The contrarian fallacy: Armond White vs. the Hipsters

The following article is my contribution to Andy Horbal’s film criticism Blog-A-Thon. Visit No More Marriages! for an up-to-date table of contents.

One is Hip or one is Square (the alternative which each new generation coming into American life is beginning to feel), one is a rebel or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.
–The White Negro: Superficial reflections on the Hipster (1957) by Norman Mailer

What’s a rebel to do these days? According to the gospel of Armond White, film critic of New York’s premier alternative newspaper the New York Press, the Hip are the new Square. In review after review, White makes it abundantly clear that hipster is the most insulting label he can think of. In fact, it’s his umbrella term for everything he calls smug, glib, trite, obtuse or smart-ass, which by the way he tends to do quite often. Say goodbye to Mailer’s “psychopathic brilliance” of Hip, quivering with “the knowledge that new kinds of victories increase one’s power for new kinds of perception.” Enter White’s endless tirades against the mindless evil of hipster mentality eroding pop culture, embodied by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, Christopher Nolan, Peter “the hipster’s Spielberg” Jackson and any critic empty-headed enough to praise them.

Armond White’s style of criticism couldn’t be more different than that of his NY Press colleague, Matt Zoller Seitz. If this were the X-Men universe, we’d be talking about the militant Magneto (a mutant terrorist with a serious superiority complex, eternally at war with humanity) versus the noble Professor X (a peaceful telepath who seeks coexistence of human- and mutantkind by means of education). While White keeps his ivory tower firmly locked, Seitz has plugged into the blogosphere and founded his very own Xavier’s Institute with The House Next Door, a school of gifted youngsters that embraces respectful discourse and mutual understanding. The militant spends most of his time criticizing his peers, the telepath surrounds himself with them.

White more or less articulated his view of film criticism in Slate’s Movie Club, where he answered Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek as follows:

As for the “art” of criticism: No amount of fancy wordplay can excuse the destructive effect of praising offal like Before Sunset. (That’s not a personal attack, it’s a defense against the injury of bad criticism and poor taste.) I don’t read criticism for style (or jokes). I want information, erudition, judgment, and good taste. Too many snake-hipped word-slingers don’t know what they’re talking about—especially in this era of bloggers and pundits. That’s why a hack like Michael Mann gets canonized while a sterling pro and politically aware artist such as Walter Hill is marginalized. Let me be more blunt: I am not the least bit interested in reading the opinions of people who don’t know what they’re talking about. There, I’ve said it.

Indeed, he said it. It’s one thing to challenge the opinion of others, it’s another to proclaim absolutes in the name of Good Taste. A true provocateur doesn’t hamper by discouraging thought, but stimulates others to think differently. Why is it that some critics judge like punishing Old Testament Gods when their function is not to damn or win souls, but to sharpen minds? A critic’s pen should serve as a whetstone, not a sledgehammer.

Contrarians like Armond White aim to prove that there is something inherently wrong with the limited world view of another, while their actual concern is to establish a few limits of their own. By consistently taking the opposite stand, they reveal themselves as just as much a fashion victim as the hipsters they so despise. While the latter slavishly embrace the latest trend, the former just as predictably oppose it. Both the hipster and the contrarian poses attempt to overthrow a shared enemy: the dominance of mass culture.

Which, in this day and age, begs the question: What mass culture? With the millions of niche markets currently out there, what’s left of it, really? By the same token: Is there still a single definition of hip? In a time where one icon means everything to one subculture and entirely nothing to the next, what is this nonconformist rebelling against?

It’s like everybody’s hip now. It’s exhausting. There’s no discovery. It’s not original.

