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Hipsters, irony, and lazy cultural critique

[ 153 ] November 18, 2012 |

Since I’ve been cluttering up Erik’s facebook page with my thoughts on this dismal exercise in hipster-bashing, I thought I might as well blog it.

It’s not that there’s nothing to the critique of excessive irony; irony certainly can be a deadening, depoliticizing pose that inhibits a kind of sincere commitment among citizens that democratic politics relies on. And while the two are distinct problems, there’s a potential connection between excessive irony and both sides do it-ism, although such a stance can also be arrived at via a certain kind of banal excessive sincerity. Irony can, of course, have democratic value as well, but it’s depoliticizing potential isn’t an unreasonable target.

What I categorically reject is that this has anything meaningful relationship with the aesthetic preferences of alleged “hipsters.”  This piece, rather than taking aim at substantive, concrete examples of excessive, depoliticizing irony, chooses focus on the relatively innocuous aesthetic markers of alleged ‘hipsterdom’. Perhaps because I spent over a decade of young adulthood in a notoriously ‘hipster’ city, I know these people, these wearers of trucker hats and lovers of kitsch, as friends and students. And what’s obvious to me is that lots of people whose aesthetic tastes, in dress, taste in inexpensive gifts, and facial hair, are every bit as capable of appropriate and necessary sincerity and commitment as anyone else. Indeed, in general the dread “hipster” of essays like this always feel like absurd abstraction to me, drawn more from stereotypical characters from popular culture than actual people. The alleged meaning associated with personal style here diverges so greatly from my lived experience that shines a light on the overreach in the essay, the effort to make a bunch of loosely or unrelated phenomena fit together seamlessly, in a way that serves the author’s agenda.

This moment rather nicely captures the absurdity (and, frankly, offensive stereotyping) of the project:

If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom?

If you’re wondering how she arrived at the conclusion that an appreciation of kitsch aesthetics and a particular sense of humor means there’s nothing else whatsoever to your life, I’m afraid you won’t find much guidance in the preceding paragraphs. What she offers here is a sophisticated version of a particularly toxic high school mentality–how other people dress, their aesthetic tastes, their style of humor, and so on offer a deep insight into what’s wrong with them.

Comments (153)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    a sophisticated version of a particularly toxic high school mentality–how other people dress, their aesthetic tastes, their style of humor, and so on offer a deep insight into what’s wrong with them.

    Did you happen to read the LGM take on that Guy Fieri review all right-thinking affluent white folk are chortling over?

    It’s nice that you’re defending your “friends and students” from potentially ungenerous deconstruction of their (largely upper middle-class) habits and sensibilities. Usually, it’s true, we reserve our disdain and judgment for more deserving people, like the tasteless working poor.

    • Anonymous says:

      Also, I notice, likely out of self-preservation, you deftly skip over the whole hipster misogyny and racism thing everyone, including Wampole (the author you refer to as she), is actually objecting to.

      • djw says:

        hipster misogyny and racism thing everyone, including Wampole (the author you refer to as she), is actually objecting to

        ???

        Feel free to provide the passages that reveal this to be the “real” subject of the essay. I see an association with an alleged decline in feminism from some sort of unspecified peak in the 90′s with a decline in the overall levels of sincerity in society. Otherwise, I don’t see where you’re getting this.

      • Aaron B. says:

        Is there some reason Wampole shouldn’t be identified as “she”? She self-identifies that way.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Yes, it is clearly the working poor traveling to New York and eating at Guy Fieri’s restaurant…..

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Not to mention that the critique of Fieri’s restaurant was not about the people that go there. It was about a) Fieri being annoying and b) the fact that food is abysmal.

      Try harder.

