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A few months ago, a “cereal café” was attacked in East London by anti-gentrification protesters. Although there is probably more to this event than what the news reported, and although gentrification involves social changes that do put lots of people in very unfair situations, I remember being shocked and genuinely worried by this event.
It was not just this event, but a sum of social changes, claims and attitudes that I have been noticing for the last few years, and that consistently seem to oppose two categories of people — I use the term “category” purposefully here, as the attitudes I am talking about sure generates lots of categorization, boxing, classifying and other kinds of socially disastrous parsing. For instance, Hipsters* vs. Working Class. Or, Bobo* vs. Poor, and so on.
I recommend reading the quite exhaustive Wikipedia page about Hipsters. Whether you just heard that word being used, or heavily use it yourself to qualify (categorize; box; classify; parse) other fellow human beings, it is good to know what it means, what it entails, where it comes from. Here is an interesting excerpt:
Jack Kerouac described 1940s hipsters as “rising and roaming America, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere [as] characters of a special spirituality”. Toward the beginning of his poem Howl, Allen Ginsberg mentioned “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”. In his essay “The White Negro”, Norman Mailer characterized hipsters as American existentialists, living a life surrounded by death — annihilated by atomic war or strangled by social conformity — and electing instead to “divorce [themselves] from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self”.
My mouth opened a little wider when I read Christian Lorentzen’s article in “Timeout New York” (ominously titled: “Why The Hipster Must Die”):
Hipsterism being originally, and still mostly, the province of whites (the pastiest of whites), its acolytes raid the cultural stores of every unmelted ethnicity in the pot. Similarly, they devour gay style: Witness the cultural burp known as metrosexuality. As the hipster ambles from the thrift store to a $100 haircut at Freemans Sporting Club, these aesthetics are assimilated — cannibalized — into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod.
Well, I am gay and me and my gay style don’t feel threatened by the “metrosexuality” of some hipsters. So I am wondering whether Lorentzen’s problem lies:
(a) In the way hipsters borrow (no, steal! “cannibalize”! “devour”!) from the cultures of other categories of people. These cannibalized categories mainly cover minorities, like gays, marginal ethnies and other types of poor chaps, whose identity (category) needs of course to be defended and kept locked (for one must avoid overlaps: they make categories messy);
(b) In the way hipsters look gay — more precisely (yet another category) “metrosexual”. Hipster should learn (the hard way) that blurring the boundaries of gender categories consistently attracts spite (just saying).
(did I mention the word "category"?)
If you are not a French speaker, you might not know the term “bobo”. Well, let me enlighten you. Bobo means Bourgeois-Bohemian. A bobo is originally a person who is in fact a bourgeois, but who lives and behaves as if they were bohemians, hippies, or any other categories of non materialistic (fucking) leftists. When lashed out, contemptuously or condescendingly, that word points at the hypocrisy of its target, who is in fact economically privileged but wouldn’t admit it. A bobo thus earns comfortable (but not sky-rocketing) wages, takes part in the gentrification of districts, BUT votes for left-wing parties, tries to be eco-friendly by riding bikes and buying organic food and making compost, supports local theaters, authors, artists, despises mainstream things like TV, and loves reading and debating in cafés that serve good fairtrade coffee.
Although I was never called a hipster — probably because I do not completely overlap with the category: I am culturally (and downright) gay BUT I do not own an Instagram account -- I have been occasionally called a bobo. And I must say that this both infuriates and puzzles me. I think it tells a lot on the subjectivity of social categorization.
If I were required to summarize in 5 (ok, 6) lines the evolution of my social status, I would write:
I was born an only child in a lower middle-class family (both parents employed but barely able to sustain one child), none of my parents had a degree, they encouraged me to study hard.
I did, and I am now teaching for a living, my wife is also a teacher and we currently live in a nice city with two incomes and no kids (which puts me in yet another fascinating category that I just learned about: “Dink”, or Double Income, No Kids).
