“Do you think this is the good life?”: Part One of Three

By Christopher McCaffery

In Midtown Manhattan a writer, Jack Kerouac, prepares for his interview on TV. “We’re beat, man,” he says. “Beat means beatific, it means you get the beat, it means something. I invented it.” For the television audience he announces, “We love everything, Billy Graham, the Big Ten, rock and roll, Zen, apple pie, Eisenhower—we dig it all. We’re the vanguard of the new religion.”

—from Herbert Gold, “The American as Hipster”, 1957.

 Skinny jeans? Hipster. Workwear? Hipster. Acid-washed, high-waisted jeans that look like diapers? Hipster. EDM? Hipster. Americana? Largely hipster. Organic farming? If you moved from the city to do it: hipster. Make your own pottery? Hipster. Dress like it’s the ‘50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s? Hipster, hipster, hipster, hipster, hipster. Love Apple? Hipster. Hate Apple? Hipster!

—Joe Keohane, 2015.

Q: You could interest yourself in these machines. They’re hard to understand. They’re time-consuming.

—Donald Barthelme.

Donald Barthelme paints his ironist into a trap in “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel” [1]. The short piece, a dialogue between an unnamed patient and psychiatrist, revolves around the patient’s irony—“An amazing magical power!” It allows him to “annihilate the situation of being uncomfortable” with “some sort of joke”, “an ironical turn of mind”, an observation that cuts apart the vacuity he sees and “throws it out of the world”.

This is a trick we’re familiar with. It’s the posture ascribed to the hipster and the postmodernist—with their magic powers of sarcasm, observation, deconstruction—irony—they float through the world refusing to be normal, terrified of cliché, terrified of appearing like one of the masses not in on the joke. That’s the trend in Brooklyn and her colonies, right? Thrift store tags and absurd facial hair show that this young person isn’t beholden to corporations or big fashion. Any middle-aged Republican can own an iPhone—have you tried a MOTO RAZR?

It’s cliché, of course, to begin essays, nowadays, by noting the incredible self-consciousness of the millennial, the hipster, the young thing so beholden to irony that they wouldn’t even be able begin an essay without self-consciously pointing out the exact cliches they’re enacting—ironically, of course.

This is performance, but do you see the pattern?

Irony keeps us safe. Its magic powers negate the world without giving it power. A youth movement for a generation without backbone, as any number of fuddy columnists will tell you on a slow news day. In their day, they voted for Reagan or protested ’Nam. Action! Engagement! A far cry from our emasculated millennial. The hipster is ungrateful. They don’t want the world they’ve been given. They’d rather mock and posture than change the world, or even get a job. Besides, once we sink to their level and embrace their values, they’re just as clichéd and vacuous.

What I propose to argue, or at least essay, here is that 1) Irony, much maligned, is a valid and proper response to our contemporary situation (and a much older phenomenon than we might expect), 2) By examining the phenomenon in several different places, we can see that the po-mo pose is not motivated primarily by a tearing down but by a need to build up, and 3) There are pathologies of irony that require it to be grounded within a higher attention to the world. A proper understanding of irony shows that it can only safely find its home in a fuller attention to the truth.

•••

If you’ve paid attention, you’re annoyed that I haven’t explained Barthelme’s trap, which I promised in my very first line. Your patience is now rewarded: the patient is telling a story, prodded to explain how living as an ironist is useful. He describes renting a summer home from a ski instructor whose closets overflow with play equipment: “There were bows and arrows and shuffleboard and croquet sets, putting greens and trampolines and things you strapped to your feet and jumped up and down on . . .” (The list is quite exhaustive, I’ll add that “the merest bedside table was choked with marked cards and Monopoly money.”). Immediately uncomfortable, this ironist “wanted to make a joke about all of this, some sort of joke that would convey that I had noticed the striking degree of boredom implied by the presence of all this impedimenta and one that would also serve to comment upon the particular way of struggling with boredom that these people had chosen.” We’re in familiar territory with our patient now; heck, we’re probably Facebook friends with him. He is over it and lashing out. He’s discovered his “magical power”: it “would do to annihilate the situation of being uncomfortable in this house. The shuffleboard sticks, the barbells, balls of all kinds—my joke has, in effect, thrown them out of the world,” he says.

