Monday, November 19, 2012

How Hipsters and Irony Have Ruined Everything

Posted By on Mon, Nov 19, 2012 at 12:45 PM

Probable Princeton graduates.
  • Probable Princeton graduates.

Here is something you may or may not know: bloggers love to throw the word "hipster" in a headline because it practically guarantees a bunch of page views. It's not foolproof—foolproof would be a slideshow of puppies suckling at the teat of a Bengal tiger—but it is pretty damn close. And see what I did there? I just embraced a little thing called irony, with the whole "puppies and Bengal tiger' shout-out. That's another thing bloggers love to do, embrace irony. It's the only thing we like to get very close to, actually, because otherwise we tend not to like to be touched at all. We are, when it comes down to it, a solitary breed. And, unfortunately, it is behavior like ours that is ruining everything. And by everything, I mean modern society as it exists in Princeton, New Jersey, which is, clearly, everything.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Christy Wampole, assistant professor of French at Princeton University laments the fact that "irony is the ethos of our age" and that the hipster—"our archetype of ironic living"—has proliferated, so that it "haunts every city street and university town." Personally, I am a bit more worried about Wampole's rampant alliteration, "hipster haunts" and "scholar of social forms...student of cool" and the fact that she uses the word "ethos" twice (unironically, obviously) than I am about the degradation of society due to hipsters, but those are my own hang-ups, I suppose. I just firmly believe that a professor at an Ivy League university—even if it's Princeton—ought not to write at the level of a high school senior whose reach school is Tufts. But that's just me.

Wampole is disgusted with the "hipster culture," as she sees it, and the tendency within this culture to live "life ironically." Which, is that a thing? How do you live your whole life ironically? You don't. No one lives their life ironically. A life full of irony? Sure. But those are two different things—wildly different things. Using irony to get some form of distance from life's inherent absurdities is not necessarily unhealthy. Of course it would be unhealthy not to take anything seriously, but who does that? Only the most dead-inside, personality disordered individual would do that. Which, we're not saying Wampole is that, but she does use the word "ethos" a lot and she does teach at Princeton. So.

This plant lives very unironically. Because it is a plant. In a babys skull.
  • This plant lives very unironically. Because it is a plant. In a baby's skull.

Obviously, the disgust Wampole feels stems from the fact that she herself identifies with hipsters. Wampole writes, "They provoke me, I realized, because they are, despite the distance from which I observe them, an amplified version of me. I, too, exhibit ironic tendencies." What kind of ironic tendencies? Well, Wampole "find[s] it difficult to give sincere gifts." That's right. Instead of giving people thoughtful gifts that show she really cares about them, Wampole gets people things like "a kitschy painting from a thrift store, a coffee mug with flashy images of 'Texas, the Lone Star State,' plastic Mexican wrestler figures." This is awful. I say that totally sincerely. What adult does that? I mean, it's fine and fun and everything to get people silly gifts from time to time, but to actually find it difficult to get people thoughtful presents? What kind of emotional damage must Wampole be suffering from?

Wampole wants us to pull away from ironic living and mentions a few different types of people who live life unironically. Included in this group are "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." Also, fundamentalists and dictators. Oh. And "animals and plants." Something to aspire to, for sure.

Okay, well, what if I am ready to embrace the life of the unironic? How can I be more like a young child, a dictator, or a plant? What do I have to do? Wampole advises, "Ask yourself: Do I communicate primarily through inside jokes and pop culture references? What percentage of my speech is meaningful? How much hyperbolic language do I use? Do I feign indifference?" This is difficult. I mean, I can't ask myself these questions unironically. It's like I failed even before I started. Well, what else can I do? What else can I change?

What if I sincerely want to dress like the Secretary of State? What then?
  • What if I sincerely want to dress like the Secretary of State? What then?

I could, I suppose, "look at [my] clothes." Wampole wants to know, "What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)?" None! I hope. I hope my clothes are not derivative of that well-known style archetype, "me as a child." I looked ridiculous as a child. My only question with this is, what if you are, in fact, a secretary? How should you dress then? I mean, there's nothing worse than being mistaken for an ironic secretary when you are actually trying to be an unironic administrative assistant, or so I would imagine.

Let's face it. I'm a lost cause. I like living a life full of irony. But, also, I take a lot of things seriously. For example, I take it very seriously that an academic thinks that David Foster Wallace and Wes Anderson are good examples of some sort of "New Sincerity," which, fine, they are both examples of artists who embrace authenticity, but to pretend like there's no irony in either of their work is one of the more obtuse parts of Wampole's op-ed, which is really saying something. There is tons of irony in DFW and Anderson and just because neither of them might have ever been the kind of person to give shitty gifts from the dollar store to their loved ones, doesn't mean that they never possessed a healthy (or even not so healthy) level of detachment from life. A person—and most especially an artist—can be authentic and sincere and still employ irony without necessarily being dead inside.

Wampole concludes by saying that it is her "firm conviction that this mode of living is not viable and conceals within it many social and political risks" and that we should all "determine whether the ashes of irony have settled on [us] as well. It takes little effort to dust them away." And then what? We can all live the lives we are meant to live? So that society can become a playground for religious fundamentalists and dictators and we'll all live happily ever after? I mean, I understand that this is not what Wampole really wants, but does she understand that this is not what she really wants? Does she understand that the rise of irony and a dark sense of humor coincides with the fact that, as a society, we are more broadly educated and connected than we ever have been in history? Of course there is not as much room for irony when a person is just struggling to survive. Of course irony is its own sort of luxury or "first world problem" as Wampole refers to it. But I still don't understand why that is a bad thing.

Irony implies that a person is looking at a situation on different levels at the same time, irony implies that a person is actually applying a deeper understanding to an idea or an object than what is apparent only on the surface. Can irony be a form of detachment? Yes. However, we live in a world where the sea levels are rising, where storms hit and houses burn to the ground and people drown in their own basements, where hundreds of people die daily in sectarian strife, where lots of terrible fucking things happen all the time. Perhaps it is a form of maintaining a kind of mental equilibrium to not look at these things straight on all the time. Perhaps it is better to be a little detached, so that when sincerity is necessary, you can be ready to act. Anyway, I think it is in Wampole's best interest right now to develop a sense of irony and detachment pretty quickly, because if she takes all the commentary on her editorial as earnestly as she has decided to live her life, well, it's going to be a pretty difficult few days. Maybe someone will send her a YouTube video of a cat playing inside a box to make her feel better. That always works for me.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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About The Author

Kristin Iversen

Kristin Iversen

Kristin Iversen is the Managing Editor at Brooklyn Magazine and the L Magazine. She has been described as "a hipster buzzword made flesh." This seems pretty accurate.

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