Well, it’s arrived: the day when, after four years of weekly arts and culture posts on The Agonist, I have to admit that there is too much on my plate. I’m working on two new books, I’m gigging as a musician, I’m working for clients as a self-employed writer – and, as Clint Eastwood (bless his addled little head) said in one of the Dirty Harry movies, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I do. It’s time.
So I’ll just say a heartfelt thanks: to Sean Paul Kelley, who emailed me out of the blue in 2009 asking me to do A Poem for Tuesday; to Steve Hynd, who backed me all the way when I wanted to broaden it to Tuesday Muse; and to all of you, who’ve been my partners in this weekly enterprise over the years. I’ve loved doing it, and I hope you’ve mostly liked it. Thanks for hosting me. I’ll still be around. I’ll always be an Agonista.
This last entry is an excerpt from “How to Live Without Irony,” a NYT piece by Christy Wampole that gets at the global truth lurking beneath the First-World culture of hip snarkiness and sarcasm. Thanks to Linda for the tip. And again, thanks to those of you who’ve hung out with me here in this space.
If irony is the ethos of our age — and it is — then the hipster is our archetype of ironic living.
The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.
He is an easy target for mockery. However, scoffing at the hipster is only a diluted form of his own affliction. He is merely a symptom and the most extreme manifestation of ironic living. For many Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s — members of Generation Y, or Millennials — particularly middle-class Caucasians, irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt. One need only dwell in public space, virtual or concrete, to see how pervasive this phenomenon has become. Advertising, politics, fashion, television: almost every category of contemporary reality exhibits this will to irony.
Take, for example, an ad that calls itself an ad, makes fun of its own format, and attempts to lure its target market to laugh at and with it. It pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful. No attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself. The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism. The same goes for ironic living. Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise. To live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect, a form of subterfuge, which means etymologically to “secretly flee” (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.
How did this happen? It stems in part from the belief that this generation has little to offer in terms of culture, that everything has already been done, or that serious commitment to any belief will eventually be subsumed by an opposing belief, rendering the first laughable at best and contemptible at worst. This kind of defensive living works as a pre-emptive surrender and takes the form of reaction rather than action.
…FROM this vantage, the ironic clique appears simply too comfortable, too brainlessly compliant. Ironic living is a first-world problem. For the relatively well educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.