|Spy Magazine, March 1989|
Yesterday morning, my Facebook feed was full of approving links to a New York Times op-ed by Christy Wampole, Assistant Professor of French at Princeton University, entitled “How to Live Without Irony.” I was disappointed to discover that it didn’t deserve the praise it received. Wampole blames “the hipster” and “ironic living” for a host of cultural woes and urges us to cultivate “sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demot[e] the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values.” Others elsewhere on the interwebs have done a fine job pointing out some of the many ways in which Wampole’s argument is incoherent. In an effort to keep things short (and more or less relevant to this blog), I wanted to quickly emphasize a problem with Wampole’s op-ed that particularly irritated me: its utter lack of historical awareness, either about its subject or its argument.
Actually, accusing Wampole of a lack of historical awareness lets her off too easily. Among other things, “How to Live Without Irony” tells an historical story. It’s just not a terribly accurate one. According to Wampole, the hipster and ironic living are products of our new millenium:
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. Our archetype was the slacker who slouched through life in plaid flannel, alone in his room, misunderstood. And when we were bored with not caring, we were vaguely angry and melancholic, eating anti-depressants like they were candy.
The notion that popular culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s was irony-free (or even “relatively irony-free”) is, to put it mildly, laughable. For those of you who don’t remember the early 1990s (or just need a refresher course), here’s the single most iconic cultural product of “the grunge movement,” the video for Nirvana’s 1991 smash hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:
This is not an example of “relatively irony-free” culture.*
Moreover, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was already a lot of concern among public intellectuals about the inability of young people to take anything seriously. College students’ unwillingness to even entertain the “serious life” was one of the central themes of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. The March 1989 issue of Spy Magazine featured a cover story by Paul Rudnick and Kurt Anderson on “The Irony Epidemic”.** And, a few years later, David Foster Wallace published a long essay on tv and the American novel the self-proclaimed thesis of which was that “irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture.”***
Of course, even in the 1980s, none of this was really new. And some of the folks writing about it at the time went out of their way to note this. The Spy story, for example, is built on an extended comparison between the (relatively admirable) Camp that Susan Sontag described in the mid-1960s and the empty “Camp Lite,” Rudnick and Anderson’s characterization of much of late 1980s culture.
But if you really wanted to trace this line of cultural critique back, you’d need to look at the Beats (and their supporters and discontents) in the ’50s, the counterculture (and its supporters and discontents) in the 1960s, and all the various reactions to the Sixties counterculture (and their supporters and discontents) that bubbled up in the 1970s. You’d need to read not only Sontag, but also Mailer and Goodman and, perhaps, Debord. You’d need to take both punk and disco seriously (even if–or perhaps especially since–neither tended to take itself seriously).
And there really are two histories that need attending to here: the history of “the hipster” (real or imaginary…as well as his/her real or imaginary cultural antecedents) and the history of the critiques of these (real or imaginary) figures. And somewhere in the heart of these absent histories lies existentialism and the idea of authenticity, which has an important and complicated relationship both to the role-playing of the hipster and the childlike sincerity advocated by Wampole. Of the critics of “irony” from the eighties and beyond whom I’ve mentioned above, the one who deals at any length with existentialism is Bloom, who essentially sees existentialism as the nihilistic serpent in the modern American garden. But one needn’t see existentialism as evil to understand its centrality to the issues that Wampole fails to discuss. And unlike Bloom, who argued (quite incorrectly, in my experience) that the only novel that students in the 1980s cared for was Camus’s The Stranger, I think one of the most fascinating aspects of the continuing influence of existentialism in America is that, even in the 1980s, let alone today, existentialism itself had largely faded from memory (as Wampole’s piece itself instantiates).
* It is, however, a pretty damn good song, a fact that was partially obscured through extreme overexposure two decades ago.
** Google Books hosts a free archive of the entire back catalog of Spy Magazine. “The Irony Epidemic” begins on p. 93. While the digital archive of Spy is a treasure (seriously), it is also a powerful reminder of how healthy the magazine industry was in the late 1980s. You have to flip through an awful lot of glossy advertising to get to the content!
*** David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13:2 (1993: Summer), p. 171.