An Apology of Irony
I feel the need to defend irony, for perhaps the first time in its existence – I’m sure – since the beginning of human communication, from the resoundingly popular recent NY Times article, ‘How to Live Without Irony’, by Christy Wampole [Please do read it before continuing, in both fairness to the author and because my critique is largely spurred directly from her claims…it’ll be simpler to follow the arguments]. Normally, I would not bother writing (essentially to myself) about an article I disagree with – the merciless mixture of pointlessness and tedium would occur too frequently to bear. However, this article is different: for whatever reason (most likely people growing tired of hipsters overrunning their space) this one is ringing true with plenty of people I generally look to for interesting, insightful reads, and also, I have recently had conversations on the subject of irony – ironically with myself – though my conclusions have been practically the opposite of Ms. Wampole’s. I cannot let this pass for timely brilliance when it so clearly is not.
Many people are tweeting aphoristic quotes from Wampole’s article like, “To live ironically is to hide in public.” My response would be, to live ironically is to hide from the portion of the public who does not understand you. It’s akin to ‘choosing your audience’. You wouldn’t use the idiom, “Put your jeans on one leg at a time,” to someone in a culture where pants don’t exist. Pretty bad example but I hope you get the point. In this sense, referential irony is crucial today where the internet makes your audience the entire developed world. You must limit that bewilderingly sized audience to make any sort of nuanced statement. Being ironic is not hiding.
The author’s view on the subject is regressive rather than progressive, much like the nature of trends and fads themselves. Of course there are negative aspects to “hipsterism,” but there are intellectually positive implications to be had as well; we can take those and build upon them so they live on when the fad inevitably dies.
Wampole claims, “This kind of defensive living…takes the form of reaction rather than action.” I disagree wholeheartedly that this is “defensive living,” but even if it were, her logic is flawed…defense is a form of action. Defense is an active response to an overbearing attack. Often, it is only used to bide time before committing effort to an offensive of its own, in which case, time will tell how this defensive sentimentality evolves. But I digress, because there is a multitude of ways for defense to be used actively. Just keep in mind that there is a progression here, historically, when you consider the context of culture in this discussion about irony.
I can agree with Wampole that irony in its current hipster form is a nearly strictly upper-middle class phenomenon. That may be where the agreements end, and even that is probably fairly easy to dispute. Anyway, with that remark in mind, irony is a signifier of powerlessness in motion; whether we have power or not, people and ideas are always in motion. What I mean by powerlessness in this instance is this: upper-middle class people are bombarded with issues, some big, millions small. That saturation of possible actions to take, and the resulting decision (or indecision) to act on one thing over another is a form of failure to act on the other. This creates an overwhelming stress, a numbing paralysis that takes the guise of indifference. That feeling of the inability to act is powerlessness, and the only thing to be done at that point is laugh. Laughing at anything or everything, oftentimes the process of doing so makes irony a necessity.
Beyond this, irony in itself is an action, an expression of opinion. You cannot be ironic without a viewpoint, otherwise you have just said something so dull and plain that you’d easily be mistaken for a fool. To reiterate, being ironic is not hiding.
Wampole also states, “It stems…from the belief that this generation has little to offer in terms of culture.” Again, whether you choose to acknowledge current sentiments as culture does not determine if others feel a part of this period’s culture. There are endless cultural merits to come out of this generation just as there always have been in any generation. Perhaps, now, there are so many that one cannot easily recognize them, their origins are too complex to be self-evident, and they are referenced by culturally aware hipsters the world over being misunderstood as “kitschy” – a word as cliché as a hipster with a mustache. This yet another example of the author’s negative, regressive framework of an ultimately progressive notion (i.e. generational culture).
She does make a good point about Instagram: “We cannot accelerate meaningful remembrance.” What a brilliant little aphorism. But on second thought, aren’t we forced to do so in this age where globalization and the internet among other factors are making things progress at an unprecedented exponential rate? Everything around us is accelerating. Are we meant to just stop and be overwhelmed by progress, or adapt and accelerate along with it?
And in response to her finale of preposterous questions:
All communication is done through references, ask Bertrand Russell about it. Just because the references are niche or complex or subtle does not mean they go without meaning. If anything there is that much more meaning packed into each turn of irony’s plot. And as aforementioned, you dictate your audience with your choices of communicative reference.
All clothing style is “derivative.” Also, “derivative” is a terrible pejorative epithet, as there should be nothing wrong with derivation. We, and every thing and idea humankind has created, are ALL derivative.
Finally, some people (and I would propose a growing population) ARE “nerdy, awkward, or ugly,” only at this point in time it isn’t something to be ashamed of; we can openly embrace ourselves more than ever before with respect or even adulation rather than threat as a response.
And it is wonderfully ironic how Wampole’s bastions of ‘Sincerity’ (David Foster Wallace, Wes Anderson, and Cat Power) are all hipster gods! Their sincerity – like everything else – can be read (as I’m sure many have) ironically.
Her entire stance becomes clear when she confesses narrowly missing the generational window of which she speaks. The bitter, nostalgic cry of a conservative-in-the-making. It – just like progress – is bound to happen to us all. I do not mean to criticize her age, only to point out that every generation is seemingly at war with, and eventually overtaken, by the next. My own soon will be too (perhaps sooner than ever), when the culture DERIVATIVE of ours turns our ideals on their head. Then, I’ll be the one writing, in a nostalgic haze no less, ‘I remember the days when a man could be ironic in peace.’