• Irony: The ressentiment of our Time?

    By: Esmeralda Smith Romero

    Christy Wampole’s article in the November 17th New York Times Blog “How to Live Without Irony” says that “irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt” for many American children of the 80’s and 90’s, particularly for middle-class Caucasians. This presumption arrogantly and small-mindedly assumes the life built on irony to be an American phenomenon. But as most hipsters know (generally through their love of all things esoteric and particularly through their fascination with the Sartorialist, Dwell, Flight of the Concords and the Huffington Post), irony in dress, in speech and in décor is a global phenomenon. Fixed gear bikes, quinoa salad and vintage clothes do not exist solely in Portland and Brooklyn, but rather the various incarnations of irony are manifesting themselves throughout the world in a beautiful tapestry, likely one bought in a small-town market on a recent trip to somewhere exotic. If we use Wampole’s logic about living ironically being simply a reaction to “too much comfort, too much history and too many choices” then we see that hipsters aren’t simply living in the United States, but rather can be found in South Korea, Colombia, the United Arab Emirates and of course that hipster haven, the European Union. Furthermore, it is unfair to say that hipsterism is a middle class phenomenon. In my experience many hipsters work in the retail and service industries, are underemployed or students with student loans.

    According to Wampole, the irony culture has significant political importance because the typical hipster of our time is shirking “responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise. To live ironically is to hide in public.” To claim that hipsters are hiding in public is indeed interesting. Living in Ottawa, Canada, it is easy to attest to the fact that many out-of-the-closet hipsters work for the government during the day, riding their fixed gear bikes to work, eating their quinoa salad at lunch, and most likely wearing vintage dresses and ties that go splendidly with their whimsical socks and tights. In their off time, they play in bands, paint abstract art by throwing paint-filled condoms, watch Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop" Song ( on their YouTube app, and go to their friends’ concerts, art shows, and plays:  in other words, they invest in their communities. These young people are in fact the very model of citizenship. This is quite the opposite of the picture Wampole is offering us of parasitical hipsters  “siphon[ing] energy from the cultural reserves of the community at large.”

    Wampole goes on to make a very Nietzschean argument that “This kind of defensive living works as a pre-emptive surrender and takes the form of reaction rather than action.” Wampole is suggesting that our generation is Nietzsche’s infamous Bad.  She would perhaps suggest that instead of harnessing our restless energies to overcome the establishment’s moral monopoly and denounce their supposedly innocuous politics and ethics as Evil, we go thrifting. Wampole commends us for our command of the language of the defeated, the detached, the indifferent, and the superficial. However, as the Occupy movements, the Arab Spring democratic movements and the EU anti-austerity movements throughout the world have shown, young people, many of whom are hipsters, care about the world they live in. Young people are not content with the debts, the pollution and the unemployment they and their global others (in a Levinasian sense) are shouldering. While it can be argued that we are a powerless generation, as we search for stable jobs where no opportunities apparently exist, this can be said of any young generation. It is merely romantic storytelling to argue that young generations past were more activist. Every generation before us has contributed, has written their story, and so we are offering ours. We must answer the question: Is our generation merely re-appropriating the assumptions that have been made of us?  Wampole suggests our supposed “belief that this generation has little to offer in terms of culture, that everything has already been done, or that serious commitment to any belief will eventually be subsumed by an opposing belief, rendering the first laughable at best and contemptible at worst.” However, we do act. Every decision to dress ironically is a statement about our society, about who we are as individuals and as a fluid group. While seemingly powerless, we do not feed on ressentiment, we are not envious and covetous. Rather, we want everyone, including ourselves and especially the forgotten 99%, to have a fair share and get a fair shot. We are not hostile out of a sense of inferiority. But, we do protest: we do respectfully say “NO” and “STOP” out of confidence in the strong education we have been given but that has been obscured by artificial wants. We are taking responsibility, not avoiding it, and expecting our elders who hold power and money to follow suit and be brought to account. Rather than fitting a Nietzschean scheme, our current generation fits a poststructuralist model more closely, such as one formed by relations of power, as envisioned by Foucault.

