, is a means of deflecting responsibility and aggression whilst maintaining wealth. As such it is fundamentally negative and unsustainable.

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    Comment number 6.

    Adam, its clear that Struassians are the new true hipsters.

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    Comment number 7.

    Strongly opinionated this one.

    I appreciate that Adam is making a VERY different point, but with the recent controversy over David Starkey's 'White's have become black' comment - certainly brave to draw attention to a similar phrase.

    In our introverted culture I believe outsiders are generally back-bedroom casualties that don't participate in the mainstream social space - and this can be anyone. I would reverse the question and ask aren't we all outsiders now in this society of the spectacle?

    I agree with the point that if the Left had got hold of the idea of individualism, history would be different. Instead, the Left hunkered down around the patriarchal working class culture that began to breakdown from the 1950's onward leaving its vote in decline until Mandelson's focus groups worked out the answer.

    Lots to think about here as ever. This makes me think of a recent Will Self article on the beeb that said how intellectualism is generally sneered at. Not in this corner of the web, there are no easy sound bite answers to Adam's work. Thanks again.

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    Comment number 8.

    Slavoj Zizek is a hipster magnet.. His thoughts on ecology are well positioned to attract that new 'white negro'.

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    Comment number 9.

    15:45 - WHAT THE HELL.

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    Comment number 10.

    The New White Negro will be the Muslim that is in-between the liberal and the extremist.

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    Comment number 11.

    Well it has ever been thus. Romantic primitivism - the idea that humans in their "natural" state are essentially good and if we could ditch religion, politics and all the other institutions that make up "civilisation" and rely on good old-fashioned feelings and common sense, we would have no problems - has been around since the 1500s when the Spanish began to feel guilty about their treatment of the indigenous peoples in the Americas and started to idealise these people's lives as simple and honest.

    This in part explains why we idealise and exalt First Nations' cultures, art and music while the originators of those cultures live in poverty or face being driven off their lands by corporations and into cities where they live in slums. I'm as guilty as anyone else in doing this - it's almost unavoidable.

    By the way, has anyone else seen Episode 2 of "The World Tomorrow" in which Julian Assange interviews Slavoj Zizek and David Horowitz? Horowitz is a former "liberal" activist who was active in the Black Panther movement in the late 1960s and now espouses neo-conservatism. He has incredibly vile views about the nature of freedom and whether people should sacrifice liberty for security in the post-9/11 world. The film can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PM0I5k50XsY

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    Comment number 12.

    The Mailer I remember was a thug, bully and pimp a 'Hollow man.'I will not go into the pimping except to say he had an enforcer in Washington named King Sized who handled the women. As to the thugdom, I watched him operate in the White Horse Tavern. A young man with a build like Arnold Strange, skinny,rumply dressed asked Mailer if he had to use all that strong language. I had been shadowing Mailer wondering when I should fight him.
    Mailer had his hands up and was swinging in on the kid with as a flurry of middle weight punches, well timed. The kid, half way to punch city was grabbed by Murry Kempton who held him for the next flurry of punches and the kids lights were out. I wanted to step in but a big paw came onto my should and the big guy was drinking with, a very tough actor, said "No Cord you're out classed." I concurred and sat down. The Mailer entourage left covered in glory. I switched to drinking Bushmills and felt I'd punked out. The kid, what was left of him was thrown out by the bouncer.
    The next time I saw Mailer he was an old man on two canes, his fighting days over.

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    Comment number 13.

    "Today it is possible to argue that we have all become gay white negroes. We all listen to 'edgy urban' music, spend our time in the gym, go shopping and groom ourselves, take lots of drugs, have sex and then spend the rest of the time talking to our friends about the impossibility of finding real love and connection in the world." The original idea of hip, as an alternative to conformism, was to be authentic and original. If "everyone" is doing what the author cites above, they are just new conformists, not hip. And the original idea goes back way beyond Mailer's generation. The Shelleys, Byron, then later Lizst, Baudelaire, and many others broke radically from cultural conformity, some starting around 1800, and the angst of modernity and the search for alternatives goes back at least that far, if not farther. And is probably just a continually recurring reaction to the alienation caused by the industrial Revolution.

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    Comment number 14.

    What if the Left had tapped into these sentiments before Thatcher and Reagan?
    It would be nice to think the world would be better for it. Also where indeed is the genuine challenge to the current established social norms? Provocative blog as ever.

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    Comment number 15.

    I like to travel overseas to wilder places. Where I am the outsider. I try to enjoy the nightlife wherever I go. The regular middle class bars always seem to be filled with people pretending to be rich or hard. I was in the Army, don't need to look hard. I can buy the bar, no need to look rich. These places are boring and a bit sad.

    After awhile I started to notice a pattern. The places that were fun always had something in common. Negritos(aboriginals), trannies, dwarves, the bar the prostitutes go to to after work,... All bars filled with outsiders. Outsiders have something special. There you could find empathy, humour and the freedom to have fun. They are not trapped by the need to strive. Their exclusion gives them freedom.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 17.

    Hipster of the old school white negro variety - http://bccru.tumblr.com/post/22376708542 ?

    Another enjoyable and thought provoking post, Mailer was a very interesting character. As for the new outsider, maybe the dichotomy that is the modern luddites!

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    Comment number 18.

    The fact that 65% of voters couldn't be bothered to vote at all in London and apparently 68% across England couldn't have cared less either, suggests that it's the people who believe in democracy at all who are the new outsiders.

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    Comment number 19.

    I'd like to think the real outsiders of our time can be found in obscure corners of the internet; faceless, disconnected from the material world, and lost in abstract thought.

    For me, the term "gay white negro" conjures an image of Ignatius J. Reilly from Toole's 'A Confederacy of Dunces.' The story of Norman Mailer's campaign to become the mayor of New York very much resembles what could have been a future escapade of Ignatius', right down to the insightful, though laughable and crass excerpt.

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    Comment number 20.

    Funnily enough ive been pondering the same thing as Adam has lately, where are the non-conformists of today? With individualism being the new conformity, how do you stand out from the crowd?

    On the surface it looks as if nothing is happening in our culture today, but look on the fringes and you find a new counter-culture and a "New New Left" emerging (yes, I did mean to type New twice!).

    The strangest movement of all since the New Romantics has to be the Chap phenomenon. These are people who dress in the fashions of the 1920's to 1950's and try their best to live to old sets of values in many ways. To many of these people its not just fancy dress, ive met them, its a way of life.

    Another is political rumblings like Occupy, Anonymous and The Zeitgeist Movement (which I often call the New New Left) which are looking very different to the old forms of protest and political action.

    All in all these things may not look like much, but ive got a feeling we are all in the eye of the storm of something. Perhaps "the on-rush of history" is closer than we think.


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