      • Pinko Punko says:

        I’m sure both of those things are true, but the article wasn’t about that- it was both about the sh*tty packaging of stuff for the masses (it is a Times Sqaure restaurant)- and it was a standard trope of “can you believe what dumb tourists might eat whatever that might happen to be. It really did come across as rube bashing. For example anyone who ate there and said “it was OK, nothing special” is now faced with “well, what kind of dumb f*ck are you, the New York Times said the food was inedible”- I could actually see some people going there just to say that the food is that bad and do so “ironically”.

        Maybe the food is that bad, but do you know how far food has to go to be “inedible” as the author claimed? I highly doubt the food was inedible which would be something that one couldn’t physically swallow.

        Consider the authenticity trope- certain more worldly people might be able to diss much cuisine as being inauthentic, and this can simultaneously reflect a set of standards that strives for excellence and a bat with which to bash less experienced or “less refined” people. Urban “hipsters” of a certain type great purveyors of this attitude, and their trend-clinging irony and shifting tastes allow them to enjoy stuff that might otherwise be classed as inauthentic because it can be enjoyed under the expression of irony, whereas rubes enjoy it sincerely. The next wave of judgement they wield is whether something is passé or not, so it is important to be on to the next thing. It is a kind of rube-bashing and it is just standard in-crowd behavior and based in some sort of deep insecurity about not being cool or as they say, hip.

        I love tons of bands, restaurants and things in a number of cities (Austin, Boston, SF) having lived in or near them, that would be considered hipster-esque. But many of these places/things are the ones that once they become popular are “never as good” or “I used to like them, until they sold out/got discovered/got too crowded with tourists” etc. I see why people have disdain for “hipsters”, yet the biggest driver of “hipster disdain” are people that other people would call hipsters, because the hipster is always the trend-conscious person to your left.

        • Joshua says:

          Wells went out of his way to point out the poor implementation of classic American fare. It wasn’t just that it was a hamburger and fries, it was that it was both extremely expensive and extremely terrible.

          I guess you can read it how you want, but I think Wells genuinely did take offense at the fact that Fieri is exploiting fans and tourists in order to sell awful food at inflated prices. This is a defense of “the rubes”, not an attack of them.

          • Right. Wells didn’t seem to object whatsoever to the Americana concept or the value of the dishes themselves (done properly), but to the fact that the food was terrible, and generally not well done. If anything the implication was that *Fieri* was guilty of rube running with the restaurant, and his entire second-rate Adam Richman impersonation altogether.

            • cpinva says:

              what those guys said. my impression was the reviewer was genuinely incensed, not about the particular fare itself, but that it was so poorly done, overpriced, and served when the wait staff got around to it, not necessarily when you, or it, were actually ready.

              he was, in fact, offended on behalf of the “rubes” and tourists, who went in, expecting at least edible food, and were instead served inedible (or barely edible) drek. i think as well, he took offense as a resident of nyc, that this crap was being passed off as representative of the city as a whole.

              • Lindsay Beyerstein says:

                Wells didn’t say a word about authenticity. He didn’t care whether Fieri’s nachos were “authentic,” he was irked that they were cold.

            • Lindsay Beyerstein says:

              Fieri hosts the most popular show on the Food Network, and despite his insufferable dudebro persona, it’s a pretty good show that appeals to food lovers from all walks of life. It’s a chronicle of American food outside the confines of white tablecloth restaurants. Fieri’s popular because he covers good restaurants that regular people can afford to eat at. It’s a shame that his restaurant has none of those virtues.

              The NYT didn’t cover his restaurant out of spite or snobbery. Fieri’s a major figure on the food scene and he opened a restaurant in the NYT’s back yard. Of course they’re going to cover it. They’d be remiss if they didn’t.

    • Joshua says:

      Guy Fieri’s restaurant featuring $18 hamburgers is the enclave of the working poor?

      • Holden Pattern says:

        Strikes me as how Fieri is appropriating the food culture of working class people and exploiting it for his own profit; he’s hardly honoring the working class.

      • cpinva says:

        in someone’s world, certainly not in one populated by any normal people.

