What does it even mean to “live without irony” anyway?Posted: November 20, 2012
Identity and aesthetics in the post ironic age interest me a great deal and I’ve been waiting anxiously for someone to write a book and explain everything, so I was excited when I discovered this NYT opinion piece by Christy Wampole titled “How to Live Without Irony.”
In it, she ponders the hipster phenom and makes some very astute observations like “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.”
But I have to quibble with her suggestion that the 1990s were not ironic. If I recall correctly, the shift to ironic living happened in that decade and was massive. Garage sale kitsch was the height of home decor for the era’s own hipsters, the return of glam, kung fu movies, the popularity of little found objects, comics, zines about amputee sex fetishism…consumption in the nineties was a whole lot of ironic.
Ultimately, I also find Wampole’s conclusions lacking.
She suggests you “Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd?”
What she fails to acknowledge is that it’s perfectly possible to genuinely like things because they are absurd, particularly when that has been a part of your culture for almost as long as you can remember, and that the attempt to purge that from your aesthetic values in pursuit of some sort of “authenticity” as equally as disingenuous as hiding behind irony. For that matter, there are many reasons to “genuinely” like things based on your own personal history that may or may not include absurdity. And what does it even mean to “really” like something anyway?
Maybe what I really take issue with is the suggestion that living “without” irony is somehow more genuine than living with it. On the other hand, I find irony isn’t just cowardly but smug and contemptuous. So, I know Wampole is onto something here and I’m grateful she tackled the subject at all.
She makes a good point when she writes, “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?”
But loses the thread again with “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?”
Because something is derivative does not mean it’s not genuine or beautiful. We live an age totally saturated in pop culture. EVERYTHING is derivative. And sometimes people try to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly because they don’t feel physically beautiful and it’s a way of owning their appearance and finding their comfort zone. There’s nothing disingenuous about that and it’s been going on since long before the ironic takeover.
Finally, she concludes that the “most important question” is “How would it feel to change yourself quietly, offline, without public display, from within?”
I think a far more interesting and important question is “In what way do you feel your public self is a reflection of your private self and are these two separate things?” Because I think maybe they’re one and the same.
Wow. Apparently I had a lot more to say about this than I thought when I started this post!
Now would someone please write that book?