Like Being Cornered at a Party by Someone Who Wants to Talk About Walter Benjamin, and You Do Too.

By BookNerd April 19, 2009

On April 11, the Brooklyn-based lit/politics/culture mag n+1 hosted an event at The New School in New York, “What was the hipster?: an afternoon panel, symposium, and historical investigation.” They explained the event this way:
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?

n+1 —clearly poking fun at their hipster selves with their hipster symposium (but also dead serious about the question)—started in 2005 when editors Benjamin Kunkel (Indecision), Keith Gessen (All the Sad Young Literary Men), Marco Roth, and Mark Greif came together in a small office in Brooklyn (read: Gessen’s apartment) to start a new magazine that would echo great intellectual journals of the past—-Dissent, Partisan Review, T.S. Eliot’s Criterion—but for a new generation.

In a 2005 NYT article, A.O. Scott called n+1, “a generational struggle against laziness and cynicism,” and he chronicled how the group met, through a labyrinth of Ivy League encounters. 

 Now, on their 7th issue, n+1 also collaborates on an arts magazine called Paper Monument and recently started N1BR, an online book review. They are unapologetically bookish, striving for an academic or literary take on everything from Hollywood to food to Wall Street. (#7 includes, among many things, an interview with an anonymous hedge fund manager, a rough translation of a Bolaño poem, and “Jessica Biel’s Hand,” an essay about war-on-terror films and the influence of Iraq on Hollywood.

I was able to attend n+1's  hipster symposium, vicariously, through a detailed account of Saturday’s scene (including panelist and audience member outfits) in The New York Observer:
100 attendees packed the Eugene Lang Center for a ridiculously wide-ranging discussion of hipster culture, which included heady thoughts on post-colonialism, deregulation, easy credit, Chinese ownership of U.S. debt, Leon Trotsky, Slavoj Zizek, Pavement, Nirvana, Debbie Gibson, and Scott Baio.

One of the panelists, Harper’s senior editor Christian Lorentzen—who wrote the article for an article in Time Out New York 2007, “Why the hipster must die: an effort to save cool in New York,” (an ironic place to publish such an article) told the audience that the hipster is, of course, already dead, if it ever existed:
“The fraud held that there are people called hipsters who follow a creed called hipsterism and exist in a realm called hipsterdom," he continued. "The truth is that there was no such culture worth speaking of, and the people called hipsters just happened to be young, and, more often than not, funny-looking.”

In his PopMatters column, "Marginal Utility," Rob Horning gave a thoughtful critique of Saturday’s panel, praising n+1’s Greif for his “valiant” attempts to actually define the “hipster” and chronicling the audience’s defensive response to n+1’s intellectual posturing:
…when audience members began to contribute to the discussion, it began to feel factional and accusatory, as if many had gathered to accuse everyone else of being hipsters, or at least to mock n+1 itself for presuming it had somehow escaped hipsterism and insult its editors to their faces and show them what pretentious hipsters they themselves are. …

(Statement actually overheard in the lecture hall: “What gives you the right to say that Charles in Charge is not important!")

This is not the first “intellectual investigation” that n+1 has undertaken. It’s sort of their thing. In 2006, they brought together “P.S. 1 Symposium: A Practical Avant-Garde,” the transcript of which was published in a handy 4X7" booklet as the n+1Research Branch Pamphlet Series #1.

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And in 2007, they published #2, What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions. They got together a group of n+1 editors and friends, moderated by Keith Gessen, to create a practical guide for people heading off to college on what to read now, what to read later, and what to avoid, based on the group’s own experiences. (The booklet, which is $9, is free to college freshmen and 18-year-olds.)

I love geeking out on these books. It’s like sitting around with friends, having a beer (because every book is better with a beer!), and talking for hours, only they’re not your friends. It’s like a Whit Stillman movie. It’s like being cornered at a party by someone who wants to talk about Walter Benjamin, and you do too.

n+1 has promised that the symposium transcript will be published in book form later this year. My hope and assumption is that it will be the next in this series (although when I met someone from the magazine in February, he told me that the next in the Pamphlet Series would be a play, so there may be even more good symposium fun to look forward to.)
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