Today the New York Times published an important piece of service journalism entitled "How to Live Without Irony." Author Christy Wampole channels Bill Cosby and Jonathan Edwards to deliver an 1,800-word salvo against "Hipsters" and the perils of this damnable "age of Deep Irony" in which we currently live. The article raises many historical, etymological, and epistemological questions—questions that we will leave to parties who are better qualified to parse them. We'll just share the parts that made us spew Crystal Pepsi all over our bespoke weed grinder carved in the shape of John Oates' face.
Wampole, an assistant professor of French at Princeton (and presumably an amazing person to be sat next to at dinner parties) begins by doing what many deem undoable: defining exactly what a Hipster is.
The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone).
So a Hipster is the reason why the truck driver behind you keeps flashing his high beams because HE IS IN THE BACK SEAT AND WILL STAB YOU WITH A SHARP PIECE OF SEITAN JERKY. And that time you were housesitting and kept hearing the Family Matters theme song played on a trombone, the trombone WAS ACTUALLY AN OBOE AND IT WAS COMING FROM UPSTAIRS.
He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.
This metaphor of Hipsters (sustainably!) "harvesting" and "foraging" Awkwardness and Self-Awareness is too perfect. At the end of every day on Neurosis Ranch, Hipster gently brushes the velveteen leaves of his Discomfiture plants with his calloused hand before retiring inside the farmhouse he built after spending a summer with the Amish and makes love to his wife using the rhythm method because not only is it delightfully outmoded but it turns out that if practiced correctly it is an agreeable and effective means of contraception.
Wampole goes on to trace Irony throughout time (There was no irony in the Precambrian period as Colt 45-drinking mitochondria only began appearing in the Cenozoic era.) before landing squarely on herself.
Obviously, hipsters (male or female) produce a distinct irritation in me, one that until recently I could not explain. They provoke me, I realized, because they are, despite the distance from which I observe them, an amplified version of me.
Wait, the author who is profoundly irritated by Hipsters herself exhibits Hipster tendencies? Isn't that just a little bit ir—*ALANIS MORISSETTE PRESSES COLD BARREL OF PISTOL AGAINST BACK OF BLOGGER'S SKULL, SLOWLY SHAKES HER HEAD*
I, too, exhibit ironic tendencies. For example, I find it difficult to give sincere gifts. 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 too intimate, too momentous. I somehow cannot bear the thought of a friend disliking a 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.
Last year for Ironic Christmas (which we celebrate on July 4) we gave prints of da Vinci's Last Supper with all of the heads replaced by Charles Bronson's and ballpoint pens that show the scene in Fresh Prince where Uncle Phil totally hustles everyone in the pool hall when you tilt it back and forth—but a coffee mug with an anodyne slogan on it? Lucha Libre action figures? "Kitschy" stuff? Lady you are truly SICK.
Or maybe, just give your friend a gift and if they don't like it they can return it?
Throughout history, irony has served useful purposes, like providing a rhetorical outlet for unspoken societal tensions. But our contemporary ironic mode is somehow deeper; it has leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself. This ironic ethos can lead to a vacuity and vapidity of the individual and collective psyche. Historically, vacuums eventually have been filled by something — more often than not, a hazardous something. Fundamentalists are never ironists; dictators are never ironists; people who move things in the political landscape, regardless of the sides they choose, are never ironists.
We're not sure what all this means but when we read "vacuums" we remembered all those great Oreck XL commercials. He was so friendly. So who are the precious few role models in this desperate age of Irony?
Observe a 4-year-old child going through her daily life. You will not find the slightest bit of irony in her behavior. She has not, so to speak, taken on the veil of irony. She likes what she likes and declares it without dissimulation. She is not particularly conscious of the scrutiny of others. She does not hide behind indirect language. The most pure nonironic models in life, however, are to be found in nature: animals and plants are exempt from irony, which exists only where the human dwells.
"She" is also lucky if she can be bribed into shitting into a plastic pot that looks like a frog instead of into her own pants. And are there monasteries where one can go to just escape this whole Ironic Life and stand really still and just photosynthesize instead of spewing all this horrible sarcasm? Should we await Thursday's Styles section for instructions? How do we cure ourselves of this disease?
Here is a start: Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd? Listen to your own speech. 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? 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? Do you attempt to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly? In other words, is your style an anti-style? The most important question: How would it feel to change yourself quietly, offline, without public display, from within?
Has Wampole been eavesdropping on our Google+ chats? We haven't discussed with our best friends how much their Texas mugs they keep giving us every year truly upset us, or told our iPad mini that we loved it today—all our speech is completely meaningless. The bar we one day dream of opening on Manhattan Avenue, tentatively named The Secretary, The Hobo, The Flapper (And The) Candlestick Maker will probably never happen. And since we're being honest, a little ball-peen hammer to the face every other week and a strict citrus-free diet keeps us looking like a jaundiced 19th century dockworker but is all that maintenance really worth it just to get laid? Frankly, we're tired of carrying hardtack around in our overalls just to get a phone number. Non-irony is freedom!
What will future generations make of this rampant sarcasm and unapologetic cultivation of silliness? Will we be satisfied to leave an archive filled with video clips of people doing stupid things? Is an ironic legacy even a legacy at all?
Still, does Wampole know the joy of coming home from a long day of peddling Irony, hanging your coat on the rack made of shrunken heads salvaged from a P.T. Barnum shipwreck, and looking at your significant other in the eye before bellowing "AAAAUUUUUUOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" ? Probably not.