Assessing Irony

I saw this Opinionator article from Christy Wampole in the New York Times: "How to Live Without Irony." It condemns the ironic lifestyle of Generation Y as terminally inauthentic, avoiding real commitments, making us (them) incapable of dealing with the world at hand and with each other.

Central to Wampole's critique is a standard "I don't understand the younger generation" vibe, which now looks at the 90s (which kicked off the age of irony) as "relatively irony free" with "a combative stance against authority." She admits that her recollection may be "over-nostalgic," and I'll grant her that all such generalizations about the spirit of generations are basically bullshitting, or, at best, some weird kind of pseudo-psychological account that can "make ya think" but isn't really putting forward a philosophical thesis. The guts of Wampole's story has to be an ideological critique, which is to say that if you are acting in such and such a way ("How much hyperbolic language do I use? Do I feign indifference? ...Do you attempt to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly?"), then you're screwed up. (This is, for example, how we can charitably interpret Nietzsche's comments on any number of groups: not as a condemnation of a group of people, but as an argument against an ideology which he thinks is explicitly or implicitly professed by some group.)

I've argued before here (and here and here) that irony need not be negative in the way Wampole describes. She says that overcoming irony means cultivating "humility and self-effacement," yet also earlier describes an irony as involving "self-scrutiny" that results in a presentation of yourself that makes fun of yourself. Yes, as she says, irony is self-protective, in that you've preemptively criticized yourself before others can do so, but that's what humility amounts to: "I'm probably full of shit here, but here's what I think..."

As I've described it, ironic fashion and music choices need not be dismissive and inauthentic, but rather can express one's openness to experimentation. In the 90s, some people started wearing bell-bottoms and listening to disco again, in exactly the kind of ironic way that Wampole objects to, but this occurrence isn't accurately described as these people really hating this 60s/70s throwback things but wearing them anyway out of peer pressure, secretly despising themselves. No, it's that those fashions and music are actually fun, even if the commercial elements involved in their original historical occurrence are objectionable. Today's hipster (so I gather) doesn't wear goofy horn-rimmed glasses and wear a fedora because these things make him look ugly, but because he actually thinks they're fun, and slightly rebellious, and maybe marks him as "in the know" in a way that other people aren't. This can be annoying and smug, but doesn't display the nihilism that Wampole identifies.

It's worth discussing a paragraph from her article that stuck out to me:

Life in the Internet age has undoubtedly helped a certain ironic sensibility to flourish. An ethos can be disseminated quickly and widely through this medium. Our incapacity to deal with the things at hand is evident in our use of, and increasing reliance on, digital technology. Prioritizing what is remote over what is immediate, the virtual over the actual, we are absorbed in the public and private sphere by the little devices that take us elsewhere.

The first sentence reflects her view that irony is a social phenomenon, a matter of fashion; the latest hipster trend can be communicated rapidly. I disagree: viewing irony as a form of epoché means it is not purely and primarily social, but is a way of putting distance between oneself and ones value judgments, and Wampole affirms this in the rest of her critique. The rest of her paragraph expresses a common and I think well-grounded concern about technology and distraction, but I don't think it has much to do with irony. In fact, I've found that the Internet has made me less likely to use irony in communication, as it's far too easy to be misunderstood when writing to be all subtle.

I've suggested that irony as distance can be positive: being able to express ourselves without committing to a value judgment concerning that which we've expressed can then encourage more dispassionate contemplation. Ironic choices let you try out fashions and music that you might not otherwise to see whether you really do hate them and yourself afterward, or whether you've discovered something fun. Ironic gifts as Wampole describes can express that "it's the thought that counts, and I thought this would amuse you," which is better than, "here's a gift certificate; look how much cash value I've assigned to our relationship." (Though, of course, actually taking the time to pick out a sincere thing the person would like is best, but man, that's a lot of work!)