So then, why do some people call me a bobo? I think this is because of the choices I made in my life. I don’t own a car and walk everywhere instead (the truth is, I wouldn’t know what to do with a car, living in a cluttered city center and commuting by trains because I work 150 kms away from home), I am a vegetarian (the truth is, I fell really ill 10 years ago, and after 1 year of doctors puzzling over my case, it turned out that a vegetarian diet solved my problem and other recurring health issues, so I just kept being a happy vegetarian), I buy local and organic food (the truth is, I believe in it, plus it’s also less expensive to buy organic and cook everything, than buy non organic and have lunch out everyday like some people who call me a bobo), I buy my books from local bookshops, I buy my non-hiking clothes in a local equivalent of Goodwill (the truth is, they are selling really nice stuff, are directly operated by homeless and retired people, and are really involved in helping local people out). Oh, and I am a leftist (of course I am: it is written in the subtitle of my category) and I don’t have a TV. Therefore, in the book of some people, I roam the streets wearing around my neck a sign that says: “The Dead End of Western Civilization”.
The lexicon (minus the overwhelming word “Bourgeois”) that emerged from a 2013 Yougov poll asking people in France what substantives the category “bobo” evoked in their mind. English-speaking readers won’t have trouble reading most of these French substantives, except maybe “Gauche” (left wing), “Aisés” (earning comfortable wages) and “Argent” (money).
On a less funny note, the term "bobo" in France became a very political term since Marine Le Pen (the leader of the far-right nationalist party) used it in 2012 in a rather pejorative manner:
Behold the bobos who, after their brunch, went [to the socialist political meeting], before they bicycled their way to Vincennes to see if François [the French socialist president who eventually won the election] had a cooler tie than Nicolas [Sarkozy, François Hollande’s opponent]. Or maybe their yoga class prevented them from joining the feast.
I personally love brunching and went to yoga classes for years, but thank Goodness I do not ride a bicycle.
Since then, the term “bobo” has been a recurring lexical weapon in French politics and consistently refers to a sort of blurry category of “other people” that never includes the utterer. Not only does it seems to me that we all are someone else’s bobo, but I also think that the term “bobo” tends to backfire on the utterer: as the “bobo” often seems to be a happy educated person, it tells a lot on the state of happiness of the utterer and their opinion on education.
When you start paying attention, you notice that Hipster and Bobo are part of an emerging, worrying lexicon about social categories. The attack in East London is just a more graphic occurrence of what seems to go on in people’s mind for quite a few years now.
The world is in crisis. Some people get richer, while some people get poorer. Global warming becomes more and more threatening. Some people from various economic backgrounds (but who ended up doing well), try to invest their time, money and hobbies in things like ecology, art, literature, social causes. These people get boxed into a shameful category, that of hypocrites, frauds; worse, they sometimes get blamed for the social shit that is going on — whether on the job market or in district gentrification.
I remember that guy in a local association I used to help — one about local food, urban farming and local social diversity through the enforcement of lower rents. He started categorizing people and pushing more and more people out, by boxing them away. He ended up posting an article against a major art festival organized by the city. He argued how that art festival was costing us all a lot of money, and how it was only meant for the rich, and how that art was not art anyway, but bullshit.
In his post emerged a slippery and subjective subcategorization: genuine art vs. bullshit art. I commented on his post, pointing at the fact that all the links he had shared came from a very extreme far-right political blog. He just deleted my comment.
So what happened? When did ecology and social causes become shameful preoccupations? When did literature and art become upper-class? Books are free in libraries, are cheaper than ever in second-hand local bookshops, and art comes right to your screen thanks to free internet everywhere. Ok, maybe some people are overdoing it. Maybe some people care more about the image they reflect by getting involved, than about getting involved. But isn’t that better than not caring? How are these people making other people poorer by buying local and organic? Isn’t that better than buying from mass retailers who make producers poorer by telling them to produce more and more at a cheaper and cheaper rate? Are hipsters and bobos really the causes of gentrification? Or are they rather a medium for a more opportunistic phenomenon, one than involves all of us, all categories, in the way we (all!) build the society we live in?
Two interesting issues, I think, emerged from Legrand’s declaration. First, Elizabeth Levy, a conservative journalist involved in the same interview, responded as follows:
bobos do constitute a category, although not a social one, but a cultural one
I thought it was interesting how she insisted on the existence of a category, a proper label to box these people. If it is not social, let it be another category of category: a cultural one. Second, Levy stated further down the interview that the typical bobo
adores all cultures, except, quite often, the culture he is coming from. To symbolize this culture, the bobo likes to use the horrifying character of the “aged, white, straight male” — the latter being, quite often, also a catholic: how dreadful!
