Back at Thanksgiving, my dad asked my thoughts on that NYTimes opinion piece that was going around a few weeks ago, How to Live Without Irony. At the time, I admitted that I had avoided it because I was afraid it would irritate me, as most things I read or see or hear these days seem to irritate me. I’ve been absenting myself from the internet a bit for this reason. Frankly, but also ironically, ha ha, I have been thinking about how I miss my more ironic sensibility of yore, which used to temper my critical sensibility in a way that kept me from being bitter. I am myself living, in large part, without irony these days, and I struggle with sadness and anger more than I used to.
So then I gave the piece a quick glance on my iPhone, and gave my dad an equally quick response: sure, I am in favor of meaningful conversation and earnest living, but already from this fleeting exposure on a tiny screen I am irritated by this essay’s reliance on the tired and misleading device of Diagnosing a Generational Personality Flaw. If everyone in a generation has it, it’s not a simple matter of “personal values,” and it’s not going to be adequately addressed by a chiding-slash-pep-talk from the Opinionator. There’s something structural at work, and I’m going to guess it has to do with class and consumerism and cultures of debt and endless war of various kinds and the way the young(ish) people of the American middle class (to whom this essay is addressed, and whom it is about) are having a harder time materializing the kind of meaningful life they thought they would grow into, and how the only real skill that is so culturally embedded at this point that it seems to come naturally to them is the ability to consume—not just things but information—hence the distinct brand of “hipster” overendowment with cultural savvy that does not correspond to any of the old-fashioned markers of “true class” and “taste” that irks the author of this essay so much. You’re so clever about cultural forms, but do you even own a house? A nice one? That’s elegant and aesthetically gratifying and that you really love living in, really? (Another reason I avoided reading this piece: I do not enjoy being an ungenerous reader.) And if young people have become vacant, dismissive, without political convictions or moral values (or really nice things), but willing to max out credit cards on material crap that, this author complains, doesn’t even mean anything, how am I going to think about that without thinking about how higher education in the humanities is under aggressive, sustained assault by this same culture—dismissed as “useless” for teaching things like how to pay attention, how to read carefully and think critically, how to talk to and listen to people, how to care about things other than things? And how am I supposed to take it, as someone who tries, quite earnestly, even passionately, day in and day out, to teach these very things to university students, knowing how difficult it is to set yourself much less other people against the grain of capitalism’s dehumanizing effects, that the NYTimes thinks a smug 800-word essay on how gauche irony is will suffice? None of these contextual issues are broached in this piece, despite the fact that the author, who is my age, is also a professor in the humanities. I would prefer to read an essay called “How to Live Without Irony At The End of the World As We Know It,” and I mean that with total sincerity. Someone please write that essay.
So that was my initial response. I think maybe it’s clear why I’m reluctant to engage “opinion pieces” lately. But because it was my dad who was interested, and I’m no hipster, cavalierly dismissive of his interest in things like “what I think,” I read the piece again and thought about it some more. I haven’t changed my mind about it. I agree with some of its sentiments, kind of, but I recoil from its bourgeois complacency. Part of which is the gall with which it purports to be about political agency when it is actually quite clearly about taste. “Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd?” Is this Martha Stewart Living? This is the kind of self-searching that will make me a feminist or an environmentalist again?
It’s been almost 30 years since Bourdieu elegantly eviscerated the politics of bourgeois taste in Distinction, and I’m sure the author of this opinion, as a professor of French at Princeton, is familiar with Bourdieu, so this call to earnest, “meaningful” consumption can only be interpreted as a willful attempt to recoup bourgeois cultural capital from mass cultural forces that have allowed it to dissipate. The NYTimes piece holds the hipster and other “ironists” accountable for this loss:
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. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.
