U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Hipsters, Existentialism, and the Uses of Intellectual History

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.

22 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I agree Ben! I wrote a post months ago (http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2010/12/iconic-irony.html) with frustration like yours. I wanted my students to be moved by some type of cultural expression and then to write about it in a way that approached the power of the movement. Alas, I did the writing, the students did the nodding–and then I posted my little address here.

    My angle on much of this was through Niebuhr (of course) and, especially Sontag. Thanks for this Ben!

  2. Reading Wampole’s essay was depressing for its inability to distinguish between a set of cultural conditions and the author’s own adolescent earnestness. One is always hopeful that someone who has studied the humanities at one of our elite institutions (Stanford), and holds a position at another (Princeton) would have _some_ historical perspective; this might be hoping for too much. But Jedediah Purdy made the same argument as Wampole in _For Common Things_ (1999), in which he assailed not “the hipster,” but the most successful television show of the decade, _Seinfeld_, as a cultural symbol of corrosive irony. And who can forget the repeated proclamations that 9/11 spelled “the end of irony”? And in philosophy, the ubiquitous Richard Rorty’s “liberal ironist”? Even the 1970s–the era of my own earnest youth–come in a dull second on the irony meter. Apparently, today’s ironists are so naive that they think they invented irony. And today’s cultural critics, like Wampole, are so historically innocent that they don’t even know they are reiterating long-established arguments.

    I had the ,er, pleasure of assigning my undergraduates Normal Mailer’s “The White Negro” this semester (in a course on post-WWII American culture), and found it rough-going, in part, I think, because Mailer insists that the hipster is an existentialist who has rejected the artifice and convention of a bureaucratic society for an immediate authentic realm of experience, whereas “hipster” in current parlance seems to be the exact opposite: someone who surrounds himself (and “hipster” is pretty much gendered male) with the ephemera and artifice of a set of conventions and “thick” culture precisely because “authenticity” is inaccessible. Mailer’s hipster stands outside of society and culture; today’s hipster is a cultural being through and through, an assemblage of knowing winks and nods.

  3. Ben, I love this post. The Wampole essay vexed me too, for some of the same reasons — which, I suppose, shows that I think history is Very Serious Business and that we neglect it to our peril, even if that peril is only that we appear ridiculous when we don’t mean to. Not really all that dangerous — nor is Wampole’s essay, despite her best intentions.

    When I read the essay, I thought of Harold Rosenberg’s “Resurrected Romans.” I don’t remember when that was published, before or after Sontag, but I have found it to be a useful way to think about the relationship between “the past” and “the new” or “the now.”

    Perhaps the real problem with hipsters — and I am not now nor have I ever been a hipster — is not that they’ve gone too far with the irony, but that they haven’t gone far enough. They’re as earnest as Wampole, and it is that very earnestness that renders them harmless. That’s really Wampole’s complaint, it seems: that the Ironic Generation has absented itself from making any lasting ripples in the world (to which someone somewhere might say, “Thank God!”) But the (imagined) tonic for such a state is not to take one’s gestures ever more seriously, but ever less so. Less work ethic, more wild rumpus. The cure for irony, if it needs curing, is camp.

    But what’s the cure for taking history so seriously? Or does that not need curing?

    Speaking of taking history seriously, I see that Dan Wickberg has posted a comment while I have been writing this one. Dan, you somehow manage to remain an idealist, despite the fact that the narrative arc of our elite institutions is thoroughly lapsarian. Now, if only Stanford had listened to Allan Bloom, instead of kicking the Great Books to the curb, things might be different indeed. For want of a nail…

  4. I’d like to point out in defense of the essay–which, after all, is operating under certain constraints given by the format of the NYT, which i would charitably says involves the rhetorical confusion of one’s own experience for historical concept–that not far below the paragraphs that ben has cited, the author recognizes that her own irritation at hipsters arises because she in fact has so much in common with them…

    I don’t think she would seriously argue that irony is new. But, is it seriously being argued here that the cultural phenomenon she is identifying isn’t in some sense novel and in need of explanation?

