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It’s Ironic, Isn’t It?

We shouldn’t be so quick to blame irony for our waning political commitment. It’s the symptom, not the disease.

BY Barrett Swanson

Wampole’s argument is about 20 years too late. The ethos of irony she misattributes to the 2010s more aptly characterizes the 1990s

As a white male who was raised in the suburbs, learned to shave during the '90s, and who spent staggering amounts of time sitting slack-jawed in front of pixelated screens, I’m among those whom Christy Wampole of the New York Times blames for an epidemic of cultural torpor.

Wampole’s jeremiad, which has generated all sorts of chatter, adduces the hipster as emblem and evidence of our embroilment today in “Deep Irony.” In this era of “ironic living,” Wampole believes every action is desiccated of meaning and vacuumed of authenticity; only self-consciousness, self-reflexivity, and self-deprecation remain. To Wampole, the hipster’s portmanteau wardrobe—mustache, painted-on Levis and Bieber T-shirt—symbolizes the way in which our own culture “appropriates outmoded fashions,” manifests “a nostalgia for times he never lived,” and “dodge[s] responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic or otherwise.” So who, according to Wampole, are these misanthropes pillaging from subcultures past? Who we can blame for our culture’s vapid ideologies and ever-worsening anomie? “Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s—members of Generation Y, or Millennials—particularly middle-class Caucasians, [for whom] irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt.”

The thing is that I am just as concerned about the chilly indifference my generation harbors for strong convictions and deep feeling as Wampole is. But I believe this indifference has very little, if anything, to do with irony.

As some of her most perfervid critics have already noted (see The Atlantic’s Jonathan Fitzgerald), Wampole’s argument is about 20 years too late. The ethos of irony she misattributes to the 2010s more aptly characterizes the 1990s—when the angst of the Seattle grunge scene imbrued America’s youth, when Seinfeld preached egocentric ethics every week on syndicated TV, when Letterman and Leno and SNL taught young viewers to do a cold postmodern eye-roll at any avowal of authentic belief. The deadpan stare became as faddish as snap bracelets or the Macarena. But Wampole, who was born in 1977 and seems to be romanticizing the '90s of her adolescence, nominates this decade as Sincerity’s most recent apotheosis, describing it as “irony-free.” She writes, “The grunge movement was serious in its aesthetics and its attitude, with a combative stance against authority, which the punk movement had also embraced.” What she misses is that the very mode in which Seattle’s grunge scene lodged its anti-capitalist, anti-corporate complaint was in fact irony. One need only watch the music video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and see Cobain sneering into the camera and stumbling around a high school gymnasium while rasping “Here we are now, entertain us” to apprehend the ironical zeitgeist of this generation. If anything, the 1990s were the last time the youth culture believed that irony had political bite.

But the very fact that Nirvana lodged its critique of the corporate entertainment industry on MTV—a network owned by one of the largest media conglomerates, Viacom—shattered any notion that the grunge subculture—or any subculture—could remain pure, truly ours. We soon observed how quickly Viacom’s cadre of youth-savvy cool-hunters could usurp trendy movements, scrub them of their political meanings, and sell them back to us at discounted prices, thereby rendering irony impotent, if not obsolete. By the mid-1990s, the grunge movement was sapped of its animating political energies and could be exhaustively characterized by long unwashed hair, baggy jeans, a plaid flannel shirt and a proclivity for hanging out in independent coffeehouses, which is to say that our counterculture was reduced from a social movement to a commercial fashion.

As Gen-Xers and Millennials watched these profit-driven formulas enervate and deplete other subcultures (i.e., musicians like NWA and Tupac and other fuck-the-man wordsmiths signing contracts with corporations their lyrics assailed), young people began to suspect that all countercultural belief systems would be quickly transmuted into fashion statements, transient and politically empty.

Here’s the thing: It’s not that the hipster’s Bieber t-shirt and tortoise-shell glasses and Doc Martens are meant to ironize the subcultures each item invokes. None of these signifiers are adopted to subvert, or even refer to, belief systems. It’s rather that hyper-educated twentysomethings know better than to try and conjure a subculture defined against or in opposition to the mainstream, since any attempt to do so will invariably be bought up and sold back to them as a product.

Wampole says we use irony as a defense mechanism to keep us from engaging with anything that has meaning, that it’s a way to elide commitment to authentic ideological positions. But the truth is that, in late capitalism, ideological commitments immediately invite co-optation. Political affiliation quickly morphs into consumer identity, expressed by the types of books you read, the clothes you buy, the music you listen to, and the films you watch. Concepts—ideologies, values, belief systems—become accessories in the wardrobe of one’s identity.

This slippage is heightened by our prevailing modes of communicating with each other—Facebook and Twitter—which encourage us to monitor and mimic the most fashionable postures and attitudes as a means to build a personal brand. Facebook urges us to curate an advertisement for ourselves by exhibiting our values as things to be appraised and approved via the LIKE button—a mechanism that suggests that a choreographed photo of a friend’s party (LIKE!), a link to an inane YouTube video (LIKE!) and a group dedicated to a candidate’s election (LIKE!) are of equal importance. In this way, our actions—aesthetic, political, or otherwise—are no longer reflections of values, but are instead ways to distinguish ourselves as individuals. They are the frills and furbelows of a fashion sensibility our “friends” can monosyllabically support or deny.

Look no further for the most recent instantiation of my generation’s performative politics than last year during the Occupy Wall Street movement. While it’s true that certain disparate factions operating under the Occupy aegis did much good to advance worthy causes (for instance: the various anti-foreclosure campaigns and the Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in Brooklyn), Occupy rallies often functioned as hip get-togethers where dissidents could flaunt their latest fashions as they chanted protest bromides (see “What to Wear to a Protest” in the New York Times and “Occupy Wall Street is a Fashion Show Masquerading as a Political Movement” from the Telegraph). Participating in the movement lent you social capital, a currency of cool. It was the civic equivalent of wearing a leather jacket, a semion of your style.

What Wampole missed when she vivisected the hipster was this aestheticization of belief, this voguing of values. Because the real question here isn’t one of irony or sincerity, cynicism or conviction. What should concern us most is that in the face of intransigent power, stony corporate hegemonies, and weak and ever-compromising moral institutions, my generation (and Wampole’s generation) thinks our only viable recourse is to gussy up and strike a pose.

Barrett Swanson earned his MFA in fiction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and now teaches literature and writing at Edgewood College. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Avery Anthology, The Millions, and Salt Hill, among other places.

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