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

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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."

A year and half later, two planes flew into the World Trade Center. Irony was supposed to have perished along with the nearly 3,000 lives. Time's Roger Rosenblatt declared the "End of the Age of Irony," with its "oh-so-cool" ironists and their "vain stupidity." The esteemed civil-rights historian Taylor Branch of wrote in the LA Times that the attacks would turn "a whole generation against cynicism," and Gerry Howard, the editorial director of Broadway Books said, "I think somebody should do a marker that says irony died on 9-11-01." James Pinkerton of Newsday even declared a victory for "sincerity, patriotism, and earnestness." And perhaps most famously, Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter observed, "There's going to be a seismic change. I think it's the end of the age of irony."

Thankfully, none of this came to pass. The resulting eight years of George W. Bush, domestic wiretapping, continued terrorist threats, color-coded threat levels, religious extremism, Jesus Camp, The Apprentice, and the darkest of legal loopholes that permitted the CIA to torture people in the Slovakian hinterlands, showed that without a good measure of irony we would all hang ourselves. Luckily, there arose Get Your War On, The Daily Show, South Park, and the Colbert Report, all of which felled the new earnestness and "patriotism" with much-needed, morally engaged satire, a genre long and supremely functioning in English and American letters. Irony as a form of engaged social critique became an effective weapon against the deadly earnestness that guided not only the new American seriousness but just as well the two planes that flew into the World Trade Center. "The worse vice of a fanatic," wrote Oscar Wilde, "is his sincerity."

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Yet, even this early-2000s debate about irony and sincerity had been preceded by other, albeit less ominous, debates about irony. The conservative jurist Robert Bork complained in his 1996 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah that liberal ironists, borne of the 1960s, had overtaken the universities, and thereby the minds of the youth: "In the 1980s, it seemed, at last," Bork wrote, "that the Sixties were over. They were not. ... The Sixties radicals are still with us, but now they do not paralyze the universities; they run the universities." He was joined by a chorus of conservative and religious voices decrying cynicism and irony in society, among them Michael Lerner's Politics of Meaning (1996), Stephen L. Carter's Culture of Disbelief (1994), and Jeffrey Goldfarb's Cynical Society (1991). The general lament about Western democracies from the 1960s onward, evidenced in books like Christopher Lasch's Culture of Narcissism (1979), Richard Sennett's Fall of Public Man (1977), or Philip Rieff's Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), was that society had become unmoored from social trust and the common good, leading to generations of self-obsessed cynics and ironists, centered on their own psychological "well-being" and set against the common good of generations past.

But believe it or not, going back to the 1970s is going back not far enough. The irony-sincerity friction starts even with Diogenes the Cynic, who lived in a barrel and masturbated in public in the fourth century BCE. He cast ironic askance upon the seriousness with which his fellow Athenian's took their social roles, and he was despised for it. Socrates, of course, ironized all lives but the philosophical one, revealing that people who thought they knew things actually knew nothing at all. He was condemned by the Greek authorities—and then famously killed himself rather than give up his interrogative ironic mode. Aristotle esteemed the trait of sincerity as a virtue, writing in the Nichomachean Ethics, "When an individual has no ulterior motive, he speaks, acts, and lives his real character." On the other hand, the ironist, or "self-depreciator," as Aristotle deemed him, was "a person who disclaims especially those qualities which are highly valued in others, as Socrates used to do." The Roman satirist Juvenal thought it was "harder not to write satire. For who could endure this monstrous city...and swallow his wrath?" And the Roman orator Quintilian's definition of irony in his Institutio Oratorica (93 CE) would be deployed for the subsequent 17 centuries: "A moment in which something contrary to what is said is to be understood."

It was really during the Reformation that the heightened moral hostility between sincerity and irony got underway, and has been influencing our conversations ever since. Frustrated with what they perceived to be the corruption and hypocrisy of the established Christian church—and its flippant apologists—figures like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin urged believers to look into their hearts, convene with God in private, read the Bible, and turn away from rituals and Church dogma. If believers really, sincerely believed, they would realize they were just paying lip service to ecclesiastical authority and would resolutely turn away from its falseness. Sincerity, as such, became an enormously important quality to cultivate, because Reformation theology stressed the importance of personal faith over work (or indulgences), and thus one's very soul depended on it. Moreover, society was changing radically in the 16th century. Social mobility caused increasing numbers of people to come into contact with strangers, and being sincere—and detecting it in others—became a sign of Protestantism. This helped people of faith to identify one another in a world seen as cold, heartless, and manipulative—particularly in the wake of Machiavelli's Prince, published in 1513, to hatred of Christians and the love of nobility who wanted to keep a grasp on their power.

