Christy Wampole’s NYT essay wages, so she says, an un-ironic protest against irony. Specifically, the irony of hipsters is her object of criticism: She argues that twenty-something or early thirty-something hipsters are shorn of seriousness, earnestness, and genuineness. Sad times, she shakes her head, sad times.
I’m all for seriousness, earnestness, and genuineness, of course; who isn’t? So I agree with Wampole’s general position. But I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Most of it, anyway. In spite of herself, she came off as so. . . ummm. . . ironic. (I'm almost tempted to read the essay as a satire about satire.) But she is being earnest about being earnest.
Born in 1977, Wampole says that the good old days were back in the nineties which “now seem relatively irony-free.” As someone who is only eight years older than her, I thought she was being ironic. The 1990s were rampant with irony, at least in my idiosyncratic corner of the college and law school universe: The Talking Heads, REM, the Smiths, the Police; Derrida and Foucault and a bunch of other French writers whom I didn't like; Seinfeld, the Simpsons, and the great Chris Elliot. The creation of the magnificently indulgent pulpy rag called Spy Magazine, which had dwelled, back in the nineties, on "slackers," the precursor to the contemporary hipster. The relatively irony-free nineties? I don’t get it.
And then there is Wampole’s claim that these young folk—these twenty-something hipsters—aren’t engaged morally in their world. They opt for aloof irony rather than moral commitment. This claim seemed an unintended bid for irony as well. I don’t know such hipsters and have never met any. My students—twenty-something, sophisticated, and yes, hip—are indeed ironic. But their irony, when directed to themselves, is self-effacing, and when directed toward the pompously self-important, is meant to puncture their fat hypocrisy. My students wear corny Miami Vice T-shirts (Miami Vice, good Lord, a show that burned with irony even when it was popular) and the cornier Members Only jackets from the 1980s (one student, after becoming a lawyer, even bought me a jacket, a touching gesture, as I had once quipped in class that my parents never had the money to buy one for me in elementary school.). But these students also volunteer to clean beaches, show up at soup kitchens, and donate countless pro bono hours. So, I can’t help but think that there was something ironic when Wampole denounced young hipsters as consumed by irony.
Wampole also mentioned the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. But aren’t communism (and fascism), along with religious fundamentalism (by angry Christian fanatics and Islamic terrorists, alike) morbidly absent--indeed, contemptuous of--irony? They’re whole mentality is built on Earnestness, Seriousness, and Genuineness. Imagine if these people were more ironic, and hence more skeptical, more humorous, more willing to grin at diversity, hypocrisy, and fulsome righteousness. If you go to the reader comments on the NYT, you can read that a fabulous cross section of people—senior citizens, suburbanites, city folk, women, men—have dismissed Wampole’s fatuous gripe against irony. To the extent that such a cross section represents the mainstream, what we have is an odd outcome; the mainstream coming to the defense of the hipster.