        Guy Fieri’s restaurant featuring $18 hamburgers is the enclave of the working poor?

        in my world, that burger better be served by a line of naked dancing girls.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I might blog this, but you’re completely wrong about the Wells review. It did not say that there’s anything wrong with liking burgers and nachos, or with putting a celebrity restaurant in Times Square. It said that it was egregiously ripping off its customers by serving bad versions of legitimate American classics. It’s the argument that nobody should point out when middle-class tourists are getting completely ripped off that’s the classist, condescending argument.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        There’s the related argument that I receive from time to time that because I am a labor person, I am supposed to be “at one with the people” or some such bullshit and therefore not have artistic or cultural opinions beyond thinking Tim Allen a cultural genius. Of course the people who make that argument are almost never actually working-class people themselves.

      • Gabriel Mares says:

        I think there’s an implied critique of the upper-middle class tourist who fancies himself a “real American” and thus is excited by Fieri’s restaurant – the reason why the restaurant would be expected to do well in the first place. The mentions of the kitsch (especially his description of the sign out front) seem to be a critique of posturing about authentic Americana.

    • JBYoung says:

      I actually didn’t see anything directly about gender issues here. I disagree with Wampole’s article mainly because she classifies anything that upper middle-class white people do that is off the beaten track as ironic or hipster. By that logic, as a post-Cold War kid with an upper middle class upbringing, I should dress preppy, wear ugly gym shorts, drive an expensive car, and vote Republican to serve the interests of “my people” and try not to charade as anything else. We might as well grow up and start dying because we can only be a reactionary force in the world. That is a very bleak worldview, and a very false one.

  2. jazzbumpa says:

    Playing the trombone?

    Doesn’t Christy Wampole know J.J. Johnson is dead?

    Or maybe she is talking about some other kind of hipster.

    I wouldn’t know.

    I play the trombone.

    Really.

  3. JP Stormcrow says:

    Born in 1977, at the tail end of Generation X, I came of age in the 1990s, a decade that, bracketed neatly by two architectural crumblings — of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Twin Towers in 2001 — now seems relatively irony-free. he grunge movement was serious in its aesthetics and its attitude, with a combative stance against authority, which the punk movement had also embraced.

    Holy shit! I guess less ironic than thou is the new black.

  4. JP Stormcrow says:

    I’m sorry, Ms. Wampole, but based on the content of your last submission your status as a relevant critic of contemporary culture has fallen below our minimum standards.

    — NYTimes in the world where David Brooks isn’t one of their most well-known commentators.

  5. Bruce Baugh says:

    In this context, it’s well worth looking at Harper Reed, the guy in charge of the Obama campaign’s technical infrastructure. Atlantic published a great piece by Alexis C. Madrigal about Reed and the effort as a whole.

  6. Dilan Esper says:

    My issue with cosmopolitan culture is thatthere’s just a ton of snobbery. Think Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity. It is true that many things are better in cities. That does not mean that cosmopolitans have superior tastes.

    • djw says:

      Think Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity.

      See, I think that character’s snobbery is more rooted in a particular kind of sincerity than excessive irony. If he took music a little less seriously, and recognized his taste is just his taste, and not eternal (and very important) truth, he’d be a lot less insufferable.

      Also, I continue to believe that characters from TV and film aren’t a particularly useful guide to the project of classifying actual people and identifying group-wide pathologies.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        Right–Jack Black’s character really wants you to buy the good Stevie Wonder albums because they are awesome. Nothing particularly ironic about that character.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Yeah, again, to see the music snob in High Fidelity as not being sincere would seem to indicate that “ironic” is becoming almost as meaningless as “hipster” itself. His snobbery is, for better or worse, entirely sincere.

          • Linnaeus says:

            If you recall, they get called on it, though, by one of the record store patrons (who appears to be an acquaintance of all of them).

          • Ian says:

            Furthermore, in the novel at least, the music snobbery is ultimately repudiated; for example, the one who isn’t Jack Black starts dating someone who likes Simple Minds.