English Puritanism further organized and radicalized the Protestant reform movement, with the ultimate goal of setting believers back on the path of Christ's original message and a broken world back in order. Thomas Shepard's ominous 1641 treatise The Sincere Convert aimed to banish all forms of playfulness or whimsy from society, convincing none other than John Harvard to donate his private library to the founding of a college to train generations of "sincere followers of Christ." William Gurnall's 1662 influential work The Christian in Complete Armour was hotly possessed by the idea of sincerity, deploying the word 677 times in 938 pages. Spiritual autobiographies appeared on the scene, aiding Protestants in divining the sincerity of their private convictions and struggles with salvation, even though the Calvinist theology that directed them—predestination—held that they were powerless to do anything about their fates. Their fixation makes sense seen in the context of their spiritual forefather's foremost admonition: "The principal thing—that which God especially requires—is to bring a sincere heart." No irony allowed.

Satirists of the 17th century were quick, however, to point out how "true sincerity" could be quite easily faked, as shown in Moliere's Misanthrope (1666), which showed how boorish the demand for constant sincerity could be, or in Tartuffe, or The Imposter (1664), which sees a pious blowhard try to take advantage of a good family. Ben Jonson's Puritan zealot in The Alchemist (1610) finally admits, despite his spiritual purity, "Good brother, we must bend to any means to give furtherance to the holy cause."

When the Puritan movement sailed to North America and the militarized British Commonwealth failed, the king was restored, folly returned to public life, and the libertine poet John Wilmot wrote about his friend Charles II:

We have a pretty witty king

And whose word no man relies on

He never said a foolish thing

And never did a wise one.

It is during European court life of the 17th and 18th centuries that the value of sincerity took a back seat to playfulness, pomp, civility, social performance, fashion, courtesy, and all the other moral and behavioral trappings of the nobility and the aspiring bourgeoisie. Rule No. 1: Never appear as you are. In other words, incur ironic living to get ahead. Enter a byzantine maze of social rules and rituals that would control the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals for the next century.

Eventually, the novelist-philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau set forth a suite of harsh opinions that condemned the whole of his Enlightenment society as corrupt, vain, and false: "The plain and noble effusions of an honest soul," he wrote in the Letter to M. d'Alembert on the Theater (1758), "speak a language far different from the insincere demonstrations of politeness (and the false appearances) which the customs of the great world demand." In his efforts to shed the world of phoniness, Rousseau "set before my fellows the likeness of a man in all the truth of nature, and that man is myself. Myself alone!" His sentiments and political vision lit the fuse of the French Revolution and the secular demand for personal transparency; in another word: sincerity.

After 9/11, irony became a weapon against the deadly earnestness that guided both the new American seriousness and the planes that flew into the World Trade Center.

Rousseau's sentiments spurred European and American romanticism, which appear on the Western stage as proponents of emotion, inwardness, intuition, spirituality, and dreams—all things that Enlightenment rationality declined to incorporate into its Weltanschauung. Irony and sincerity play alternating roles: G.W.F. Hegel thought irony was "not only the evil...but it also adds the forms of evil, subjectivity, vanity," but his compatriot philosopher Friedrich Schlegel saw irony as "absolutely necessary," as "permanently engaged self-criticism" and "never-ending satire." And though Thomas Carlyle condemned "the ironic man, with his sly stillness, more especially a young ironic man...as a pest to society," that latest of romantics, Walt Whitman, recognized, in 1871, that "the aim of all the litterateurs is to find something to make fun of," and that "genuine belief has left us." Friedrich Nietzsche—that great philosophical ironist who found linguistic irony distasteful—agreed: "The truly sincere person ends up understanding that he is always lying."

We have been battling it out ever since.

Twentieth century modern art, obsessed as it was by insanity and criminality, alternately argued for the authenticity of the outsider, the rebellious, or the exotic, and the lionization of the authentic individual. Yet Marcel Duchamp declared that his main aesthetic fight was against "bloody earnestness." Andy Warhol made sculptures of Coke bottles and Brillo boxes while his politically earnest peers—Hans Haacke, for example—tried to fight social injustice through art. Since Warhol and late 1960s, irony has played an increasingly influential role in art-making and cultural production, turning sincerity eventually into "sincerity," resulting in the one-upmanship of coolness that has motivated American culture for the last half-century. It is no mistake that early 1960s Ray-Bans and oversized sunglasses are back, and with vigor.

