The Specific Problem of Hipster Irony

This is cross-posted at the main page. I would appreciate any comments on that post.

It’s Irony Day here at Blinded Trials!

In the New York Times ongoing philosophy column, The Stone, Christy Wampole informs us “How to Live Without Irony.” Actually, the more accurate headline would be “Why We Should Live Without Irony.” Her diagnosis is has a lot of truth to it, even if it is a bit familiar. Irony is a self-defense mechanism that protects one from criticism. If one is sincere, one may be criticized and found wanting.

There are several mistakes in the column, however, and much that is missing.

First, she recalls a Gen-X 1990s as devoid of irony. I find that so strange. I was there, too (born in 1973 ohmygodI’malmost40). We all seemed pretty ironic to me. My peers wore T-shirts printed with bands they disliked or children’s products. They had velvet Elvis paintings on the walls. Wampole mentions that the 1990s were bracketed by two collapses: the Berlin Wall and the World Trade Center. Wasn’t it the latter that made Graydon Carter wrongly declare 2001 the moment of the death of irony? Wampole recalls the 1990s as a time of greater campus feminism. Which is almost certainly true. But (and I haven’t seen studies on this) it’s not obvious to me it’s a time of greater campus activism or sincerity. In the past 8 years that I have been teaching undergraduates, I’ve seen students get pretty worked up and sincere over Darfur, the environment, or in particular, electing Obama.

Second, she self-lacerates about the fact that hipster irony shields one from criticism, and in so doing, shields one from committing fully to life, or from trying and failing. As she should But she never mentions something which strikes me as a very significant aspect of the hipster version of irony: its sense of contempt. So many of the trappings of irony, e.g., the trucker hats, the mustaches, the bad musical act T-shirts, are the genuine preferences of lower class people. Or people who have not managed to update their taste. Wearing such things with air quotes is to feel superior to the schmucks who wear them sincerely.

After saying irony is useful because fundamentalists and dictators are not ironic (doesn’t really follow, but whatever), she goes on to say something else perhaps unintentionally interesting:

Where can we find other examples of nonironic living? What does it look like? Nonironic models include very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places where seriousness is the governing state of mind. My friend Robert Pogue Harrison put it this way in a recent conversation: “Wherever the real imposes itself, it tends to dissipate the fogs of 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 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.

What should we make of this list of those whom we are to emulate? Besides dictators and very religious people, her list of the non-ironic comprises mental beings without full rationality, plants (huh? Why do plants even make it on the list? She forgot pencils and traffic lights…), poor people, and troubled people. Forget about the “real imposing itself” or any other overdramatic language, which I’m guessing doesn’t mean very much to a 4-year-old, or a person with severe mental disabilities. She seems unaware that her list indicates that hipster irony is for smart people. Smart rich people with leisure time. Hipster irony is a upper-class statement, just as much as a snazzy car used to be. But a snazzy car is now, in some circles, a bit of a lower-class statement. You may have money, but money can’t buy taste or intelligence. Displaying money is for lower class people who happen to get money. Hipster irony, on the other hand, means, “I am not stupid, blindly religious, disabled, deluded. Nor am I as tasteless as [shudder] poor people.” It is no accident that her list of the non-ironic people in the world is to a degree co-extensive with the targets of hipster irony: children, religious people, poor people.

Also, Wampole tends to paint irony with one brush. She mentions in passing its usefulesness against dictators and fundamentalists. But there’s more to it than that. I am completely in favor of ironic humor in a general sense. I think it is very valuable for taking the sting out of painful situations in everyday life. Contra Wampole, I know my family made it through or most difficult times, when “the real imposed itself,” partly through ironic humor. And we still do. It’s a way of communicating the pain you feel a little bit, but don’t endorse whole-heartedly. You get it off your chest, and laugh it off. It takes away its power over your mental life. And in public life, it is not only dictators that need ironic treatment. The world is a better place for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Irony itself is not the problem. The target of irony is, as is the psychological reason for doing it. Are you using irony as A) a necessary coping mechanism, or B) a way of avoiding decisions and confrontations and commitments? Are you using it as A) a way of speaking truth to power, or B) a way of feeling superior to those less fortunate? If your answer is B in either case, as I think it is with the usual hipster irony, then it is indeed something we ought, as Wampole suggests,  to learn to live without — on pain of not ever growing up and not ever learning true humility.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Wampole’s out of date. The contemptuous strain of hipsterism has largely died out in my neck of the woods. I live a couple subway stops from hipster ground zero in Brooklyn. Nobody wears foam trucker caps anymore. I think a lot of that ugly red neck parody shit had to do with cultural resentment during the Bush during which we were constantly bombarded with messages about the superior God-fearing values of the Heartland.

    The old hipsterism was too cool to go to protests because those were for naive hippies. That has completely changed. These days, New York hipsters are as likely to drop names of Occupy Wall Street luminaries as indie musicians.

    Ironic facial hair had its day. Today in Brooklyn, you’re more likely to see a hipster with a waxed mustache because, hey, the 19th century was cool. As my mustachioed hipster guide said admiringly during our hipster tour of Greenwood Cemetery last weekend, “The Victorians were CRAZY!” The mustache and beard trend may have started out as a parody of working class masculinity, but it seems to have morphed into a more sincere embrace of the woodsman look. It goes hand in hand with home brewing and home butchering and that sort of thing.

    • Your knowledge of hipsters certainly exceeds mine. So take the post not as a diagnosis of what ails hipsters, but as thoughts on what makes for worthwhile irony and damaging irony.

    • this is not about what hipsters are its about why irony is king.

      • Wampole cites hipsters as the epitome of “ironic living,” which supposedly afflicts us all. They’re the only example she gives. So, if hipsters don’t live ironically, that’s bad news for her thesis.

        I’m not convinced that ironic living is a large scale social problem. People compartmentalize irony like everything else. It’s a point of view that healthy people can take on or cast off. A penchant for t-shirts with detergent logos on them doesn’t necessarily translate into cynicism about relationships, work, or politics.

        An ironic relationship to some culture doesn’t preclude sincere engagement with other stuff. Wampole forgets that irony and connoisseurship often coexist. The same people who watch bad movies ironically tend to watch (whatever they consider to be) good movies avidly.

        Rose’s taxonomy of constructive vs. destructive irony seems good to me, though.

  2. “Hipster irony is a upper-class statement”

    OK. Could be. Probably would have been good for her to look at that.

    “Nor am I as tasteless as [shudder] poor people.”

    Think you’re pushing your argument a bit far here. This is where I think she does have a point. It’s easier to demonstrate you are aware of certain cultural clichés but more of a challenge to demonstrate you have good original taste.

    I think the hipsters dilemma is that they’ve become hyper aware of how subjective taste is. They are also very aware of how much the choices of style are largely defined by what monolithic corporations make available. These two elements have probably helped define ‘irony’ as ‘good taste’.

Comments are closed.