      • Anonymous says:

        The character wouldn’t be effective or funny if many music snobs were not exactly like that.

    • Jason says:

      But everyone thinks they have “superior tastes”. That is, everyone agrees with her own tastes and disagrees with other people’s that are different. This really shouldn’t really bother anybody.

      It’s true that if you’re in your teens and twenties, your tastes in music and such will mean a lot to you. You might get pretty vocal and annoying about it. You might make lists of things that are best, and things that suck. This also shouldn’t really bother anybody. It’s good that people care about music (because music is good), and it’s good that some young folks work hard to carve out identities (because it’s good for people to be happy and find meaning in things). If the price of all this is that some jerk in a record store somewhere hates on “I just called to say I love you”, it seems worth it to me. Even though I like that song.

      • Matt says:

        But everyone thinks they have “superior tastes”. That is, everyone agrees with her own tastes and disagrees with other people’s that are different.

        The first sentences is obviously false, and the second isn’t a plausibly reconstruction of it. (It’s perfectly possible, and I think not even that uncommon, to think that someone else has better taste in something, and yet not have any desire to do or partake in what the other person does.)

      • Dilan Esper says:

        One of the aspects of being a grown up is realizing that there is no inherent superiority to one’s tastes just because they are considered “cool”.

        So no, many of us realize that liking urban culture rather than suburban, small town, or rural culture does not make us superior.

    • SatanicPanic says:

      Snobbery is when you aren’t included in something. That’s not limited to the city.

    • Roger Ailes says:

      Hipsters only read the book.

  7. Her formula makes Sha Na Na pioneer hipsters.

  8. Aaron B. says:

    I don’t think it’s unfair to use examples of aesthetic taste and attitude – dress, facial hair, music choice – to illustrate a deeper connection with a particular ethos or societal outlook. But these kinds of claims deserve a much more thorough and sophisticated treatment than they’re getting from Wampole. I wouldn’t say the argument form is necessarily illegitimate, but this is a particularly pathetic attempt.

  9. jeer9 says:

    What would it take to overcome the cultural pull of irony? Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.

    From an Ivy League professor of French and Italian literature, that’s just embarrassing. And humility and self-effacement are derived from an understanding of irony, not qualities in opposition to it.

    If there is no center to the self and humans simply weave and re-weave beliefs and desires into some pattern that they think resembles coherence, the honest self-inventory will reflect such an assessment. In that direction lies greater tolerance for LGBTs, dislike of wars based upon sincere conviction, and recognition that the poor are not as dissimilar as they appear.

    I blame Sophocles. If Oedipus had simply not cared about the plague afflicting his city, the arrogant indifference would have spared himself unbearable pain and he could have lived out his life like a modern day Republican, convinced of the moral certainty of his values and unabashedly candid in his kitschy projection of them.

    • Aaron B. says:

      This kind of normative and epistemic humility also blunts the force of (normative and epistemic) critique, though. I’m not about to go bandying around the word “relativism,” but an attitude that cultivates a reluctance to critique seems to lead pretty directly to, well, less critique.

      • Dave says:

        This could go on all day, but being ironic, in a Rortyan sense. about one’s own epistemology, morality, etc, is entirely different from pretending to ‘ironic’ appreciation of things that are, seen unironically, just shit, and using that supposedly ‘ironic’ sensibility to parade yourself as a vessel of superior judgment, while declining, visibly, to commit to any positions of social, political or cultural significance.

  10. laura says:

    I really hated the Shrek franchise and after seeing Shrek the First in theatres 100 years ago I described it as “hipsterdom for 5 year olds”.

    The problem is that there’s no accepted definition of hipsterdom. I was thinking of it as a snotty or self-interested rejection of “mainstream” values in favour of some ill-defined just-enough-other, so that successful social life becomes a matter of being just far enough out of the mainstream and reserving the right to loathe and ridicule anything either too close or too far, too “out there”, from the mainstream. (Shrek and his friends piss all over Disney Values but still reserve the right to trash a slightly gay-seeming Robin Hood.) The argument wasn’t that *nothing matters* but that it’s essential to get the balance of what matters and what’s ok Just Right.

