There’s No Insincerity In Irony

Charles Emrich defends irony from its detractors. Sincerely.

I’m pretty sure you haven’t lived until the New York Times has declared you dead.

Today I am pleased to be alive, because middle-aged Princeton French professor Christy Wampole has declared irony delenda est in an NYT article. Wampole’s article, I regret to say, does not deserve the seriousness of the response we’re going to offer it. Her argument is a display of ignorance topped with hubris. It is an overfilled dish of irritated sentiments seasoned with misunderstandings, false nostalgia, demonstrable untruths, and weird neo-Luddite grumblings. It is, by and large, actually beneath notice. There are ways we never really need to hear another generation-gap-widening piece by someone who hasn’t taken the time to understand what they’re critiquing. But it’s a great example of its genre, and we need to talk about the genre.

It’s more than just “Kids These Days.” It’s more intellectual than mere incomprehension of The Youth as (mis)understood by academics. It’s an argument against an ethos and a way of life defined by irony. But it, and thus far every article like it that I’ve encountered, keep making the same damning mistake: the do not understand the practice of irony as it actually occurs in the wilds of Portlandia and Brooklyn.

In the end, this makes all the articles about irony read like the “travelogues” of European explorers: They describe Africa in a way no African would recognize. It’s all camelopards and Prester John. No one lives the ironic life in the way that these articles envision that they do. As such, attacks on this kind of ironic living (which Wampole calls Deep Irony) turn out to be misguided because they refer to almost no one who actually lives.

Let’s talk about the lifestyle of the mythical Deep Ironist. The Deep Ironist is someone who literally adopts customs, hobbies, and fashions not out of preference for those things but out of a perverse desire to illustrate the absurdity of their adoption. When they say they like a band, they are not talking about the band but making a meta-statement about the sort of people who say they like this band. All of their actions are calculated, and none of their meanings match their denotations.

These imagined people are Januses who always speak with two voices. Their very lives are not lived but instead act as commentary on what it means to be the sort of person who lives their life as a commentary. They are Caden Cotards, building worlds within worlds that talk to each other about themselves.

Their OKCupid profiles read “Likes: The 80s, Hip-Hop, Justin Bieber, Irony. Dislikes: The 80s, Hip-Hop, Justin Bieber, Irony, Myself.”

Thankfully no such people exist. Outside of certain particularly enterprising artists, people simply do not engage in this kind of irony. Even the relatively moderate “adoption of things as a comment on those things” is pretty much unheard-of. At worst, you see people wearing shirts for bands they hate. But the whole of the anti-ironic criticism genre seems to flow forth from this misunderstanding of actual ironists. I know ironists, though. Piles of them. Sincere Ironists.

Ironic Sincerity, a.k.a. the kind practiced by real ironists, is not a stance, but a way of actually liking things. It acknowledges that things can be ridiculous, kitschy, absurd, and worthy of mockery while nevertheless being enjoyable, perhaps even because they are ridiculous, kitschy, absurd, and worthy of mockery. Sometimes these things can even be great. But there are great-great things and bad-great things. Both great-great things and bad-great things are sincerely appreciated by real ironists. Example: I love Jim Wynorski films. They’re awful, but there’s something magical about titles like Chopping Mall that I just can’t resist.

When describing allegedly counter-ironic movement New Sincerity, Wampole mentions David Foster Wallace and Cat Power, apparently failing to understand that irony as she is actually practiced goes hand in hand with painful earnestness, and awkwardness. People who like David Foster Wallace are often ironists, and they don’t quit just because they like sincere things, too.
That guy on a fixie loves Consider The Lobster and Girls. That genderqueer with the huge gauges? Ey’s really into mumblecore and The Mountain Goats. This milieu of defense, in-jokes, and cultured obscurity celebrates vulnerability and examines and expresses even its most painful and, indeed, awkward emotions.

Sincerity is simply not irony’s antonym.

And ironists are always expressing. Wampole worries that the speech of ironists is not “meaningful” that they do not say what they mean, or mean what they say. This is as silly as it is wrong. Ironic speech is nuanced and multi-layered, but this gives it more meaning, not less. It may not be immediately clear how I mean “Reading Fifty Shades of Grey was one of the more enjoyable things I did this summer,” but I have said a thing I mean, and really do intend to say that thing.

It’d be disingenous, though, to pretend that irony is merely The Way We Like Things Now. Anti-ironic criticism is right that irony is a defensive strategy for navigating culture and choice with minimized risk. The critics point out the flaws with this minimizing of risk and the dangers of quashing discussion. But only rarely do they ask why people would live in a way that has these negative side effects. Wampole asks, and her analysis is typical of the genre:

The ironic life is certainly a provisional answer to the problems of too much comfort, too much history and too many choices, but it is my firm conviction that this mode of living is not viable and conceals within it many social and political risks.