I think I'm not fully understanding Wampole's distinction, in that to me the "new sincerity" she mentions is just as hipster as the rest of it; the films of Wes Anderson are chock-full of irony to my eye. She mentions that people that have undergone tragedy lose irony, but to my ear, irony and gallows humor are very closely related, such that irony is perhaps the best way of dealing with tragedy. That this idea has permeated the culture is perhaps evident in that NBC now has a sitcom about ironic tragedy sufferers. So yes, inauthenticity and failure to deal with one's own feelings and the realities of life are bad, and yes, I'm sure there are individuals who use irony in the way that Wampole describes (though how she'd be in the position to make such a dismissive psychological diagnosis about the, I do not know), but no, the ship of irony is not tied to such matters: irony as the free play ideas without shame is in fact an antidote to some of the very maladies she identifies: maybe my 1950s hipster douche haircut expresses the real me.
Hipster haircut

-Mark Linsenmayer (who is not shown in the above photo)

Image Note: the Richard Simmons lunchbox came from here.


  1. Profile photo of Bill Burgess says

    I agree with your analysis, Mark. Irony doesn’t stop people from making commitments and one can still view one’s commitments with the irony that accompanies humility. Living, or making commitments, without irony, is a form of fanaticism no matter how mild, and, on occasion, has been a contributing factor to assholism.

    I also agree that generalizations of spirits of generations are basically bullshitting but this is only because they are generalizations.

  2. Profile photo of Daniel Horne says

    Just a tangential point, but commentators have been commentating on the unseemly ironic stance of youth subcultures since at least Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay, The White Negro:

    And yet crazy is also the self-protective irony of the hipster. Living with questions and not with answers, he is so different in his isolation and in the far reach of his imagination from almost everyone with whom he deals in the outer world of the Square, and meets generally so much enmity, competition, and hatred in the world of Hip, that his isolation is always in danger of turning upon itself, and leaving him indeed just that, crazy.

    Presuming to say anything about any “generation” is strictly for squares, if for no other reason than that it’s been done, done, done to death.

  3. Profile photo of Thomas Gissing says

    I am becoming increasingly dis-interested in what opinion columnists have to say about how generation specific behaviours are detrimental. As you point out, more often than not they are thinly disguised judgements that are grounded on nothing more than nostalgia. I believe many of the assertions in this article are empirical questions, the answer to which is by no means obvious. I would like to see evidence that the following claim(s) are true:

    “While we have gained some skill sets (multitasking, technological savvy), other skills have suffered: the art of conversation, the art of looking at people, the art of being seen, the art of being present. Our conduct is no longer governed by subtlety, finesse, grace and attention, all qualities more esteemed in earlier decades. Inwardness and narcissism now hold sway.

    Also, surely she has not often conversed with the hipsters she derides. To my mind, it is simply not true that hipsters shun any specific belief system for which they can be accountable. To take a few prevalent beliefs that I’ve encountered in my interactions: the advocacy of organic food, post-modern analysis of history, ethical relativism, or anti-nationalism. The hipsters who I know and have talked with might wear ironic clothing, but they are by no means dodging criticism or failing to take responsibility for their choices.

    That aside, her description of hipsters as ‘contemporary urban harlequins appropriating outmoded fashions fashions, mechanisms and hobbies.’ is simply brilliant.

  4. Philip says

    Is it ironic if I share your criticisms of this argument with regard to generalizing the spirit of a generation and then inveigh against the Gen Xers? Well, here goes: I’ll take the ironic Generation Y over the cynical, sarcastic, and apathetic Generation X any day.

  5. says


    I’m definitely with you on a lot of this. There is a general tone of “kids these days,” and a lot of generalizing about the contemporary role of irony and so on. And this tone definitely undermines her stance. She would have done well to try an insulate herself from such standard rebuttals within the piece itself.

    But I think there is something more to the phenomeon, specifically as it manifests online and in public discourse, which is indeed very troubling.

    I wrote my take on Wampole’s piece here(, with the short of it being that I think certain economic facts and systems have driven the Irony-as-lifestyle to a destructive extreme.

    DFW was alrealy lamenting this in the 90s, which could be taken as “see, people have always been screaming about the sky falling,” or as, “yea, and it’s just kept falling all this time.”

    As a blogger now, I’m sure you’ve witnessed the kind of rush to original angles and contrarianism, and then ultimately ironic witticism that plagues most political commentary?

    I think the real element of truth in what she writes has to do with the de-politicization associated with hipsterism and with the over-abundance of irony thats employed by, say, the pundit machine at somewhere like Slate, or the self-righteous but breezy condemnations which flow from the Gawker empire.

