Christy Wampole wants us to live without irony. In her weekend essay for the New York Times’ Opinionator section, the Princeton lit professor encourages all of us—not just hipsters—to recognize the paucity of sincerity in contemporary American culture and “determine whether the ashes of irony have settled on you as well.”
The essay’s been getting a lot of play, popping up again and again on my Twitter and Facebook, and there certainly are points to be admired, particularly from a feminist perspective. While I think irony and apathy are often unfairly conflated, Walpole is right that irony, often a mark of privilege, can dampen political enthusiasm and discourage progress—a point stressed in a number of recent pieces about “hipster sexism.”
However, I’m skeptical of Wampole’s simplistic idea of private authenticity. The author directs much of her critique at referential performativity—related, but not identical, to ironic living—as a threat to some essential human spirit entirely divorced from anything outside itself. Take, for example, her interrogation of the reader’s sartorial choices:
What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves?… The most important question: How would it feel to change yourself quietly, offline, without public display, from within?
What I want to ask Wampole in return is: what would a wardrobe that isn’t a costume look like? What “clothes refer… only to themselves,” arising from nothing and communicating nothing? People have preferences, but it’s not like there’s something in my DNA or soul or patronus that, no matter the context in which I lived, would demand I wear long skirts. There is no choice of garment that isn’t informed by societal standards and expectations—whether it embraces or rejects them—and that isn’t read symbolically by those around us. Perhaps by dressing “sincerely” Wampole means dressing “neutrally” or “normally” but each is, of course, its own arbitrary costume: a wider pant leg isn’t inherently authentic.
We can’t opt out. But referential performativity (and thus, insofar as it is related, irony) offers us a way to expose the rules of the game and deconstruct neutrality. Just as campy hyperfemininity and hypermasculinity draw attention to “plain” gender as a cultural product, self-aware costuming of other sorts remind us that all our defaults are artificial. And our recognition that these expectations are not written in the stars but (wo)manmade and thus malleable allows us to play with these norms and push their boundaries. In limited doses, irony grants us the freedom to explore our changeable, inconsistent, constructed selves. Maybe today’s Alexandra would like to dress up as a flapper.
Look, I don’t believe that each new skinny jean in Bushwick is a bullet straight to the heart of the patriarchy. But I do think that an uncritical insistence on an essential self can be just as dishonest and constricting as the ironic culture Wampole condemns, particularly when this insistence is coupled with restrictions on what that self is allowed to look like (your inner spirit isn’t permitted a penchant for little girl dresses). And this isn’t just about clothes. Although Wampole bemoans the loss of “the art of looking at people, the art of being seen” in this Age of Irony, her notion of sincere living “from within” forgets how these arts (which are actually central to hipsterdom) shape us. We all live in reference to many things outside ourselves, developing identities that depend on “public display,” and to pretend otherwise is a very strange view of humanity.
It’s also, despite Wampole’s critique of apathetic hipsters, deeply apolitical. If it’s possible to shed societal influence by sheer will and return to some authentic, unadulterated self, then why do we care about sexism, racism, or any other ideology that limits the individual based on perceived group membership? Irony can certainly be overdone, and in certain contexts can do great damage. But so can its absolute rejection.