Why I hate the internet #847: Reading Comprehension

This week’s internet furor comes courtesy of the New York Times, where blogger Christy Wampole made the critical mistake of using the word “hipster” to help clarify the term “irony” for her readers:

The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.

That’s just the second paragraph, and we can see she’s painting with a broad brush, creating a false “other” for the reader to position themselves in opposition to. Because who in their right mind is pretentious enough to be a “student of cool”? Who can relate to someone who is a “scholar of social forms”? Clearly this blogger should be taken to task, which many mainstream liberal blogs did with glee.

Vice, in a tongue-in-cheek meta article, decides to call the blogger a hipster-bashing asshole, and proceeds to link readers to her (presumably terrible) band. The Atlantic Wire (apparently separate from the Atlantic?) has another take:

But life in the Internet age isn’t ironic anymore than anything else is, really, it’s just life. And the lack of acknowledgement of that, along with the article’s focus on hipsters, is part of what makes its cry for more earnestness seem a bit dated.

The Atlantic boldly declared that “A recent hipster-hating New York Times column got this pop-cultural moment exactly backwards“:

She tells us, with disconcerting certitude, that irony is the ethos of our era, and she knows because, I mean, just look at those hipsters with their ironic mustaches, record players, and trombones, right?

And some blog called Flavorwire gives us 15 (count ’em!) ways to hate the New York Times’ analysis of the hipster! There’s plenty of really insightful reasoning to be found there (it should be noted I prefer sarcasm to irony).

So, crisis resolved, right? Writer officially taken to task for ego-stroking and hipster-bashing. Balance is restored to the continuum, and we can all go back to loving Obama and looking at cat videos.

But unfortunately for these critiques, the article is more than a mere rant against hipsters. It’s actually a somewhat insightful (at least for mainstream journalism) critique of irony in today’s culture – a culture which goes beyond the hipster strawman so carelessly constructed in the opening paragraphs:

I, too, exhibit ironic tendencies. For example, I find it difficult to give sincere gifts. Instead, I often give what in the past would have been accepted only at a White Elephant gift exchange: a kitschy painting from a thrift store, a coffee mug with flashy images of “Texas, the Lone Star State,” plastic Mexican wrestler figures. Good for a chuckle in the moment, but worth little in the long term. Something about the responsibility of choosing a personal, meaningful gift for a friend feels too intimate, too momentous. I somehow cannot bear the thought of a friend disliking a 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.

Whoa there! You were supposed to be hating on hipsters, not reflecting on your own decisions and choices! She continues:

Throughout history, irony has served useful purposes, like providing a rhetorical outlet for unspoken societal tensions. But our contemporary ironic mode is somehow deeper; it has leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself. This ironic ethos can lead to a vacuity and vapidity of the individual and collective psyche. Historically, vacuums eventually have been filled by something — more often than not, a hazardous something. Fundamentalists are never ironists; dictators are never ironists; people who move things in the political landscape, regardless of the sides they choose, are never ironists.

Well, doesn’t that beat all! Now this hipster-hater is actually is promoting sincerity – bring me my torch and pitchfork! The article goes on to discuss ways we can be more sincere in our everyday lives, and where we can look for inspiration to be less meta and actually enjoy life in the moment.

Since I’m wrapping up this post (it’s longer than my Wolves season preview, though I didn’t prop myself with quotes), I’ll continue my quote-happy blog entry with a piece from David Foster Wallace’s wonderful article on television:

So then how have irony, irreverence, and rebellion come to be not liberating but enfeebling in the culture today’s avant-garde tried to write about? One clue’s to be found in the fact that irony is still around, bigger than ever after 30 long years as the dominant mode of hip expression. It’s not a rhetorical mode that wears well. As [Lewis] Hyde. . .puts it, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage.” This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. This is why Hyde seems right about persistent irony being tiresome. It is unmeaty. Even gifted ironists work best in sound bites. I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly funny to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures. And as for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, or sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing by trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow. . .oppressed.

Obviously DFW’s quote is more geared towards authors (and media-creators generally), but the point stands. Going back to the title of this post, the reactionary nature of online writing is what gets to me. It’s as if I could hear the clacking of bloggers’ keyboards as soon as I started reading that piece – I had the same inclination. “Why is the New York Times allowing such garbage to be published?” But after reading the whole thing (and with an open mind, not just “seeing red” from the opening paragraphs), I had a much different take. The criticisms I linked to above did not appear to do this – they picked out the juicy stuff and glommed onto it like idea-starved bloggers looking for a pageview boost.

I had more to say, but I’m tired of ranting and now have somewhere around 30 browser tabs open, so I’ll just go back to reading. Happy thanksgiving!

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