In defense of irony

Christy Wampole wants us to live without irony. In her weekend essay for the New York TimesOpinionator 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.

File:Hipster with bike.jpg

Wikimedia Commons

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.

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  1. Posted November 21, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Can you please explain what “referential performativity” is?

    I did a Wikipedia search, and the phrase didn’t pop up. A Google search brings this article up first, and then some Google books on postmodernism, which, to be honest, I didn’t feel masochistic enough to wade through.

    • Posted November 22, 2012 at 3:30 am | Permalink

      Sure! So, “performativity” refers to the concept that our identities and personal/social truths are formed not from some essential inner self but from our actions/language/etc.–how we “perform” for the world. Judith Butler talks about this as a “stylized repetition of acts” that come together to create the idea of a person behind these acts.

      I modify this term with “referential” because what bothers Wampole so much is not just that we (as a culture) perform but that this performance is constantly in reference to some earlier time, some pop culture phenomenon, some big inside joke. But that very ability to build our projected identities from these sources allows us to highlight the ways we are shaped by our contexts–and therefore gives us the power to critique.

      Is that a little clearer? Feel free to message/email me if you want to talk further!

  2. Posted November 24, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Great article! It seems to me that so-called ironic living is merely a symptom of the aporia facing the ‘individual’ consumer: the seemingly impossible imperative to live an ‘authentic performance’ which is a bit of an oxymoron in itself. I liked Wampole’s article but her argument individualizes this ‘problematic’. Maybe that could be an effective strategy to awaken some of us if we are in some kind of postmodern coma, but it’s not intellectually satisfying.

    I like this central question though. What constitutes an authentic performance? And if there is no such thing, what are we to do? How have social theorists addressed this problem… I feel like this is something that must be crucial to post-structural conceptions of personhood… no?

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