The Specific Problem of Hipster Irony

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

Related Post Roulette

75 Responses

  1. Jason Kuznicki says:


    Although my 3-year-old sometimes seems to show flashes of irony. (Should I be worried?)Report

    • dhex in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      i wish mine would graduate to irony. right now we seem to be stuck on a good year’s worth of situationist antinomian insurrection and scatological surrealism that is, quite frankly, starting to take its toll on my sanity.Report

  2. Ethan Gach says:

    “A) a way of speaking truth to power”

    I find that, after successive rounds of employing irony to do this, if the problem persists, which it almost always does, other tactics must ensue.

    To the hipster as anti-activist, I think the use of irony is often the result of laziness, as in: I could try and fail to do something about X, but if I just make a clever meme or meta-comentary about it I can get home in time to make gifs from that night’s episode of mad men.Report

  3. NewDealer says:

    Considering your observations on Generation X and my general idea that hipsters are merely a continuation of Generation X, this does raise a question:

    How much of this “irony” is a product of economic anxiety in the face of being young during a bad economy?

    The prime Gen Xers graduated college during the recession of the early 1990s, when I graduated college 10 years later it was during the recession caused by the tech boom, now young people are graduating college during or in the shadow of The Great Recession and the loop-sided recovery of the Great Recession.

    I remember during the early 1990s that there was a lot of talk in the media about how Gen X “would be the first generation of Americans to be worse of than their parents” The same was said when I graduated college and the same is being said now. This is combined with the general dread of perpetual student loan debt for many people. Obviously some to many Generation Xers are doing okay to good compared to the recession they graduated into but others bemoan how things happened later for them.

    The only non-ironic cohort seems to be those of Tech Bubbles 1.0 and 2.0 respectively. 2.0 is going on strong. The arrival of twitter and other companies in SF is causing rents to be jacked up considerably.

    So middle to upper-middle class young people are very anxious about whether they will experience that kind of lifestyle ever again. Could this produce a mocking (and wrong) but pre-emptive embrace of blue collar culture with irony in air quotes? Could these very educated young people wonder about whether they will be part of a new economic landscape and never leave their underemployed status?Report

  4. Katherine says:

    Excellent post. Irony as a statement of superiority gets to the heart of what’s annoying about hipsterism.

    I can kind of understand what Wampole is getting at with the comment about dictators, but she’s off the mark. People who are disaffected, who want something to believe in but can’t find it, tend to be susceptible to charismatic figures and cults of personality. When a country or generation or era is going through a crisis where they’ve lost hold of old value systems and have yet to replace them with new ones, that’s a state of valuelessness that’s dangerous. People whose self-identification revolves around the deliberate decision to not take anything seriously don’t produce that kind of danger.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    We are what we pretend to be. Something something.

    One thing I’ve found with my handful of friends who, for whatever reason, found themselves watching pro wrestling. The first handful of times, it’s done ironically. “That punch was so fake! That dropkick didn’t even touch the other guy!!!”, over time, becomes “I like how he does that dance before doing his finishing move” and, eventually, “the producer screwed that up… he should have chosen a different camera to show that particular dropkick.”

    They started doing it ironically. Next thing they knew, they were merely doing it.Report

  6. She lost all credibility with me when she made reference to an irony-free 1990s. Unless I was quite the cultural outlier, irony was everywhere.

    Also, David Foster Wallace got there first.

    [Edited to add: Also “The Simpsons.”]Report

  7. Rufus F. says:

    Hipsters have mostly been outside of my perception until very recently, probably because I’ve always lived in areas that were authentically poor. Anyway, we started getting them here about a year or two ago and I sort of connected the gripes and jokes I’d heard about hipsters to actual people. That said, they just strike me as a somewhat more unhappy version of yuppies. My wife and I went to a party last month where there were some real life hipsters and, aside from the fact that they seemed wrapped up in things that were bizarrely trivial, I was most struck by how deeply unhappy they were. Everything was a problem to them. If there’s a reason to dislike them, it’s that they’re a buzzkill.