    “Perhaps the real problem with hipsters — and I am not now nor have I ever been a hipster — is not that they’ve gone too far with the irony, but that they haven’t gone far enough.” LD, have you been reading Zizek?


    “someone who surrounds himself (and “hipster” is pretty much gendered male) with the ephemera and artifice of a set of conventions and “thick” culture precisely because “authenticity” is inaccessible. Mailer’s hipster stands outside of society and culture; today’s hipster is a cultural being through and through, an assemblage of knowing winks and nods.”

    i disagree that hipster is gendered male. but otherwise, your comparison of today’s hipsters with those of the 1950s seems to me to fit perfectly with Wampole’s diagnosis of the present. no? even down to the point that this should be thought of as an ethos rather than an ideology or a goal.

  5. Eric, I have not been reading Zizek, nor am I in any danger of doing so in the near future. Too busy dealing with Allan Bloom. Not even kidding.

    On your comment to Dan, I do think that the term “hipster” is gendered male. I think the female equivalent might be “hipster chick,” though of course that carries with it a hint of dismissiveness in the resort to the infantilizing diminutive. So maybe not quite equivalent, but companionate.

    Which brings me back to my recent troubles with Allan Bloom. BTW, this morning’s guest post on Bloom by Rivka Maizlish is excellent and refreshingly (as opposed to irksomely) earnest.

  6. Eric–
    I don’t think that irony has become more or less an ethos or informs a new way of being since the glory days of sincerity in the 1990s, as Wampole suggests. What I was pointing to was the different signification of the term “hipster,” and why it’s difficult for today’s students to understand what Mailer was talking about when he used the term. Mailer’s hipster was into Miles Davis; today’s hipster prefers, I don’t know, the Rat Pack, but this isn’t because the hipster and his ethos has changed. Rather,it is a function of how Mailer used the term, and the images that he both drew on and created, and the different referent common today. The term “hipster” creates a continuity where there is in fact a difference. The cosmopolitan ironist of the past, whether in the Oscar Wilde or Cole Porter vein, or the “inside dopester” of Riesman’s _The Lonely Crowd_, is no less a knowing insider, expressing his alienation through a non-commital knowingness. Bill McClay is good on this in his chapter on “The Hipster and the Organization Man” in _The Masterless_.

    If you don’t think the hipster (with his ironic facial hair) is gendered male, take a look at this website, the peak of anti-hipster hipsterism, if you dare (you are forewarned!):


    I think Wampole is a product of a canonical education at Stanford, even being a singer for the 2nd-generation academic prog rock band, Glass Wave (after Ezra Pound!).


    How’s that for hipsterism? Has that provided her with anything resembling historical consciousness about culture? Yes, I’m bugged because I think scholars at Princeton shouldn’t be know nothings. What that says about my own status anxieties, I’m not sure!

  7. OK, a few things. Too disjointedly:

    First a disclosure. I know Christy Wampole a bit as a friend (though I haven’t seen her in years), so I can’t claim to be entirely unbiased (?!) here.

    That said, I want to defend the attempt to think, in a public way, contemporary questions of this sort. I don’t think that the article fails to demonstrate the requisite historical consciousness (“Attempts to banish irony have come and gone in past decades”). It isn’t about the history of hipsterism. It’s about a generational experience. So I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that she’s *arguing* that the 1980s or 90s were an age of sincerity, and pick a fight on that basis. We here are historians, so of course we pay more attention to historical claims. And I’m way out of my league here in the history of American cultural practices, and this debate—which I take to be basically the debate over the newness of ‘postmodern’ or citational cultural practices, from architecture to hip-hop—already has plenty of entrants. But this seems to me to miss the point of the op-ed.

