Sunday, November 18, 2012

the great trivialization

I had an emailer asking why I haven't written about the current Israeli campaign in Gaza, given that I wrote so much about the topic during the last such incursion. I don't have a good reason other than to say that I am utterly, utterly defeated by it, and every attempt to write about it has ended up with me giving up. Maybe sometime soon. For now, here's something with much lower stakes.

It seems, I'm sorry to say, that the irony wars might start up again. Christy Wampole, a professor at Princeton, has published a big think piece in the Times titled "How To Live Without Irony." The combination of the piece's prominent place of publication, sweeping consideration, provocative title, and well-trodden subject matter will probably make it irresistible to essayists and bloggers. (Like me!) Let's face it, for many or most of us, "How We Live Now" pieces are catnip, particularly when they present the opportunity for that particular combination of judgment of others and self-implication that many people enjoy. (Again, like me.) But that doesn't mean that I find this particular conversation enjoyable or Dr. Wampole's piece entirely satisfying.

I find the irony wars an exhausting, exhausted conversation. Irony is something specific and important, but it's also true that we have a broader concept of irony that we lack a different vocabulary for. So we tend to talk a lot about irony as a placeholder for a whole host of ills that are cultural and social and (for lack of a better term) spiritual. I do recognize a great deal of what Dr. Wampole is talking about. But irony is not really the target that she needs to hit. Irony itself is never too plentiful or too scarce. Irony is instead poorly distributed; it is too present in places where it has no business being and not present in places where it is desperately needed. Your average review at the AV Club employs irony in a place where it can have no positive effect; your average bit of Obama hagiography cries out for more. Worse still, the piece wanders into the tired territory of hipster anthropology, a subject I think most everyone has had more than enough of. The hipster discussion is a distraction; hipsterdom, while not easily definable, is still easily identifiable, and thus doesn't pose the kind of threat that a broader and vaguer sense of chosen meaninglessness does.

All that said, I do think that Dr. Wampole's piece makes a lot of observations that are just true. Perhaps obviously true, but worth saying. For one thing, she makes a point of discussing the difference in behavior between children and adults, noting correctly that children live life without irony and seem to be happier for it. She also correctly defines the constant projection of irony as a defense mechanism, a strategy to avoid risk.  Both of these are the kind of annoying old nostrums that are old and annoying because they're true. But their status as cliche, whatever the reason for that status, won't do Wampole any favors. I imagine that her piece will receive a lot of pushback.

I'll show my cards. I don't think the issue is irony. I think that the issue is the cult of the trivial. And it only matters insofar as it makes people feel better or worse. I have observed that many people spend an inordinate amount of their lives devoting obsessive attention to subjects while simultaneously working to demonstrate that they don't take those subjects at all seriously. Not just that they don't take them seriously but that they couldn't possibly. This tends to be expressed in a tone that we typically identify as ironic, but I doesn't have to be, and the focus on irony misses the essential point. I think that people need a sense of narrative in their life, they need self-belief, they need to feel like their life stands for something. And I genuinely believe that the way a lot of people spend the majority of their time-- electronically mediated, participating in a constant digital conversation about whatever has captured the mass attention, and making fun of absolutely everything about it-- is just deadening of any sense of purpose or deeper meaning.

This past election season had plenty of moments that demonstrated what I'm talking about. Any major campaign event was endlessly discussed and analyzed online by people whose attention was curiously combined with an attitude of blase superiority. On Facebook or Twitter, you got dose after dose of people making fun of that on which they were obsessively focused. When you step away from it, it's bizarre; why would people spend so much time observing and commenting on events that they believe to be beneath them? What makes it especially depressing is that so much of it seems so obligatory. Whenever some notable event happens, it's like people feel that they just have to get some "clever" remark out there. They cannot let the moment pass without getting their own take in, regardless of whether that take is actually perceptive or funny. Everything seems so rehearsed, everybody seems to be going through the motions.

People tend to take my cultural criticism as deeply harsh towards the people it discusses, but the point has always been that I don't think this stuff makes people happy. And I don't mean to make this about me, but certainly, my earnestness or whatever has been one of the common criticisms since I started this blog. But earnestness itself has never been the point, not for its own sake. If I appear earnest it's only in service to living in a way that I find worth living. That's not a defense against criticism of the content of my beliefs. It's just a statement of the value of belief. It may be because of the idiosyncrasies of my biography, but I have never understood complaints about a lack of meaning or purpose in life. I know what it's like to feel ridiculed or ridiculous. I know what it's like to feel powerless. And I know what it's like to feel hopeless. But lacking purpose, self-possession, meaning-- never. Many people, including some of my critics, suffer because they don't stand for anything.

