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.”


  1. I’m always skeptical of articles that get to the root of a subcultural fashion of the day. If anyone fears that hipsters (if they actually exist outside a raw stereotype) have little to offer this present culture because of their, quote, irony and nostalgia, I suspect those fearful persons to be lacking in communication arts.

    Let’s pretend that such a hipster exists. Let’s even pretend that thousands of them exist. Let’s go further and pretend that they’re all hipsters for a single, simplistic, monolithic reason. Even if that’s the case, they’re still saying something aren’t they? They’re still contributing just as valid a cultural addition as anyone else. Ex nihilo creation isn’t the only way to say something that contributes value. In fact, most things of value communicated are related to nostalgia in some way, are in some way reaction to the traditions of What Has Gone Before.

    Even Wampole sounds thoroughly steeped in nostalgia for conservatism.

    As for irony, I suspect that very few examples of hipsterism (moustaches, plastic-rimmed eyeglasses, suspenders, fixies, fedoras) are actually really at all ironic. People like these things because they actually like these things. Some may like these things for the things themselves. Some may like them for the subcultural world they decorate. Some may like them for the fact that they bother conservative stick-in-the-muds like Wampole. But the fact is: people choose their fashions for exactly the same pile of reasons they ever did.

    And sure, you can call it a defense if you like—but no more a defense than every single other costume that anyone ever wore (going back to fig leaves). You wear a suit and tie? Defense. You wear jeans and a tee shirt? Defense. You wear yoga pants and a peasant blouse? Defense. You write an article complaining about how these kids don’t understand how they’re forfeiting their commercial and political voices? I call it like I see it: just one more costume of defense.

  2. David Foster Wallace had a great article, written long before hipsterism became a thing (early 90s, iirc) about trying to live without irony and how difficult and important it is. He didn’t go as far as to say “and how important it is that Christians do so” but his conclusions made it rather a forgone conclusion.

    It appears the article is here. And it’s well worth the LONG read:

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