    But that’s just a personal interpretation. Just like this woman is offering a personal interpretation of what “hipster” means: using too much irony and I guess being post-modernist. Are people more ironic and less willing to take absolutist stands about right and wrong than 20 years ago? Not that I can see.

    • jazzbumpa says:

      It never occured to me that it might be even remotely possible to over-think Shreck.

      From my stodgy and unhip (the trombone not withstanding) perspective, the fun of Shreck is in turning a legion of fantasy/fairy tail tropes on their heads.

      This is just irreverent play, isn’t it?

      Or does hyper-hip irony lurk behind every rock and tree?

      • laura says:

        I could probably be fairly argued that I overthink everything. But to me there’s a affectionate/irreverent and a mean-spirited way to do these things and I found Shrek incredibly mean-spirited.

        I’ve taken a fair amount of grief about this from friends over the years. It’s all good. :)

        I sometimes feel like any attempt to carve out an identity gets labelled “hipster” though. (See, there I go again.)

        • SatanicPanic says:

          I totally agree with you about Shrek. Most the animated films Hollywood produces are depressingly mean-spirited or they’re made by Pixar and they’re just depressing.

  11. I skimmed the article earlier today and didn’t find it offensive.

  12. If there’s anything I object to its equating an appreciation of irony with being a hipster. And, of course, I’d object if anyone suggested that one could not be both “ironic” and sincere…at different times.

    • djw says:

      Well, yes, those are my two central problems with the article.

    • JLV says:

      Or at the same time! That’s actually, insofar as hipsters actually exist, probably the defining feature of hipsterdom. Its like, not cool stuff is awesome because its not cool (irony or whatever) and because on some other dimension its kind of neat. Like, whatever you think of the merits of the whole back-to-analogue-let’s-record-on-cassettes slash chillwave thing, an ironic appreciation for casingles isn’t enough to get you to Toro y Moi. You need at least some genuine appreciation for the aesthetics of the uncool (e.g. hissing, popping tape recordings.)

  13. sparks says:

    I’m gonna slam down some Hard Sarcasm and see if that helps her column read any better.

  14. Steve M. says:

    This essay is McCain-level get-off-my-lawn-ism from someone half McCain’s age. She actually says the formative decade of her youth, the 1990s, “now seems relatively irony-free,” specifically grunge music. Seriously? A musical movement whose best-known song is titled “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?

  15. Joe Biden says:

    Don’t worry, folks. You guys got a homeboy in the deal who gets it. Literally folks, literally.

  16. JLV says:

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned that Wampole was the lead singer in a particularly pretentious band called Glass Wave (Glass Wave! Seriously! Sounds like something Carles made up! But it was a real thing!) when she was at Stanford. Which is to say, to a first approximation, the surest way to determine whether someone is a hipster is to wait and see if they complain about other hipsters.

  17. rea says:

    The whole essay is itelf an exercise in hipster irony–dissing hipster irony is an ironically hip thing to do. The worm Ouroboros devoreth its tail . . .

  18. HP says:

    When I first started hearing the term “hipster” being thrown around, I thought they were talking about this guy. Or maybe these guys. I still find it a confusing term to describe the target out-group.

  19. tt says:

    So hipsters really exist? Where do I go to see them? I live in a supposedly hipster town and am of the right age group, but wandering the streets at day or night I never see anyone who meets the descriptions in Wampole’s article. Google image search convinces me that the hipster isn’t just a total invention of cultural critics, but I have a real hard time believing hipsterdom is a particularly powerful or representative cultural force.