So far so good, but suppose he becomes curious about this power? (He does.) Suppose that, to his great luck, the ski instructor he rents from is not only too bourgeois for his tenant’s comfort but also a student of Kierkegaard? (He is.) He picks up a copy of The Concept of Irony and discovers that Kierkegaard knows what he’s up to . . .

•••

Let’s connect this to today, or yesterday. In a perceptive column published on Thrillist [2], Joe Keohane notes that hipsters “could not have emerged from the tepid muck of the American mainstream at any other time in history, which makes them an invaluable lens through which to view our shambles of an American scene.” He explains that the hipster maintains a posture against a mainstream in continuity with earlier countercultures (Beats, Hippies, Punks), groups which sought an alternative to mass culture in something more genuine and real than the vacuity of political and commercial life. Like Barthelme’s character in his chalet, they see their surroundings as self-deceiving emptiness and attack the discomfiting force with their own rebellion. A decade before Woodstock and flower power, Jack Kerouac wrote that he saw

Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume . . .

In this environment of “middleclass non-identity”, a counterculture seeks to connect with something genuine.

Placing contemporary hipsters in continuity with these earlier movements is important, because it gives us an insight into the motivations of counterculture in general. They do not seek something apart from mass society to feed a superiority complex, but because of a genuine criticism of the meaninglessness of materialist society, a criticism they hold no monopoly on. They ultimately identify and struggle with what Saint Augustine described centuries ago as the kind of happiness which delights lovers of the Roman gods. These enemies of the Christian religion are concerned

for each to get richer all the time. It is wealth that sustains daily prodigalities. . . . let a succession of the most cruel and voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to. Let these be reckoned the true gods, who procure for the people this condition of things, and preserve it when once possessed.

This is a scathing criticism that neither founds nor exhausts a tradition of anti-materialist rhetoric, certainly germane to the writings of Kerouac and his contemporaries and Barthelme’s postmodern writing, “wearingly attentive to every detail of the sophistication, the lingo, the massively stultifying second-handedness of everything ‘we’ say”. At the center of each criticism is an empty picture of the good life based in perpetual excitement for pleasures, consumption, play equipment, knowingly or unknowingly offering praise to false gods. A catalogue of these criticisms is more inharmonious than any thrift store outfit, and the eclectic Goodwill where the American conservative heritage shares shelf space with Alasdair MacIntyre and Jack Kerouac could only be found in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, it is this concern that unites many diverse intellectual projects.

According to Keohane, each successive movement in American counterculture has attempted the same assault on the norms of an empty culture by setting up an ideal of life that assaulted and could not be co-opted by mainstream ideals. The attempt to establish something that could not simply be “mined for saleable material by the marketplace” was behind the Hippies and the Punks, but both movements ultimately succumbed to commercialization. By presenting a lifestyle identifiable by certain cloths and products, their attempt to provide an alternate world and group identity simply gave the mainstream new products to consume and a new standard for daily prodigalities. Keohane: “We all know how that worked out. Not only could bourgeois society swallow it, it swallowed it whole, and we wound up with Ramones baby clothes and Sex Pistols credit cards….any intrinsic mainstream American terror of alternative culture would always, in the end, be overwhelmed by the market’s fetish for novelty, youth, and new revenue opportunities.”

What I wish to argue here is that these movements were not sufficiently ironic. What sympathetic critics such as novelist Benjamin Lytal predicted would happen to Barthelme’s mode of criticism, the style taken up by popular postmodern fictionists such as John Barth, George Saunders, and David Eggers, has instead happened to the more forthright: “a subversive fiction is possessed by its chosen audience, adversaries to a man, and then turned into a jokebook—we have only to wait and watch this in action.” Punks sought to smash the bourgeois and erect a new, authentic culture, they ended up with Lou Reed selling Honda scooters on television. Irony allows a way around this inevitability for the exasperated youth movement, a way to seek an intrinsically internal and unpurchasable authenticity. Lytal characterized this consummately ironic approach as “inhabiting” the object of criticism. “He lies down on the therapist’s couch and confounds him, on his own terms.” Hipsters don’t deprive materialism of its power by advocating Zen meditation, free love, or rock music—they use iPhones ironically, simultaneously living in the modern world while embodying by their attitude a rebellion that cannot be co-opted, because it is intrinsically un-saleable. You can’t buy or sell irony—if you are, you’re not, you’re passé, next on the sell-out, cliché chopping block.

