The Hegelian Dialectic and “Indie”

If I were alive today, I would most likely be in the "thesis" contingent of indie--I'm sentimental like that. Loved Garden State.
Yo, I'm Hegel. If I were alive today, I would most likely be in the "thesis" contingent of indie--I'm sentimental like that. Garden State showed so much Spirit manifest.

A long time ago, there was this guy Hegel. He really lit the world of ideas on fire back in the 19th Century; the burgeoning Russian upper-class began to see God’s will manifest in something so insignificant as dropping their coat (Pretty sure Isaiah Berlin quoted Herzen something along these lines in Russian Thinkers); French people really got off on the triad [thesis, antithesis, synthesis] and still make their college students write papers according to Hegel’s system; Marxists adopted the triad combined with a de-mystified version of his concept of history in order to patent their philosophy of history [roughly: society progresses from feudalism to industrialization to the ideal state of communism]–we call that historical materialism; blah blah.

Don’t quote me on any of that stuff–I’ve been out of grad school for a while now. The point is, Hegel: big deal.

Regardless of whether or not you are a dialectical materialist, a believer in the Absolute Spirit, or whatever, it’s easy to see the appeal of his dialectic. It offers a clear way to organize the universe, whether you use it as a way to develop an academic theory (as they do in France) or as a way to conceptualize history and reality.

It works especially well when discussing warring factions. One example you hear often to explain the dialectic is French Revolution (thesis) to Reign of Terror (antithesis) to establishment of a Constitution (synthesis).

Nitsuh Abebe, a Pitchfork vet, wrote an interesting, at times hilarious, and slightly repetitive reflection on the development of ‘indie’ over the last decade, and what he comes up with is an isolation of the thesis and antithesis of the umbrella music/subculture/lifestyle known as indie. He concludes by saying as long as the tension between thesis and antithesis remains in place, he is excited about the places indie might go in the future.

The thesis:

…(S)oon enough any film, book, or cultural product that came anywhere near a certain sensibility– anything anyone would describe as “quirky” or cleverish or tender– fell in the indie bucket, too: Garden State with its hilarious Shins scene, Wes Anderson movies, Dave Eggers (??), Juno, Zooey Deschanel’s general existence, private colleges, button shirts, the Internet, IKEA, Miracle Whip, literacy, you tell me.

The antithesis: People who hate that (above listed) shit.

Yeah, his antithesis is pretty ill-defined, but I knew what he was talking about, because if I’m in the anti- category. Come to think of it, I don’t think any of my friends are in the thesis camp, and I suspect that the “I’m special” part of all of us is more attracted to being contrary.

Maybe I can use Abebe’s words to better describe the antithesis:

Stephenie Meyer, author of Twilight, not often accused of lacking insight into the hearts of America’s young, just told the world what her favorite records were this summer– Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective among them. (Do you think that’s awesome, or does it make you want to listen to nothing but rap mixtapes and noise?)

It makes me listen to rap mixtapes.

I wish Abebe had mentioned all the good reasons the anti- faction have to react. He makes it out to be a matter of aesthetics: the twee v. the hardcore. Sure, he had limited space, and summed it up pretty good. But here’s my two cents.

In about 2006, I totally rebelled against indie. I was never into precious things, never into quirky sadness. Nevertheless, I was pretty indie for a little while.

But soon I rebelled against the whole gender politics of the situation. Indie, to me, was a boy’s game. Drinking PBRs, smoking Parliaments, sweating, flannel shirting, smirking, having a generally subversive manner–these activites are all becoming on men in certain circles. Women were/are expected to admire this, but not to have an active role.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that since the middle of this decade, women have made significant in-ways in the indie world.  We didn’t have a riot grrl movement, but at least Sleater Kinney existed most of this decade. Awesome bands like Electrelane and the Long Blondes (both British, incidentally) came and went, and today we’ve got Bat For Lashes and St. Vincent. I could mention Cat Power, because Chan Marshall is totally famous, but I don’t really like her music, and I can’t count Neko Case, cuz she ain’t indie but country, which is a genre that makes room for robustly voiced women. Pfork and the indie world sing the praises of the afore mentioned artists, (though in different language than would be used for male musicians/songwriters, but you know, I deal). (On second thought, I don’t really deal, but I don’t want to talk about that now.)

