“Do you know how unusual it is to see someone doing something that’s so open and honest and weird and you’re not making fun of them in your mind?” Hannah, Girls
Christy Wampole argued recently in her New York Times op-ed “How to Live Without Irony” that for millenials, ironic living has become the primary mode of being in the world. She’s talking about hipsters: the butt of countless jokes. “Why did the hipster burn his mouth? He ate his pizza before it was cool.” And the subject of even more blogs including my favorite “hipster is the new homeless.” I’ve seen hipsters; I ride the L train after all. I know hipsters. Some days I’m even a hipster myself. For six of the sixteen months I lived in Asia I wore fake glasses, which I think automatically places me into the hipster category. I thought they made me look less tired (and more cool obviously).
Wampole claims that the hipster “harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny ... He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream.” There is a generalized judgment here that everyone Wampole labels as a hipster is deeply self-centered, inauthentic, disingenuous. It’s as if one angry hipster skinned her cat and turned it into a fringy vest tainting her view of them all. Unfortunately the people who she is talking about do exist. There are people who use mockery to hide their real feelings, people who are sarcastic to the point of rudeness and sometimes to the point where one can’t tell that they even are being sarcastic. These people have existed throughout time and will continue to exist; they are not all marked by a love of kitschy objects, Kombucha or beer brewed in a bathtub. They are not all wearing horned rimmed glasses and growing mustaches. And there is nothing inherently inauthentic about these activities to begin with, and there is no reason to suggest that anyone who participates in such activities is an ironic poser.
I think Wampole actually might be Alanis Morissete’s pseudonym because they both have some issues understanding the meaning of the word “ironic.” (Alanis: I’ve been wanting to tell you this for years — a traffic jam when you’re already late and a no smoking sign on your cigarette break are not ironic, those are just things that suck).
Wampole claims, “moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks.” Where she uses the word “ironic” I think what she is gesturing toward is the notion of sincerity versus insincerity. Being insincere is very different than being ironic. Millenials have grown up on irony. Consider Seinfeld, The Office, The Colbert Report the popularization of mockumentaries beginning with Christopher Guest, that 7-Up commercial.
So, it makes sense that millennials would use irony to relate to each other. The catch is if generations of the future use irony to imitate the current culture of irony — the double negative takes hold and what we are left with is, I think, total sincerity. For example, if you ironically imitate someone who is wearing a fedora ironically, you are in essence either wearing the fedora very, very, very ironically or completely sincerely. And even as culture progresses toward that, as the hipsters of the future imitate the hipsters of the past (both ironically, and with respect and nostalgia for a time they have not lived) there will remain those people who are simply insincere, who no one trusts, and who do not know themselves. And those people will not all look like hipsters. It’s confusing, I know. My brain is exploding as I type.
It is helpful to consider David Foster Wallace, who was paramount in the popularization of the “new sincerity” movement. I think he, Wampole, and I would all agree that irony functions as a way to avoid risk. If you’re making fun of something you can’t be made fun of. If someone doesn’t understand that you’re acting ironically, then still the joke is on them. Wallace writes, "The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels ... who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs ... the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness ... ”
Let me bring it back to real life. Or Instagram life, I guess. Recently I put up a picture. Someone commented, “I love this picture.” Another, “oh mah gaaaahh Soo0o0 CuTeEeEe.” To me the comments meant the same thing, the second person was just using an ironic tone to convey a true sentiment. The picture was indeed cute but irony is funny. This is the part that Wampole is missing and it may simply be a generational thing. The ironic part was not that he was suggesting the picture was cute and it wasn’t — it was that a 25-year-old man was writing like a middle school girl. Irony is not meant how Wampole suggests: as a masquerade, as means of hiding in public. If anything it is quite the opposite. We respond to irony with irony. To my friend who put up the second comment I responded “LOL!!!!!!!!” which is an over the top response I would never say seriously, but not meant facetiously. It was a way of saying, “I see what you did there. I get it — we cool. Thanks for caring about my picture.” However, on the flip side, millenials respond to sincerity with sincerity (to the person who wrote the first comment I’d answer back “thanks”) and we respond, typically with disdain and mistrust to insincerity. Or worst of all, we respond not at all. This is why Walpole’s argument that “irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices. To live ironically is to hide in public,” falls flat.
In the age of the internet persona, the blurring borders of privacy and the unemployment crisis, the worst thing to be is unnoticed. Irony is not at all a way of disappearing, it is a way of communicating, a way of being seen. It involves a certain level of self-awareness, of understanding what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And no one functions ironically 100% of the time — it is impossible to ironically pet a dog, play with a child, hug your mom. Even as I write this I am aware of my ironic, wry voice, which I hope makes me relatable not deplorable.
And let’s not forget there is nothing inherently “ironic” about playing the trombone, having facial hair, wearing sneakers from the 80s or old school RayBans. Maybe stuff was just more fly back then.