    But, to be more pointed, and maybe irresponsible, I think that more historical consciousness is not helpful here (hipsters are self-conscious about everything, about their appropriation of past styles, but not the degree to which this very self-consciousness of repetition is itself a historical repetition…if only they were more self-conscious!). The form in which consciousness approaches history is the difficulty, not whether or not there is such an approach. Ezra Pound, since he’s been brought up, had a highly developed historical consciousness (and in many ways just such a citational one as hipsters are said to have, although rather less ironic). Too highly developed, it might be argued, to give him much of a political consciousness. And this is where I would myself pick a fight with this op-ed:

    “Where can we find other examples of nonironic living? […] Nonironic models include very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places where seriousness is the governing state of mind. My friend Robert Pogue Harrison put it this way in a recent conversation: “Wherever the real imposes itself, it tends to dissipate the fogs of irony.””

    Really? Some very witty 19th century Frenchman (a Goncourt, i think) wrote (ironically) that interiority only start above a certain income-level. There’s surely a little bad condescension in the suggestion that the poor have at least the privilege of reality (cf: the homeless-or-hipster meme). This is a contemporary socio-political objection, not a historical one.

    Of course attempts to escape the bad infinity of self-conscious ironism are very old. And invoking “the real” is also an old and storied response to the consciousness of contingency and, as Wampole says, “too much history.” But just because it’s all been done doesn’t mean, I think, that it’s wrong to suggest doing it again. And despite my reservations, I agree with what I take to be the political point of the op-ed (why else does a person write an op-ed, except to make a political point?)–don’t be ironically detached. Be engaged. Surely that’s the point here? We could talk about its real political significance in the context of a second Obama turn, but we wouldn’t any longer be complaining that it isn’t historical enough.

    I’m outvoted on the gender of the hipster. I’d say we think of hipsters as male because abstractions are, in general, male. But these questions of connotation can probably only be resolved democratically, so I concede that point.

  8. Eric: “And despite my reservations, I agree with what I take to be the political point of the op-ed (why else does a person write an op-ed, except to make a political point?)–don’t be ironically detached. Be engaged.”

    OK, fair enough. But I would say that the author’s own failure to engage in a careful understanding of the problem, undercuts her political point. And, yes, I know that the form of an op-ed doesn’t allow for complexity of analysis, but that form also didn’t compel Wampole to reveal the limitations of her personal perspective, as in the statement Ben quotes in the post. I hope that most historians would conclude that understanding the complexity of the past is a necessary condition for engagement in the present. If we don’t know what the problem is, we’re not going to be much good at providing a solution to it. So much of our contemporary culture is premised on a future-oriented, consumer model of novelty and innovation; when we don’t know from whence we speak, what is new and what isn’t, we run into the same problem as the consumer-culture hipster/ironist–a lack of fundamental seriousness about our lives. The humanities has sometimes promised to provide us with the breadth of vision about the range and possibility of human experience, with an understanding of the balance between freedom and necessity. I guess I think that is a political message that a humanities scholar with access to the op-ed page of the NY Times might deliver.

    I’m sorry for being so testy about this. Perhaps the narcissism of small differences?

  9. Thoughts on a few of the things brought up in this interesting thread:


    I, too, have taught “The White Negro” (in the week in which I problematize the Fifties in my seminar on culture and politics in the Sixties) and have run into the same problems you have presenting the text to this generation. I would only add that I think that while there are obviously huge discontinuities between Mailer’s “hipsters” and our contemporary “hipsters,” the common name suggests some sort of genealogical connection that’s worth exploring, too. That said, this all reminds me of an experience I had going out for a cocktail at Pegu Club in lower Manhattan with my (academic and youthfully seventy-something) mom. She said that the crowd was not what she expected at a bar. I said that it was exactly what I had expected at this sort of bar: hipsters. This confused her, because the word still had its Mailer-era connotations for her. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite convey what “hipster” meant today, despite the fact that we were entirely surrounded by them.


