Irony's Not Dead, Long Live Irony

Christy Wampole's Opinionator piece in the Sunday New York Times"How to Live Without Irony," has a lot of people talking, ironically or otherwise.

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Christy Wampole's Opinionator piece in the Sunday New York Times, "How to Live Without Irony," has a lot of people talking, ironically or otherwise. In it, Wampole, who is an assistant professor of French at Princeton, discusses "the ethos of our age," or "ironic living," as represented by the—you knew this was inevitable—hipster, who "haunts every city street and university town" hiding in plain sight, or not hiding at all, clad in the material trappings of irony. You know, again: "outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone)," as well as fashions of the internal sort—"awkwardness," "self-consciousness," "self-scrutiny," and relentless study of "what has yet to be found by the mainstream." Yet by seeking what hasn't been "found" by the mainstream and appropriating those things, the mustache, the tiny shorts, and the fixies all become just another brand of mainstream, albeit one hated by those who choose not to adopt them, who dub them and those who love them "hipster." It's irony, wrapped in irony, inside more irony.

Wampole calls the hipster a symptom of ironic living and not the affliction itself, but the illustrations in the piece all depict this symptom (the hipster) with, I think, quite a lot of enjoyment, as do any number of recent Styles section pieces affirming the trendiness of the man bun and the beard. Because of that, the irony of a piece on irony in the New York Times is not lost on the appreciator of deep, mysterious ironies. Is the Times being ironic, which would be a kind of uber-irony? Truly, Wampole seems earnest, here. She appears to be actually tired of irony, and tired of those hipsters, and also concerned about what we've suffered because of it—lack of good conversations and face-to-face communication and decent Christmas presents, perhaps, in favor of narcissism and quick quips and easy laughs. She asks, "Where can we find other examples of nonironic living? What does it look like? 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."

Nonironic models also include that guy with the fixie telling that girl in the skinny jeans that he loves her, or that guy with the mustache turning down the New York Times interview because he doesn't want to be made into a Styles piece, for real this time! Point being, stereotypes are just stereotypes. No one person suffers from 100 percent irony, no matter what they wear or look like, because it's pretty hard to live—or even order a grilled cheese with artisanal bacon—that way.

So what is this piece, exactly? Is it a kind of performance art? Is it, as Gothamist's Christopher Robbins writes, "an important piece of service journalism"? Is it hopelessly New York Times-ian, i.e., self-serious as it attempts to join the trend party several years later than it began? Is this really a think piece about Guy Fieri? Or is it just that Wampole feels really, really strongly about irony?

Here's what I can share about irony. The term's first known use in English dates back to 1502. It comes from Greek and Latin, meaning that way back before trucker caps and skinny jeans and the way we talk about them now (are we still talking about them now?) even existed there were ironies of a different time and with a different look. There were Socratic ironies, for example, and there are dramatic ironies, and there are accidental ones, too. Alanis Morrisette has sung perhaps the most annoyingly stick-in-your-head song about irony, but the ironies characterized in that song—"rain on your wedding day," a "free ride when you already paid," and so on now seem less ironic than they seem, well, basically just cliched. Which is sort of what Wampole might be talking about. Maybe she just wishes people would stop trying so hard and be, and is that so wrong, to be without the faux-cleverness that distances people from the real emotion of life, or everyone hiding in public behind the subterfuge of wit or ennui, or "life in the Internet age," and all the cliches and hashtags and brand appreciation and anti-brand appreciation that come with it?

But life in the Internet age isn't ironic anymore than anything else is, really, it's just life. And the lack of acknowledgement of that, along with the article's focus on hipsters, is part of what makes its cry for more earnestness seem a bit dated. (We've been talking about earnestness for months, you guys! Sometimes it's great. And sometimes a dash of irony is precisely what the meal needs.) Our ironies aren't confined to times and places and hipsters and Instagram or whatever it is we're talking about right now: The seesaw of earnest to irony is something that's been a part of life, a part of humor, a part of entertainment for centuries, even if it appears differently over time. It's not a Gen X or Gen Y or Gen Next "thing"; it's a seesaw that need not end even when twentysomethings who currently live in Bushwick and play the ukelele have reached middle age and are getting their tattoos removed by laser. Irony has been alive for a long, long time, and there's no indication that it will cease (nor, really, reason for it to do so). It's a thing of value, really: That option, when there is too much enthusiasm or earnestness or real emotion with which we can feel comfortable, to measure out a dose of snark, sarcasm, or some other distancing tactic to neutralize the extreme level of our emotion. And vice versa, when there is too much irony, when we feel like we've lost the real sense of who and what we are and how we feel, we can add a bit more honest emotion to the equation. But without irony, God, we would be insufferable. There are incongruities of life that can be reflected in no healthier way than with a clever ironic retort.

I'd also argue that we're very nearly post-ironic these days. Perhaps there are behavioral pockets, yes, but look at the way people react with great feeling to any number of things online and off of it, whether those topics are politics, race, government, sexism, television shows, books, movies, or the way we relate to one another more generally as humans. Look at the enormity of feeling that emerged in and around the recent presidential election cycle, and what came after. Look at the way people respond to strong opinions. And so, plenty of people are busily expressing their earnest, true, direct beliefs, whether we like those beliefs or not. (Sometimes, in fairness, the best way to combat them is with a bit of irony; as with most things, moderation may be a kind of key here.)

But I'll end with a question: Can irony really be killed if the New York Times is publishing thousand-word essays on the matter of irony? There are far too many comments on Wampole's piece for any editor worth his or her salt to earnestly wish irony truly dead.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.