Hipster culture has been mined to death, but ironic living isn’t simply about 70s-style moustaches and trucker hats with inscrutable slogans. In a recent New York Times article, Christy Wampole, assistant professor at Princeton University, makes the case that our embrace of irony can actually be a rejection of authenticity and intimacy. “Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise,” she writes. “Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.” Here, Wampole explains how irony can create distance in our relationships and contribute to unhappiness.
Q: What motivated you to write this article?
A: I wrote it when I was in Berlin, staying in a hip neighbourhood and looking out the window at the German version of hipsters. That’s what set off my reflection.
Q: Several people have assumed that this is directed towards the “hipsters” who wear the external symbols of irony. Can you explain how “ironic living” applies to the rest of us?
A: A lot of people misread my piece to be an article about hipster bashing, but it’s actually the opposite. What I was actually saying is that anytime people have a feeling of irritation produced by seeing some kind of loud, ironic gesture and responding in a negative, critical way, then that’s a way of participating in the ironic tendencies that have become omnipresent.
Q: Do you think our embrace of irony is actually a form of cynicism? It’s tough to get away with being earnest these days.
A: Exactly. Cynicism is a form of fear, and it speaks to a kind of vulnerability that people don’t know how to deal with. I’ve gotten hundreds of letters from all over the world about this article, and one person wrote that the millennial generation could be identified as the “self-esteem generation,” and that parents, instead of giving their children moments to face criticism in an adult and responsible way, tell their children that everything they do is perfect. If you grow up without developing the ability to deal with criticism, maybe this becomes one of the ways of coping – pretending you don’t care.
Q: Do you think ironic living is having any impact on our ability to be happy?
A: Definitely. If you always have this shield up, it numbs you to intimacy and genuine social connections. A few different people have written about the connection between relationships and ironic living, and the distance it creates between people. When you’re in a social interaction, you’re never sure if you’re getting the whole person.
Q: You mention that certain skills have suffered, including the art of conversation and being present. You wrote that “inwardness and narcissism now hold sway.” What broader impact do you think that has?
A: This problem was perpetuated by the Internet, and the opportunity to sarcastically comment on everything while never really being accountable for those comments. It’s an inward turning, and a self-scrutiny that’s not particularly positive. There are ways to examine your life without becoming so self-obsessed that you imagine that everyone wants to see a picture of every meal that you’ve eaten.
Q: Do you think we need to start living more earnestly? And if so, where do we start?
A: I definitely think so. I saw some research that claims children are able to recognize and emulate irony around age six. Before that, what you see if what you get. Becoming more earnest and childlike in that way – instead of dressing like one – can actually be a benefit.
Tell us what you think. Has irony become too much of the norm for the millennial generation?