In controversial 2012 New York Times op-ed How to Live Without Irony, Princeton professor Christy Wampole calls Gen-Y hipsters fucktards for being irresponsible poseurs:
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.
Is Wampole’s critique part of the tired cycle of one generation gratuitously belittling the next generation’s habits, attitudes, and sensibilities, or is there substance to Walpole’s observations? Let’s explore both possibilities and see where this takes us.
Wampole anticipates being called a hypocrite who is making a big deal about nothing. So she confesses:
I, too, exhibit ironic tendencies. For example, I find it difficult to give sincere gifts. Instead, I often give what in the past would have been accepted only at a White Elephant gift exchange: a kitschy painting from a thrift store, a coffee mug with flashy images of “Texas, the Lone Star State,” plastic Mexican wrestler figures. Good for a chuckle in the moment, but worth little in the long term. Something about the responsibility of choosing a personal, meaningful gift for a friend feels too intimate, too momentous. I somehow cannot bear the thought of a friend disliking a gift I’d chosen with sincerity. The simple act of noticing my self-defensive behavior has made me think deeply about how potentially toxic ironic posturing could be.
She tells us that she’s not perfect, that she too is guilty of insincerity — which in this context is ironically itself ironic posturing and self-defensive behavior — and uses an example that’s disingenuous at best. If “finding it difficult to give sincere gifts” is the best she can come up with, then I guarantee you she’s either hiding a dead body or there’s a lot of self-deception and repression going on here. People give insincere gifts to friends and family because deep down they don’t like and give a shit about them, yet are are obligated to pretend to like them. There’s nothing ironic about shitty gifts, the giver is giving and communicating exactly what she intends to give and communicate. It’s the social context — spending the holidays with people you can’t stand — that’s drenched in irony, that allows the shitty gift to appear ironic so no one gets hurt. It’s the denial of one’s true intentions — not ironic posturing — that’s toxic.
This is a fashion blog, so here’s another way to look at it. If you were surprised that that “nice White girl” from that nice conservative family with sterling reputation got knocked up by a cholo who wasn’t her boyfriend at the time of the tryst, and then tried to hide the pregnancy from everyone until she couldn’t, there’s something wrong with you too. “But she dresses so modestly, and seemed like the nicest girl in the world.” As if promiscuity and taste in men and impulse control have anything to do with hemlines and push-up bras and ridiculous middle-class manners. “But I taught her Christian values and how to behave and to avoid the wrong crowd, I taught her to wait, at least until he’s accepted as a boyfriend,” mulls confused Mom. Sorry Mom, but protecting your daughter from the latest slut-wear trends doesn’t protect her from developing an addiction to flattery that got her knocked up by a trashy sweet talker you can’t stand. And remember, the apple doesn’t fall far from its tree, one of those apples will eventually be eaten by the person who planted that tree.
Who below is most ironic?
a) Forty year old tow truck driver drinking Mountain Dew and smoking cigarettes while listening to Bach and Mozart.
b) Trust fund kid majoring in Russian Lit. at Oberlin College, dressed like a hobo, listening to Casiotone for the Painfully Alone (obscure band specializing in ironic remakes of pop songs)
c) Thirty year old county prosecutor dressed in Brooks Brother’s suit, listening to Outkast (hardcore gangster rap) on his way to work
d) Modestly and mainstream dressed (with frilly accents and excessive patterns) 27 year old office manager who listens to Aaliyah and Norah Jones, attends church every Sunday.
a. That’s an amusing sight and sound. He’s worth a look.
b. That’s a tired look. Usual old money rich kid dealing with feelings of guilt, pride, and ennui by trying on different personas. Which is why editorials on why it’s a tired look are themselves tired.
c. Mildly interesting. Nah, nothing to look at, who gives a shit.
d. Looks and sounds boring. And that’s precisely why it’s my pick. There’s a lot more to this look than it seems. This is the person we should be worried and talking about. This person, not the hipster, is the archetype of our collective madness.
Wampole says it’s wrong to appropriate styles one doesn’t understand. Which means she lives with a copy of her dissertation up her ass. Are we not allowed to listen to Bach if we don’t understand the purpose of counterpoint? Is it wrong for a woman to watch football to make herself more attractive to guys? Or for a guy to take ballet lessons for the babes? Attend opera to appear cultured and sophisticated, and not for the appreciation of opera?
Once read about a guy who took ballet lessons for the babes. Ended up liking it so much he became more interested in ballet than the babes (which brought him more babes). Sincere appreciation often begins with exposure and disingenuous interest.
People don’t repress horrible memories. In fact, people are far more likely to make-up horrible memories (to elicit sympathy, to play victim). People only repress that which threatens their identity. And rage against those who threaten their identity.
Ironic mode of living isn’t new. It’s 1950 and Gloria Vanderbilt is slumming it with James Dean bad boy types and eventually goes on to popularize working class blue jeans for people of all social backgrounds. The tension created by ironic gestures — in this case, a blue blood trying out working class life — drives change in fashion. What’s new for Wampole is the scale of ironic living and the availability of ironic modes. Wampole on Internet’s impact on lifestyle options:
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.
Not sure what she means by “a certain ironic sensibility” (do certain sensibilities thrive better in Internet age?). Let’s set that aside for now and compare pre-Internet to Internet. In 1980, the small-town White girl could only imitate the lives she reads about in Glamour and Cosmopolitan (ha, you really think she read Pride and Prejudice?), the shows she watches on three (only!) TV channels (lives too far from films). Her options were limited to whatever a few Jews were telling actors and models who were pretending to be White Anglo-Saxon Pricks to act and wear. In her world, homosexuality doesn’t exist, the French are romantic, NYC is scary, and the Japanese are boring.
