We've Been Arguing About Irony vs. Sincerity for Millennia

Forget that recent, naive New York Times column. Proto-hipsters were around before Christ.

incroyables vs kreayshawn irony 615.png
Left: French Incroyables, 1794. Right: Kreayshawn, 2011.

Two-hundred-something years ago, after the earnestly murderous trials of the French Revolution, irony appeared on the cobblestoned streets of Paris. Young aristocratic men called Incroyables took to dressing in a fashion not at all unlike today's hipsters: tight pants, thick glasses, bright green coats with exaggeratedly high collars, and huge, brightly colored ties. Their hairstyles, deliberately disheveled, fell in front of the ears or were cut close. Their female counterparts, called Merveilleuses, ("the marvelous"), wore wigs of assorted colors: blonde, black, blue, and green, elaborately weird headdress, and donned semi-transparent tunics made of gauze or linen that displayed their cleavage and backsides.

Royalists, anti-Jacobin and anti-Girondist, these youths sought to parody fashion and politics, to arouse laughter and shock in their onlookers. Together they would roam the dim post-Revolutionary Parisian streets drinking, smoking, laughing, and whacking old Jacobins with wooden clubs. The shtick was ironic; they expected to be seen as a joke. Old-guard revolutionaries were appalled.

Christy Wampole's "How To Live Without Irony," published in the New York Times on November 17, 2012, pinpoints the newest version of this ironic interrogation. Her 20-something students, the youngest of hipsters, are the latest rendition of the Incroyables and Merveilleuses—social performers of the first degree who, wittingly or not, are saying something about our own age, as Wampole herself acknowledges: "If irony is the ethos of our age—and it is—then the hipster is our archetype of ironic living." She goes on to say that the hipster is not alone in his or her irony; he is rather a manifestation of the irony that pervades the whole of life for those born in the 1980s or 1990s—particularly for middle-class white people. Wampole was not bashing hipsters (that's been going on since they appeared on the scene, in 1999); she was rather lamenting their ironic lives, or "Ironic Living," now with the caps, as she clarified in an interview with New York Magazine shortly after her article garnered a landslide of response. Such a life, she said, was colored by "constant hyperbolic pitch that maintains itself in ... speech, and ... interactions [that] consist often of a sustained string of ironic utterances that dissolve into total negation." Totally!

A follow-up article that week, on this very Atlantic website, by Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, author of a forthcoming book about the New Sincerity, argued that Wampole had it all wrong: sincerity, not irony, is ethos of our age. Just look at all that earnest hipster music: Iron and Wine, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver. Or the films of Wes Anderson. Or, "television sitcoms and 'bromance' movies [that] depict authentic characters determined to live good lives. And respected literary authors like Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, and Michael Chabon, [who] write sincere, popular books with a strong sense of morality." No doubt the editorial staff of n+1—particularly Mark Greif, who has been smartly analyzing hipster subculture for years—would agree with Fitzgerald: Their April 2009 conference, "What Was the Hipster?", hosted at the New School, forwarded the idea that hipsterism began exactly in 1999, following the WTO riots in Seattle, but that after a fun but short life it has been on the decline since 2006. Taken in the context of longstanding hipster analysis, Wampole's article is bizarrely late to the scene—and, yes, that does matter: Her article adds nothing new or interesting to the discussion. Reading "How to Live without Irony" was akin to reading about the detriments of a new dance craze called the Macarena.

But the problem with her contribution is not just its tardiness, but that she—a professor at a major university—didn't bother to read up on many times we have been through this irony-is-bad argument. So before we back into our crenellated corners—proud ironists versus sincerity-lovers—let's take a quick glance at this elderly joust so we don't freak out so fast. Irony and sincerity have both been long with us, and neither of them are going anywhere; it's just a matter of where you decide to look to find them.

* * *

A recent flare-up of this debate occurred in 1999, when Jedediah Purdy, a West Virginia-raised, home-schooled Harvard graduate and then law student at Yale University, published a book with Knopf called For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today. He took his former classmates to task for their cheeky irony, their inability to commit to or believe in anything, to move through life with a wink, all the while filled with the empty chatter of pop-culture references, devoid of real-world connections or political seriousness. "The ironist is at ease in banter, versed in allusion, and almost debilitatingly self-aware," Purdy wrote. The ironist, however, did not "reign everywhere, but the more time one has spent in school, and the more expensive the school, the greater the propensity for irony." His book appeared during the heyday of Beavis & Butthead and Seinfeld and Might, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, VH-1's Pop-Up Videos, and Nirvana. Irony reigned, or at least was on a lot of people's minds.

If you go too far with irony, you get the radically superficial society of late 18th-century France. Too far in the other direction, you get the bloodshed of revolution.

Purdy's book—often taken to be an overly earnest screed penned in a West Virginia bituminous shale quarry—touched a nerve among the 20-something urban chatterati, reviewed in publications ranging from Time and the New Republic to Reason, The American Prospect, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times Magazine, and Salon. Like a latter-day Archibald MacLeish pounding "the irresponsibles," Purdy set out for the intellectual high-ground. No such luck. He was, instead, eviscerated. Roger Hodge, then an associate editor and now the editor of Harper's, called the book pure "unctuous sentimentality." Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Adam Begley tore deep into Purdy from their perches at the New York Observer and the Times. Writer Caleb Crain, then at Lingua Franca, accused Purdy of "sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity." Jesse Walker of Reason suspected that Purdy was "not even a real person," calling the book so "richly bad...[that one] simply cannot take it at face value." McSweeney's flanked with Todd Pruzan, who, in characteristic burlesque, situated Mr. Purdy in the backseat of a limo on Sunset Strip with a pair of hookers and a hot tub, yelling into the Nevada night how much he "loooooooved the common things." You get the point. Irony and sincerity were, as more than one magazine editor put it, "the hot topics of the moment."

Presented by

R. Jay Magill Jr. is a writer, editor, and illustrator based in Berlin. He is the author of Chic Ironic Bitterness (2007) and Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion That We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull).

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