I’m not one of those people who hates being called a hipster. To me the word points to a particular set of interests and tastes, most of which I would willfully admit I enjoy.
Most people who reject the label do so it because to some (mostly, at this point, major newspapers and publications obsessed with dissecting and explicating the younger generations for their older audiences) the label also suggests a detached appropriation of cool, an I-liked-it-before-it-was-cool, you-probably-haven’t-heard-of-them, oh-isn’t-this-mustache-hilarious brand of irony. But I don’t consider my tastes or preferences ironic, and bristle at the suggestion.
Two weeks ago The New York Times published an opinion piece titled “How to Live Without Irony,” written by Christy Wampole, a Princeton professor. In it she decries the hipster as “the most extreme manifestation of ironic living.” She points to the rise of self-referencing ads, “vintage” photo filters, and the rise of kitsch in style and design as proofs that today’s 20- and 30-somethings “frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime.”
If this were true, it would indeed be worrisome. Indifference is not an effective means of engaging the world, and should be fought where it is detected. But the aesthetic values she points to as proof do little to draw any meaningful distinction between hipsters and any previous generation that has reacted against what came before it. As an antidote to all this ironic living, she suggests these hipsters replace anything they value for its absurdity with things they genuinely find meaningful, and that they eliminate pop culture references and hyperbole from their speech. She also suggests they avoid any clothing that could be considered “costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype.” The problem with these clothes, she says, are that they refer to something else rather than themselves.
How can any clothes refer only to themselves? And why should we desire this? Fashion is never a cultural vacuum, nor should it be. Clothes reference ideas, whether we realize it or not, and the choices we make about what we put on our bodies connect our ideas of who we are with how we want others to see us. To juxtapose one style–the “derivative”–against another–the supposedly “neutral”–suggests that one represents how things should be.
This whole argument reminds me of the many conversations we had about worship styles while at Wheaton College. Every year we had a chapel service devoted to “multicultural worship” and every year many students (mostly white, upper-middle class students) complained about or even mocked the worship that looked and sounded “different.” They felt these styles were less worshipful because they did not lead them into worship as easily and effortlessly as the styles they had grown up with. For at least one particular white, middle-class Wheaton student, it took a few years to finally understand that my experience was no less or more valid than that of any other student, and every individual’s particular experience shapes and colors the way we interact with the world and with God.
But she ignores the fact that beauty and taste is an ever-changing concept, and a highly subjective one. To impose your own morality on the aesthetic of another generation or subculture seems to me the height of cultural hubris. But perhaps those mustaches you assume are ironic are actually a reflection of that individual’s sincere tastes. Just because you wouldn’t sincerely appreciate a record player, or cat-eye sunglasses, or artisanal cheese, doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who do. Determining what is sincere is like determining what is authentic–if someone made it, it must be on some level authentic, or at least authentic to one person’s experience. Whereas one generation, that has devoted itself to increasing productivity, may have dismissed the art of craft brewing as an antiquated waste of time, another generation sees an opportunity to create. In her essay “The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright” for New York magazine, Noreen Malone points to the current economic climate as an explanation for this very real generational divide: “Since we are, as a generation, more addicted to positive reinforcement than any before us, and because we have learned firsthand the futility of finding that affirmation through our employers, we have returned to our stuff-making ways, via pursuits easily mocked: the modern-day pickling, the obsessive Etsying, the flower-arranging classes, the knitting resurgence, the Kickstarter funds for art projects of no potential commercial value. … This is a golden age for creativity and knowledge for their own sakes. Our pastimes have become our expressions of mastery, a substitute for the all-consuming career.”
Many of the cultural artifacts Jonathan Fitzgerald points to in his rebuttal for The Atlantic, “Sincerity, Not Irony, Is Our Age’s Ethos,” as proofs of a New Sincerity movement–Wes Anderson, David Foster Wallace, Arcade Fire–could just as easily be used as counterproofs in Wampole’s essay. In fact, these are the very things most people would point to as centerpieces of the hipster canon. The choice, I suppose, is in the attitude of the consumer. Irony and sincerity can often look like two sides of the same coin. In her essay, Wampole points the finger back at herself, saying, “I somehow cannot bear the thought of a friend disliking the gift I’d chosen with sincerity. The simple act of noticing my self-defensive behavior has made me think deeply about how potentially toxic ironic posturing could be.” She assumes that because she ironically chooses a certain gift for her friend because she fears the friend will not like a gift chosen with more care, then everyone who chooses a similar gift has done so for the same reasons. It is this need to be liked, Maud Newton points out in “Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace,” that explains why “so much of what passes for intellectual debate nowadays is obscured behind a veneer of folksiness and sincerity and is characterized by an unwillingness to be pinned down. Where the craving for admiration and approval predominates, intellectual rigor cannot thrive, if it survives at all.” Wait, what? I thought we were talking about irony, but now we’re back to sincerity. Just look at David Foster Wallace’s writing for examples of just how closely related the two are: the late writer’s prose is full of self-defensive language that seems meant to deflect criticism by embedding all possible criticisms within the work itself. In an essay for Feed, Keith Gessen applauds Wallace for “trying, at last, to destroy” the oppositions between “irony and sincerity, self-consciousness and artifice.”
There we go again. Irony, sincerity, sincerity, irony. Which is it? If that’s the question we’re asking, we’re missing the point. This world is full of people, each of us interacting with it in our own ways, informed by our own experiences. We need to stop with the superficial assessments and start asking questions about the cultural and personal forces that shape who we are and who people who are different from us are and how all of us interact with and contribute to the world in which we live…together.