    Note: I agree about the post- it says what I’m trying to say but more more clearly, thus I like it.Report

  8. Mike Schilling says:

    The only self-professed hipster I’ve ever know was a young woman I used to work with. When she explained that she did X, Y, or Z because she was a hipster, my (silent) reaction was invariably, “No, you do those things because you’re 24.” For what it’s worth, she was also extremely intelligent and diligent, and was deservedly promoted several times within a couple of years.Report

  9. MaxL says:

    At least here in San Francisco, there were hipsters around in the late 90’s and early 00’s with most of the trimmings: PBR, mustaches, wifebeater tees, aviator shades, etc… I’m not sure if the irony part of it was fully formed then, but it was definitely a self conscious sort of scene. O so sophisticated kids dressing up as white trash most every night at the Zeitgeist. That scene disappeared for a half dozen years after the dotcom bubble finished popping only to return fully formed. Did anyone else find this in their city?

    I have 2 tangentially related thoughts: First, how much of that initial mini-hipster wave had to do with our Gen X fascination with obscure pop culture references – and does that make it less ironic? I remember the 90’s as being plenty ironic, too, but maybe it was all simply less intentional.

    Second, and this may just be me, but doesn’t the music popular with the hipsters seem achingly sincere? Or is this another great irony?Report

    • NewDealer in reply to MaxL says:

      Zeitgeist is my second to least favorite bar in SF. They have a good beer selection but I hate the music and decor.

      I supposed I first noticed hipsters during my junior year of college which was 2000-2001. Though at the time, I thought of them as just stereotypical art type majors. In 2002, after I graduated I hung out in Williamsburg for the first time and saw Hipster central and got my first taste of the archtype. Williamsburg has gotten more developed and they have fancy condos (my brother lives in one) but it is still Hipster central.

      The music is indeed very sincere and I do enjoy it. Many people find it too twee though.Report

      • MaxL in reply to NewDealer says:

        I agree with all of that, and bon Iver is indeed too twee for me.

        Just a guess, but if you’re thinking Zeitgeist is the second worst bar in SF, then the worst would be….Toronado?Report

        • James Hanley in reply to MaxL says:

          Is the Holy Cow still there? And is it still the same meat market it used to be? That’d be my pick for the worst bar in SF back in the late ’80s/early ’90s.

          Most awesome was the Armadillo, a biker bar where attitude was strictly shunned.Report

          • MaxL in reply to James Hanley says:

            My landlord back when I was just a punk living at Haight and Pierce owned the Armadillo, too. The Holy Cow is still around I think, and I am sure it still sucks.

            the Albion, the 500 Club and the Uptown were my usual haunts back then. You know, before the Mission was all mainstream.Report

            • James Hanley in reply to MaxL says:

              Heh, we lived on the Panhandle and then up the hill near Buena Vista park. Good times.

              And the best Thai restaurant in the city (lower case, I insist) was across the street from Armadillos; Thep Phenom. God, I miss that place. I’ve yet to find a really good Thai restaurant in the Midwest.Report

        • NewDealer in reply to MaxL says:

          I like Bon Iver

          Tornado is okay. A bit too small. My least favorite Bar in San Francisco is Buckshot. Largely for the reasons mentioned in the post.

          Generally though, I am tired of loud bars that blast their music so it makes you strain to talk. I went a place where the music is good but played at a reasonable volume and with a wide selection of beers. The Page is okay. I like La Trappe in North Beach. There is a
          a bar in the Mission near the Roxie that I like. I like Alembic, Magnolia, and Local Edition. I like Place PigalleReport

  10. Mike Schilling says:

    Random thought: the phoniest-seeming thing about Romney is his constant earnestness.Report

  11. joey jo jo says:

    Was in Austin for the F1 races over the weekend and I can safely say that the only thing worse than a hipster is an aging hipster.Report

  12. Mike Dwyer says:

    Just when I thought facial hair was making a comeback those tools showed up with their irony-staches and patchy beards. I swear if they ruin it for the rest of us I’m going to start hurting people.Report

  13. Mike Schilling says:

    Observe a 4-year-old child going through her daily life. You will not find the slightest bit of irony in her behavior.