•••

Let’s return to Barthelme’s ironist. We’ll need to postpone mention of the trap, I’m sorry. But he’s found a kindred spirit in Kierkegaard, and we can see that he’d identify with our modern hipsters too:

To begin with, Kierkegaard says that the outstanding feature of irony is that it confers upon the ironist a subjective freedom. The subject, the speaker, is negatively free. If what the ironist says is not his meaning, or is the opposite of his meaning, he is free both in relation to others and in relation to himself. He is not bound by what he has said. Irony is a means of depriving the object of its reality in order that the subject may feel free. . . .

•••

This is how postmodern irony functions. Out of a double recognition of the falsity of its object and the futility of engaging with it on an oppositional level, as earlier movements had attempted, the critic says what is opposite of his meaning. The meaning the ironist desires is preserved while the true object is thrown out of the world. An oppositional criticism of materialism will eventually fall prey to its assimilating force, losing its meaning but keeping the attractive appearance; the ironist performs the same trick on his object—it’s given a new ironic meaning that signifies the subject’s freedom from the cliché he seems to embody, rather than his enslavement to it. Everyone knows that hipsters drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, but they also know that their choice isn’t motivated by any ad campaign or celebrity endorsement, but precisely by a desire to model a freedom from those forces. Once this freedom is established, the ironist can give the appearance of any kind of behavior, express enthusiasm for whatever mainstream product or style they care to. The object of attack is not the product or activity itself, but the mode it is consumed in. Bottom shelf beer doesn’t change its essence or appearance, but it’s robbed of any association with “the particular way of struggling with boredom that people had chosen”, and turned into an instrument for signaling freedom from these daily prodigality and perpetual excitements, while returning to the product a note of unconsumerized utility. When he needs a beer to drink, PBR allows for freedom from branding without ever opening a road to marketing power.

An example: Use an iPhone or don’t use an iPhone—which is more hipster? The individual can use the product without allowing a brand to show any power over his choice. And when PBR becomes too indicative of a group identity, indicating coolness rather than irony, the object can change without a group identity ever being co-opted—it was never in the object to begin with, but in the subjective freedom modeled by the ironist. It is essential to understanding postmodern irony to recognize that it stems in the first place from a desire for sincerity, rather than the self-centered irreverence that it is often accused of.

Keohane see this as essentially a stance of resignation. Hipsters “see the futility of chasing authenticity, and yet they still chase authenticity. They see going to war against America’s hallowed institutions is stupid and pointless, and yet they also believe those same institutions are one vicious joke played over and over again on all of us,” and crucially, they still participate in local economies, promote quality and conscientious, sustainable consumerism. “It’s not revolution, it’s incrementalism.”

But this incrementalism can’t ultimately provide an answer to the consumer culture it provides an escape from and is parasitic upon. How can the danger of irony—the nihilism that awaits one who negates the world—be avoided? Can there be, at the end of this tunnel of escape, some contact with real, positive meaning? Is every attempt to present a firm alternative going to be undermined by the consumptive power of modern culture?

In my next part, I’ll analyse how irony may or may not provide a way of accessing the hard reality of things by looking at a failure, The Drowsy Chaperone, and a success, Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I’ll then attend to Barthelme’s own description of the motivations of art, from “Not-Knowing”, and see how they relate to this ironist’s plight, and to Dr. Dwight Lindley’s answer to “what does art have to do with reality?”

Then, in Part III, we might hope for a way out of this moral wilderness, and into the sun.

[1] The New Yorker, October 12, 1968, pg. 53f

[2] June 21, 2015

Chris McCaffery is a senior studying history. He is a member of the Dow Journalism Program.

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