How to Live With Irony

Christy Wampole has this thing about how she wants us all to live without irony. The Times put it up on their Opinionator blog on Saturday and they also put the thing in print on Sunday. I don’t like to get worked up about things I read while I’m having my coffee but this particular piece makes me want to shit in my hat.

For starters, it’s hard for me to believe that anyone could be quite so far out of touch, though I would easily believe that she started this eighteen-hundred-word blog post about twelve years ago, when it was actually pretty relevant, at the end of what she calls the “relatively irony-free” 1990s that Generation X grew up in. (In 1999 David Gates disagreed: the twentieth century, he said, had not only “maxed out on irony” sometime between The Sun Also Rises and the airing of the final episode of Seinfeld, but had also by that point maxed out on people demanding an end of irony. Irony is here to stay, was his point.)

Maybe the problem here is that from the title, How to Live Without Irony, you’re sort of led to expect that some intelligent discussion of irony is forthcoming… We do get the nifty coinages “ironic living” and “will to irony” which, we are told, are exemplified in the person of the hipster. As in, all hipster habits and culture: as far as I can tell, though she doesn’t come right out and say it, Wampole takes for granted a definition of irony that merely comprises the in fact discrete inclinations cynicism, apathy, and self-reflexiveness. But apart from a description of the apparently fraught personal ordeal of buying nice gifts for people she cares about, the best she can do in diagnosing the “age of Deep Irony” is a list of anything that the people she calls hipsters do ever in their entire lives. Which lives are in her view at fundamental odds with the more sincerely conceived punk rock movement of the 70s (which certainly began openheartedly enough with Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine et al but pretty quickly devolved into Lydia Lunch and Teenage Jesus, and anyway how does she settle Richard Hell’s seminal “Blank Generation”?) and the grunge movement of the 90s (whose aggressive lethargy she seems willing to forgive and even praise as “serious in its aesthetics and attitude”).

None of the examples she offers to explain how this hipster generation is more ironic than generations past is consistent with my own personal understanding of irony, which I gleaned at the age of twelve from a generation-defining film of her own beloved 90s: “when the actual meaning is the complete opposite of the literal meaning.” Or, if you prefer just good-old M-W, “the use of words to express something other than and especially opposite of the literal meaning.” Even if you stretch “words” to include “facial hair” — and mustaches haven’t been ironic for a long time now; by now it’s just a slightly edgy style, like wearing a skinny tie was five years ago — her assumption is that any mustache worn to mean anything other than I like the way this particular mustache looks on my particular face is a symptom of spinelessness and vacuity and not, say, joie de vivre, or even of the spirit of rebellion that she applauds so mightily in her GenXers (whom she later excuses for becoming slackers and gobblers of Prozac, but never mind). And facial hair is as close as she gets to connecting or even trying to connect hipster behavior to a Reality Bites- or Merriam Webster-defined ironic outlook. Although she does go on to enumerate those hipster behaviors that produce such a “distinct irritation” in her.

So Instagram gets it, or anyway “certain digital filters” that “pre-wash photos with an aura of historicity.” “; she seems to think irony and nostalgia are the same thing — it’s beyond me how she arrived at that equation; nostalgia, at least as I experience it, is a deeply felt emotion (it is open and honest longing), and irony, as she has it, is the enemy of deeply felt emotion. If anything, Instagram is a symptom of (among many, many other things) the sincere longing for the present moment to have for us the emotional gravity and import that the past has: for our pictures of ourselves to appeal to us as much as pictures of our parents. How does this pertain to her thesis about irony? She offers this non-sequitur: “One cannot accelerate meaningful remembrance.”

She doesn’t like home-brewing either, and not only is it hard to fathom how beer can be brewed ironically, but home-brewing is actually a good example of how unironic hipster culture has become. With earnest pride supposed hipsters make their own beer, their own pickles, their own honey, bitters, mustard, mayonnaise, hot sauce, gin, candles, furniture, et cetera, and if you get them going they will talk to you about these things with numbing sincerity for as long as you let them. Irony enters into any of the countless hours people spend doing these things or talking about these things exactly how? I’d say it enters into them when cultural critics try to dismiss them as futile or affected with the catchall designation hipster. As in, see that hipster with the mustache? He probably brews his own beer.