    And if you move her to a desert island, she will never develop any dependence on the State.Report

  14. DensityDuck says:

    I think this article from Paste magazine, while three years old, is relevant:

  15. DensityDuck says:

    PS ironic mockery is hilarious up until it’s not the stuff you actually care about.Report

  16. Rufus F. says:

    There was a great Gore Vidal line about irony that I can’t fishing remember, but it was along the lines of irony being a weaselly way of expressing one’s opinions without having to really express their opinions, so the literary form of “you wouldn’t hit a guy with glasses would ya?”Report

  17. ktward says:

    Please let my lack of commenting on your posts, Ms. Woodhouse, not suggest any lack of appreciation on my part. You’re an awesome, thought-provoking contribution to The League. I just lurk way more than I comment.

    I was born in ’61. Trailing end of the Boomers. My firstborn in ’88. You and all your sensibilities land smack dab in the middle of all that. For that reason alone I appreciate your take, as a bridge of sorts.

    Just so I’m clear, when you refer to “hipsters”, what demographic(s), specifically, are you referring to? I mean, my 21yo daughter [proudly] calls me a hippie and a feminist, but I don’t kid myself: she doesn’t really even know what that means much beyond the single tye-dye shirt I happen to still own.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to ktward says:

      I think Hipsters can roughly be anyone who graduated college between 2002-now or possibly is still in college. Largely it seems to refer to people between the ages of 22-27. They are largely university educated and living in cool urban neighborhoods.Report

  18. ktward says:


    But … I’m not sure why we need focus on what such a teeny tiny sliver of Americana thinks, above and beyond any other teeny tiny sliver of Americana. Is Rose really speaking to such a teeny tiny sliver? Really? I dunno, maybe she is. But I have a hard time paying much mind to such a sliver when there are much larger slivers, indeed collective chunks, of Americana arguably more worthy of attention.

    I echo the Doc: this all makes my head hurt.Report

    • ktward in reply to ktward says:

      My reply was meant for New Dealer. I am so not a hipster.Report

    • Rose in reply to ktward says:

      Not really. But I do think it’s worth thinking about whether irony itself is inherently problematic or the way it’s done.Report

      • ktward in reply to Rose says:

        But I do think it’s worth thinking about whether irony itself is inherently problematic or the way it’s done.

        And long dead philosophers are rolling over in their graves.Report

        • Rose in reply to ktward says:

          Because of my grammar or the subject matter? If it’s my grammar, I agree. It should be “or if it’s the way it’s done.” if it’s the subject matter, I couldn’t disagree with you more. Starting with Plato and Aristotle, you have discussions about imitating people or playacting and under what circumstances that is beneficial or problematic. Both discuss comedy. And philosophers are always interested in linguistic meaning and other meaning-making. So a case where the literal meaning is the opposite of intended meaning is of interest. How one treats people is also historically kind of a big deal. Whether or not you develop the virtues of, say, courage to be sincere or generosity of spirit or willingness to face and accept criticism – also a big deal.Report

          • ktward in reply to Rose says:

            Because of my grammar or the subject matter? If it’s my grammar, I agree … How one treats people is also historically kind of a big deal. Whether or not you develop the virtues of, say, courage to be sincere or generosity of spirit or willingness to face and accept criticism – also a big deal.

            No, I don’t ever care about grammatical imperfection on blogs. Despite my editing background -or perhaps because of it?- that stuff has always seemed like petty points made by petty people. (No doubt I’ve committed plenty of grammatical sins myself. Whatever.)

            Everything you mention is, I totally agree, a big deal. Has always been a big deal. However, your previous comment seemed to me a belittling of the importance of irony as a means of punctuating said big deals. A misunderstanding on my part, no doubt.

            You’re the philosopher, not me– has any prominent philosopher ever actually questioned the inherent worth of irony? I mean, has irony ever seemed to be so inherently problematic that any philosopher has said, “F**k irony, it sucks.” ?

            As far as how irony is done … it’s done how it’s done. No? Folks who do it well are recognized as doing it well … and the folks who think they can do it but can’t, are not. Isn’t successful irony as dependent upon perception as it is on delivery?

