My fiancée and I went out to eat at the Friendly Toast in Cambridge, MA, recently. While there, we were talking, of course, about hipsters. (For those of you who have never been to the Friendly Toast, it both serves tasty, innovative food and is swarming with hipsters.) Specifically, we talked about hipsters and irony, and I thought that conversation was worth rehashing here and connecting to postmodernity.
Allie and I agreed that irony is often a way for hipsters to enjoy clothing, beer, music, and other bits of culture that they actually kinda like but are afraid to say so in a straight-forward way lest they be mercilessly mocked. Instead, if someone challenges them on the validity of whatever they’re into, they can just shrug off any criticism by explaining that they are only into that thing “ironically”. The implication is that of course they don’t really like whatever it is, because they’re aware of whatever shortfall you have just pointed out, and they’re only pretending to be into it in some sort of high-brow, meta-level, lived-out jest.
Yet I think few if any hipsters are ironically into things they actually hate. No one puts themselves through unpleasantness just to make a joke, or at least not on a habitual basis (unless perhaps you’re a slapstick comedian, but that’s a very different art). Thus, we may assume that most things hipsters do are things that, whatever they may say about the intended irony, they actually enjoy.
If that’s the case, then why go through the elaborate process of ironic posturing? Isn’t it a bit much just so you can drink PBRs and wear flannel, if that’s what you like to do? Perhaps, but I think that hipsters are not without reasonable motivations. Sure, some of it involves competition for status, but I think there’s also more going on culturally. Hipsterism is generally an upper-middle class white phenomenon, which is also the social milieu in which postmodernism is perhaps most progressed.
Postmodernism is nothing if not critical. And critical of just about everything. Postmodernism isn’t content to just let you drink a beer or wear a shirt without telling you how you are participating in systems of symbolic and economic oppression by doing so. It can get old feeling like your every move is up for criticism and deconstruction. It takes a lot of mental and emotional work to justify (to) yourself [in] all of your decisions.
So, hipsters come from a social setting in which this sort of constant criticism is a real danger. Irony then is an adaptive response that allows hipsters to escape the predatory criticism of postmodern culture. As soon as someone starts to sink the jaws of criticism into a hipster’s cherish brand of suds or style of clothing, hipsters can escape from the social attack by playing ironic.
Yet the cost of such a strategy is the death of sincerity. If you’re only ever ironically into something, then you’re never sincere about anything. I think this death of sincerity also manifests itself in upper middle-class white people’s constant search for authenticity. White people are always looking for authenticity (usually in contexts other than their own) because they’ve discovered that being sincere or authentic in postmodern culture is a good way to attract attacks. Yet all things being equal, I think humans like to experience genuineness; hence the search for areas in which that is still possible.
I don’t blame hipsters or white people looking for authenticity for the death of sincerity. I think they’re making reasonable responses to their social and intellectual environment. Thus, rather than condemning hipsters, I think we should instead bewail the aspects of postmodern culture that make sincerity an unsuccessful model of relating to other humans. Deconstruction and criticism are useful tools to correct things that have gone wrong. Yet they cannot help us build hospitable habitats in which to live.