Those words were spoken by futurist Faith Popcorn way back in October 2005. That was when the L.A. Times published an article entitled Fads are so yesterday, which announced that coolhunting itself, even the whole notion of “cool,” was just a trend. In January this year, Maclean’s columnist Andrew Potter took this observation to the next level:

(The) mass-media ecosystem has disappeared, replaced by the rip/mix/burn culture of the Internet with its blogs and podcasts, in which there is no longer any distinction between producers and consumers. The really interesting bit is not, as Faith Popcorn would have it, that everyone is cool; it’s that no one is. Trends appear as nothing more than brief consumerist shivers, passé the moment they appear (…)

Aha! So, should we be mourning the end of trends? The kids certainly aren’t, argues Potter:

Having never really experienced the tyranny of mass society, they don’t feel any great urge to stand against it. That is why they adopted the word “random” as their preferred term of approbation. The people who have a problem with the death of cool are aging hippies and other stubborn counterculturalists who remain attached to the idea of a mass society and its right-wing agenda of cultural conformity.

Clear enough. But that leaves us with one final mystery to solve: If cool’s out, what is in? Potter explains:

The prevailing aesthetic is not cool, but quirky, dominated by unpredictable and idiosyncratic mash-ups of cultural elements that bear no meaningful relationship to one another. Appreciating the anti-logic of quirk is the only way to navigate the movies of Wes Anderson (Jeff Goldblum in an “I’m a Pepper” T-shirt!) …

Hold on. Quirky? Idiosyncratic? Wes Anderson? Help me out here–who denounced Syriana in favor of Sahara and Transporter 2? Who called the universally acclaimed Nicole Kidman only “moderately talented”? Which critic belongs to the whopping 8% of idiosyncratics that Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat (2006) couldn’t get to smile?

Wouldn’t you know it… Armond White is a hipster.

Comments
21 Responses to “The contrarian fallacy: Armond White vs. the Hipsters”
  1. tlrhb says:

    Peet, excellent theorizing. I’m not sure I buy the hip vs. quirk argument. Aren’t they essentially the same thing?

    I also think we should take with a grain of salt anything that comes from a think tank study or a “futurist.” I’m still waiting for the future that was promised me on THE JETSONS — a pizza that pops out in a second when I push a button, and cool, zippy space cars.

    And I’m sure Matt is going to love your X-Men analogy.

  2. Ah, Peet! It remains to be seen exactly how, but I have already started to look back upon the 2004 edition of Movie Club as having changed my life and I’m delighted that it found its way into this post. This was my first Movie Club, and it was the first I’d heard of most of the participating critics, Mr. White included. I’d already written paid film criticism at that point, albeit only for my college newspaper at the stellar rate of .08 cents per character, but I didn’t ever read movie reviews, save for the occasionally review by Roger Ebert.

    When most people think of film criticism, they think of movie reviews. Here, though, were critics arguing about and discussing movies. Pulling back a curtain on the thought processes behind their published opinions, revealing the fluid nature of those opinions. Suddenly film criticism, which had struck me as an infuriating and constrictive form of writing, seemed full of potential and possibility!

    But that’s neither here nor there, yes? Armond White…

    With the exception of Pauline Kael, I’ve never read a critic who so consistently forced me to reevaluate my opinions about specific films. Not to change my opinions, mind you, but to reconsider them (which is more valuable). And more than any other contemporary writer he uses his reviews of individual films to work with the larger idea of The Movies. I’ve been following the evolution of his thoughts on the group of filmmakers he’s dubbed the “American Eccentrics” with a great deal of interest: it’s fascinating watching a larger idea emerge over a broad period of time, watching someone make sense of the contemporary film scene by piecing together observations.

    I also think that he does succeed in “stimulating others to think differently.” Not in the same way that Matt Zoller Seitz does, for sure. But what you see in that Movie Club discussion is a critic who provokes other people and other critics to respon to him, to parry, to fight back. To revisit their own ideas and statements and to clarify, to reiterate, to “and furthermore. . . .” In an interview with Jeremiah Kipps in Senses of Cinema he talked said, “Critics need to have a sense of film and theatrical history.” I see this sentiment in that “Dirty Dozen” list, and I think I see what he’s doing with it: he’s saying, okay, you like film x. But go see y and tell me what you think!