At that point, I smiled at Levy’s subtle use of sarcasm, and I suddenly thought
Here we are!
At that point, with all these tabs opened in my Safari session, with all these articles whirling in my mind, I started to go crazy. I started to see with the third eye of my mind (does that qualify as Hippie talk?) A whole lexicon of Bobsterhood started to gather in my mind, coming from the different articles, blog posts, conversations and debates I had read and witnessed.
I noticed that, in France, with the term “bobo” often comes attached the term “pensée unique” (“single thought”, originally coined to criticize conservative ultra-liberal views but now quite often used in France to criticize ecofriendly, antiracist, feministic, pro-equality, leftist bobsters). One finds even more often the term “bien-pensant” (which means “right-minded” and comes from the catholic and royalist writer Georges Bernanos, a self-declared antisemitist who in 1931 coined that term to designate liberal democrats who tried to better include Jewish citizens in French society and thus, in Bernanos’s mind, diluted the identity of France).
One also finds attached to the term “bobo” the term “boboïsation”, a subcategory of gentrification. If we jump to the term “gentrification” in Wikipedia, we get references to some research that showed how the typical category of gentrifier is (a) a self-employed person or (b) a couple without kids (remember? the “dink” category).
That research also showed how more marginal categories of gentrifiers are essentially
women, artists and gays.
Upon reading the article on gentrification, a lightbulb lighted up in my mind, as an idea was conveyed through the lightbulb’s two vertical supply wires:
(1) So long for Levy’s “aged, white, straight male”.
(2) Here comes Lorentzen’s “metrosexual” cannibal.
Ok guys, I don’t want that article to go on for too long. So here comes my point.
My point (and I promise I'll stop highlighting the word "category")
When I last cut my hair short, many people thought I looked pretty (I did ❤) and other people said that it looked lesbian. They didn’t say that because it actually made me look like a lesbian, but because I am a lesbian, they know it, and having my hair cut short increased the overlap between me and the lesbian category.
When I last spent the evening with two dear (gay and hipster) friends and had a long conversation with them about feminism, Virginia Woolf and the stream of consciousness style of writing, some people said afterward (affectionately, though) that it was a very bobo conversation. Maybe they actually thought it was a bobo conversation. Maybe it even was, as far as the definition for the bobo category goes. But then it must be a very wide category because the four of us come from very different backgrounds.
On the whole, I noticed how such remarks often come from people who fail to be included in all these new categories. These categories may be pejorative, but they sure are trendy.
What if these people feel left out?
It is true that you fall more easily out of these new categories if you are (pick one or several) aged, white, straight, male, a couple with kids, not interested in art and literature, not bicycling, not brunching, buying non fairtrade coffee.
But these people should know that they are categorized, boxed, classified too. As a lesbian, I have in my mind a pejorative prototype of the straight female and of the straight male categories. As an exclusive book-reader, I have in my mind a pejorative prototype of the exclusive TV-watcher category. As a vegetarian, I have in my mind a pejorative prototype of the caged-poultry eater category.
But I also think I should not rely on these prototypes to make political statements, or to create a Facebook event and gather with other people to torch a Walmart store down.
Categories are a mental-mapping equivalent of prejudices: they are human and often act as a compass in a crazy world. It is one thing to have them in mind, it is another thing to rely on them to act on the world and forget about the crazy diversity of the human beings that we boxed into these categories.
Categories start with one being annoyed at someone who wears a stupid beard, and end with one arguing how ecology, art and literature are leftist bullshit. They end with one being used as a tool for social parsing by some politics who have no interest in one being interested in ecology, art and literature.
As this article started with hipsters, let’s conclude on hipsters: let’s not bully them too much. We might end up with a riot in a Hipster bar, Anti-Hipsterphobia international organizations and decades of feisty Hipster Pride. This will all end up in a new stigma, a lousy category of losers, the prototype of which will be aged, straight, white, and non hipster males.
Because you see, categorization is like playing ping-pong against a wall: unless you step out, it never ends.
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