Take same girl, have her experience 2015. Now every girl has to have a gay friend to be cool, the French are rude, NYC is exciting, and the Japanese are the funniest people on earth. That’s what happens when you have access to youtube, 100s of tv channels, streaming movies from around the world, and a far more diverse cast of American writers and actors.
And so? All I get out of this comparison is that both have access to quick fixes and one person has more options to choose from when developing her identity and sensibilities. Wampole, in contrast, argues that the Internet age has somehow made Gen-Y hipsters morally, intellectually, and aesthetically deficient and that we should all strive to “live without irony.” Here’s an example Wampole provides of how hipsters have lost the ability to be patient:
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.
If this is her example, if using technology to play make-believe is a show of poor character, then she’s a Luddite and certi-fucking-fiably an Ivory Tower princess who makes a living complaining about stupid shit. She’s calling someone who is creating an effect impatient. Next she’ll ask us to stop taking photos and do family portraits 18th century style, strike a pose until the artist is done some 6 hours later. And toss all recorded music. That’ll teach the philistines to delay gratification.
Wampole again on the difference between pre-Internet and Internet:
While we have gained some skill sets (multitasking, technological savvy), other skills have suffered: the art of conversation, the art of looking at people, the art of being seen, the art of being present. Our conduct is no longer governed by subtlety, finesse, grace and attention, all qualities more esteemed in earlier decades. Inwardness and narcissism now hold sway.
As if people’s conduct has ever been “governed by subtlety, finesse, grace, and attention.” And “inwardness and narcissism” have ALWAYS held “sway,” it’s our total depravity: you can read about that in Plato, Homer, Confucius, Sun-Tzu, Kierkegaard, the Bible, the story of Echo and Narcissus, pick any Classic from any culture and you’ll learn that people are born as fucktards and to live authentically is to struggle with one’s narcissism — our Original Sin — that basic human condition.
You can tell a lot about a person by what they’re embarrassed to like.
Ironic living isn’t the problem. It’s not even the “ethos of our age.” Repression is.
When Wampole writes about hipsters, she’s primarily writing about upper-middle class kids and young adults. The ones who don’t have to shop second hand and know they’re not supposed to watch Jersey Shore or listen to Justin Bieber but do so anyway with a smirk. She feels qualified to write about them because, as she tells it, she grew up as one of them and now teaches them at Princeton.
Hipsters explore and negotiate the contours and boundaries of identity. Which is what non-hipsters in their age group are doing too. As defensive and irresponsible as hipsters may appear, at least they recognize the shallowness of their experiments, the vulgarity of their desires, and the dissonant features of their lives. Let them be, they’re young, they’ll sort it out when they have real responsibilities. And when they do sort it out, all their attempts at cool may produce something of value, something classic, and they’ll live out their lives either as the privileged poor (no money), or as bourgeois bohemians (have money). I’m more worried about those who live ironically without realizing they’re doing so. They’re the ones living a dangerous lie, they’re the ones who project on their bookshelves and closets and social media so they can repress repress repress: from their anger and fear and confusion to the miserable truths about their lives they prefer to not confront and fix.
Middle-class White woman, that “girl next door” we talked about above, had everyone fooled. Her parents were fooled, her friends were fooled, but her ovaries weren’t. When a cholo sweet talked her into spreading her legs, her body was saying: “this is the one,” even as her mind told her that mom and dad are going to be pissed, and friends are going to be shocked.
Why would she sleep with a cholo? She’s not slumming, only upper class women have the power to do that.
Because her public persona and look is a facade. Scan her bookshelf and you see middlebrow literature (New York Times best sellers that she thinks of as respectable literature but are in fact ridiculous and overwrought tales of redemption); artsy Hollywood films and mainstream foreign ones. Boring and middlebrow, right? Look more closely. Her online subscription to New York Times shows she only reads articles on Restaurants and Travel. The Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography has never been touched. There are a few sappy romances in her movie collection. Now go into her room. There you find dogeared murder mysteries and trashy romance novels and travel books. Her clothes may be from middle-class stalwarts like Banana Republic, but she picks items that are frilly or have excessive patterns. As much as she wants to be upper-middle class, as hard as she tries to maintain her middle-class identity, her baseline desires, habits, and worldview are thoroughly lower-middle class. She doesn’t study for the CPA on dreary wet days, she doesn’t even curl up with a book, she binge watches TV while eating an entire tray of brownies. She works for rewards and praise, not for a sense of achievement and virtue. She’s addicted to compliments. She’s afraid of being seen at McDonald’s. She’s easily hurt. She wears large hoop earrings. She lives ironically without realizing it.
She tried dating into the upper-middle class. They didn’t like her, they weren’t impressed with her job or her bullshit college degree or her contrived taste. The cholo, on the other hand, was impressed with all her books and her college degree and liked that she had a few extra pounds and thought she dressed pretty. He was sincere when he told her how smart she is, how pretty she is. Her ovaries responded accordingly. This was the best thing to happen to her. She’s finally free from living a lie and can be herself to her parents and friends.
The difference between a hipster and mainstream-knocked-up-by-cholo-girl-next-door isn’t in their desires, but in their approach to desire. The hipster doesn’t hide his desire to listen to Justin Bieber or his preference for ranch dressing or his urge for a McRib. He wrly announces his baser desires, which is why he eventually outgrows them. The mainstream girl repressed her desires, or at least hid them from the public, which made them grow stronger and more infantile.
Everyone thought her life was over when she announced she was knocked up by a cholo (who by definition, doesn’t live ironically). Actually, her life was finally beginning. If she’d married that software engineer she and her parents hoped she’d marry, she’d be in therapy. Ironically, it’s the cholo, despite not being able to provide her the life she and her parents once expected, who saved her. He showed her how free and happy she could be by living sincerely and authentically, as has he.