#182: New Noise
There is a set of words—gentrification, hipster, neoliberalism, capitalism—that feel surprisingly difficult to use in most contexts now, provoking a variety of unpleasant responses, ranging from annoyance to outright dismissal of whatever statement encompasses the word. There are valid reasons for this: The terms in question tend to be heavily overused, creating the perception that they’re meaningless even when their original meaning is fairly definite and a source of their popularity. Another reason is that the words are being used pejoratively by someone who is part of what they’re criticizing—the contradiction expressed by the “yet you participate in society” meme. The word “hipster” epitomizes both issues: “A key myth repeated about the hipster, by both the innocent and the underhanded, is that it has no definition,” Mark Greif wrote in 2010, shortly after the hipster’s apotheosis (the essay, titled “What Was the Hipster?”, essentially pronounces the movement dead). “The term has always possessed adequately lucid definitions,” Greif continues, “If we refuse to enunciate them, it may be because everyone affiliated with the term has a stake in keeping it murky.” He then proceeds toward his own enunciation: A hipster is someone who identifies with both the counterculture and the dominant class, “and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.” That wasn’t so hard, was it?
Sarah Schulman performs a similar feat in her 2012 book, The Gentrification of the Mind. Gentrification is not only entangled with the concept of the hipster, but equally uncomfortable to criticize, for similar reasons. Many of us fear that we may be the gentrifiers (or know that we are), and would rather not call attention to that, or throw stones in a glass house. Schulman has no such concerns—she makes it immediately clear that she knows what gentrification is and that she is not part of the problem. A decade later, the word’s definition still seems murky, but hers is the best I’ve heard: “the replacement of complex realities with simplistic ones.” Replacement is the key word. In cities, the process necessarily involves one set of people physically leaving and another set of people taking their place. The latter group is typically uninterested in engaging with their surrounding environment as deeply as the former had, and is ignorant of what has vanished. Gentrification has its own aesthetic, which, in its early stages, helps it distinguish itself from its surroundings as an outpost for a different clientele than the neighborhood’s existing population; eventually, that aesthetic becomes so dominant that it disappears into the background.
It’s easy to mistake the aesthetics of gentrification for the phenomenon itself—a confusion that, again, muddies the waters and impedes discussion of what’s actually happening, inclining us to believe that if we have recently moved somewhere, or are part of the relatively affluent class, that we are inevitably gentrifying. If gentrification is seen as an inherent product of one’s identity rather than a disposition one chooses, it lets everyone off the hook. But replacing complex realities with simplistic ones is a phenomenon that everyone involved can either accept or reject, and cities are just one of the cultural domains where that process happens now. Schulman’s gentrification does not just afflict physical spaces. The internet (and other media environments we immerse ourselves in) can also be simplified or flattened in the way she describes. When I read The Gentrification of the Mind I immediately started thinking about what has happened to Twitter. I recently wrote a short essay for the Why Is This Interesting? newsletter in which I lamented the LinkedIn-ification of the social network, whereby genuine weirdness (complexity) was replaced with a goal-oriented simulacrum of that weirdness, which we call “shitposting”—a concealment of the standardization that is actually underway. In the introduction to her book, Schulman writes that its style means “each reader will have a different experience of the book. Which to me, is an antigentrification process: individuation of perception.” Implicit in her argument is another prerequisite for resisting gentrification: willingness to actually use the word, and to venture a precise definition. As Mark Greif observed, everyone else has a stake in keeping it murky.
Earlier this week I published an essay on the Zora Zine about the prospect of “crypto cities” and the importance of improving existing cities rather than hoping to escape them and build new ones from scratch.
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Last week’s subscribers-only issue was about affluent pedestrian-friendly enclaves and shopping malls as potential antidotes to car culture.