  20. afeman says:

    The final word on the matter:

    http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/the-death-of-the-hipster-panel/

    “The problem with hipsters seems to me the way in which they reduce the particularity of anything you might be curious about or invested in into the same dreary common denominator of how “cool” it is perceived to be. Everything becomes just another signifier of personal identity. Thus hipsterism forces on us a sense of the burden of identity, of constantly having to curate it if only to avoid seeming like a hipster. But are there hipsters, actual hipsters, or just a pervasive fear of hipsters? Hipster hatred may actually precede hipsters themselves. Maybe that collective fear and contempt conjures them into being, just as the Red Scare saw communists everywhere, or how the Stasi made spies of everyone. Late capitalism makes us all fear being hipsters and thus makes us all into one, to some degree.”

    • Pinko Punko says:

      This is exceptional- I was trying to get to something like this up above. You wannabe in on the trends but nothing is worse than being a wannabe. But people who make other judge others as wannabes are also bad, so it is a nice recursive projection circle.

      • Left_Wing_Fox says:

        Put that way, this is nothing more than the continuation of the constant quest to define “cool”; the marketing of cultural signifiers and the desperation to fit into the social order.

        The alternative is commercialized, marketed, and mainstreamed, and a new alternative takes it’s place. If hipsterism is unique, it’s only unique in that the cultural grab bag of relevance has the chance to demean many different groups of people, rather than one or two cultures the old groups latched onto for significance.

  21. Meh.

    What I mean is that my lived experience is different: among people I know, the ones that tend most often to adopt ironic attitudes and speech, and have the hardest time addressing their authentic feelings and express them in a maladaptive way, and who have the hardest time dealing with sincerity etc., also tend toward heavier use of ironic “hipster” cultural markers, lifestyles, etc.

    I don’t want to say whose observations apply more generally, but I do think there’s definitely a class of people who feel the effects of the dominance of irony more acutely and whose adoption of ironic cultural markers are related to that.

    I completely agree that whatever semblance of a point she’s got is buried in poorly-worded sentences and bad arguments. (If irony wasn’t “the primary mode with which daily life is dealt” in the 90s, why was 9/11 “the death of irony”? Also the David Foster Wallace essay (google docs PDF) on the pervasiveness and destructive consequences of irony was written in 1993.) And in as much as she’s saying “hipsters live more ironically, so of course they are more devoid of genuine human connection than the rest of us”, of course she’s wrong (though I don’t think that’s a main emphasis of the piece).

  22. Major Kong says:

    At my age I’m incapable of being hip and would only look pathetic for trying.

  23. Greg says:

    There is so much to detest and/or mock in Wampole’s piece. But the part about the trombone being an example of “outmoded hobbies” is particularly rich when you learn she is in a band that…well, I’ll let their own website speak for itself:

    “Four members of Glass Wave are literary scholars. The lyrics from their first album derive from great books of Western literature, whose stories are recast in the genre of cerebral rock. By translating old stories into new forms, Glass Wave seeks to preserve and revitalize the source texts that inspire the music.”

    http://www.glasswave-band.com/about.html

  24. Tde says:

    Trucker caps and mustaches? Seriously? That was hipster 20 years ago in San Francisco when I lived there. People still do that somewhere as part of some “lifestyle”?

  25. Steve says:

    I’m convinced that the so-called hipster is nothing but a figment in the collective imagination of a class of people who are somehow threatened by uncertainty. Dudes past 40 who never quite made it as big as they thought they deserved but are comfortably upper middle class. Who else would demand sincerity of an entire generation?

    These people imagine that once upon a time–like circa 1956–everyone spoke in forthright fashion and greeted reality with a warm smile every day, as though it were a milkman. That nasty postmodernism was only a glint in John Barthes’s eye or whatever. If only we could recapture that, our politics would right itself and our psyches would right themselves, and all our novels would be composed in just the right tone of voice. Thinking here of Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen and your precious David Foster Wallace. (Wampole cites Wes Anderson films as counter-ironic, which I find incredibly perplexing.)