Then, playing the trombone? I guess this would be a good place to mention that the musical hallmarks of hipster culture of the last five years or more (Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Fleet Foxes, to name just a few of those named for fauna) are unambiguously sincere in their dedication to their art. LCD Soundsystem you could maybe mistake for ironic if you’re not really paying attention, but Murphy’s songs in fact candidly address earnest fears about getting older, the importance of old friendships as you do get older, romantic failings, the problem of maintaining your integrity once you’ve become a star, et cetera. Nowhere in evidence, in the songs of any of these hipster-defining bands, is “the belief … that everything has already been done, or that serious commitment to any belief will eventually be subsumed by an opposing belief, rendering the first laughable at best and contemptible at worst,” a belief she attributes to the generations she defines as hipster.

The internet — sure there are some snarky corners like Gawker and Gothamist that trade in ridicule and that proclaim no values of their own that might be ridiculed. And I agree that irony of this sort is hateful, But it’s also basically obsolete, or at least drowned out; anyone who’s spent any serious time online can tell you that the primary modes of discourse there are rapturous praise, the naked and very deeply human desire to be seen and heard, and the corollary desire to advertise what you care about (that is, to advertise that you care about things). Then there’s all the getting-out-the-vote-stuff (despite the hipster population’s forfeiture of “its civic voice through a pattern of negation”), the organizing of volunteer Sandy-cleanup efforts, Occupy Wall Street. And there’s plenty of that nobler brand of irony Wampole declares dead and gone — the kind deployed in service of explicit or implicit beliefs (think Stewart/Colbert).

This kind of irony — the kind that loves to lampoon the things it hates — may be, at worst, “the song of a bird who’s come to love its cage,” as DFW quoted when he made successfully many of the same arguments Wampole tries to make (but in 1990, and to the tune of about 21K words). The question that maybe we should address — and maybe Wampole isn’t quite the person to do it — isn’t How to Live Without Irony, but How to Live With it.

By now, my generation has absorbed a lot of Wallace’s lessons; maybe we haven’t shed our ironic tendencies, but our sense of irony has become a lot more nuanced. If you sit around a bar in Williamsburg, you’ll hear a lot of people speaking ironically about the things they care most about, for the sake of making those things entertaining enough to talk about in a bar (this is Wampole’s supposedly lost art of conversation) rather than deadly dull. The other day, for example, I overheard a young woman describe with great humor and deprecation a sleepless and existentially unpleasant night in bed, wrestling with big questions about self, being, identity, time and space, death, et cetera. What do I know about this young woman? I know that she probably spent that night exactly as she says she did, as many of us maybe have, and that it probably wasn’t nearly as funny to her at the time.

Or if Christy Wampole wants an example she can study at length in the privacy of her home, how about Norm MacDonald — a slacker idol of Generation X — doing an hour of material without precedent in his career, on such topics as his father’s sudden death, his own fear of death, the failure of any consoling platitudes to console him — which stand-up I defy her to conclude signals his indifference to its objects. Or better still, maybe she could take a look at Louis C.K.? For my money, that’s our generation’s truest idol. And here’s a beloved (ironic/sincere) Louis C.K. punchline: “You should live in a way, that if everyone lived that way it would be all right.”

What I’m saying is, if we all lived like Christy Wampole wants us to live, it wouldn’t be all right at all.

–Chris Knapp lives in Brooklyn with his wife. He has recently completed a novel.

Illustration by Leif Parsons.

More Like This

Gentrifiers Never Want a Fight, but They Win Nonetheless

Amy Benson reflects on her time living near Morningside Park and the violence of gentrification in Harlem

Sep 14 - Amy Benson

Poets Can’t Write Novels, and Other Baseless Fears

If your book doesn't fit into the genre box, create something new and beautifully monstrous

Jun 13 - Caroline Hagood

The City Can’t Replace Her Best Friend

"Julia" from THE SORROWS OF OTHERS by Ada Zhang, recommended by Sarah Thankam Mathews

May 3 - Ada Zhang
Thank You!