Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

If Christy Wampole Doesn't Kill the Hipsters, I Will

Christy Wampole (great name) poked a hornet's nest last weekend with a piece in the New York Times that I guess could be described as a broadside against the hipster element in society.  Wampole actually called for a retreat from all-encompassing irony, rather than the liquidation of hipsters as a class—in this, Wampole is incorrect, as we shall see.

Stephanie Bernhard took Wampole to task with a few indignant words, along the way quoting a tweet that seems to capture the way things have played out on the internet:

(The Fieri reference is to this cutting review of Fieri's new Times Square restaurant, which went viral.  The review, not the restaurant.  I actually don't think the review is properly characterized as trolling or troll-bait, but whatever.  Let Roth enjoy his moment in the sun.)

Whether or not Wampole set out to be a troll, I think it is fair to say that her piece is notably provocative.  My theory, to which I will return shortly, is that this has to do with poorly defined terms.  But certainly if Wampole set out to persuade hipsters to become fully-realized human beings, she did not strike quite the right tone.

I think this is all rather unfortunate, as I find myself in almost total agreement with much of Wampole's piece, right down to the acknowledgement that my furious hatred of hipsters stems from my recognition of hipsterish tendencies in myself.  I mean, recently I considered buying a Romney/Ryan t-shirt, and I like to mimic Stalinist propaganda for humorous effect.  What is wrong with me?  (Seriously, what is wrong with me?  I really want to know.  Except, look, I am beginning to suspect that I already know the answer, and just can't admit it to myself, okay?  So let's move on.)

What I think we have to do is distinguish between different aspects of the irony/hipster superstructure.  In short, I think a lot of the outrage directed at Wampole stems from haziness about two questions:  How broadly are we conceiving of the hipster population?  And what exactly is it about irony that is so objectionable?

I believe that Steph is thinking in generational terms, as though we are all hipsters (and certainly Wampole doesn't discourage this interpretation—I am not one to psychoanalyze, but perhaps Wampole's deep self-loathing causes her to lump herself in with the real hard cases).  But as Steph convincingly argues, our generation is far from terrible.  Wampole's point gains more traction if we view hipsters as a small subset of the population.  And you know exactly the ones I mean.  These are decidedly not the kind of people you would have found in Zuccotti Park or at the Obama campaign.  In fact, I've never seen genuine hipsters do anything that might redeem their lamentable existence (not, by the way, that I think Zuccotti was very productive, but the point is they were earnestly trying).  The best we can hope for is that the hipsters will come to their senses, acknowledge that they are utterly contemptible little shits, and go full-on Profumo for the rest of their execrable little lives.

So I think we have cleared that up to everyone's satisfaction.  The trickier questions involve the causes and consequences of the pervasive irony that we seem to have embraced.  Here, one wishes for a more fleshed-out theory of what we are talking about and how it came to seem so all-encompassing.  But I will say this much.  We live in a world of severe and visible tension between the way things officially are and the way we know them to be.  We can see the cables connecting, for instance, the pharmaceutical companies and the "trustworthy" institutions of the medical establishment.  We have watched the media disappear up its own ass, its pathetic need, its desperation to entertain exposed for all to see.  It is frozen in a kind of self-aware obscene tableau, as if we were playing a game of pornographic charades.

And we are unmoored from traditional sources of identity, traditional conceptions of how to live our lives.  How to be in the world.  We have no real convictions, no real confidence in the superiority of our way of life.  And we have become paralyzingly aware of how plastic our identities are.  Unlike previous generations (I assume), we don't even bother to pretend that it is odd that we quickly pick up the accents and locutions of those around us—indeed, it would strike us as odd if we didn't.  We understand that this is how people are.

But these are causes, not consequences, and I think our resort to irony is completely understandable in light of them.  It is not too different from "appreciating" campy things, although it has a harder edge than I am led to believe "camping" used to have.  (As a side note, one of the really terrible things about hipsters is the sense that they are mocking the people they imitate, that a lumberjack who likes PBR would likely be insulted if he spent any time with them.)  This ironic distance is just a way of navigating the terrible, made-up world we live in.

I end up in basically the same place as Wampole, but I don't see irony as particularly toxic, except (as noted) where it involves stupid hipster shit.  The problem is what it displaces, what gets left behind.  If you use irony as a kind of safety valve or a way of making sense of the world, but you are still genuinely, earnestly passionate about the Democratic Party, or gay rights, or Methodism, then you are not part of the problem.  You just need to make sure you are balancing your cleverness and performance art with some real human engagement and emotion.  There must be some Tolstoy in you.  Think of Colbert—over-the-top performance art and irony mixed with genuine political feeling and engagement.  If you haven't struck that balance, then, as Wampole says, you must change yourself quietly, from within.  And I mean it.

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