    I remain unconvinced that the cultural phenomenon that Wampole is describing is new in any significant way. That doesn’t mean that I couldn’t be convinced that there is something new about today’s trucker-hat-wearing and PBR-drinking denizens of Williamsburg (I realize that trucker hats and PBR–and arguably Williamsburg itself–are a decade out-of-date; insert more contemporary hipster-stereotypes if you like), but in order to convince me of that, I’d need a better account of what’s new here…and that necessarily involves a firmer sense of history. I’m also frankly a bit skeptical of the political argument (though this is a different issue). Even if I grant (for the sake of argument) the existence of a significant population of ironically apathetic hipsters who are somehow more detached or more pervasive than earlier groups of the ironically detached, it seems to me that the great political problems of our current world–from global warming to the financial meltdown to our unnecessary wars of choice–have been brought about not by the apathetic, but by the “serious” and politically involved. There are far worse things than the politics of apathy (not that I practice or recommend the politics of apathy). All that being said, the notion that the generation coming up is apathetic, unserious, and overwhelmingly concerned with consumer culture is even older than concerns about “irony.”

  10. Great conversation here, Ben. Thanks for getting it started, as always! Where is Lionel Trilling when you need him (Sincerity and Authenticity)? I think it might be the more useful text here than Mailer, in the sense that while Mailer was ranting (wonderfully so), Trilling was interested in a more subtle distinguishing between authenticity, which ironic hipsters and their doubly-ironic critics both hunger to achieve, and sincerity, which is, I think, an older ideal that Wampole longs to recover (despite the fuzziness of her sense of the recent history of hip irony). Whether one really could recover it in its older form is open to question. Without the historical framework, particularly in terms of economic life, it seems to me that this older mode of sincerity is lost to the ages.

    The lurking issue here, to me, has to do with those economic questions, particularly the operations of modern consumption. What does one do when irony, previously used as a kind of shield by Americans to protect themselves from the experience of feeling that one’s life had become totally commodified, itself has become merely another thoroughly commodified stance? When irony against consumerism is but one more niche market, then what? When one gazes into the mirror and only sees an infinite regress of ironic stances (including, in its own weird way, sincerity as an ironic turn away from irony), how does one develop a sense of authenticity? Maybe you can’t. Maybe you can only try to understand irony more fully and go from there.

    To that end, I am struck by how blunt a descriptor “irony” is in the current cultural moment. It is standing in for a quite wide range of sensibilities and positions, attitudes and rhetorical postures, gestures and ideologies. We are using this one word to signify both barbed retorts to the depredations of the contemporary marketplace (a kind of hard-edged irony) and playful appropriations of lower class styles by upper class youth (a kind of soft irony, the irony of class privilege). We are using the same word to talk about bitter recriminations and lazy decadence, slicing critique and too-clever-by-half defensiveness, piercing observations of artifice and fakery and glib reactions to the real. It’s the same word that links contemporary culture (via Mailer’s observations and however obliquely) to African-American modes of signifying and (via dada, surrealism, and situationism, just to name a few examples) European avant-garde bohemianism. I could go on. My point is what maybe what we really need is a better set of terms that more subtly distinguish among ironic stances.

    All this makes me think of Lester Bangs, the 1970s cultural critic hiding out in rock critic record reviews who was already sensitive to the commodification of irony and the need to revisit the power of vulnerability and sincerity in the aftermath of the 60s counterculture. I’m curious what Wampole and others would make of a close reading of his work.

    Final thought: there actually is a pretty developed historiography of hipsterism (hipstoriography?). I think of recent books such as John Leland’s Hip: The History, N + 1’s (slightly ironic, but very smart) What Was the Hipster?, Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, and a bazillion articles that use Bourdieu and cultural capital in some manner or another.

    And then of course, there’s the rich literature on bohemianism: Christine Stansell’s American Moderns, Ann Douglas’s Terrible Honesty, Eric Lott’s Love and Theft, WT Lhamon’s Deliberate Speed, Jerold Seigel’s Bohemian Paris, just to name a (very) few.


  11. […]

    Not that Wampole should be expected to mention a laundry list of prior studies. Rather, it strikes me that these works begin to point to a history that, in its vast complexity and range, indicates what’s at stake in understanding the stakes of contemporary hipsterism: not the mere rejection of irony for its imagined (but now collapsable) opposite, but rather a better and more cogent analysis of irony’s affective and ideological powers in all its guises. And that is something we sincerely need!

