How irony is the enemy of a risk-filled life


Much has been written about the hipster in popular culture. Most of it has been done to death, so I won’t go on about it much, but I’ve been inadvertently on the front lines of hipsterdom for many years (living first in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and now in Portland). It is no shock to me that the Monty Python-inspired and still-funny-even-now Hipster Olympics was filmed a few blocks away from my old apartment.

The New York Times recently ran a great article about hipsterdom and irony, which is a central toolkit in the hipster’s arsenal. The piece is generally spot on, but more importantly, it showcases what I feel is the central danger in taking a permanently ironic stance in one’s personality: irony negates the risk of being criticized.

Dispatches from the irony trenches

This isn’t all that new. The great ancestor of discussions on irony in our culture for me is E Unibus Pluram, an essay by David Foster Wallace, first published in 1993 and collected in his anthology A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. While ostensibly about “Television and US Fiction” it’s really an indictment against irony in culture. I’ll never be able to do such a sprawling piece of work any justice, only to say that you simply must give it a read. Here’s a teaser:

And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. … Most likely, I think today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.’ Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is tyranny.

David Foster Wallace and his bandanna of truth.
David Foster Wallace and his bandanna of truth.

David Eggers’ first novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, spends a surprising amount of time in its introduction saying in effect, “it’s okay if you don’t like this book, since it’s probably not very good anyway.” It weasels out of being legitimately criticized by criticizing itself. In its “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book” it offers the following suggestions, among others:

  • “There is no overwhelming need to read the preface.”
  • “Actually, many of you might want to skip much of the middle.”
  • “The book thereafter is kind of uneven.”

See what he did there? You can no longer indict his book on any charge of anything, as he’s already spelled out that it is mostly worth skipping. Self-deprecation has its place, sure, but this to me seems like nothing short of cowardice.

READ MORE:  On responding to "withering" cultural pressure

(Interestingly, David Foster Wallace himself provided one of the most gushing blurbs on the book jacket. I wonder if he noted the, as it were, irony.)

The book is actually quite excellent, all admonishments aside.
The book is actually quite excellent, all admonishments aside.

Get criticized

To do anything meaningful, you have to be willing to risk derision.

And derision is everywhere. And not just coming from hipsters either (though they can be an endless stream of it). Derision for what you do can come from everywhere: from your friends, your family, your boss, whoever. People may not understand, and while that is surely painful, the people who are most dismissive of you might also be the most likely to come around. They want to see you confident and self-assured, even in the face of their dismissiveness.

So if you write a book or an album or a exhibition or anything, I want you to say that you’re proud of it. I want you to tell people that they should be engaged. That you stand beside your work. Un-ironically, and with real risk involved.

Just ask the person who’s writing this post, ever-mindful of who is and who is not reading it. You don’t see me saying “well, I don’t care either way. In fact, don’t read my site. It’s stupid.” It would be much easier to adopt that stance. Much less risky. But ultimately self-defeating.

I believe it is possible to get better at risk the more you do it. Think of it like a muscle. So a twice-weekly posting of stories and advice is my twice-weekly dose of risk (supplemented by adventures and extra-long bike trips). Perhaps you won’t feel like I know what I’m talking about. I’m willing to take that risk.

But enough about me. Have you ever used irony in order to evade risk?

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