    Her critique should have been narrow, and was not nearly as peircing as much else that the Stone publishes, but at the heart of what she’s saying is something that I observe daily.

  6. Jamie says

    As a twenty-something currently wearing horn-rimmed glasses(prescription and completely sincere), I feel like I should defend myself!

    The way I see legitimate use of irony in terms of political/ethical discourse, is that it’s an implicit admission of contingency and fallibilism(cf. Rorty’s liberal ironism).When irony used to criticize another position, it’s a reductio ad absurdum (“I’m going to ironically declare position X, which when demonstrated is obviously false”). The latter use(credit to commenter on the NYT article) being the same kind of irony Socrates and Kierkegaard used.

    I can understand the criticisms, irony is often seen as cowardly and mean-spirited, but it can be done properly. I don’t think irony necessarily constitutes bad faith.

    • Jason Stable says

      Horn-rimmed glasses aren’t ironic now are they? They maybe were in the ’90s. But maybe irony depends on your intention behind the act. But, like whatever floats your boat. I like the idea of being perceived as hip but I’ll pass on wearing a little whimsical mustache and short-shorts.
      Rorty is interesting. I wonder how politically effective ironic liberal intellectuals can be in fighting those shielded with the conviction that their causes are grounded in something more than mere culture.. that’s an open question. In any case his work to bring together in a vision that would admiringly acknowledge those ironic philosophical geniuses committed to personal projects of self creation while retaining a commitment to old school progressive politics is an intriguing mess. Imho, Nietzsche is intoxicating, poisonous shit to the left (lol).

  7. Jason Stable says

    PEL, book ideas perhaps one day (when I have time for more than mere chit-chat and I’m not tired from highly irony free jobs) I can propose for discussion.
    Or 2 authors, since multiple works come to mind:
    Pierre Bourdieu and Thorstein Veblen.
    I’m fascinated by how people come to form the taste they do in music, clothing fashion, etc., and in identity formation in general…

  8. Matt says

    Some thoughts on our Hipster Nation:

    In order to be a hipster, as far as I can tell, means one must be into trends (music, clothing, etc.) that are either entirely new, rebellious, or entirely different from/or beyond what is conventional. The problem, as far as I can tell: when everyone is into what is hip, then nothing is hip, for hip must have a counterpart, i.e. what is conventional/conservative. I live in Berkeley, a mile or two from SF, and here, everyone is a rebel and hipster. The problem is that under these circumstances, as I see it, no one is really a rebel and a hipster because everyone agrees that being a rebel and a hipster is the proper way to be and to appear to be; that is to say, if everyone is a rebel, then no one is a rebel, if everyone is hipster, then no one is a hipster. Finally, if everyone is being ironic, then no one is being ironic. If one really wanted to be a rebel in my lovely little community, that person would wear a suit and tie everywhere that he or she went, or maybe a tee shirt that says ‘I love Jesus’, and maybe throw a couple ‘I love Romney’ bumper stickers on his or her car.

    All that being said, I have no problems with our hipster nation (except for the fact that every girl that I have dated seems to want to dress me like one). I tend to agree with Hegel that there are three major carriers of the Absolute in culture: art, religion, and philosophy. The first of which, art, is the sensuous form, let us say here, of coming to know oneself, while the later two deal with a more inward contemplative coming to know of oneself. Certainly, art is easily noticeable as a carrier of spirit in the music one listens to, the poems one writes, etc. It is less noticeable, because so close to us, in the way in which we dress, ornament ourselves, our embodied selves. Art, furthermore, is the first way in which one comes to know oneself in life, later in life to be sublated, but never lost, by the other two more inward forms of spirit. So, the trends in art (music and dress and the like), I think, in some ways, will always be more the occupation of the youth, and the trends will sway with the tastes of the youth, as the young come to know themselves. And today’s trend will be obsolete to the trend of the next decade, but, each decade’s trend is a showing of that human, all too human, spirit.

    And today’s hipsters will be tomorrow’s curmudgeons.

    Finally, I have found that every time someone is making fun of hipsters, he or she looks shockingly like a hipster. So, maybe I should shut up now.

    To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation.
    –Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

    (Note: what I said above employed Hegelian categories but was not Hegelian in the least)


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