    These people were on about nothing fifteen years ago when they complained about the pervasiveness of irony, and they still, from premise to critique, have nothing compelling to say.

    • Yeeeeeeeeeeeeah, no. Hipsters are a thing. And I imagine hipsters are like every other segment of society: some are assholes, some are nice, some are shallow, some are deep. I choose not to lose sleep over them.

  26. mch says:

    To think I almost commented when I would have been the first.
    Haven’t read most of above. Will say. Read Wampole’s thing today in hardcopy NYT over early cup of coffee (well, skimmed). Combination meh and puke response, then on to something else.
    Wonder if Bob Somerby will cover this. (Recently he’s been dumping on big-name-university op-eders. Sometimes unfairly, but still, with a certain insightfulness.
    Well, she’s pretty and speaks foreign languages and sang (sings?) in some kind of music group and writes a lot = wisdom, no? No.
    Princeton and Stanford (with origins in northern Texas — that’s all I’ve been able to find). A self-justifying agenda here? Ivy League revenge on the Wesleyan types?

  27. Christy (I can’t help the first name – for years I have been a devoted reader of her work) – is not merely a prominent professor at Princeton. Her research focuses primarily on 20th- and 21st-century French and Italian literature and thought … so she’s a tricky one!

    Christy opens by saying that if we (including her colleagues, friends, and longstanding readership, to whom this essay is most likely addressed) — don’t understand what a “hipster” is then we’re too dumb to get it. This is unhelpful even to a sympathetic reader like myself. I know what a hipster is, but I am an outsider and I am trying not to project my feelings onto her. For example, I would feel that the word “irony” would be a distraction from every book, paper, talk, and class, and therefore I would have to rid myself of it. But Christy never says anything like that.

    Later she tries again:

    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?

    Read literally, this doesn’t make sense. Christy has no responsibility for the hipsters in video clips doing stupid things, and she’s not dissociating herself from the hipsters whom she teaches at Princeton. (I’m not implying that she should do so. There are institutions that are so compromised that a person shouldn’t be associated with them. Princeton is not remotely in that category.)

    What Christy might be saying is that she no longer wants to be associated with the word “irony” because maintenance of the association will unavoidably be seen as an endorsement of the culture of hipsterdom that is a part of, and that Christy decries. Which makes sense, given her limited defense of irony: she doesn’t view irony as involved in hipsterdom, but she does view irony as complicit in the culture that permits hipsterdom.

    But I have to read between the lines to pull this meaning out, perhaps because Christy’s loyalty to her hipster students is too strong to permit her to say what she means more forthrightly. And throughout the essay, her loyalty to her hipster students appears to be causing her to ask us, the reader, to supply meaning where she is unwilling to say more clearly what she means.

    For example, there are many places where Christy uses heavy sarcasm that actually conceals what she might be trying to say. Christy always uses sarcasm to great (often comic) effect, but here she seems to be using it to avoid committing to a position.

    She says,

    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?

    Whose voice is this? Who is being parodied here? Who is the imagined adversary? And what does Christy actually think about it: are hipsters preening hypocrites? Is Christy herself a fool? Although the questions are phrased in a way that the answers apparently must be “no,” Christy never quite says so.

    She does it again when she writes:

    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.

    This is sentimentality enlisted in the cause of obfuscation. There’s nothing that Christy or any of us readers can do to behave like four-year-old children, but all of us face situations of conflicting loyalties to irony and sincerity in our own lives. Christy can choose to explain how she made her choice in any way she wishes, but she should not belittle the importance of making a choice (or, for that matter, four-year-olds).

    Christy is a great essayist who uses her experience to create work that the rest of can use to understand our lives. Some day she’ll write something valuable about irony and hipsters. But not yet.

    • IM says:

      Christy always uses sarcasm to great (often comic) effect, but here she seems to be using it to avoid committing to a position.

      Just like a hipster would do! You can take the prof out of the hip culture, but not the hipster out of the prof.

