If the prototypical highly educated, white, 20-something city dweller is a skinny dude in a vintage Stryper T-shirt with elaborate facial hair, then The New York Times is the used-to-be-cool middle-aged parent squinting skeptically at that clothing and mustache, trying to figure out whether this is all a joke at her expense. It has now been almost two years since Brian Williams, who was already over 50 at the time, shamed the paper of record for treating Brooklyn and its denizens with a condescending brand of anthropological wonder. But The Gray Lady just can’t leave so-called “hipsters” alone.
The latest entry in what will probably one day be compiled into the worst book ever written is “How to Live Without Irony,” a dire op-ed by Princeton French professor Christy Wampole that begins with the bold pronouncement, “If irony is the ethos of our age — and it is — then the hipster is our archetype of ironic living.” But it isn’t just the time-machine-to-2002 vibe of the piece that’s got Twitter in a spin; it’s the imprecise definition of “irony,” the tired hand-wringing about modern technology, the laughable insistence that the ’90s of the author’s youth was irony-free, the contention that “nonironic living” is now so endangered that its practitioners are limited to “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.”
If you were to construct a Reactionary Social Criticism Bingo card, this essay would provide no shortage of paths to victory. But since that might be considered an “ironic” way to respond to the piece, let’s go a different route. After years of publishing articles that misunderstand and indict young adults, the Times deserves to have the tables turned. So now it’s time to engage in some rapid-fire deconstruction of the op-ed and its author. Below, we’ve formulated 15 ways of looking at “How to Live Without Irony.”
1. It’s trollgaze — a willful attempt to attract readership via an incendiary and irresponsible argument. Usually, some combination of the author and editor are at fault in such instances; in this case, my gut tells me it’s the editor.
2. Christy Wampole is displacing her inability to be genuine onto an entire generation. “I find it difficult to give sincere gifts,” she confesses. “Instead, 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. Something about the responsibility of choosing a personal, meaningful gift for a friend feels to intimate, too momentous. I somehow cannot bear the thought of a friend disliking the gift I’d chosen with sincerity. The simple act of noticing my self-defensive behavior has made me think deeply about how potentially toxic ironic posturing could be.” I am a 28-year-old white, middle-class Brooklynite and don’t relate to this paragraph on any level. In fact, I find it unspeakably sad. If this is true, then I’d venture to guess that Wampole is deeper into irony than many of the “hipsters” she so superficially describes.
3. The author is a college professor. What are the chances that this piece wasn’t inspired by personal frustrations with her students?
4. The author is either somewhat ignorant of or purposely misreading cultural trends: “Attempts to banish irony have come and gone in past decades… (New Sincerity has recently been associated with the writing of David Foster Wallace, the films of Wes Anderson and the music of Cat Power.) But these attempts failed to stick, as evidenced by the new age of Deep Irony.” I’m not sure how Wampole is defining “failed to stick,” but if Wallace, Anderson, and Cat Power aren’t at the very center of so-called hipster culture, I don’t know who is.
5. Even Anna Wintour is a hipster. “Look at your clothes. 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)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves?” These odd sentences imply that the mainstream fashion industry hasn’t been recycling the style of past eras for decades and decades. See also: Retromania.
6. “[I]s your style anti-style?” Wampole continues. Why in the world is that a criterion for irony? Was punk an ironic movement?
7. Both the quotes above come from a paragraph that functions as a sort of “ironic living” checklist. There’s nothing intrinsically ironic about clothing that references the past or specific archetypes, if the wearer finds it genuinely aesthetically pleasing. We’re also supposed to ask ourselves, “Do I communicate primarily through inside jokes and pop culture references?” First of all, no one “primarily” communicates that way. Secondly, again, what is intrinsically ironic about pop culture references? I assure the author that nerds of all persuasions take the cultural products they love very seriously.
8. Christy Wampole is (or was) in a band called Glass Wave. According to their website, “Four members of Glass Wave are literary scholars. The lyrics from their first album derive from great books of Western literature, whose stories are recast in the genre of cerebral rock. By translating old stories into new forms, Glass Wave seeks to preserve and revitalize the source texts that inspire the music.” I hadn’t heard of them, but I can imagine a band whose stated genre is “cerebral rock” may have come in for some gentle ribbing of the ironic variety.
9. According to the author, “ironic living” has resulted in political apathy: “For such a large segment of the population to forfeit its civic voice through the pattern of negation I’ve described is to siphon energy from the cultural reserves of the community at large.” Really? Just about every young person I know — again, we’re mostly talking about well-educated 20-somethings who live in Brooklyn, aka the “hipster” demographic — not only voted in the past two presidential elections but also volunteered (or gave blood, or at the very least donated money) for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. Last year, a whole lot of them participated in the radical and idealistic Occupy Wall Street movement. Maybe Wampole should Google “Occupy Sandy.” I can pretty much guarantee her that none of these young people are participating ironically in these political and civic actions.
10. The hipster “harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness.” Sorry, totally serious question: What does “harvests” even mean in this context?
11. “Take, for example, an ad that calls itself an ad, makes fun of its own format, and attempts to lure its target market to laugh at and with it,” Wampole writes. “It pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful. No attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself.” For one thing, it’s not true that an ad that acknowledges its own ad-ness is unassailable. It presumably still makes claims that can be validated or invalidated. It still exists as a product of consumer culture, regardless of its acknowledgment of that fact. Nothing but an attitude is preventing the viewer from engaging in a deeper analysis of it. In fact — and, as a scholar, Wampole should know this — there is a certain Brechtian value to laying bare the conventions of your medium. I’d argue that this awareness invites, rather than shuts down, criticism.
12. Like so many other “whither modernity?” arguments, this one resorts to a critique of technology. Here is a sentence that serves to remind us that this sentiment — which would surely serve as the free space on the Reactionary Social Criticism Bingo card — has become so universal that it no longer needs to be expressed in meaningful ways: “Our incapacity to deal with the things at hand is evident in our use of, and increasing reliance on, digital technology.” What even are “the things at hand”?
13. Generation X is becoming as reactionary and overprotective of its own cultural moment as the Baby Boomers their self-proclaimed “slacker” era rebelled against. “I came of age in the 1990s, a decade that, bracketed by two architectural crumblings — of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Twin Towers in 2001 — now seems relatively irony-free.” What’s funny about Wampole’s seemingly random invocation of 9/11 is that, at the time, the moment was called “The End of Irony.” Clearly it was not, but the pronouncement that irony had ended probably wouldn’t have meant much if it wasn’t already seen at the time as a prominent cultural mood.
14. “The grunge movement was serious in its aesthetics and its attitude, with a combative stance against authority, which the punk movement had also embraced. In my perhaps over-nostalgic memory, feminism reached an unprecedented peak, environmentalist concerns gained widespread attention, questions of race were more openly addressed: all of the stirrings contained within them the same electricity and euphoria touching generations that witness a centennial or millennial changeover.” Christy Wampole could stand to a) acknowledge how quickly the LGBT rights movement has accelerated in the past decade and b) spend some time on Tumblr.
15. Try as she might, Wampole never gets past the clothing and the cultural references to convince us that irony has fundamentally shaped who the Millennials are as people. There is something to each generation’s aesthetic, but just as hippies grew up to be yuppies and Gen-X dropouts founded the first wave of wide-eyed tech start-ups, a giant belt buckle or an ’80s VHS collection doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about a person. In her analysis of “hipsters,” Wampole is guilty of being precisely what she accuses her subjects of being: superficial.