‘Hipsters don’t pretend they are changing the world with their moustaches’

Philosopher Joseph Heath ponders competitive consumption, academic competition and hipsters

Joseph Heath likens being a philosopher to being an NHL hockey player: “You just can’t believe you’re getting paid so much for such a fantastic job,” he says. Supplied

“Being a philosopher is a lot like being in the NHL,” quips Joseph Heath, public intellectual and philosophy professor at the University of Toronto. “You just can’t believe you’re getting paid so much for such a fantastic job.”

On Thursday, Nov. 24, on the eve of Buy Nothing Day, Heath will speak at the University of Winnipeg about his book The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed. The book, co-authored by philosopher Andrew Potter, explores the myth that countercultures pose serious threats to social, political and economic systems.

“We talk about how wrong the idea that choices like fashion, music and culture matter politically,” Heath says. “There is a myth that the system requires conformity - this is not true, the system will sell you anything.”

Hipster culture, adds Heath, seems aware of its own political irrelevance.

“Hipsters don’t pretend they are changing the world with their moustaches,” he says. “Hipster culture, as a counterculture, is exclusively apolitical.”

Heath’s thesis rests on the idea that most consumers search for items that set them apart from other people, items that make them cool or allow them to proclaim allegiance to a culture.

To be cool, one must take part in what Heath calls competitive consumption - the race to purchase new products before they become popularized and mainstream. 

“Part of the thesis of the book is that the dynamics of counterculture are really about competition and status,” he says. “I sometimes joke the book could have been called, ‘Why everything I used to believe turned out to be wrong.’”

However, this does not mean people should engage in unrestrained, unconsidered consumerism. 

“When I think about the ethics of my consumption, I look at things that matter, like environmental impacts,” he says.

Heath first became fascinated with philosophy while working as an undergrad at his school newspaper, the McGill Daily.

“The most important thing I did in my undergrad was work at the newspaper - I did more there than in class,” he says. “At the paper, I considered myself an activist, but as I read more political philosophy, I began to question what exactly social justice was.”

Without having a clear understanding of how to create change, performing social justice made little sense, adds Heath. It was such thoughts that drove him to study philosophy.

Charles Taylor, another renowned Canadian philosopher, served as Heath’s undergraduate honours thesis supervisor during his time at McGill. Though both philosophers discuss similar topics, Heath notes they both produce unique and different conclusions.

“Taylor likes to find the deep underlying commitments of culture (and) I believe in more superficial explanations,” Heath says. “Sometimes, instead of looking deeper, we need to look to the surface, at the external factors that drive people.”

Heath regards philosophy as perhaps the most competitive field in academia.

“Students often have a perception of what is competitive in the world and what is not. They think law and medicine is competitive,” he says. “Philosophy is insanely competitive, far more than something like medicine or law.”

Indeed, pursuit of a career in philosophy can yield both tremendous gains and losses, adds Heath.

“I used to think the people with commerce degrees were going to rule the world. Really, it’s the people that do medieval history degrees,” he says. “The people that take the big risks tend to be the big winners and the big losers.”

Hear Joseph Heath speak on Thursday, Nov. 24 in Eckhardt-Gramatte Hall at the University of Winnipeg (515 Portage Ave.) at 7:30 p.m. The lecture, sponsored by The Uniter Speaker Series, is free and open to the public. Visit www.uniter.ca/speakers-series.

Published in Volume 66, Number 12 of The Uniter (November 17, 2011)

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