So the ironic life answers an excess of comfort, security, and history? Really? Complacency in security is a thing that happens, sure; but imagining that  irony serves only to bolster our already-overflowing basket of comforts strikes me as mistaken. It’s akin to looking at crime rates in depressed neighborhoods and inner cities and lamenting “why do they keep doing it? Don’t they know that crime is bad and risky?” Yikes, Virginia. You’ve stopped short of asking the right question: “What if they know that crime is risky, but they keep doing it anyway? If so, what must their reasons be?”

When we ask this sort of question about crime, we get much better answers about the causes of crime. We’ll get better answers to the question of ironic living if we ask “why is irony worth the costs, and the risks, to those who employ it?” Insofar as irony is a defense (and it is only partially a defense) it is plain to me that it is a reaction to worrisome insecurity rather than a surfeit of security.

I hate to make it personal like this, but I am a member of her irritating “ironic clique” and I can speak with the authority of experience here.

We are a generation of twenty-somethings with degrees, educations, plans, hopes and barely the faintest notion of how we’ll achieve them. We’re working dead-end jobs if we can find jobs at all. We’re moving back in with our parents rather than moving on with our lives. We are deeply worried, frequently depressed, and existentially troubled. We were told that we would succeed, that America was trending upwards, and that all we’d need to do was apply ourselves and we’d “get there.” Nothing of the sort has happened. I have nothing but flaring disdain for the position irony is the product of a generation that is “too comfortable.”

But are the harms of defensive irony worth the benefits? I’ll concede some points here. I happen to think that the ironic appreciation of things often presents real difficulties to discussion and engagement. Describing the decision of a self-aware ad to be self-aware as a method of defense, Wampole notes that “no attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself.” Ironic distance obfuscates sincere debate about the merits of things, but only those kinds of things that people hold onto ironically.

When I tell people that I find an action movie bad, I have to have the same discussion every time. See if this sounds familiar:
Movie X (Or X3: X-Men United, as the case may be) is bad.”
“Charles, relax. It’s just a dumb action movie. It’s not supposed to be [Showa/Satantango/Shichinin no Samurai].”
“No, what I am saying is that it is bad at being a ‘bad action movie.’”

This is why I no longer have discussions about Sucker Punch. There is a veil of irony that must be pierced in order to get to the business of actually talking about a thing. I’ve spent more time than I’m proud of arguing that even if something is self-aware, even if it “knows what it is,” it can still be criticized. So yeah, irony can really get in the way of a good discussion.

But here’s the silver lining: the areas where irony hurts us are not going to kill us. No one except for Vermin Supreme holds political views ironically. No one except PETA holds ethical views for the purpose of ironic swagger. (The research gremlins insist that PETA is a sincere effort, but I do not believe them.) So even in the worst case scenario where irony is just an admittedly harmful defense mechanism, we still risk very little. And I’d argue that most of the time it’s much more than mere defense, but rather a fully engaged way of living.

Irony isn’t about pushing things away. Irony is about holding them at arm’s length so you can get a really good look at them. Maybe even, loving them not despite flaws, but because of them. And while irony is an aesthetic luxury, it is not a frippery. Irony is deeply honest, and only seems otherwise because it is emotionally unavailable. Irony is complex like that because it acknowledges complexity and absurdity. Irony is not a regressive reaction to “too much” of anything, it is a proactive method for handling culture as it exists.

Irony is a means to better living.

—Photo stevendepolo/Flickr

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Comments

  1. Speaking as someone who attempted to review Jim Wynorski’s complete filmography in chronological order (I only made it 11 movies–out of over 80–in before I had to quit) I completely understand and endorse the sentiments of this post.

  2. ‘We are a generation of twenty-somethings with degrees, educations, plans, hopes and barely the faintest notion of how we’ll achieve them. We’re working dead-end jobs if we can find jobs at all. We’re moving back in with our parents rather than moving on with our lives. We are deeply worried, frequently depressed, and existentially troubled. We were told that we would succeed, that America was trending upwards, and that all we’d need to do was apply ourselves and we’d “get there.” Nothing of the sort has happened. I have nothing but flaring disdain for the position irony is the product of a generation that is “too comfortable.”’

    Thank you for putting my feelings into such clear writing.

  3. As a twentysomething ironist, I wholeheartedly (and sincerely) agree with everything in this post.

    I’d also like to point out something that I haven’t really seen mentioned in all these debates over irony. Critics of ironic culture frequently describe irony as a “defense mechanism” that young people use to cope with a pathological fear of honesty or sincerity. I think that this view is exactly wrong: irony is a defense mechanism, but one that guards against insincerity rather than sincerity.

