October 29, 2014

GOLDFINE | Ironic Times: In Defense of Silly Hats and Mustaches

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Recently, a friend of mine acquired a bright red trucker cap with the words “Milwaukee Tractor Equipment” emblazoned on the front. The first time I saw him wearing it, I immediately complimented him, saying something along the lines of “ha, that’s a great fucking hat.” I later paused momentarily to consider why exactly I thought it was in fact, such a great hat; why this piece of kitsch amused me.

I remembered that it was funny because it was ironic. Except the irony of the situation was so chronically standard that it didn’t actually needed to be acknowledged in order to be funny.

This felt slightly creepy to me. And also relevant to a wider cultural sensation — has irony become so mundane that it’s just a banal default mode of communication and interaction? Irony kind of is everywhere, after all. I’m hard-pressed to find a sphere of culture around me that is uninhabited by irony. People speak and act in constant irony: Flaunt ironic hair-cuts and facial hair, wear ironic clothing, adore ironic humor, make ironic jokes and mannerisms, post ironically on social media, listen to ironic music and either watch movies and television shows saturated with irony or watch unironic tv and movies, ironically. Irony is not only fashionable, entertaining, aesthetic, intellectual and virtually inescapable in pop culture — but it’s self-affirming, because nobody wants to be the person who doesn’t get it.

I remembered that it was funny because it was ironic. Except the irony of the situation was so chronically standard that it didn’t actually needed to be acknowledged in order to be funny.

I should probably resolve what I mean when I say irony, because the cultural tendency im thinking of warrants a pretty imprecise definition. For my purposes, by irony, I’m talking about a loose accumulation of cynicism, sarcasm, self-deprecation and self-referential absurdity — a general sense of detachment from sincerity, earnestness and conviction. It’s more easily pointed to — in an episode of 30 Rock or Community, in texts I’ve received like “wow so many feels rn,” a Facebook post like “lyke, who do u even think u r,” in Macklemore’s “And We Danced,” in the rhymes of Das Racist or Yung Lean, or on a hipster’s ugly sweater or graphic t-shirt showing a wildlife scene of a wolf — than articulated, and it’s more of a vague form sensibility than a neat and tidy property of culture, but maybe as a consumer of and participant in pop (and other) culture, you recognize this sensation of lurking and constant irony, everywhere you go.

In 1994, David Foster Wallace published a paper called “E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction” in which he describes watching irony envelop first television, and then all pop culture, highbrow and low, and ultimately condemns it. He wrote, “Irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective … [but] at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis.” Basically, Wallace believed irony to be a cultural dead end, for the reason that it produces lazy, cheap art and rhetoric that will ultimately be meaningless, because this environment does not require the ironist to believe in anything or hold actual convictions.

A more recent, “kids-these-days”-style skeptic (ha) on the subject is Christy Wampole, who, in one of the most interesting pieces of hipster-bashing I’ve ever read, a 2012 New York Times op-ed, “How To Live Without Irony,” posits that irony is the ethos of the Millennial generation. She invokes the image of the moustached “urban harlequin,” toting a record player around on a fixed gear bicycle who cultivates quirk, “feigns indifference” and likes things only for their absurdity. She says, “If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least … it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise?”

Both of these pieces seem to diagnose and incriminate the creepiness of the irony of my friend’s dumbass hat. But the thing is, I adore irony and indulge in all aforementioned ironic pastimes — and actually don’t feel overcome by an “existential malaise.”

I can’t argue with the experts that there is an excess of sloppy, useless irony in our culture (the entire enterprise of reality television, perhaps), and that irony has, indeed, lost some of its edge. And maybe the trucker caps and jelly sandals fit into this grade of bland, perfunctory irony: Self-important cheap laughs and worn quips. The endless repetition of such statements and images can create a sort of a surface level fog of irony, which is, I think, what Wampole, rather melodramatically, refers to as a “cultural numbness.” But the depth of her claim and the gravity with which she makes it relies a simplification and a stereotype of the person in the trucker cap. Even the most misanthropic hipster in the skinniest jeans does not suffer from irony all the time. No, he loves his parents, he watches How I Met Your Mother (and likes it), he got dumped by his high school girlfriend … who knows? Maybe he even believes in God.

Irony and cynicism are dangerous to the point where people and culture become averse to and afraid of, reverence and emotion. Both Wallace and Wampole reference a so-called New Sincerity movement as perhaps having the capacity to save our culture and lifestyles, of candid and sincere works like the films of Wes Anderson or Charlie Kaufman and the music of Cat Power or Vampire Weekend. Isn’t the popularity of these works proof that there is earnestness in our culture, that irony and sincerity can coexist quite peaceably, discrediting the slippery slope, doomsday scare-tactics of those who think like Wampole?

Irony may be one ethos of our age, but that really isn’t all that disturbing to me. Ironic inquiry is an effective and useful form of dissent that exposes cliches, hypocrisies and bigotry. Of course, I don’t think absurdist trolling irony that gets to claim this dignity, but I also don’t think it’s as poisonous or tyrannical as Wallace or Wampole claim. My most cynical, hipster scum friends, slinging all their snark and sarcasm actually don’t just wallow in their own apathy, but rather have values, care deeply about a variety of things, and are invested in their lives and relationships. So, all the writers and academics trying to solve the problem of Millennials should probably keeping on researching: our irony is not their answer.