    But, of course, he doesn’t usually say that quite so politely. Jonathan Rosenbaum does much the same thing with considerably less choler. And I’m certainly open to the argument that his abrasiveness pushes people away and turns them off. And all of what I’ve said in his defense doesn’t change the fact that you’re absolutely right about his war against “the hipsters.” Like too many film writers, he uses “hipster” as a catch-all term that refers to everyone he disagrees with. This is indeed a “painful” fallacy: because he uses it so often and so inconsistently, the word doesn’t ultimately mean much to me and I think it weakens whatever argument it’s employed to support.

    Thanks for kicking off the blog-a-thon on such a high note, Peet!

  3. Bob Cumbow says:

    I could say that anyone who can look at HEAT and LAST OF THE MOHICANS and call Michael Mann a hack is not worthy of anyone’s attention. But that would be playing the same game as Mr. White. Instead, I’ll say, Isn’t it nice that we don’t have to make these artificial either/or critical choices? We can have Walter Hill AND Michael Mann … and Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan and anyone else in whose work we perceive a value, great or small.
    As for separating the world into Hip and Square, or hipster and quirky, or in and out, it’s just another way of separating it into us and them–an attitude that must ALWAYS merit suspicion if not outright rejection.

  4. Peet says:

    You completely nailed my intentions for this article, Bob. (And White’s intentions, for that matter.) Although I must admit I’m quite fond of Potter’s “culture of quirk” observation.

    Thanks for commenting, guys. Keep ‘em coming!

  5. ”As for the ‘art’ of criticism: No amount of fancy wordplay can excuse the destructive effect of praising offal like BEFORE SUNSET. (That’s not a personal attack, it’s a defense against the injury of bad criticism and poor taste.)… Too many snake-hipped word-slingers don’t know what they’re talking about—especially in this era of bloggers and pundits. That’s why a hack like Michael Mann gets canonized while a sterling pro and politically aware artist such as Walter Hill is marginalized.”

    When I originally read this—what was it, two years ago—it made me realize, so often White’s opinions are posed as exactly that—personal attacks couched in or as critical observations. How else is a critic who writes with sensitivity and perception about BEFORE SUNSET supposed to feel about a comment like the one quoted above? Of course, we’re not supposed to care about a writer feels about being dissed in such a scorched-earth kind of way. Critics who don’t (or can’t) recognize the fault of Movie X, or who refuse to recognize the brilliance of Movie Y, especially while they’re falling all over themselves praising Movie X, are amoral or morally corrupt, fools, hacks, cretins, you name it, and ought to be beyond getting their feelings hurt. Yet I’ve always wondered how those in the profession felt about being characterized, particularly by someone they know, not as colleagues so much as enemies of art, or enablers of bad art. I remember there being a testy undercurrent to some of the commentary from the other critics (the roundtable was comprised of White, was A.O. Scott, Stephanie Zacharek, Scott Foundas and David Edelstein, I believe). If memory serves, Edelstein characterized White as self-consciously pugnacious, or something in that realm (I apologize for not having the series at hand), but no one ever really engaged White on this matter. Perhaps the mindset was live and let live, or some other code of decorum (or maybe it was a pre-Boratian politesse for the bull in the china shop), but I would have appreciated someone taking White to task for this kind of posturing.

    And whether it’s intentional or not, this insistent linking of one movie/director/actor underappreciated by all but the clearest thinkers and observers, and used as a club to bash the movie/director/actor all the cynics and rubes and hacks are throwing their weight behind, doesn’t illuminate one or denigrate the other so much as it serves to spotlight how unerring White imagines his judgment is and how irredeemably wrong is anyone who disagrees or, worse, backs the wrong horse. All of this wouldn’t be nearly so troubling and annoying if White weren’t clearly an intelligent writer capable of spurring a reader onto to a reexamination of his or her own presumptions or perceptions about any given film, or shedding genuine light on worthwhile works when he stops playing the push me-pull you-knock you down game for a paragraph or two.

  6. carson says:

    Armond White drives me crazy. I don’t read his stuff anymore, but I like to things when’s he quoted.

    “Peet, excellent theorizing. I’m not sure I buy the hip vs. quirk argument. Aren’t they essentially the same thing?”