    Sincerely, I mean ironically, I mean sincerely,


  12. Michael: You’ve put your finger on something that has bothered all through this discussion and many prior—the varieties of irony. As a person who operates almost completely in a mode of sincerity, I have not always understood irony, nor empathized with it as a mode of being. But your teasing out of these threads has helped me reflect better on what I’ve seen over the years. Besides, before I hit Chicago, I think I had primarily seen only “soft irony” or faux irony most of my life. Those who held an ironic pose barely understood, by definition, what they were doing. However, in Chicago I’ve seen genuine “bohemian irony” and “cool irony” (the pose of distance) many times, and in many guises. I’ve also seen the commodification of it—it’s often an inexpensive cultural commodity, but it’s become a commodity nonetheless. And that “purchase” had confused my sense of where true irony lies. This is a long-winded way of saying thanks for the long comment, as always. – TL

  13. What a great comment, Michael! Thanks for bringing Trilling into the mix. Tom Frank’s book The Conquest of Cool suggests that irony as a (hegemonic?) mode of consumption even predates the emergence of the ’60s counterculture. And maybe it even precedes Wall Street’s discovery of it in the 1950s. Is irony an inevitable prop for capitalism’s ever-shifting pecuniary canons of taste? I suspect it might be, though its forms (and self-consciousness) changes over time.

    Which might bring us to the various kinds of irony that you (and Tim) elude to. In addition to subtle differences among the ironic stances of bohemia, there are kinds of irony even further afield (Socratic irony, for example). And often “irony” and “ironic” are used in popular discourse in ways that drive philosophers and literary types crazy in their imprecision (the classic example being Alanis Morisette’s infamous 1996 megahit “Ironic”).

    Finally, among other things, the historiography of hipsterism (and bohemia) suggests there is some sort of ongoing tradition here, that cannot be discussed as if it were simply the result of each generation looking uncomfortably at the world it has inherited and reacting anew. It’s been a long time since anyone has had to wholly reinvent the hipster wheel.

  14. Ben — You’ve got me. I was definitely writing this under the shadow of Frank’s argument. While I think that there are some problems with Conquest of Cool, I have always believed that historians of recent times, especially intellectual historians, should pay more attention to it because Frank asks us to rethink simplistic theories of co-optation. To me, his observations in that book have all kinds of implications for how we conceptualize the politics of independence, liberty, rebellion, hipness, transgressiveness, and other key sensibilities of the past few decades.

    Actually, I suppose the deeper issue here that Frank’s book helps us to analyze is the widespread contemporary hunger to establish a sense of difference and distinction rather than a sense of sameness and solidarity. That urge is what Frank argued marked the turn from midcentury mass consumption (keeping up with the Joneses as the consumer ideal) to 60s market segmentation (when being different from the Joneses became the paradoxical way to keep up with them). It produced a world, and a vision of the self, in which forever transgressing norms to distinguish yourself as special became the ultimate conformist move.

    Where Frank falls short in his more recent work, to my mind, is that he issues a nostalgic call to return to an older mode of radical political activism and retro-social conservatism (maybe not that different in its own way from the nostalgia lurking in Wampole’s piece?). This just doesn’t cut it for me, neither as good analysis of contemporary dilemmas nor as a social criticism that offers useful openings of how to exist in the current world (Wampole’s existential quest). The bigger issue, to me, might be what kinds of solidarities can emerge from a world in which distinction and the establishment of difference motivates so many people at such a root level (achieved through irony or sincerity, it matters not at some point).

    The other thing bothering me about Wampole’s piece is her weird fetishization of four year olds. Having recently spent a lot of time around one, they hardly seem the ideal model for a mature self! What’s up with this idealization of an imagined infantile innocence? It merely seems the flip side to the rather infantile cynicism of contemporary hipsterism. Wah! — Michael

  15. Speaking of which, maybe Wampole conflates sincerity with innocence? Not the same thing?

    Tim — I like how you use metaphors of space in your post. Some ironies are about pulling people closer in, they produce a certain kind of solidarity or camaraderie; others push people away, they are about closing off opportunities for fellowship, creating distance, alienation? Something like that?

