In Defense of Irony

Titled “How to Live Without Irony,” the New York Times recently published a paraphrastic update of AdBuster's seminal 2008 essay identifying icky hipsters as the “end of Western Civilization.”  I quickly dismissed the highbrow rehash as “meh,” but it got under my skin like any sweeping, broad-stroked dismissal of a generation does.

To quote:

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.

He is an easy target for mockery. However, scoffing at the hipster is only a diluted form of his own affliction. He is merely a symptom and the most extreme manifestation of ironic living. For many Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s — members of Generation Y, or Millennials — particularly middle-class Caucasians, irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt. One need only dwell in public space, virtual or concrete, to see how pervasive this phenomenon has become. Advertising, politics, fashion, television: almost every category of contemporary reality exhibits this will to irony.

I should start off by acknowledging that I'm not totally sure I understand the concept of irony.  Alanis Morissette once told me it's like rain on your wedding day, which sounds reasonable.  The dictionary that comes preloaded with my post-ironic MacBook defines it as “sarcasm” (I'm paraphrasing) and “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result” (I'm not paraphrasing). But for the purposes of the Times' article, Urban Dictionary's definition shall suffice: “A descriptive form for describing someone who is acting wimpy or like a Canadian.”

On face, the author rejects irony as an insincere “shield” that protects the cautious and insecure from rejection and criticism (you know, because hipsters are never chastised in American culture).  As if modern hipster “fashion” can only be described as a kitschy defense from having to make real choices.


There's this prevailing myth in amongst people who Don't Get It that irony has to be the manifestation of cowardice. Fictional characters such as 30 Rock's Frank Rossitano fuel this belief—a man who not only wears different ironic trucker hats in every episode, but spews irony to mask and deny his true nerdy and, perhaps, “lame” passions and sexual insecurity.  It makes great comedy, and there are undeniably some real world examples of these types of people, but it's hardly the rule.  Ignoring the reality that the ironic hipster is mostly extinct (replaced by scumbags and twee), the author falsely assumes it's impossible that some people might be legitimately passionate about kitsch (see every grandparent's house ever). Worse, she ignores the reality that irony is seen by many as the modern anti-fashion movement—a tongue-in-cheek yet honest rejection of expensive clothing sold to us in glossy magazines and pastel Old Navy commercials. Like the grunge movement before us that the author holds in such regard, hipsters too don't want to wear mall fashion or dump hundreds of dollars on Bedford/Valencia designer wear promoted to marketing interns in The Bold Italic.

Of course, it's not all about fashion and cowardice:

I, too, exhibit ironic tendencies. [KM: Isn't this a classic example of hipster calling the kettle black? What? Argh, I'm not going to touch THAT.] 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.

First, it signals a deep aversion to risk. As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. 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. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom?
Leif Parsons

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.

Okay, maybe it's all about fashion and cowardice.

On that premise, I have to disagree.  Is “irony” more about fear of rejection as it is about rejection of society itself?  For example, I drink at scummy dive bars, not because I crave the scent of urine and the company of career drunks and semi-literate bike messengers, but because the alternative is just awful.  Waiting 10 minutes for an overpriced drink at upscale pseudo-dives like Dear Mom or blowing $10 for a giant ice cube with alcohol in the presence of boring foodies is hardly enjoyable, if not depressing. So frequenting dives could be seen as “ironic” because I work in an office and read political non-fiction for fun, but how else do you escape the world of escalating pretension and praise (besides shooting heroin in a Seattle greenhouse)?

This isn't to say irony is the catch-all for people with nothing left to love.  On the contrary, much like how dive bars and aging drunks can be brilliant and rewarding to interact with if you approach them with a not-shitty attitude, many so-called ironists are passionate about plenty of things: comedy, art, their jobs, their education, graffiti, politics, current events, cycling, the perfect grilled cheese sandwich, photography, family, fashion, the environment, blogging (gulp)…hell, many ironic hipsters are some of the most intense sports fans I've even known.  And that's just it, just because someone isn't outwardly buying into the culture you perceive as important or, God-forbid, approaches gift-giving with a sense of whimsy doesn't mean they're culturally spineless.

Conversely, oozing sincerity has become one of the ultimate forms of insincerity. We increasingly live in an age of Public Relations—an age in which people are terrified of being honest and critical, as calling something or someone out on their obvious bullshit might see themselves labeled a “hater” and lose a Twitter follower who can't take it.  In effect, irony ironically remains one of the last forms of authenticity—a backhanded rejection of all society's garbage and empty praises. For every thick-rimmed nerd wearing a Justin Bieber shirt in self-defense (I've never seen one, but I guess one might exist somewhere), I'll show you dozens of people living their life without care for the prevailing winds of mainstream culture while channeling their energies into what they genuinely care about.

Of course, by the author's definition, the very act of responding and putting myself out there means I can't be a hipster or fundamentally ironic.  I've exposed myself to risk, by way of criticism from my peers, through taking the time to explain my thoughts and feelings with baseline sincerity, ergo I can't possible be an ironist.

She's totally right.