    I think “hip” is more of the 60’s sense of style, while “quirky” is something more recent, and has dorky inclination.

    Warhol was hip and Pedro (vote for) is quirky. Warhol was (is?) a countercultural icon who just really wanted mainstream acceptance (wanting to direct Hollywood movies). “Napleon Dynamite” came from the nerd fringe and became accepted in the mainstream. Also comparing a blog to Dr. Xavier’s school is quirky, and it’s the dorkiest thing ever, And believe me that is compliment. (I’m part of a group that calls itself the Dorks of America, even though we only exist in one town and about ten people).

  7. David Lowery says:

    Beautiful examination, Peet – with a applause-worthy metaphor perched comfortably on top! Magneto’s so deliciously evil, don’t you think?

  8. Peet says:

    Deliciously evil? In that sense, I may have given White too much credit. He’s Magneto without the self-conscious irony that McKellen brought to the role.
    :-)

  9. Geoff says:

    Peet, very interesting and thought-provoking post– Armond White can be insightful, but as you’ve pointed out quite cleverly, he is also his own hipster.

  10. Brian says:

    Great piece, peet! I was flipping through Jonas Mekas’s Movie Journal again the other day, and found a piece on a pair of Norman Mailer films (I’ve not seen eithr one myself) called “Why We Should Throw Bricks At Film Critics” that I think connects to your critique of Mr. White. The first paragraph:

    “I have no idea who was the first one to write that Mailer’s Beyond the Law is “a much better film than Wild 90.” I keep seeing that statement in every review, even by the people who never saw Wild 90. I’d like to punch their noses. They almost managed to create the impression that yes, this one is O.K. , but the other one, oh, that one was really lousy. Which is not true. Beyond the Law may be better, but Wild 90 was a good film too. What an ugly habit: As soon as we find something good or beautiful we try to use it as a club to hit the other thing, that is a tiny bit less good and less beautiful. We have to enjoy ourselves through blood.”

  11. Peet says:

    Thanks for posting, Geoff!
    Tell me about it, Brian… I know of some people who nearly gave up on criticism altogether because of negative attitudes like you’ve just described/quoted. Evaluative criticism is terribly overrated.

  12. HarryTuttle says:

    Impressive demonstration! I really like your analysis. :)
    May I quote your post in my series of Critical Fallacy? (this alone could fit in 3 different entries)
    I’m not familiar with Armond White’s writing, but from a lot of commentary on his criticism I gathered his posture is more important than his pertience… You’re spot on by blaming his attempt at discrediting detractors! This way he engages in a self-centered civil war within the critics’ world, a competition for attention (à la Highlander), that has nothing to do with cinema anymore. In this sense it is all about hip, rather than critical relevance or personal taste.

    The problem is that I would agree with his quote “I don’t read criticism for style (or jokes). I want information, erudition, judgment, and good taste. Too many snake-hipped word-slingers don’t know what they’re talking about—especially in this era of bloggers and pundits.” Unfortunately, the context of this statement contradicts his noble standard of “pure criticism”, by sliding into personal attacks, slander and shallow simplifications based on one (alleged) wrong choice.
    It’s only movies! Liking a bad movie isn’t the end of the world… it shouldn’t unleash the wrath of a critic like that. I don’t know if he’s a word-slinger (he does sound like one), but he could very well be a mud-slinger and a pundit.

    It’s funny you mention X-Men, because just last week at Ciné-Philo (a series of lectures by a philosopher illustrated by films) we saw clips of X-Men to illustrate Spinoza’s Ethic, showing how mutants aren’t inherently evil because their powers (of destruction) are part of their nature (adequation of passion and action).

  13. Peet says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Harry!

    I’d be honored to be quoted in your Critical Fallacy series (that’s where these notes belong after all), so go right ahead. Let me know when you do!
    For the record: It was not my intention to steal your thunder in terms of the title, but I just couldn’t accept a substitute. To me, this is the most painful critical fallacy out there, and the least criticized.