            Gah. My head is officially starting to hurt.Report

            • Chris in reply to ktward says:

              I think the point is rather that sometime how irony is done, even if successful, can be harmful (in fact, the harm may be the success, depending on the object). Socrates famously used irony to make people question their preexisting notions of very basic things like the good, knowledge, and the nature of things. Voltaire used irony to make existing political, social, and even philosophical notions look absurd. Some people use irony to avoid having to think about things like that, or much of anything at all besides the price of a couch at Urban Outfitters or which brand of circulation-restrictingly tight jeans to buy. Sometimes irony is subversive, sometimes it’s in the service of power, and sometimes it’s just privileged indifference pretending to be above it all.Report

              • NewDealer in reply to Chris says:

                “Socrates famously used irony to make people question their preexisting notions of very basic things like the good, knowledge, and the nature of things.”

                And we all know how well this turned out for Socrates…..Report

            • Rose in reply to ktward says:

              Well, what Chris said. I have indeed heard a conference presentation on just irony, but the conclusion wasn’t that it sucks. This NY Times piece, although not by a philosopher,was presented in their philosophy series. And of course, the more general topic of “how should I live my life?” is a philosophical one, and Wampole was making an argument about that. She made a blanket statement that it was not valuable. At the end, I meant to suggest what I would consider irony that is valuable and not valuable.

              Just because not many philosophers have addressed it directly does not mean that it doesn’t touch on a lot of important philosophical issues or have important ramifications. We wouldn’t still be in business if it had all been said before.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to ktward says:

      Why does everyone think about the 1960s and remember the Hippies? Most people were probably not true hippies during the 1960s. I had an English teacher in high school who was in his 20s during the 1960s but said he did not hear about Woodstock except for an announcement on the radio during a family dinner. My parents graduated undergrad in 1968 and went straight to work. They liked the music but did not have time to dress or act like a hippie.

      Every generation has its archtype and hipster seems to be the one for the current generation. I would say more people can be hipsters than true hippies because the hipster’s landscape is generally urban, there is no contradiction to capitalism, urban farming has replaced the commune, and politics is fought via facebook meme instead of protest.

      Plus I suspect people feel that current hipsters will be like the Baby Boomers and dominate the political landscape. My generation (late Gen X) seems more like we will be the Silent Generation politically. We will have Senators and Congress people but no Presidents. No real stars. Lena Dunham’s gang seem to have more media pull and attention. I can’t think of anyone born during 1978-1982 to really command that kind of media attention.Report

      • “I had an English teacher in high school who was in his 20s during the 1960s but said he did not hear about Woodstock except for an announcement on the radio during a family dinner.”

        What? He thought Snoopy lived alone?Report

      • ktward in reply to NewDealer says:

        Every generation has its archtype and hipster seems to be the one for the current generation … Lena Dunham’s gang seem to have more media pull and attention. I can’t think of anyone born during 1978-1982 to really command that kind of media attention.

        So, to your mind it’s all about media attention? Lena’s on HBO, notoriously exclusive. How many young folks actually subscribe to HBO? Compared to all HBO subscribers? Compared to Millennials in general? (Neither of my [20-25yo college-educated] kids do. But I do.)

        I dunno. Unless and until I see some kind of meaningful demographic measurement re this “hipster” crowd, however defined, it’s more or less just another meme to me.Report

        • NewDealer in reply to ktward says:

          I think it is largely about media attention and the journalistic/pop-sociologist desire to create a grand unified theory called generations and come up with common markers.
          This has been going on since the 1920s if not earlier.

          It doesn’t matter how many people participate but what the purchasing or eventual purchasing power of said cohort is. Madison Ave eventually learned to co-opt the Hippies and every counter-culture movement since.

          Hipsters might be small in numbers but they are creating the bands, the tech innovations like Spotify and Pandora, the new shows and movies. Lena Dunham’s show only has an audience of around 900,000-1,000,000,000 but she gets a damn lot of media attention and is being proclaimed the voice of her generation. She is considered the pulse, the zeitgeist.