So things are going better for women lately. But back then, it sure didn’t feel like it. Me and Cate would play shows and everyone would pat us on the back and tell us in warm, slightly surprised tones how good we were. I just didn’t belong to the club, I wasn’t a dude, and I didn’t want have anything to do with it after that.

Then I started listening to NaS, and the rest is history.

But probably fewer people have visceral hatred of certain kinds of indie because of gender and more because of tacit class hatred.

If the bands Abebe lists–the Shins, B&S, Yo La Tengo, whatevs–are the poster children of thesis indie, then these people clearly have no real problems. They whine about feelings. Their life goals include being cute and finding love. They are very rarely political and very often trivial. As Abebe mentions numerous times, thesis indie is polite. He doesn’t come right out there and its also trite; in many ways, it reflects the anxieties, hopes, fears, etc, of a certain average middle class, middle American white hipster. So that’s kinda lame. Even if we are a middle class, middle American white hipster (I know I am!), we want to distance ourselves from the identity… no?

So what’s the synthesis? Will thesis indie start being recognized as too commercial, co-opted as it is by advertising to sell shit to us? Will people distance themselves from Converse (owned by Nike) and tight jeans (cranked out by the ton in Romanian sweatshops)? Will antithesis indie and its slightly more anarchic leanings win out? Is there any meaningful combination of the two? Something they can learn from eachother?

Though Abebe doesn’t formulate the questions quite like I just did, I think nuggets of his argument show what the future holds. Youth culture used to be about finding something different, something new, something untread and uncodified by corporations, your parents, ideologies. You know, that’s what punk is supposed to be about. If thesis indie people are satisfied with their taste being arbitrated by advertisers, well, that means culture is pretty much dead. But it would inevitably, in a corporate and compromised state, fade from cultural relevance: it would be the soundtrack to the lives of productive Campus Dems, wearers of Northface and all that shit. If the youth still want to damn the man, well, they’ll find a new way to be hardcore. I’m rooting for the latter instance.

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3 thoughts on “The Hegelian Dialectic and “Indie”

  1. Yo, spot-on Anna.
    I hate to admit it, but some of the rougher, edgier more aggressive acts are pretty trite as well. What is the new way to be hardcore, other than being metal which is gross.

  2. I suppose the two ways of interpreting this are:
    1. “Indie” (for lack of a real term), has, through a high quality product, beaten mainstream at it’s own game, and can, step by step, dictate a more ethical business model- Simple Shoes, Whole Foods, I don’t know insert something that you don’t find gross. Thrill Jockey. This is a (potentially) more sustainable mechanism of social change, because it is a series of rather small, and less noticeable changes, than, say, living on a commune farm for two years until it is overrun by bikers and heroin addicts.
    2. This is something that has happened before (according to Kim Gordon, fashion designer for Urban Outfitters, since the early 70’s), and as Nigel once calmly predicted in a Garden State OST dominated coffee shop, will only lead to more adventurous, more interesting, and more wonderful rebellion.

    You raise a good Protestant point though. How is there a tradition and canon of throwing off tradition?
    This is Nigel’s roommate by the way.

  3. Well, I actually think that living on a commune is probably the way that some people rebel against the benign forms of indie lifestyle. I used to live with some peeps that scoffed at indie rock bands and inhaled kale from the dumpster in the same breath. They taught me a whole lot about being hardcore.

    I think resisting categorization (not being obviously indie, a hipster, a metal dude, etc) is an effective way of being “hardcore.” Call me pomo, but obliterating the labels is the first step!

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