The Hipster Paradox and the Genius of Incompetence

In a Humanities Center Colloquium, David Laraway from the Spanish and Portuguese Department bridged the gap between pop culture and literature, discussing outsider music, hipsters and Hamlet.

PROVO, Utah (January 29, 2015)—It’s the Millenials’ question of the decade: what makes a hipster a hipster? How can certain music or art be inherently “hipster,” ­and what does that even mean? Professor David Laraway from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese calls it the hipster paradox: the degree of authenticity of an artist is inversely correlated with the degree to which that artist is popular. “It’s the idea that once an artist is popular, they sold out,” he said.


Laraway, who is working on a project called “American Idiots: Outsider Music and the Philosophy of Incompetence,” focused on a case study of Daniel Johnston, a poster child of the late-1970s and 1980s New Sincerity movement in Austin, Texas. “He’s the best known outsider out there,” Laraway said. “Which is kind of like being the tallest short person, so I’m not really sure what that means.”

Johnston recorded tapes in his garage and was really only known inside the music scene of Austin. When Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the band Nirvana, wore a t-shirt sporting the cover art of one of Johnston’s sets at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, fans were a little confused. What was the reference to the nearly no-name outsider artist? “We have Cobain using a reference to an outsider artist as a way of leveraging himself outside of the music business, demonstrating his bona fides with ‘the real stuff,’” Laraway said.

Oddly enough, Daniel Johnston had his own brush with fame several years earlier when MTV did a segment on the music scene in Austin, and for approximately two minutes Daniel Johnston is given some camera time. Johnston’s response to the publicity couldn’t have been more different than Cobain’s. He offers enthusiastic shout-outs to the network, he soaks up being on TV, and he’s thrilled for the “insider” break. “So we have Cobain trying to use Johnston to leverage himself out of the music business, and we have Johnston trying to use MTV to leverage himself into the music business,” Laraway said. “It’s a nice illustration of this curious logic of outsider and insider art.”

Laraway then discussed something that hasn’t received much attention from philosophers and theorists: the theory of incompetence.

He takes it as a rule of thumb that the contrary to any philosophical concept has to be another philosophical concept. “If we say that competence and coping are concepts that have a philosophical work to do, then that should imply that incompetence and the inability to cope should be a philosophically relevant concept to explore as well.”

Everyday examples of incompetence are all around us all the time, and, as Laraway pointed out, we’re always engaging in them ourselves. “But I’m not talking about garden variety incompetence,” Laraway said. The real interest is in the domain of art, where we can see incompetence playing an interesting and unique role, particularly with regard to outsider art and music.

Showing a clip from Jimmy Kimmel Live, in which Jimmy Kimmel’s crew asked people at a Coachella concert series what they thought about a bunch of fake bands, Laraway explained that sometimes the drive to be individual or authentic leads people to rely on bands so obscure that they don’t even exist. “One notion that this points out is that a way to stand out and be authentic is to rely on no social consensus whatsoever in defending your choices,” Laraway said.

As he develops his project on incompetence and outsider music and art, Laraway is looking at larger questions that explore the genius of incompetence. “In many cases, the genius of the incompetent work comes to light only as it’s interpreted by more competent performers. The gap between incompetent performance and competent interpretation is a space rich in ethical and aesthetic possibilities.”

Outsider music, he claims, is best not approached in terms of irony and sincerity, but rather as a kind of existential commitment, which is disclosed through incompetence.

“I think the greatest ironist and hipster in literary history is Hamlet,” Laraway said. “He plays mad when it suits him without being able to own it existentially. Contrast Hamlet with Ophelia. Her madness is genuine, spontaneous and over-determined. She sings her mad songs indifferent to anything but her song’s object.”

Laraway provided a great litmus test for a contemporary listener or spectator who aren’t sure where they sit. “Do we recognize ourselves more in Hamlet’s endless liberations—ironic liberations? Or in Ophelia? A figure that, according to Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, ‘tears out her heart, bleeds, shattering herself to the limit of life and death, a figure of sacrifice without redemption.’”

It’s to figures such as Ophelia—not hipster Hamlets—that we must turn, Laraway said, if we wish to understand the logic of outsider art that lies beyond the categories of irony and sincerity. In this kind of outsider art, “incompetence is its source of strength.”

—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian / Women’s Studies ’15)