In other other words, the hipster refuses to play seriously in the system of tasteful consumption that distinguishes the classy from the vulgar (which is itself arguably a sham, or possibly a scam) and this refusal ruins the effect of old-fashioned social sophistication. If I’m understanding the metaphor in this passage correctly, the “ownership” of earnest consumption is indeed merely an aesthetic effect. After all, if, like most of the “relatively well educated and financially secure” young people I know, you are accumulating the trappings of a life on top of a mountain of credit card and student loan debt that you have no hope of paying off unless some unknown wealthy relative bequeaths to you a fortune, then you don’t actually own anything you possess one way or the other.
It’s not bad, on a personal level, to want nice things. In our culture, it’s virtually impossible not to want nice things. You cannot opt out of consumer capitalism, and there’s no reason not to attempt to participate tastefully, conscientiously, whatever you want to call it. But it’s delusional as well as offensive to conflate tasteful consumption with a critical political sensibility. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are not the same thing, and the former certainly doesn’t lead to the latter.
If you are are a “relatively well educated and financially secure” reader of the New York Times, following the recommendations to better furnish your home, give more meaningful gifts, purify your speech of adolescent hyperbole, and stop dressing “ugly” on purpose will certainly make you seem more like the well-adjusted, socially secure, financially independent, adult person your parents probably hoped you would be by now. (If you paid for nicer stuff with credit, and so are actually a little more financially screwed in order to achieve the appearance of stability, well, if your friends are also “living without irony,” hopefully they will be too tasteful to point this out.) But if you are less educated, less able to fake financial security, and less tasteful, Living Without Irony makes you a spectacle. Surely there is no more poignant example of irony-free consumption right now than Jenelle of Teen Mom 2, whose extrordinarily earnest attachment to Ke$ha is currently being pilloried on the internet. Calling on the bourgeoisie to shape up and stop allowing things like Ke$ha to make its way into respectable homes under the aegis of irony won’t put a dent in Ke$ha’s sales but will make sure those sales more accurately reflect a vulgar horde cut off from a progressive elite. It’s a way of eliminating the perhaps unintended but nevertheless disturbing cultivation of common pleasures between economically, culturally distinct groups.
The problem with this little opinion piece’s ability to think about the issues it raises is precisely that it is a little opinion piece. I find the popular currency of “opinions” much more offensive and pernicious than fashionable “irony.” The essay talks about the importance of “seriousness” and “humility” and “self-effacement” but these are all anathema to the “opinion,” which is a genre that allows one to hold forth on any topic supplied solely by self-generated ideas. No need to be an “expert” to have an opinion. (In fact, if you are an expert in something, as contributors to the NYT opinion series The Stone are, best to hang up your expert hat if normal people are to take your opinion as something more than lunatic ravings from the ivory tower.) No need even to consult experts, or students, or anyone, or anything! And this gives you the freedom to attack and dismiss the things you address, rather than consider them. Talk about a form that, as the author says of ironic posturing, “signals a deep aversion to risk.” It certainly doesn’t risk being surprised by the unintended discoveries of research, intellectual inquiry, or respect for the complexity of its object. For a much more serious, thoughtful, and respectful engagement of a similar topic, one could read Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.'” Unlike Sontag’s “Notes,” the NYTimes opinion, while it advocates thoughtful engagement, relies on dismissive generalities and a determined disengagement from social, historical, or political context. This allows it to be less like an essay about something, one that challenges itself and its readers, and more like an advice column, one capable of concluding reassuringly that “if the ashes of irony have settled on you … it takes little effort to dust them away.”
So, in conclusion, in MY opinion, by all means buy less crap, or more, nicer crap, or spend your money on the gas bill, or on charity, or, to whatever extent possible, not at all. Go ahead and look people in the eye and have a conversation with them, hopefully one in which people actually listen to one another and exchange knowledge and enjoy each other’s company rather than just hurling opinions around in person instead of on the internet. Give more meaningful gifts, especially if you are motivated to do so at least as much by the prospect of another person’s joy and comfort as by the desire to be the kind of person who gives meaningful gifts. Stop wearing that stupid trucker’s cap, or don’t, I don’t know, maybe you really like it. It’s no stupider than any other hat, really. I doubt it is holding you back from an earnest engagement with the world. I see plenty of room for irony in a life lived this way, but little room for self-satisfaction.