      Observe a 4-year-old child going through her daily life.


      When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.

      Seriously: A child may not know irony, but they surely know playful.

    • cpinva says:

      perhaps she should stick with what she knows:

      Christy (I can’t help the first name – for years I have been a devoted reader of her work) – is not merely a prominent professor at Princeton. Her research focuses primarily on 20th- and 21st-century French and Italian literature and thought … so she’s a tricky one!

      i was going to say that i was surprised the nyt’s would waste that much space on her column, but then i remembered our mr. brooks.

  28. Capitalist Fig says:

    I’ll second it: her premise that political engagement and “ironic” aesthetic taste are inversely correlated has little relation to my own lived experience. Half of the people I knew in Occupy had “hipster” signifiers (fixed-gear bikes, idiosyncratic mustaches, etc.). I would surmise that activism is at this point a more attractive token among my twenty-something cohort – at least in Hyde Park and Crown Heights.

  29. I find the best way to be cool is to not give a shit about being cool.

    • Geoffrey says:

      Indeed. The concern over “cultivating identity”, as if somehow all people, even if they aren’t aware of it, are constantly weighing signs and signifiers, making sure the thing signified is just noticeable without being too glaring – I cannot imagine even wasting subconscious energy (if such a thing as the subconscious exists, about which I grow more doubtful each day).

      All I’m reading here are a bunch of posers writing someone out of the club for saying that the club broke up a long time ago. As for irony . . . For people still trying to figure out who they are (say, 15-year-olds), irony is as good a description as any. Self-conscious irony in anyone who is of voting age should be considered a sign of emotional immaturity, not some social or cultural trend.

  30. chris says:

    If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom?

    ISTM that the only possible (and, indeed, only necessary) answer to this is the classic Laconic: “If.”

  31. Dave says:

    Of course, what is failing to be mentioned here is the geek [or as some prefer, the nerd], the unashamed lover of things, people, concepts and processes; the one who simply sees no value in being ‘ironic’ about all the wonderful stuff the world of natural and human creation has to offer. Get some geek love, be into things, not up yourself, then the whole question of who’s out-hipstering who can just float off into the breeze.

  32. daveNYC says:

    Nobody noticed that she included home brewing a trombone grade hobby? She should be exiled to the Coors brewery.

    • Yes, I was quite surprised to find out I’ve been a hipster for 15 years. I’m clearly a snob, not a hipster.

      The article could’ve been improved if her bio at the end was changed only slightly:

      Christy Wampole is an assistant professor of French at Princeton University. Her research focuses primarily on 20th- and 21st-century French and Italian literature and thought. Ironically.

      • djw says:

        Yeah, the homebrewing community around here seems to include a good number of middle-aged, upper-middle class men who have white collar jobs at the Air Force Base, and exhibit few if any discernable alleged hipster tendencies.

    • Uncle Ebeneezer says:

      The real hipsters only drink their homebrew out of their trombone’s spit valve.

  33. [...] an artist without trashing its fans. Which in a very, very convoluted, roundabout way brings me to this discussion, which seems to have evolved into a conversation about hipsters and the concepts of hipness and [...]

  34. proud liberal circlejerker says:

    While I feel like she made her argument rather poorly, I do think it has merit.

    There are those who have summed it up better:
    “Make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us.

    Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists. The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates. The virtuous always triumph? Ward Cleaver is the prototypical fifties father? “Sure.” Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do?

    Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.

    The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.

    All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I say.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How very banal to ask what I mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

    The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels.

    Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”

    • The essay he refers to but doesn’t name is “Alcohol and Poetry” by Lewis Hyde, and it’s really fantastic.

      That line about irony is a broader point about how people adapt to a distance between real personal power and desired personal power. Those adaptations depend on continuing the unequal power dynamic they are responding to, and so are a mechanism for preventing the situation from changing.

      “People who have found a route to power based on their misery – who don’t want to give it up though it would free them – they become ironic.”

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