If I felt that the urge to trivialize everything didn't have emotional consequences, if I felt that people could spend so much time demonstrating superiority to the subjects that they obsess over without issue, I wouldn't care. What difference would it make? Tell jokes, be clever, amuse the crowd, knock yourself out. But I suspect that this behavior actually makes people feel deeply unhappy. Devote your life to the trivial and you end up feeling as though your life itself is trivial. What do you expect?

I don't know what a culture's ethos is, beyond its expression in particular behaviors. And I don't know what spiritual death or cultural exhaustion are beyond their consequences for human life. We have enough problems without mistaking irony as some sort of stain on our social character independent of how it makes people feel. But that's where I find common cause with Dr. Wampole and others who decry this age of irony, whether that's the right term or not: I am against it because it makes people unhappy, deeply unhappy, and yet so many of them seem afraid to try anything else. So many people I know seem hostage to their own self-defense.

Update: Oh, and-- Wampole's real failing is in thinking that argument could change this. The most inevitable consequence of her piece were people on Twitter  bashing her piece, and sounding very, very threatened in doing so. The immediacy of the agreement to trivialize anything-- I'm not taking this thing seriously, you don't take it seriously, too-- it's more powerful than mere words.

26 comments:

Freddie said...

I'm going to keep a compendium of Tweets that prove the point of the article in trying to dispute it. Forthcoming.

nancydrew said...

Thank you for this. It's perfect.

Freddie said...

I very rarely delete a comment, but anti-Semitism is sufficient to provoke me.

One Geek in Gradschool said...

I find that a lot of the mocking directed at serious things, which applies to many jokes about the election, are of course a distancing measure. But sometimes people employ distancing measures because they need distance for their emotional health.

For people with lots of different political beliefs this election was one with very high stakes. And the intensity of non-joke coverage only made those stakes feel higher. Can you see how someone thoroughly engaged, might need some distance? Racial minorities have a lot of jokes they tell about racism, which hardly means they don't believe racism is a serious problem in their lives.

Maureen H Loyacono said...

A long read but worth it. Chris has explained clearly. Now, we all need to examine ourselves and responses to issues. I need to do some thinking.

Arkenor said...

This has been bothering me for ages, though I tended to think of it in terms of simple hypocrisy.

I often see people give their opinion on something, and then trivialise the subject. I took it as a ploy to pre-emptively diminish anyone who would attempt to argue with them on the topic. Obviously, if they truly thought it was trivial, they wouldn't have wasted their time talking about it.

Freddie said...


For people with lots of different political beliefs this election was one with very high stakes. And the intensity of non-joke coverage only made those stakes feel higher. Can you see how someone thoroughly engaged, might need some distance? Racial minorities have a lot of jokes they tell about racism, which hardly means they don't believe racism is a serious problem in their lives.

I agree with the first part of this, and I don't mean to sound entirely unsympathetic. The question is whether that kind of distancing becomes self defeating or corrosive.

For the second part, the analogy to jokes about race and racism-- well, I don't find it particularly persuasive, for a variety of reasons.

Dan S. said...

I agree with you though I give in to my urge to trivialize all too often-- I have a feeling a Tweet of mine is among the offenders. I just get frustrated when people like Dr. Wampole presume to have special insight into the mindset of people my age. Thanks for your take, which is much more thoughtful and not-at-all patronizing (to clarify: this is an honest compliment and not irony).

Freddie said...

Yeah, I was going a bit long so I left it out, but she really doesn't do herself any favors with that whole "look around you and notice the things you own that you only like ironically!" or whatever. She makes her own work harder in several places in the piece.

(PS I'm not actually going to make a compendium.)

Carolyn said...

I just couldn't get over the idea that the 90s were a relatively irony-free decade! I'm just a few years younger than Walpole, and I thought the decade was drenched in irony. There just wasn't an internet to codify it. Remember when 9/11 killed irony?

Freddie said...

I thought the same thing too! How could 9/11 have killed irony if the 90s were a sincere decade?

Charles said...

This is a great post. Gonna have to chew on it for a long time. Thanks.

Brunny said...

Mostly agreeing but in one idea. What if trivializing it's the answer to the feeling of emptiness? As a person with that kind of issues, I go from that to the wishing of leisure the times I am busy (when I'm busy it's for real but when I'm not, I don't know even what to do with my time). The unhappy feeling is previous to the situation and corresponds to a various emotional lacks. It's sad but generation after generation could be better. Don't be so bothered, just ignore the ones you don't like 'cause irony it's the best they have. And sorry for my poor english

elizabeth said...

the 90s were so sincere! It always shocks me in movies.

Freddie said...

Well, Brunny, if it works on balance than I'm not opposed to it, as long as it doesn't result in being a jerk towards other people. I don't mean to speak as though I can look into other people's hearts. It's just that a lot of people I know speak explicitly of feelings of emptiness or meaninglessness, while also acting in the way I describe. I don't think those are disconnected.