    What many older commentators seem to miss is that the irony of younger generations is in many ways a response to the media culture that we were brought up in. Each generation is more thoroughly saturated in marketing messages than the last. Every mediocre product is marketed as a fantastic, life-changing MacGuffin that will bring us happiness or contentment. There is no way that reality can compare to the expectations raised by marketing culture. Irony is our admission that the life we live is not the life we are told to expect.

    Irony is also the flip side of the quest for “authenticity” (whatever that means). We are constantly being told how to feel about things. The marketing ethos of constant, insincere enthusiasm has metastasized from business to every facet of our lives: church, school, even our intimate relationships. As a result, authenticity commands a premium, and many people engage in a constant, emotionally and intellectually exhausting search for it. Irony allows us to take a break from that quest and just experience life while bracketing the question of whether our experiences are sufficiently genuine.

    • wellokaythen says:

      There is enough diversity within the modern pop culture of irony that there are people who use it as a defense mechanism to keep their options open. It’s not always about sincerity. Sometimes it’s dysfunctional cynicism.

      I’m reminded of the people who make offensive or unpopular or even hateful statements and then try to deflect the consequences by saying they were only joking. THEY didn’t do anything wrong, the problem must be with the defectiveness of the listener. There is never any valid reason to be angry about what I say, because I didn’t really say it, though of course if you like what I said, then I meant every word. Selective retroactive irony is very useful for people who want to say whatever they want to and never face any negative social consequences.

      And, hey, if this message offends you, what’s wrong with you that you can’t take a joke?

    • This is a very good point, and one I’ve thought about in the past as well. I think an ironic relation to many things in life may be the only healthy way to relate to a culture that’s drowning in insincerity and hucksterism to the extent that ours is. I still think people can take it too far (and think the consequences of such are worse than Charles suggests), but ultimately a moderate amount of irony is a lot healthier than a complete lack.

  4. Nick, mostly says:

    Today I am pleased to be alive, because middle-aged Princeton French professor Christy Wampole has declared irony delenda est in an NYT article.

    I’m curious as to why you felt a need to highlight the author’s age. If her charge had been made by someone 75 or 25 for that matter, would it merit a different consideration? “Middle-aged woman” holds a certain connotation in our culture and it’s unclear if your intent was to conjure that image in your critique.

    I listened to Tom Ashbrook interview her on WBUR’s On Point radio program. The way she described her point was a bit more nuanced than I think many people have read it to be.

    • Charles Emrich says:

      Her age is important because it means two things:

      1) She a person fully into adulthood writing an article decrying the excesses of the youth while failing to understand the youth. This puts her in a lineage as old as writing of adults worried that The Kids Are Not Okay.

      2) Even without the Adults v. Kids angle, it means that she is an outsider to the culture she attacks. Bemoaning the excessive comforts of youth from the position of a) adulthood and b) academia means that she is engaging in the sort of outsider critique that should always be scrutinized. In this case, I argue that it falls apart under scrutiny.

      And, yeah, I worried that “middle-aged” would be read as just devaluing middle-aged women, but decided that making the two above points was more important than avoiding the misreading made possible by using the word “middle-aged.” It can definitely be read as the most prejudicial, or at least the meanest, jab in the piece if you’re looking at it from that angle….

  5. Well I’m 45, and not so long ago, my generation was supposed to be the generation of hiply embittered ironic slackers. Now we’re just middle aged, oh well.

    I was just reading a short story by H.P. Lovecraft written in 1937 where he describes the “meaningless ironic pose” of certain “Bohemian” university students. The more things change….

    • wellokaythen says:

      It’s a recurring theme of “youth cultures” over the past few centuries that they act like they invented things that are much older than the current generation. (People born in the 1930’s scoffed at the Baby Boomers in the 1960’s who acted like they invented music and sex.) In another sense it’s an intense version of a very well-worn stereotype that people in past generations were simple and gullible, compared with the younger generation “today” who are sophisticated and ironic. It’s customary for the past few centuries to assume that people in the past were simpler than we are today.

      The grandchildren of today’s 20-something ironic hipsters will find their grandparents ridiculously simple, narrow-minded, and completely lacking in imagination.

      Ironically, irony is not ironic except when it is ironically ironic.

      • Charles Emrich says:

        It’s a recurring theme of “history” over the past few centuries to misinterpret “youth culture” like it’s going out of style. I have never once ever at any point seen someone suggest that we, today, invented irony. The modern sense of that term can probably be seen at /least/ as far back as Oscar Wilde without too much stretching. As a friend of mine pointed out, “Notes On Camp” is at least half a century old.

