Over the weekend, the New York Times Opinionator page published a lengthy jeremiad from Professor Christy Wampole of Princeton lamenting the rise of irony and hipster culture. It was interesting…you know, I guess. If you’re into that kind of thing.
In case you were wondering, a jeremiad is a rhetorical artifact “in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.”
Ironically, Wampole’s jeremiad about irony is unintentionally hilarious.
I mean, she cites Wes Anderson movies as a reaction to the hipster subculture and its reliance on false nostalgia and pop culture. Seriously?
In this piece, Wampole focuses our attention on the growing influence of irony in American culture. While Wampole clearly has disdain for the hipster subculture, her concern is not limited to the denizens of Williamsburg, but to every American — including herself — who embraces irony and communication littered with pop culture references. For Wampole, this mentality has robbed America of sincerity and she implies that this is a dangerous development opening the door to fascism.
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.
This is a dire impact. Who knew that listening to Animal Collective was the first step to the second coming of Hitler? I have no great love of hipsterism, but to suggest that a snarky ethos among youngsters is akin to a complete retreat from the political is absurd.
Historically, irony has played a powerful role in calling for social change. Jonathan Swift and Voltaire were not worthless lay-abouts because they employed detached snark to advance their ideas. I’m not saying every Trustafarian in Brooklyn is penning the next Candide, but the fault would lie with the individual, not the ethos.
There are hipsters who have yet to recognize the importance of the political realm, but that is a common affliction of the young and inexperienced. Other hipsters work on mainstream political campaigns. Still others care deeply about progressive causes and are only snarky and detached from politics due to their distrust of mainstream political processes seen as woefully inadequate for realizing these ideals.
And make no mistake, this missive is directed at the youngsters. Wampole, a self-identified Gen X-er (full disclosure: I’m also of Gen X), is placing the blame for the plague of irony on the Millennials.
For many Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s — members of Generation Y, or Millennials — particularly middle-class Caucasians, irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt.
I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the practice of blaming “the kids,” though usually I’m ripping Baby Boomers targeting the young for the problems they created themselves. But Wampole’s article represents the first shots fired in Gen X’s transition to middle age. “The Millennials just don’t get it. Walking around dressed all crazy and “ironically” disengaged from going out and getting a job. It’s not like it was in our day!” Right?
We were hopeful throughout the ’90s, but hope is such a vulnerable emotion; we needed a self-defense mechanism, for every generation has one. For Gen Xers, it was a kind of diligent apathy. We actively did not care. Our archetype was the slacker who slouched through life in plaid flannel, alone in his room, misunderstood. And when we were bored with not caring, we were vaguely angry and melancholic, eating anti-depressants like they were candy.
Ah. So being a slacker was “diligent apathy.” Not caring through our 20s had a purpose that no one understood, but it was there. Trust us. Why is today different? Shouldn’t we expect an essay in 20 years explaining that the Millennials were better than their kids because hipsters practiced “serious irony?”
Most of those obsessed with irony are not wholly detached from reality, and those that are will either grow out of it or become permanent wastes not unlike the slackers who never got over it (read: my beloved Portland, Oregon) and hippies who never got over it (read: Berkeley, California). Don’t write off everyone in skinny jeans just yet.
It’s not that Wampole is entirely wrong. Her call for more genuine communication in a world increasingly dominated by alienating technological stimulus is worth heeding. But her decision to single out the younger generation as representative of a poisonous culture is laughable. Many hipsters are annoyingly committed to the precise “authenticity” that Wampole seeks, for example eschewing television in favor of books and genuine conversation with a sickening faux superiority.
Wampole admits to being a less extreme example of these hipsters, but her lament is founded in one of the bases of the hipster subculture, nostalgia for a time they never lived. Wampole never lived in a world without television, rampant popular culture, or political cynicism. Her article would read better if she described herself as having an epiphany recognizing that her initial disdain for the ascendency of irony was misplaced antagonism toward the long slog toward an atomized culture tied together only by the simulation of a shared identity. But she just can’t get away from defending her own generation and saying the problem lies with the kids and their pesky culture.