It’s tempting to read Christy Wampole’s recent New York Times piece, “How To Live Without Irony”, as little more than an attack on hipsters, especially when it begins with this bit:
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). 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.
There are several other places where Wampole seems to simply indulge in hipster-bashing in her attempt to dissuade readers from living a life characterized by irony. That being said, she does raise several interesting points about the pervasiveness of irony in our culture. For example, she questions whether or not the ubiquity of irony has begun to impede real, honest communication between people, and if it presents a hurdle for true creativity and originality.
Take, for example, an ad that calls itself an ad, makes fun of its own format, and attempts to lure its target market to laugh at and with it. It pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful. No attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself. The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism. The same goes for ironic living. Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise. 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.
How did this happen? It stems in part from the belief that this generation has little to offer in terms of culture, 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. This kind of defensive living works as a pre-emptive surrender and takes the form of reaction rather than action.
I ultimately found Wampole’s piece thought-provoking, in spite of its hipster hating. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that, as Wampole puts it, “this generation has little to offer in terms of culture”. Rationally speaking, I don’t believe that to be true, but it’s difficult not to look back in fondness at the days of yore — however far back you want to go — and think that those days and their accomplishments were somehow truer, deeper, more real and substantial. And our culture, with its propensity for remakes, mashups, and clever intertextual references, certainly doesn’t encourage us to think differently.
Wampole suggests considering the innocence of a young child as a cure for 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 writes), a suggestion that might seem clichéd, and yet Jesus did say, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Admittedly, He probably didn’t originally say that with hipsters and ironic living in mind, but even so, there’s a sense in His words that there is, indeed, something important, even critical, about the innocence and wonder with which children approach the world.
Or, as G.K. Chesterton put it:
A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
I don’t know about you, but it often feels like our culture has “grown old”. We’re tired, exhausted, worn out, and overwhelmed by the myriad choices and diversions stretching out before us. We fear that we’ve become monotonous, boring, and irrelevant, and so we respond to that fear with irony in an attempt to imply that we don’t care, that we’re not bothered, that we’re not tired. Everything has been done before, and there’s nothing new under the sun.
But perhaps the key to overcoming that is to embrace monotony, and our fear of it, in a “childish” fashion similar to what Chesterton describes: to find delight in being content; to see the everyday and mundane as something still full of wonder; to live such that you are “saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks.”