I kept my faith even when I said,"I am greatly afflicted."In my alarm I said,"Everyone is a liar."-Pslam 116
Here on Puritan Porn I like to discuss things I’m interested in that start with the letter “P” for no better reason than that it seemed to work out with what I wanted to write about. I also think that rule is sweetly cute and pretty stupid and that appeals to me for some reason. It’s the same reason I like tchotchkes from China town, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, colorful shirts and weird music on vinyl. Why? It may be because I’m a middle class white male in my 20’s and my culture has infected me with a lethal-size dose of Irony by way of a hilariously large syringe that masks its horror with its insincere attitude at it’s own largeness. Or at least something like that, according to "How to Live Without Irony," a recent piece on the New York Times Opinionator blog by Christy Wampole.
Wampole is late to the party. The friend who posted the link on facebook opined, weird that people are still talking about this. It seems as if Professor Wampole never read David Foster Wallace’s early 90’s work, although she refers to him as an artist associated with a failed attempt at New Sincerity (and lumps him together oddly with Wes Anderson and Cat Power). It’s certainly interesting to find a debate about cultural attitudes has remained essentially unchanged in 20 years (not). It’s now a perennial exercise in the thoughts of educated young people that when the newest breed of “hipster” emerges, we think deeply enough to discover that our hatred covers our ashamed identification with the hipster’s supposedly empty life.
Let’s make a somewhat “PoMo” move and look at what I just did rhetorically with my irony. I want to pretend I’m past all this irony discussion, I’ve already been there, and now I’m on to emotions and thoughts that “you probably haven’t heard of.” Wampole writes: “To live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect, a form of subterfuge, which means etymologically to “secretly flee” (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.” This assumes that directness was at some point bearable. So, let me not hide, let me not be indirect. Let me be seen in public as fleeing, rushing, and cartwheeling away from directness. Meaning what you say is indeed unbearable today, so thank God for irony.
As Wampole correctly notes, “scoffing at the hipster is only a diluted form of his own affliction.” I would add, even writing about the hipster is a diluted form of the hipster’s affliction. Even speaking or thinking of “The Hipster” as if it refers to anything more than an unfair, derisive, and a culturally corrosive concept is to suffer from the hipster’s affliction. Whoever is labeled a hipster can have no opinion that is not corrupted by over-consumption and the fetishizing of everything from food to clothes to attitudes. Of course, by that criteria, no one in the West of comfortable means should be allowed any attitude, political or otherwise, and, believing this to be a fair assesement, we make it so. And then we complain about those empty-headed hipsters.
Christy Wampole argues that the political vacuum created by the tyranny of ironic apathy begs to be filled by something evil. (Lacking conviction she calls it a “hazardous something.”) For any evil, certainly the best hiding place is to be easily hidden in plain site among a people who’ve chosen blindness. Not voting is voting for the status quo or worse, so the argument goes. I have a hard time finding fault with this line of reasoning, but a thankfully easy time seeing how reality hasn’t fulfilled this prophecy. Young people voted in record numbers in the last election. If the supposedly apathetic generations of “Deep Irony” hadn’t cast their ballots, the election would have turned out differently. Clearly many young people who look like they have chosen blindness had their eyes open.
Wampole’s article seems to miss that completely. Her concluding paragraph really reveals the one-dimensionality to her thinking about this subject. “For such a large segment of the population,” she theorizes, “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.” Her chosen metaphor for culture is the Earth’s finite material resources. This implies the justifiable fear we have of material energy running out is analogous to the fear we have about cultural irony and apathy. The problem is that material energy is predictable; you use it up and then it isn’t there anymore. I doubt very much that cultural energy is as predictable or easy to pin down as a zero-sum calculation.
Sometimes irony is exactly the right thing, sometimes exactly the wrong thing. David Foster Wallace, even though he sometimes railed against the overuse of irony along similar lines as Wampole, employed irony judiciously and often, but kept it at bay when other modes were needed. I grew up intellectually by reading Wallace and internalizing his arguments about irony, its uses and abuses. I didn’t always get it right. Once when I was twenty I sincerely yelled at other confused and broken people at a Vice Magazine warehouse party in Brooklyn to, “tell me something important!” This had a certain romanticism to it, but not much payoff. My problem then is Wampole’s problem now; looking for sincerity in the wrong places.
Risking intimate revelations of lust, anger, shame, sadness, depression, belief or any other sincerity is not for everyone at all times, in every situation. We must trust the people we reveal these things to, and our culture doesn’t seem to produce many forums for intimacy we can trust. We may ask why this is so, but we must be careful not to romanticize a past of supposedly triumphant public sincerity, as she certainly does with, for some reason, the 90’s. Current forms of “hipster” irony may simply be unfamiliar and particularly unmannered attempts of broken souls to protect their honest feelings from a world that has consistently shown it does not respect displays of honest feeling. If this is true, the unmannered aspects of this irony are likely to get worse as the anger at having to mask one’s self grows.
"Determine whether the ashes of irony have settled on you," Wampole concludes, for then,"it takes little effort to dust them away." Wampole’s prescriptions are so simple and easy, I’m unsure if she really understood how dire her tone can be, or indeed how dire our culture of mistrust is. "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." Which again leads to evil. An ironic ethos does not necessarily lead to a vacuous people and there is no single attitude that causes evil or protects societies from it, although the level of public trust is a likely factor.
Throwing out ironic clothing will not lead to cheap barrels of cultural capital or protection against hazardous somethings, and the individual actions of faded t-shirt wearers would not lead directly to a society of mutual trust. True, there does sometimes seem to be certain tortured mental maneuvers our society seems to demand of us. Some of our culture’s art and fashions seem to me to be particularly despairing cries against certain economic and cultural demands of originality, freshness, and vitality. Art and culture of this sort might be in part a yearning for an acknowledgement of our despair, our fallen state, which our American culture, despite being supposedly Puritan, consistently fails to affirm. At this point, the signs and markers of ironic hipsterdom are so obvious and so pervasive that their supposed horribleness and cultural corrosiveness seems to be an attraction rather than a deterrent. These attitudes might be a response of protection against the enormous, impossible cultural demands to be authentic, be one’s self, or be free. One of the biggest presumptions here is that sincerity must look a certain way, an oxymoron.
Professor Wampole, why would I want to throw out my best armor against a world that rejects all my attempts at sincerity? When you ask how it would feel to change myself from within, you assume I am not already different from my appearance. You assume vacuity, thinking your students, colleagues and fellow citizens are no deeper than their jokes or clothes. We all experience the wide range of human emotion, from murderous rage and despair to comfort, belief and hope. Beneath ironic references and pop culture jokes, there are intimate friends and neighbors who have taken the time to earn our trust, and let us be the basically horrible people we are without fear of judgement. Fashions and attitudes come and go, but that’s the kind of grace that can truly change us.