          I think this goes beyond memes. There are intellectual symposium on hipsters:

          • ktward in reply to NewDealer says:

            Lena Dunham’s show only has an audience of around 900,000-1,000,000,000 but she gets a damn lot of media attention and is being proclaimed the voice of her generation. She is considered the pulse, the zeitgeist.

            I’m old, but I’m not at all trying to be reflexively contrarian here. However, your n+1 article hardly solidifies the hipster as demographically meaningful. And who is it, exactly, that’s proclaiming Dunham as the voice of her generation? I suspect it’s the marketing zeitgeist of HBO. I don’t know a single young person (and I know quite a few) who even know who she is.Report

            • NewDealer in reply to ktward says:

              “I don’t know a single young person (and I know quite a few) who even know who she is.”

              This is entirely plausible considering our divided and niched our current media market is. I feel like with most of my media sources, I can’t go a week without seeing someone or some people gush over Lena Dunham. She is the Toast of the Town in my media diet.

              Lena Dunham is not the only person who benefits from this. Very few people watch Fox News or Glenn Beck, only a few million on a regular or semi-regular basis. But you would think Fox News has the ear of tens of millions of people if not more. Same with Glenn Beck.

              Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many people listen to you but who they are. I imagine that Lena Dunham has a lot of fans who are in very high places or will be one day.Report

            • Ethan Gach in reply to ktward says:

              To add to ND’s point, hipster tendencies matter because of the share of the conversation they control, the residual effects their trend setting has on other non-hipsters who nonetheless adopt (intentioanlly or not) certain of its attitudes (I’m gona throw out Matt Y. for the sake of controversiality).

              Also, they have, as I said in an earlier post, economic mass—-in so far as they have a lot of disposable income (very few obligations) and thus are a not insignificant portion of the consumer population.Report

              • NewDealer in reply to Ethan Gach says:

                What hipster tendencies has Matt Y adopted?

                Now it would be really interesting to see how much power Matt Y has. In reality, he is just a blogger on one small part of the Internet. Slate probably has decent readership but I can’t imagine that Think Progress.Report

        • NewDealer in reply to ktward says:

          The term Hipster itself is a few decades old. Norman Mailer coined the term in a late 1950s issue of Dissent.

          He used it describe affluent white people who co-opted the African-American Jazz culture of the time and before including ventures into Harlem on the weekend for “slumming” purposes.

          I am not sure but I wonder if the modern use of the term arose from someone who knew of the original essay and was making a comment on the current Hipster’s tendencies to be gentrifiers of largely minority neighborhoods like The Mission in San Francisco, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Silver Lake in Los Angeles, etc.Report

  19. Chris says:

    I have little problem with the particulars of hipster culture itself. Hell, having grown up a redneck in Tennessee, I just think, “Hey, that’s how I used to dress, except I didn’t know any better.” Plus, vinyl is better, I’m chronically nostalgic, so I don’t mind all the retro fads that come out of hipsterdom, and most of my caps could safely be worn by a trucker. The majority of hipster culture ranges from completely harmless to actually bringing back cool shit that I wish we hadn’t lost in the first place.

    My only real issue with it is, as I suggested in the other hipster post, the blind privilege that it asserts. Its play poverty, its silly hipster racism (“Hey, this is my black friend John”), and the fact that I’ve seen it have real impact on neighborhoods bugs me. This is where it’s not harmless.Report

  20. LWA (liberal With Attitude) says:

    As others have mentioned, irony has been prevalent, all the way back to the origins of the Modern movement. Dada, Surrealism- these guys were plenty ironic.

    Which is where I see the room for criticism.
    Irony seems to me to be the natural fallback position of the avante-garde, when it has broken the thread of communication with the culture it wants to critique.

    Pre-Modern art generally had a dialog with the culture- it often added layers of other meaning, or subtle subversion, but usually there was a back and forth communication between artist and viewer.

    Modern art conceptually broke with this- it defines itself in opposition, yet is increasingly marginalized and irrelevant to the culture it critiques; so it can only feign indifference and mockery.Report

  21. Nice post. I actually like the clothes that guy in the picture is wearing though. That’s more of less how I’d dress (beard + flannel shirt) if I didn’t have to please HR types.Report