From Mailer’s “White Negro” to the Post-Hipster?

Brendan, one of our TAs, sends along a notice of the following event this coming Saturday, sponsored by n+1 and the New School:

“What Was the Hipster?”
 
An Afternoon Panel, Symposium, and Historical Investigation
 
–Saturday, April 11, 2009–

 
Mark Greif (n+1)
Jace Clayton (dj/Rupture)
Christian Lorentzen (Harper’s)
+ Special Guests TBA

Free and Open to the Public
 
Who was the turn-of-the-century hipster? Who is free enough of the hipster taint to write the hipster’s history without contempt or nostalgia? Why do we declare the hipster moment over–that, in fact, it had ended by 2003–when the hipster’s “global brand” has just reached its apotheosis?

A panel of n+1 writers invites n+1 subscribers and the public to join a collective investigation. Short presentations will be followed by audience debate, comment, and recollection, to be transcribed and published in book form this year.
 
Saturday, April 11, 2009, 2 pm – 4 pm.
The New School University, Theresa Lang Center, Arnhold Hall
55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor.

Admission: No tickets or reservations required; seating is first-come first-served.

I’ll be on a walking tour in Chinatown that afternoon, but perhaps someone else will avail himself or herself of the invitation and report back. The announcement has relevance to our Writing New York course material this week, especially today’s discussion of Howl. In parsing the poem’s invocation of “angelheaded hipsters” “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” I wondered aloud in lecture what relation Ginsberg’s imagery had to Norman Mailer’s infamous essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” which appeared in Dissent the year after Howl was published and was collected in Mailer’s 1959 book Advertisements for Myself. (The essay used to be on Dissent’s website in full, but it looks like it’s been removed; here’s a meditation on it that followed Mailer’s death a few years ago — written by one of the n+1 panelists, it turns out.)

hrc_mailer3.jpgThe quote I put on the screen contained Mailer’s formulation of the idea that white and black outsider cultures had come together, in the Village, to form a new type: the hipster, which Mailer considered synonymous with “the white negro.” Here’s the quote:

“In such places as Greenwich Village, a ménage-a-trois was completed–the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact of American life. … marijuana was the wedding ring.”

Since we were short on time — lecture was coming to an end — I didn’t have time to elaborate or contextualize as much as I would have liked. It may not have been clear where Mailer positioned himself in relation to this new cultural type, but in fact he’s not being a crank complaining about a phenomenon he finds disturbing. Rather, he identifies himself with the hipster/White Negro he describes. By identifying spiritually with black men’s alienation (and with their primitivism and virility, which he also celebrates as psychopathy), he argues, white men can achieve better orgasms and feel more courageous about life in general.

Of course there’s a lot in his idea that’s offensive, absurd, and so stereotypical it’s hard to believe he took himself seriously. Still, it’s just one in a long train of attempts on the part of white artists and performers we’ve examined (Jolson and O’Neill most recently) who seek both to imagine themselves or their characters as part of some form of cross-racial exchange and, in doing so, to mark their status as outsiders. It’s hard not to see the connection to Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters, Lou Reed’s “Waiting for the Man,” and Patti Smith’s “Rock and Roll Nigger.” Should such efforts be dismissed as misguided out of hand, or is there something more interesting to be said about attempts, however flawed, at a sort of cosmopolitan imagining? Are there more nuanced things we could say about ways in which cultural production doesn’t respect notions of cultural purity?

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