    Is living ironically symptomatic of our generational surrender of the ideal of achievement? Have we taken the existential route of nihilism? In other words, as beautiful as a day can be or as miraculous as our lives may be, is existence, not to mention resistance, futile? I say no. I say that what we have found is belief in social and political ideals of justice and we are trying to live them out in all the small ways. Our ironic t-shirts are not nihilistic: they are riffing on a theme of our being labeled, bought, traded and bartered by pop-culture and pop-politics. For Wampole to be so demeaning of an entire group of harmless people based on what they wear, assuming it to reflect their beliefs, is worrisome and contains a not-so subtle whiff of intolerance. It dangerously essentializes subgroups. We should all have learnt by now that people are multifaceted,  that they have beliefs and meaning that extend beyond what we assume about them based on what they wear.

    What of Absurdism? What of Kierkegaard, Camus, Artaud, Beckett, Pinter, Albee, Grass, Kafka, Tzara and all the Dadaists? Is it not fair to posit that like other counter-culture movements ironic hipsters of today are not eluding the absurd, but rather embracing and confronting it in an existential awakening, in an attempt to free themselves. They find personal meaning in life through irony, as silly as it may seem to Ms. Wampole, and rather than simply hope for a better tomorrow they creatively transform and contribute to the world around them.

    To suggest that hipsters are apathetic is one leap, but to assume that that apathy will invite violent fascism or communism is another level of exaggeration, an irresponsible one. Historically, vacuums eventually have been filled by something — more often than not, a hazardous something.” What is more likely is that we live in a fascist time, where populist propaganda telling us how to dress, how to speak, what to eat, who to love and how to live has bombarded us since we could first watch Care Bears. What we are doing now is resisting it. Wampole is targeting ironic hipsters as societal enemies. Surely it is a stretch to contend that ironic hipsters are really a delinquent subculture insofar as they are dangerously opting out of productive society through their choice of kitschy decorations and socially ‘confused’ dress. The Chicago school and symbolic interactionists everywhere do not have in mind such a frivolous interpretation of the literature. When Subcultural Theory was developed, it was intended to understand the anti-social values and activities of violent youth gangs. They hoped that understanding could lead to intervention that could then lead to criminal deterrence. What about hipster culture needs to be deterred rather than encouraged? It is once again a dangerous accusation that hipsters are a menace to society. It is troublesome to say that their delinquent behaviour of social and political consciousness must be curtailed before they become “adults” who use irony, satire, sarcasm and parody to communicate their resistance to the authority of the status quo. This is a democracy after all, and we are free to express our opinions as we choose, to dress as we please, and, to give those we love the tackiest things we can find at garage sales. Ms. Wampole, these are free countries, so deal with it.

    What is perhaps most offensive about Wampole’s text is her line describing people “eating anti-depressants like they were candy.” She should be more sensitive to people who truly do suffer from mental health disorders, something that has been terribly stigmatized in our society and for which we offer very little help other than overpriced pharmaceuticals. This is a legitimate first world problem.

    Wampole writes, the ironic clique appears simply too comfortable, too brainlessly compliant. Ironic living is a first-world problem. For the relatively well educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. [… The hipster] doesn’t own anything he possesses.” Lucky for Wampole, we do live in such an affluent society that people can pursue PhD’s at Ivy League schools where they study the practical and demanding subjects of French and Italian Literature. Rather than using the self-absorbed and self-effacing hashtag of #firstworldproblems, perhaps Wampole could recognize that the first world has problems too. It is not the ideal utopia of progress that past generations of development theorists presented it as. In fact, perhaps hipsters and their irony are not the first world problems, but rather it is the dreary and complacent status quo that we should be worried about. Perhaps people who target activists as enemies from within are truly those worth writing and worrying about. My hope for Ms. Wampole is that she takes some of her own advice and undertake “an honest self-inventory.”

    “One cannot accelerate meaningful remembrance.” Is this true? We live in such a fast paced world of representations filled with meaningful experiences for the perceiver. Is it wrong to cultivate a nostalgic following for shows decades old, songs years old, sayings months old and memes weeks old? The information fatigue that our generation suffers from due to the informational blitzkrieg leads to an ability to filter and synergize more information. Thus, when we do act, it is with strong purpose motivated by greater evidence. As Jean Baudrillard might argue, rather than becoming deluded and seduced by the objects, beliefs and other signifiers we are constantly being sold, we are trying to understand and capture the minutiae of real life in order to take meaningful action, and we are representing that with our own t-shirts.

    Thus, if “[s]omething about the responsibility of choosing a personal, meaningful gift for a friend feels too intimate, too momentous” then by all means, buy our shirts!

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