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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Live without irony? Why?

The New York Times recently printed an opinion piece titled “How to Live Without Irony,” and my immediate reaction was “Why would I want to do that?”

But the topic interested me, and I soon found myself absorbed by the piece.
The author, an assistant professor of French at Princeton University, suggests that ironic living is running amok and that the consequences are grave: People — especially younger people — are too cynical and mocking to actually care about stuff. Much of Christy Wampole’s attack is aimed at hipsters, whom she lambastes for their weird hobbies, offbeat fashion sensibilities and attachment to unusual gadgets. At times, the piece takes the form of a confessional:

“I, too, exhibit ironic tendencies,” Wampole writes. “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. . . . If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least [or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition], it seems we’ve made a collective misstep.”

Wampole isn’t the first person who’s tried to make me feel guilty about my self-aware mocking ways, and I doubt she’ll be the last. And though her essay is easy to make fun of, I don’t completely disagree with her. For instance, she thinks it’s good to care about stuff, and so do I. Where I disagree with Wampole is in her diagnosis of the problem. I don’t think irony, or hipsters, are to blame for apathy. You can actually be sarcastic and wear vintage clothing and buy vinyl records and still care about stuff.

Now, I don’t wear vintage clothing or buy vinyl records but I know people who do. In fact, some of my friends do these things. My friend Heather used to play music on a small, portable record player, one of the hipster accoutrements that Wampole identifies as a problem. I always found Heather’s commitment to vinyl kind of charming. I enjoyed hanging out in her apartment and listening to, say, The Velvet Underground on vinyl. And since Heather is an artist and environmentalist, I think it’s safe to conclude that listening to vinyl hasn’t destroyed her ability to care about stuff.

I also didn’t understand Wampole’s attack on so-called hipster hobbies, mainly because the two she names — home-brewing and playing trombone — sound pretty fun to me. I’ve never home-brewed, but my housemates brewed in college and some of my friends home-brew to this day. If you like beer, there’s nothing ironic about brewing — it’s too time consuming and expensive to do as a joke. The brewers I know brew for a simple reason: They like beer.

And although I don’t play trombone myself, I can see the appeal. I played saxophone and clarinet in marching, jazz and concert band in high school, and I think it would be cool if someone started an adult marching band in the Capital Region. (If there already is one, you should let me know!) Relearning to play my saxophone and clarinet would take too much effort for me to do it ironically, to do it for any reason but a love of music and a fondness for band.

The more I think about it, the more I think living without irony sounds awfully dull.

I agree with another writer, Maria Bustillos at the website The Awl, who says that the idea of a life without irony fills her with dread.

“Irony has its uses and is, in moderation, an absolutely necessary tool for maintaining what passes for sanity in the modern world,” Bustillos writes. “Furthermore, an ironic cast of mind is no impediment to holding passionate convictions. Or even sincerity and humility, in reasonable amounts. This idea that irony in and of itself is ‘toxic’ has got to go, and pronto. Irony demonstrates that we know we are not the center of the universe, that we can hold opposing ideas in our heads. That we can find humor in the contrast between our natural self-centeredness and our likely inconsequentiality, at any given moment.”
I’ve always subscribed to the notion that sometimes we laugh to keep from crying, and that a healthy sense of irony makes it easier to get through the day.

And yet even I can concede that irony, in excess, is a problem.

Some people never say anything sincere, an affectation I find extremely annoying. However, I hesitate to call these people ironists; to me they’re simply annoying. And there is a point where indulging in obscure hobbies and interests becomes a way of walling yourself off from the world.

I know cinephiles who view the movie “Lincoln” with skepticism and refuse to see it, perhaps because Steven Spielberg is a very sincere and emotional filmmaker who tells stories simply and directly, with a minimum of narrative tricks and self-referential asides. But here’s the thing: “Lincoln” is one of the movies of the moment. People are going to see it, and they’re talking about it and writing about it and critiquing it, and I’d rather participate in that discussion than sneer at it with ironic detachment.

Of course, I fully endorse joking about the movie, marveling at Lincoln’s quirks and making snide remarks about the ridiculousness of Congress. Because in my experience, you can take something seriously and laugh at it, too.

The movie depicts Lincoln as someone with a predilection for telling jokes and stories at seemingly inappropriate times — a man who was solemn and serious and melancholy, but had a sharp sense of humor and playfulness about him, despite the loss of his beloved son Willie and the unpleasantness of the Civil War. I don’t know whether the 16th president would have considered himself an ironist, but I think it’s a mind-set he might have understood.

Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at

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