Monday, November 19, 2012

To Live Ironically Is To Hide In Public

How To Live Without Irony:

[The Hipster] is merely a symptom and the most extreme manifestation of ironic living. 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. One need only dwell in public space, virtual or concrete, to see how pervasive this phenomenon has become. Advertising, politics, fashion, television: almost every category of contemporary reality exhibits this will to irony.

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.

Life in the Internet age has undoubtedly helped a certain ironic sensibility to flourish. An ethos can be disseminated quickly and widely through this medium. Our incapacity to deal with the things at hand is evident in our use of, and increasing reliance on, digital technology. Prioritizing what is remote over what is immediate, the virtual over the actual, we are absorbed in the public and private sphere by the little devices that take us elsewhere.

Furthermore, the nostalgia cycles have become so short that we even try to inject the present moment with sentimentality, for example, by using certain digital filters to “pre-wash” photos with an aura of historicity. Nostalgia needs time. One cannot accelerate meaningful remembrance.
This is such a wonderful article, especially in Christy Wampole's vivisection of how "ironic living" is largely a first-world problem. Step outside your comfort zone, and irony disappears.
The ironic clique appears simply too comfortable, too brainlessly compliant. Ironic living is a first-world problem. For the relatively well educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.

Throughout history, irony has served useful purposes, like providing a rhetorical outlet for unspoken societal tensions. But our contemporary ironic mode is somehow deeper; it has leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself. 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.

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.”
As she notes, irony does have its useful purpose. I certainly use it in my writings and lectures, mainly as a cudgel with which to hammer home a larger truth. But the idea of living a life of irony is truly sad and bizarre. She even gives you a laundry list of self-inventory questions to figure out if you're a hipster/ironic moron.
Here is a start: Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd? Listen to your own speech. 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? The most important question: How would it feel to change yourself quietly, offline, without public display, from within?
I don't agree with everything Wampole argues. She seems to blame Millennial's rather than our own Generation X (she's on the tail end, I'm on the front end), arguing that the 90's were some time of great sincerity.
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. The grunge movement was serious in its aesthetics and its attitude, with a combative stance against authority, which the punk movement had also embraced. In my perhaps over-nostalgic memory, feminism reached an unprecedented peak, environmentalist concerns gained widespread attention, questions of race were more openly addressed: all of these stirrings contained within them the same electricity and euphoria touching generations that witness a centennial or millennial changeover.

But Y2K came and went without disaster. 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.
Sorry, but the 90's were, in hindsight, one long vapid and vacuous decade of irony. Grunge was laced with irony (hair metal bands that traded in spandex for flannel were suddenly considered sincere); the show of the decade, Seinfeld, was a show "about nothing" and 100% ironic; the most popular movies were dripping in irony, from Clueless and Pulp Fiction, to the Blair Witch Project and the Titanic (yes, the Titanic...the ship sinks and the characters don't!); we even had a spokesperson Alanis Morissette sing a generational anthem "Ironic" that completely mis-used the term in every single part of the song, which one could argue is a form of irony too, but it wasn't intentional (as Ed Byrne said "The only ironic thing about that song is it's called 'Ironic'").

9/11 certainly did bracket and end the decade of nothing, because in the following decade we had terrorism, war, protest and financial ruin. Looking back, the 90's were awesome...awesomely stupid.

But Wampole's larger points still hold true.
Attempts to banish irony have come and gone in past decades. The loosely defined New Sincerity movements in the arts that have sprouted since the 1980s positioned themselves as responses to postmodern cynicism, detachment and meta-referentiality. (New Sincerity has recently been associated with the writing of David Foster Wallace, the films of Wes Anderson and the music of Cat Power.) But these attempts failed to stick, as evidenced by the new age of Deep Irony.
That's why Bret Easton Ellis is so huge on twitter, because he's still peddling the same old "Neiman-Marcus Nihilism" David Wallace bashed him over the head with 25 years ago. Sure, he calls everyone who disagrees with him "Generation Wuss," but this is just another example of the ironic cesspool in which he wades (can there be a larger gaggle of wusses than the characters who populate his books?).

Meanwhile, Wallace is dead and Ellis continues hocking books and slasher porn with 140 character bursts of "controversy" (talk about irony...).

Nonetheless, put me in the New Sincerity camp. The only thing my generation bequeathed the next was this entire "ironic living" stupidity. All apologies.

And wake up.

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