Picture an educated, culturally literate member of the upper middle class. Someone who’s in touch with art, cuisine, music, literature. This person has a professional job and lives in an urban center. Overall, her or his lot in life is a fortunate one. But this person isn’t getting any younger. The carefree undergraduate days of doing drugs and staying up until the dawn are over — five, ten, maybe even twenty-five years in the past. This person could slide gracefully into obsolescence and let the younger generation have their outlandish trends, but that option isn’t too appealing. After all, in Today’s Globally Connected World of Social Media, each vicissitude of taste is on display, vulnerable to critique by people who are skinnier and go to more parties. Any evidence of lameness will be immediately noted and remembered forever. This person feels painfully exposed! In these circumstances, keeping up to date feels essential — even as it becomes more unattainable with each Pitchfork Music Festival that goes by.
Does this sound familiar? Yes, New York Times reader, it’s a description of you! Or so the typical New York Times culture writer appears to believe. Maybe it isn’t. But it’s definitely a description of the typical New York Times culture writer. And these authors’ thoughts on the issues of relevance, timeliness and hipness are instructive. Because they are offered up to the gaze of millions of readers, their struggles for cool are those of the average social media user, writ large. In the case of these beleaguered scribes (though hopefully not the rest of us), the result is a hideous vicious cycle of self-conscious navel-gazing, ironic quipping, defensive posturing, and counterintuitive trend-prognisticating designed to make the writer feel ahead of the curve.
Hence all the articles about “New Speakeasy in Bushwick” and “Meditation is the New Botox” and whatnot. This discourse’s ostensible purpose is to help us understand the trending topics of today, so we can feel like the stylish young things we once were. But cultural phenomena are ephemeral, appearing and disappearing like the wind. And no one really cares about a new line of cruelty-free fountain pen ink or artisanal baking soda, anyway. Paying attention to the pieces’ actual subject matter does us no good. If we wish to grasp the essence of New York Timesian cool, we must get beyond the minutia to the “deep structure” that underlies it.