The Specific Problem of Hipster Irony
In the New York Times’s ongoing philosophy column, The Stone, Christy Wampole informs us “How to Live Without Irony.” Actually, the more accurate headline would be “Why We Should Live Without Hipster Irony.” Her plea is mostly convincing, if familiar. Her upshot is that irony is a self-defense mechanism that protects one from criticism. If one is sincere, one may be criticized and found wanting. She bemoans the fact that being a hipster shields one from committing fully to life, or from trying and failing. Let’s be sincere, she pleads. I for one, can’t argue with that.
The column is a bit off in some ways, however, and there is much else that should be said about both irony general, and the particular version that is hipster irony.
First, she recalls a Gen-X 1990s as devoid of irony. I find that so strange. I was there, too (born in 1973 ohmygodI’malmost40). We all seemed pretty ironic to me. My peers wore T-shirts printed with New Kids on the Block rather than Justin Bieber. They also mimicked childish fashion. Women wore backpacks with stuffed animals peeking out of them. They had velvet Elvis paintings on the walls. Wampole mentions that the supposedly sincere 1990s were bracketed by two collapses: the Berlin Wall and the World Trade Center. Wasn’t it the latter that made Graydon Carter wrongly declare 2001 the moment of the death of irony? We thought of ourselves as pretty ironic, back then, pre-2001. Wampole recalls the 1990s as a time of greater campus feminism. Which is almost certainly true. But (and I haven’t seen studies on this) it’s not obvious to me it was a time of greater campus activism or sincerity. In the past 8 years that I have been teaching undergraduates, I’ve seen students get pretty worked up and sincere over Darfur, the environment, gay marriage, or in particular, electing Obama.
Second, bizarrely, she seems to attribute the rise of dictators to irony. At least, I think that’s what she’s saying:
This ironic ethos can lead to a vacuity and vapidity of the individual and collective psyche. Historically, vacuums eventually have been filled by something — more often than not, a hazardous something. Fundamentalists are never ironists; dictators are never ironists; people who move things in the political landscape, regardless of the sides they choose, are never ironists.
Of all my worries about hipsters, the worry that they might lead to a new dictatorship is fairly low on the list. I mean, I guess dictators and fundamentalists aren’t very ironic. But how does that mean that irony created “vacuums” that were filled by dictators and fundamentalists? When in history did ironic culture clearly cause the rise of a dictator or fundamentalist movement? It’s one thing to say that ironists tend not to be passionate, and it is the passionate people who get things done. Granted. But this vacuum stuff is tenuous, at best.
Also, she never mentions something which strikes me as a very significant aspect of the hipster version of irony: its sense of contempt. So many of the trappings of irony, e.g., the trucker hats — which are, I suppose, old hat (ha) for hipsters, but I’m a suburban mother and can’t keep up with these things — the mustaches, the bad musical act T-shirts, etc., are the genuine preferences of lower class people. Or of people who have not managed to update their taste. Wearing such things with air quotes is to feel superior to the schmucks who wear them sincerely. Take how Wampole describes her gift-giving habits:
I often give what in the past would have been accepted only at a White Elephant gift exchange: a kitschy painting from a thrift store, a coffee mug with flashy images of “Texas, the Lone Star State,” plastic Mexican wrestler figures. Good for a chuckle in the moment, but worth little in the long term.
Why are these products worth a chuckle? Because no one with upper class taste would choose them. They aren’t produced for upper class people to give as joke gifts, and if they were, it would not be ironic to buy them. These products are made for lower class people who might like them sincerely. It’s funny because she doesn’t have such crappy taste as poor people.
After citing dictators, fundamentalists, and political movers and shakers (hazardous people more often than not, she says) as examples of non-ironic living, she says something else perhaps unintentionally interesting:
Where can we find other examples of nonironic living? What does it look like? Nonironic models include very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places where seriousness is the governing state of mind. My friend Robert Pogue Harrison put it this way in a recent conversation: “Wherever the real imposes itself, it tends to dissipate the fogs of irony.”
Observe a 4-year-old child going through her daily life. You will not find the slightest bit of irony in her behavior. She has not, so to speak, taken on the veil of irony. She likes what she likes and declares it without dissimulation. She is not particularly conscious of the scrutiny of others. She does not hide behind indirect language. The most pure nonironic models in life, however, are to be found in nature: animals and plants are exempt from irony, which exists only where the human dwells.
What should we make of this list of those whom we are to emulate? Besides dictators and very religious people (specified as more hazardous than not), her list of the non-ironic comprises mental beings without full rationality, plants (huh? Why do plants even make it on the list? She forgot pencils and traffic lights…), poor people, and people facing difficulties. Forget about the “real imposing itself” or any other overdramatic language, which I’m guessing doesn’t mean very much to a 4-year-old, or a person with severe mental disabilities. She seems unaware that her list indicates that hipster irony is for smart people. Smart rich-enough people with leisure time. Hipster irony is an upper class statement, just as much as a snazzy car used to be. But a snazzy car is now, in some circles, a bit of a lower class statement. You may have money, but money can’t buy taste or intelligence. Displaying money is for lower class people who happen to get money. Hipster irony, on the other hand, means, “I am not stupid, blindly religious, disabled, deluded. Nor am I as tasteless as [shudder] poor people. Whether or not I have money, I am upper class.” It is no accident, I think, that her list of the non-ironic people in the world is to a degree co-extensive with the targets of hipster irony: children, religious people, poor people.
Also, Wampole tends to paint irony with one brush. She mentions in passing its usefulesness against dictators and fundamentalists. But there’s more to it than that. I am completely in favor of ironic humor in a general sense. I think it is very valuable for taking the sting out of painful situations in everyday life. Contra Wampole, I know my family made it through our most difficult times, when “the real imposed itself,” partly through ironic humor. And we still do. It’s a way of communicating the pain you feel a little bit, but don’t endorse whole-heartedly. You get it off your chest, and laugh it off. It takes away its power over your mental life. And in public life, irony doesn’t cause dictatorships. It’s politically helpful. The world is a better place for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Irony itself is not the problem. The target of irony is, as is the psychological reason for doing it. Are you using irony as A) a necessary coping mechanism, or B) a way of avoiding decisions and confrontations and commitments? Are you using it as A) a way of speaking truth to power, or B) a way of feeling superior to those less fortunate? If your answer is B in either case, as I think it is with the usual hipster irony, then it is indeed something we ought, as Wampole suggests, to learn to live without — on pain of not growing up and not learning true humility. But I disagree with Wampole on another point. One should not strive to be like a 4-year-old. The point is to be able to be (sometimes) as sincere as a 4-year-old even while knowing what a 4-year-old does not: that you might try and fail, that other people may not like you, that other people may not like your taste or your work, that you may get criticized. But you will get things done.