  16. I am afraid that what is wanted by Wampole – and Purdy before her – is not some kind of reality or sincerity but, rather, ideology. An ideology of revolt, commitment and responsibility. Anytime we are told that there is a proper spirit of an age or one unified thing with which everybody is supposed to be engaged it is usually ideology at work, though I do not use the word as the Marxist would. Social Justice is but one good among many others and all of our goods don’t naturally go together. Indirection is one of the most important elements in human culture and it appears to me that an attack on Irony, even if it is an attack on Irony that is not done well, might be an attack on indirection. Secondly, this emphasis upon the 1990s or 80s is yet another way to forget and hide from the 1970s. That is, it repeats the Baby Boomer logic of placing something called “the 60s” above other periods in import and valence. The 1970s is too inconvenient for us. We do not understand it and do not know what to do with it. One of the reasons is that the 1970s attempted to mix things together that are ordinarily impossible to mix and the 1970s may have succeeded thus making us look at it as in-between, depressing, as one long reaction and other misreadings.

  17. Well, it’s pretty apparent that no one who has been participating in this discussion thread is trying to “forget and hide from the 1970s.” That’s not coming through in the comments at all. But I do think there’s widespread agreement here that Wampole “forgot” not just the historical context of the 1970s but pretty much any historical context beyond that of her own generational experience. But her omission of the ’70s is no more egregious than her omission of any other era — unless the 70s are somehow “above other periods in import and valence.”

    • I did not meant to create the impression that the commentators here, with whom I am in agreement on this blog are forgetting the 1970s, but rather Wampole and, how the narrative of recent American history is mainly taught. Indeed, I think Ben Alpers nails it perfectly when he says that the “serious and politically involved” rather than the “apathetic” are a more suitable target for the issues he mentions. Wampole is trying to make a normative and monistic claim about what we in society should be doing and confusing that argument with an historical argument.

    • Yes, this makes sense. Thanks for the clarification, as well as the additional thoughts.

      I think the problem you have identified here is highlighted most starkly in Wampole’s essay in one puzzling, peculiar passage: “Fundamentalists are never ironists; dictators are never ironists; people who move things in the political landscape, regardless of the sides they choose, are never ironists.”

      Here she seems to acknowledge the value of “indirection” as you described it above, and the necessary and salutary critique implied in the posture of dissent/refusal to sanction the prevailing view — irony is antithetical to fundamentalism, inimical to dictatorial ideologies.

      But — dang it!– irony is getting in the way of “people who [want to] move things in the political landscape.” So, Wampole says, let’s get over irony — which will be okay, of course, as long as we can make sure that people choose the Good Side in the political landscape. Cue the fundamentalists and dictators…

  18. To place Wampole in context, it might be interesting to search on “maria bustillos hipster awl”, which will bring up a series of articles and reviews circa 2010, including a definition of “hipster” as a phenomenon beginning in 1999. Bustillos’ own argument in The Awl is somewhat complicated, but in part she is arguing for hipsterism being the exact opposite of what Wampole deplores.

  19. A fascinating exchange!

    Surely Michael Kramer is on the mark in calling for a more differentiated sense of irony, as is Dan Wickberg in looking for a more historicized approach to the irony-hipster complex.

    Seems to me that Erving Goffman, an important sociologist neglected by historians, might be the foremost analyst of irony in recent times.

    To add to the mix — recall James Livingston’s remark in a recent post on William Appleman Williams [USIH 7.19.12] that “irony is a permanent and indispensable dimension of all retrospection, even the systematic version of it we call the discipline of history.” To take it even further, perhaps irony in some sense is inherent in self-consciousness and reflexivity, historical or otherwise.

    Ben mentioned an article by David Foster Wallace. Some might be interested in Elaine Blair’s “A New Brilliant Start,” NYRB 12.6.12, a review of D.T. Max’s new biography of Wallace and his path beyond irony.

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