Against irony
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Against irony

Christy Wampole’s How to Live Without Irony is one of my favorite essays I’ve read lately. Here’s her advice on performing an irony self-assessment:

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 have been intending for quite awhile to write something about the dangers of irony. Perhaps at one time “hipster mustaches” were an ironic commentary on absurd facial hair, but now they’re a faddish fashion choice. Likewise, perhaps people started drinking PBR because they were making an ironic commentary on being “broke,” but now they drink it because it’s the cheapest beer most bars serve. How many people wearing trucker hats know why they’re called trucker hats?

I’ve observed the effects of overuse of irony on myself. I often catch myself unconsciously using slang that I once used to ironically skew people I see on TV. The line between irony and sincerity blurs as people repeat behavior that they began as a joke. The journey from making a joke and becoming a joke is a short one. Just ask anyone with an ironic tattoo.

2 thoughts on “Against irony

  1. While I definitely support sincerity in art, life, and fashion, I think the author is missing out on a very real trend in that direction, while simultaneously dismissing part of the movement towards sincere living as mere ironic fashion choice.

    For current cultural sincerity, look at the movies of Judd Apatow for a far more sincere take on comedy than we’ve seen almost anywhere else in movies for decades. Check out many of the top Podcasts on iTunes for a clearer example: This American Life, Radiolab, TEDTalks, The Moth, WTF, Here’s the Thing.

    Further–though they’re only mentioned offhandedly in the opening–throwing in homebrewing or learning an instrument–and by association most of the DIY movement–as merely ironic fashion choices, she’s dismissing the very core of the sincere living ideal she’s arguing for. The struggle against the mass-manufactured world we live in towards an understanding of how things work and how to build your own world with your own hands is precisely what she should be embracing. The DIY movement writ large is the New Sincerity.

    Finally, I think she misunderstands the implications of the Internet to our world. She says Deep Irony is powered by the Internet, but I say that the instant access the Internet provides to essentially all of post-TV American culture requires the kind of retro, self-referential, post-modern, ever-smaller-looping “irony” if only as a means of a culture processing the massive amounts of fashion, style, music, movie clips, and TV quotes available. In that sense, the Internet is only the latest revision of historical cultural awareness that’s been going on since 1440.

    Finally, she shows her true purpose as soon as she pulls out the generation card, and it turns out this is really just a get-off-my-lawn piece: Those kids these days don’t understand how we were the last truly worthy generation. Our retro-fashioned, detached, uncaring, affected attitudes were authentic, and now that we’re running things, these kids who are growing up post-Cold War, post-library, and post-YouTube just don’t understand what true sincerity is.

    The details may be new, but it really comes down to the fact that the generation that is currently running things just doesn’t have the time to understand the culture the 20-somethings are creating. The same thing was true in the 90s, the 70s, the 50s, and the 20s.

  2. Yes, Wampole’s article is excellent. She made a case for Irony being the ‘ethos of our age’. That got me thinking…and, of course, searching.

    I turned-up another wonderful piece, a reply to Wampole addressing this ‘ethos’ thing, by Woody Brown. Brown claims that we need the irony, that it show the ‘natives are restless’ and change will happen. Anyway…

    http://wp.me/p2MxfD-9F

    But you’re right, Rafe, we could certainly do without that ‘ironic’ hipster mustache.

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