Your English is fine. (And I know of which I speak.)

Anonymous said...

Another major problem with the Walpole piece is that while the ethos of trivialization/irony is an important facet of our culture, by no means does it primarily or exclusively inhere in 'the hipster'

Brendan said...

I think the stuff you're talking about are mostly symptoms of the feelings of meaningless and emptiness, not their cause. The cause is modernity (or late capitalism, whatever you want to call it). On balance, I suspect irony helps more than it hurts.

Basically the vast majority of us have to devote a huge amount of time to meaningless activity in order to feed and shelter ourselves. We hold as much of ourselves apart from this as possible to stay sane.

Freddie said...

I suspect that you're right, Brendan, but hope that there's room at the margins to feel better about stuff.

Charles said...

Brendan,

Our defenses (in this case the symptom) can become causes of the problem, especially when they become habitual (which is mostly the same thing as indiscriminate). That is, I learn to defensively trivialize, then I become good at trivializing, then I start to trivialize everything (including things that would nourish me), then I feel more empty...

Which isn't to say that this isn't a function of modernity. Just that the cause vs. effect isn't so simple or easy to pick apart.

JK said...

But surely it can't be said that children are taking refuge from irony in the serious, right? Sure, children are happy. Is it because they "live without irony" or because they don't have wage jobs?

CAG said...

The oddest moment in the piece is when she revealed her age. I was resisting the urge to dispense my sanctimonious judgment via Twitter toward this "old" out-of-touch writer (which I did later, anyway). But, then, she said she was born in 1977. "Wait, wha?! Only one year older than me?" When this generational chasm closed, I grew more incensed. Time away from the article and rereading reveals a certain polemic style that I find thought-provoking and helpful for cultural discourse.

CAG said...

The oddest moment in the piece is when she revealed her age. I was resisting the urge to dispense my sanctimonious judgment via Twitter toward this "old" out-of-touch writer (which I did later, anyway). But, then, she said she was born in 1977. "Wait, wha?! Only one year older than me?" When this generational chasm closed, I grew more incensed. Time away from the article and rereading reveals a certain polemic style that I find thought-provoking and helpful for cultural discourse.

Freddie said...

But surely it can't be said that children are taking refuge from irony in the serious, right? Sure, children are happy. Is it because they "live without irony" or because they don't have wage jobs?

That's more intuitively satisfying for me-- but it's also true that every hard thing seems harder as a kid. I dunno!

June Gorman said...

"And I genuinely believe that the way a lot of people spend the majority of their time-- electronically mediated, participating in a constant digital conversation about whatever has captured the mass attention, and making fun of absolutely everything about it-- is just deadening of any sense of purpose or deeper meaning."

Yes, I think you have touched the deeper, most important point. It isn't about irony -- it is about meaninglessness and emptiness and even why those are great holes to create in a society in which you profit by filling those holes with consumerism, "things" and worship of the shallow and the trivial. Thus advertising, sound bytes, twittering and celebrity romances -- real or imagined -- fill one's mind and time and is the junk food of deep thinking and reflecting about life and one's own purpose in it. This, while real bombs fall on and kill real people in Gaza and hate and inequity create real suffering all over the world.

It actually hurts then, when one thinks too deeply about that emptiness. Irony that separates one from that hurt is just a coping mechanism and a cover up that one's own pain is itself even worth thinking about and understanding.

I thought your piece was far closer to the real problem and thus more enlightening about possible and meaningful, solutions. It was nice to read that, without any irony.

redscott said...

On Gaza, at least you admit that you can't discuss it because it defeats you personally. David Atkins tells us that he doesn't because he finds both sides equally guilty and because it's insoluble. Not only is he not going to talk about it, he decrees that it can't be talked about at all and isn't worth talking about, with lots of dismissive snark about people who do want to talk about it. With no irony or hipster detachment, I can say that David Atkins is a massive buttmunch who seems to lack basic human empathy.

It really is weird how so-called progressives have spent the last 6 months or so telling the rest of us all the things we can and can't talk about. You wondered whether a guy like Erik Loomis and his proggy friends would abandon that kind of thing after the election. Answer - no, it will never be the right time to talk about these things, because the fact that they don't give a crap about these issues is why they don't want to discuss them, not timing or The Most Important Election Evar!

Alasdair said...

"I have never understood complaints about a lack of meaning or purpose in life. I know what it's like to feel ridiculed or ridiculous. I know what it's like to feel powerless. And I know what it's like to feel hopeless. But lacking purpose, self-possession, meaning-- never."

Wow. What's *that* like? And how can the rest of us achieve it?