But enough with irony and other such gobbledygook. The article is already being feverishly passed around Twitter by aging cool kids and self-loathing hipsters, as if this one essay is the blow that sends the gaudy and sneering towers of Millennial hipsterism crashing down to earth. But as anyone who has even casually paid attention to the internet over the past seven years can tell you: nothing garners pageviews and retweets like clumsy hipster-bashing.  And there's nothing ironic about that.

Sent from my iPhone

Comments (27)

Huh? Are you having growing pains?

hipster is just ones way of judging other that they feel uncomfortable with. Im just a guy that drinks great coffee,rides a bike grows orchids and listens to Mac dre,e40,yet somehow I get cal;led a hipster all the time. I gave up trying to figure it out a 5 years ago when all the people i thought were hipsters(listening to indie bands,wearing black tight pants nerdy) all moved to oakland. i thought all the people in Mission now where”techies”

I think you meant Atlantis.

I’d right a response to her article too, but as someone who grew up in the ’90s, I’m way too apathetic to bother.

Oh, dear god, write, WRITE, WRITE. I’m retiring from the internet now.

The NYT should give this woman a raise; this is brilliant link-bait.

I’ve spent way too much time trying to think of a hobby that the NYT author would define as “not hipster”. Considering she believes that playing an instrument is a hipster past time, I’m hard pressed to come up with anything. Except eating. Eating is not hipster. Unless you’re ironically eating.


I’m in favor of pretty much anything that mocks hipsters.

at least hipsters make and do, instead of sitting around and complaining about everything under the sun. if the author is going to start hat-pulling grievances that all have to do with the productivity, art, or work ethic of an entire generation, she needs to at least recognize that this particular generation actually produces change. as compared to her generation, who are so agnostic to effort that they couldn’t even bother voting out the worst president in the history of america.


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).

Let’s see: outdated fashion, check. Uses possessions from another era, check. Has outdated hobbies, check.

That settles it: the Pope is a hipster.

I think you are saying the same thing as the nytimes article. Irony is used by people to avoid both criticism and praise. ‘Hiding in plain sight’. For instance, that’s why my music tastes have been as obscure as possible. To keep people who ‘really know’ music from being able to judge me. Same goes for film making, painting, video games fashion and software creation. As I’ve grown older, I’m less afraid of this judging but when I was in my 20s I was terrified by it. I wasn’t solid enough yet. I didn’t even know what I really liked yet and I knew I didn’t like the mainstream or ever want its praises.

The benefit of this behavior is that we break from the normal & mainstream to avoid it and thus move the culture forward and into new territory. It’s so normal and mainstream in the end.

I don’t think irony is universally used both criticism and praise (basically judgment, of any kind). The obvious example of this is The Colbert Report, which is blatantly ironic/sarcastic in order to make political commentary. Is he really using irony to mask his true political leanings? No.

I think it can be used as a shield as you so describe, but I tend to believe that’s more snobbery as a defense mechanism (not to say you’re a snob, but the “I was into them before it was cool” is more snobbery than irony).

In essence, this is what bothered me most about the piece–the author confuses whimsy and playfulness with irony (gift-giving, silly shirts) and wraps urban snobbery up with it. In reality, all three fairly independent.

You typed all of that out on your iPhone? Jesus Christ. Good work.

I think he was being ironic.

I think he was being ironic.

If homebrewing and the trombone are “outmoded hobbies,” as Wampole writes, then surely her research focusing primarily on 20th-century French and Italian literature and thought falls into the category of an “outmoded profession.”

Your response intrigued me, Kevin, so I decided to go read the loathsome thing. What a sophomoric, masturbatory article. “The most pure nonironic models in life, however, are to be found in nature: animals and plants are exempt from irony, which exists only where the human dwells.” Maybe, unless the plants are secretly ironic. I mean, have you ever really looked at a cactus?

It’s my opinion the Times’ hipster metanarrative is pure drivel and lacks any self-awareness. The critique itself is pastiche, as it steers clear of targeting any topic of substance. Perhaps that would be too ironic for the author. It also smacks of nostalgia for a time when the adults understood what the kids were doing (spoiler alert: they never have).

Link-bait indeed.

I’m just glad the New York Times cleared this up before World War 3 starts in the Middle East.


We should all eat like hipsters (and I mean that unironically)
Hipster culinary culture has always been an easy target.
It can be precious and pretentious with its small-batch alder-smoked Himalayan sea salt caramels and secret coffee handshakes of burr grinders, cuppings, and pour-overs. It is, in turn, both elitist and juvenile; hipper-than-thou but captivated by grilled cheese sandwiches. We can take our potshots (and there are plenty of smug, tedious, and irritating targets), but we also need to acknowledge the worthy substance of hipster foodism.

As a group, hipsters just might be the most knowledgeable eaters on the planet.
They have worldly, globalized palates and demonstrate discernment and sophistication in their food choices. They often embrace contrarian diets—vegan and vegetarianism; raw foods; pro-soy; and gluten- or dairy-free—but they can have profound knowledge of the implications and can credibly rationalize these positions.…

She wrote a great piece. Why are people flipping out over some criticism of todays society (it’s directed at almost everyone)?

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