* * *

And so here we still are, caught between irony and sincerity—living in an age of both, depending on where you look. Churches still are not huge fans of irony, but corporations with eyes on capturing the youth market are. Politicians are surely more ironic than they used to be, depending, of course, on what state they represent. I can't help but thinking that our situation might be a Candide-like ideal, considering the extremes of either direction: If you go too far with irony, you get the radically superficial society of late 18th-century France, where ironic remove overshadowed all. Too far in the second direction (the removal of all social masks), you get the bloodshed of revolution, or the soul-bearing of revelation: Oprah, Dr. Phil, Facebook, and awful self-help books like Mike Robbins's Be Yourself! Everyone Else is Already Taken: Using The Power of Authenticity to Transform Your Life and Relationships (2009).

That being said, I agree more with Fitzgerald that ours is an age of increasing sincerity. One need really only look at what counts as inventive new music, film, or art. Much of it is stripped down, bare, devoid of over-production, or aware of its production—that is, an irony that produces sincerity. Sure, pop music and Jeff Koons alike retain huge pull (read: $$$), but lately there has been a return to artistic and musical genres that existed prior to the irony-debunking of 9/11: early punk, disco, rap, New Wave—with an winking nod to sparse Casio keyboard sounds, drum machines, naïve drawing, fake digital-look drawings, and jangly, Clash-like guitars. Bands like Arcade Fire, Metric, Scissor Sisters, CSS, Chairlift, and the Temper Trap all go in for heavy nostalgia and an acknowledgement of a less self-conscious, more D.I.Y. time in music.

There has also been a resurgence of American folk music over the past decade. Indie-folk, freak-folk, psych-folk, and New Weird America; singer-songwriters like Beck, Elliot Smith, Will Oldham, Mark Kozolek, Devandra Banhart, Black Mountain, Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, M. Ward, Bright Eyes, Tiny Vipers, My Morning Jacket, Bon Iver, Scout Niblet, Phosphorescent, and Fleet Foxes, among so many more. With wistful looks to the rustic American past, much of this music revives the sounds of 19th-century Scots-Irish Appalachian outback: acoustic guitars, mandolins, banjos, dobros, falsetto voice, and gospel-like harmonizing. Other works recall the bare-bones music of the 1960s: Simon and Garfunkle, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Leadbelly, Joan Baez. All of it expresses this clear equation: pure voice + instrument = sincerity. This traditional equation, made so famous during the 1960s, communicates emotional escape from the spastic commercialism of top-40 radio and the corporate-christened authenticity of figures like Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.

This antagonism between commercialism and sincere expression reveals one last important point about this sincerity-irony morass: While sincerity in music and art has been on the uptick, the ironic fashion bemoaned by Wampole has actually lost its power. It is now gimmickry—that is to say, mainstream hokum, and thus very reason why she sees it everywhere. American Apparel, Gap, Urban Outfitters, and Vice make it invariably easy to don the ironic look of the nerdish outcast, the criminal, the hobo, the blue-collar guy—those ubiquitous thick-framed glasses and cardigans, or tattoos, piercings, and wool caps. The jokey Justin Bieber t-shirts or flannel shirts that illustrate her New York Times op-ed piece wryly show that the divide between earnest 16-year-old fan and ironic-30-year-old commentator is waning ever slimmer—and can give the elder wearer a rebellious flair with the swipe of a credit card. This contradiction—ironic marginality from the center—is the more interesting development in Western cultural logic over the past two decades. It is surely the very reason for the uproar we are now again enduring. The conversation about irony is ultimately a conversation about authenticity, about who is real and who copies whom, and with what kind of awareness.

This situation was masterfully addressed in Thomas Frank's 1998 book The Conquest of Cool. It clarified how American business and advertising, from Levis to Schwinn to Magnavox, all with craven brilliance, had picked up on the symbols and sentiments of 1960s counterculture and spent the 1970s and 1980s selling it back to hippies as they became the new American bourgeoisie. In other words, "Think Different." The same thing is happening to us now, except that we—that is, the "we" who hover around the age 40, who have moved into positions of influence in business, education, and the media—are not only hanging on to our aging ironic selves though nostalgic consumption; we are also selling that sensibility back to youth culture through movies, art, music, literature, and fashion that we actually produce. Rick Alverson (The Comedy) is 41. Wes Anderson is 43, as is Spike Jonze. Terry Richardson is 47. And so on. If there is an ironic mode found on college campuses, sure, yes: It has to do with the defensiveness of being in your early 20s. But its endurance and strength stems more so from Wampole's and my Generation X, who fell into irony, often proudly and often not on purpose, and who find it difficult, given our adult experience, to let go of the reasonable defenses that have served us so well and for so long. "It is dangerous to be sincere," quipped George Bernard Shaw in 1903, "unless you are also stupid."

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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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