  14. John Santos says:

    A couple of things:

    – I think ther is a very distinct differnece between “idiosyncracy” as we use it to describe White and “cool” as we use it to describe “hipsters”. Idiosyncracy has never been the hallmark of a hipster; as the consumption of mass culture (as a hipster tends to do) suggests, consumption does not necessarily corelate with individuality. A hipster is odious first and foremost because s/he does not understand the historical context of what s/he consumes. As you have quoted, “Having never really experienced the tyranny of mass society, they [hipsters] don’t feel any great urge to stand against it”. Hipster culture is “dominated by unpredictable and idiosyncratic mash-ups of cultural elements that bear no meaningful relationship to one another”. But if you really follow White’s commentary, you know exactly that this is not the case. He favored Sahara and Transporter 2 over Syriana not because it somehow conforms to this culture of quirk, but because placed within specific cultural, social, and political contexts, those movies are just better. Borat wasn’t funny to him not because of its market-hype, but because placed within the context of contemporary pseudo-leftist political commentary, its pretty banal. If you read White enough, you’ll realize that he isn’t ruled by the notion of “random”, but in fact the total opposite: he is ruled by the historicization of cinematic trends and contextualization of “genius” or talent”. He didn’t oppose PT Anderson because it was the contrarian thing to do, but because compared to what PT Anderson is aspiring to be (i.e. Altman), he really isn’t all that great. He didn’t derride Before Sunrise/set simply because it was popular, but because contextualized within film history and compared with what came before it (i.e. Rohmer), its popularity wasn’t all that deserved. When he displays preference for Walter Hill over Michael Mann, it isn’t simply because Hill really was better than Mann (because a lot of times, I could do with neither of them), but because Mann was being canonized regardless of the context that canon is supposed to be serving. Similarly, it’s disappointing when Tarantino becomes canonized while earlier and to a very large extent more talented and more socially conscious filmmakers such as Seijun Suzuki find it comparatively harder to enter the same canon. It isn’t mere opposition to mass culture becuase just like his French New Wave inspirations, mass culture for White is just yet another opportunity to understand how humans express themselves through the arts, specifically through movies. Rather, his opposition is to the hipster’s claim to this mass culture without ever actually making themselves responsible for understanding this mass culture.

    – Yes, White does tend to be very focused on his attacks on groups he deem poison to film criticism. But how else would one oppose a hegemony? Again, once placed within a cultural context, “taste” becomes more than that. “Taste” becomes indicator of social/cultural/political power. Once you have political/social/cultural dominance being asserted through something as simple as aesthetic “taste”, why would you not be oppositional? You compare Zoller-Seitz to White, but, as much as I like Zoller-Seitz, he doesn’t have to be as “angry” as White because his criticisms aren’t exactly very political. His criticism doesn’t acknowledge the power structures White constantly addresses that forces White to be confrontational. I’m not saying that there is something wrong with Zoller-Seitz’s response, but only that both responses are equally valid; only, one is more offensive because it takes issue specifically with “established tastes”.

    – In terms of criticism becoming personal, to some extent you actually have to understand White’s efforts in making it personal. According to him, film criticism has become a job; it isn’t something people are passionate anymore, but a vehicle for people–and publications–to get more money and ad revenue. It isn’t to express views anymore, but on who can get that blurb in first or on who can captivate more through world plays and such. Mind you, power is still being manifested through these unconsciously reproduced thoughts, but unlike people like Agee or Kael, critics have become very blase about what they write. Simply, they don’t care anymore. Film criticism is just something they do (god forbid, this lack of effort may not be present in anything Rosenbaum writes, but it is very apparent in say AO Scott’s literary-style criticism or Ebert’s god-knows-what style of writing). By making his attacks personal, White confronts this critical laziness and takes people to task for what they say. True, mostly people just get incensed and sometimes bite back. But at the very least, they aren’t complacent about their opinions. Yes, critics are allowed their opinions, as everybody else is, but that doesn’t mean no one can force you to back those opinions up.