        If anything, the charge most often leveled at the hipster ironists (as opposed to the many thousands of garden-variety ironists like Your Humble Author) is that they /know/ they have invented nothing and are far too comfortable with it. Youth culture should be about invention, say the critics!

        I will agree that, yes, we consistently mishandle the past in assuming that past-folk were “simpler” than those today, but that’s not a mistake that modern ironists seem particularly prone to making. (Unless you want to argue that appropriation of the past inherently makes that assumption, which is an argument I’ve seen made but have never been persuaded by.)

        In fact, I think that this is a mistake that that Wampole’s argument actually makes–she’s full of nostalgia for a simpler, more sincere time. A time before irony was such a big deal. (Despite, of course, the importance of irony in, say, punk as well as glossing over its presence in grunge) In this case, she thinks that simpler is better, but we can both agree that she’s making an error.

    • Charles Emrich says:

      I know, right? It feels weird to still be fighting for the legitimacy of “Bohemians.” It seems like that debate should have… well… settled.

  6. By the way, is Christy Wampole even “middle aged”? I get the sense she is young — early 30’s or maybe younger. She just finished her Ph.D. In 2011

    • Nick, mostly says:

      I think she’s in her mid-to-late thirties. If I recall correctly from her On Point interview, she said she identifies as being on the line between Gen X and Gen Y.

    • Charles Emrich says:

      Sometimes I fact-check my opinion pieces. And by fact-check in this case I merely mean that I read the pieces I’m writing about. She actually mentions that she was born “born in 1977, at the tail end of Generation X” which would probably make her 35 at the moment.

      Whether thirty-five is middle-aged is a topic for sages, but I hereby declare that you become middle-aged by default the moment you write and article hand-wringing about the lifestyles of the youth.

      • She’s younger than me and therefore definitely not middle aged.

        She’s not true Gen X because we can’t be bothered to decry youth. We are too busy decrying the Baby Boomers. Now there ‘s an annoying generation.

      • That was intended as s humorous comment BTW. But really, I know I’M not middled aged yet so she can’t be. ha ha

  7. wellokaythen says:

    Like I need another article about hipster irony.

    Anyway, “___ delenda est” doesn’t mean that something is dead. It means something is still alive but needs to be destroyed, as with the Roman statesman who inserted ‘Carthago delenda est’ into every speech because he wanted everyone to remember that Carthage was the enemy and must be destroyed at some point.

    Then again, maybe the misuse of the phrase was meant to express an ironic misuse of classical education, ironically esoteric yet mishandled?

    • I noticed this as well, but I think he’s actually correct in his usage here. If you look at Wampole’s article, she’s not saying that irony is dead, but rather that it ought to be, which fits with the actual meaning and original context of the phrase. I think the problem is with the phrase “I’m pretty sure you haven’t lived until the New York Times has declared you dead,” which doesn’t really accord with what Wampole says, and thus sets up an expectation that the phrase (inasmuch as irony is dead) ought to be something more along the lines of “irony deleta est.”

      • Charles Emrich says:

        The references are a little densely packed in those opening sentences, I probably should’ve stuck “irony delenda est” a little but further away from “irony is dead” because it really looks like I’m just bad at Latin. In fact, I think Wampole (sort of) says both things.

        1) In declaring irony as a non-viable way of living, she is declaring it useless and “dead.”

        2) In declaring that we must learn to live without it, there are shades of a “delenda est” about it.

    • Charles Emrich says:

      Like I need another comment that’s just so over talking about irony. Also, you seem to have missed that a large part of my argument is about irony and those who engage in it. Irony is much wider-spread than the mythical, hated “hipster.”

      I know what “carthago delenda est” means, by the way. The Roman statesman you’re thinking of is Cato (the Elder, if you’re being extra-precise). I’ll admit that the metaphors and references fly thick and fast in those opening sentences but I am really saying two things about that Wampole article: 1) It declares irony “dead” as a way of life and insists that it does not offer something to those living it. 2) It declares irony “the enemy” in need of destruction in favor of some more sincere, direct, and nuanced way of life. I hope that part is clearer now.

  8. J.R. Frazer says:

    Charles:

    Thanks for writing this defense of our generation. I can’t tell you how irritating it was listening to Wampole’s interview on “On Point” with Tom Ashbrook. You managed to sum up why our generation uses irony very well (i.e.: big dreams, lots promised, no jobs). I think it’s also important that our generation really came of age when the War on Terror started and have been living with it as a backdrop ever since.

    If you’re ever in Baltimore, I’ll buy you a drink.

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