  15. Peet says:

    Thanks for sharing the opposite view with us, John. What can I say? We disagree. I really don’t think, for example, that Matt Zoller Seitz’s criticism isn’t political. He’s just more deeply aware of the fact that he can’t make everbody think like him. Check out The House’s comment section, and you’ll find that Matt actually enjoys differences of opinion. White, on the other hand, is interested in – to use his own words – “cultivating his own separate response,” while other people’s criticism is often “infuriating” for him.

    I’m aware of the difference between “idiosyncracy” and “cool,” but the funny thing is that nowadays, it’s cool to be idiosyncratic. Then again, why would a truly idiosyncratic mind be so obsessed about what so-called hipsters think or do? And read carefully: those who “never really experienced the tyranny of mass society” are specifically not hipsters–that was the whole point of that paragraph.

    If it’s really White’s intention to bring back the passion in criticism (nevermind that the blogosphere practically overflows with it) and make people care, I wish he’d chosen a more fruitful path towards that goal. What’s the use of fighting “power structures” by creating new ones?

  16. John Santos says:

    OK, maybe I need to alter my words: Zoller-Seitz isn’t as consciously and piously political as White. Yes, by addressing differences in aesthetic judgement, Zoller-Seitz implicitly brings up political and social biases and differences. But unlike White, Zoller-Seitz is not as focused on spelling out and expanding these political and social biases as White is. White literally makes this his–and for a number of times, his sole–goal. Thus the need to “[cultivate] his own response”.

    But the argument remains that White isn’t really idiosyncratic. In fact, he follows very rigid aesthetic definitions based on his cinematic histriography, using the “greats” such as Welles and Griffith to define the limits of what he considers “good”. I don’t believe he has ever actually been as flexible as to be affected by the quirk brought on by the new (a rigidity I sometimes feel very constraining), only by the quirk of the new that’s really old.

    I have read carefully, and I still get the same reading. Hipsters for me have never been anti-mass culture, but rather more ruthless and conscious consumers of it. But if this is not the case, I would appreciate a clarification of who “they” is.

    But one never actually create “new” power structures until the old one dies. Being in opposition inhernetly means one is still operating within the same old systems, and those same old systems are still alive. I don’t think he is creating new power structures as much as he is opposing the dominant critical trend. He can’t–and shouldn’t–really make people care. Rather, he is–and must–make people care to care about movies, the difference being that you don’t use him to validate dominant opinions (or even validate opposing ones) but rather to open avenues from which such positions or oppositions can start. When a critic makes you “care”, you only then become concerned with one movie or one trend. It never extends beyond that. But if a critic makes you care about if you care about movies or not, it then becomes not only a concern of a movie or a trend, but of movies and of cinema. I think that’s when real passion begin.

  17. HarryTuttle says:

    You’re most welcome Peet. I like to see more people interested in the scrutiny of fallacies. And your contrarian fallacy is one I hadn’t considered yet.
    And I didn’t patent the word “fallacy”, so no chance I’ll sue you… ;)

  18. Peet says:

    “They,” as referred to by Andrew Potter, are simply “the kids”–a new generation that no longer thinks in terms of mass culture on one side, and hipster culture on the other, but instead embraces a culture of quirk.

    I’d say that a critic who praises Torque to the skies (or Wes Anderson) is definitely affected by “the quirk brought on by the new.” Not that I have a disdain for that kind of movie–I quite enjoyed it. But let’s agree to disagree here, John. I don’t want to repeat myself. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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  1. […] I should also admit that my own contribution above this one was kind of inspired by Peet at Lost in Negative Space. I actually am not all that familiar with “hipster” baiting reviewer in question — probably blocked his work from my memory. reviews but his piece nails down a lot of my problems with a certain species of contrarian critic. Peet also manages to work in an extended superhero metaphor I found strangely irressistable. If you want to know who in the film geek blogosphere is Magneto and who is Professor Xavier click here now. […]

  2. […] avoid making negative public comments about each other’s work. There are exceptions, however. Armond White of the New York Press has made a habit of, apparently reflexively, viciously attacking most of the […]



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