A Discussion With Christy Wampole, the New York Times’ Earnest Irony-Hater

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Photo: Rebecca Smeyne/Corbis

Nothing evokes the half-serious ire of the Internet like articles about hipsters. (Predictably, they’re always old news.) And sitting atop the Times Sunday Review section last weekend was a target so ripe that many thought must be a joke. But "How to Live Without Irony" by Christy Wampole, an assistant professor of French at Princeton University, was not, in fact, intended as a meta-gag. "If irony is the ethos of our age — and it is — then the hipster is our archetype of ironic living," Wampole wrote, running down the usual checklist of facial hair, fixed-gear bikes, and craft beer, ultimately arguing that the hipster, with all of his superficial signifiers, is "merely a symptom and the most extreme manifestation of ironic living."

"Some people seem to think that the whole piece is ironic," said Wampole yesterday, surveying the reaction. "I was actually quite sincere in my argument."

So far, there are more than 600 comments, endless tweets, and the usual assortment of blog posts that attempt to deconstruct, mock, or engage with Wampole's premise. "So many people read this as a bashing of hipsters, which it is, actually, the opposite of that," she clarified. "This is less about bashing hipsters than getting everyone to be more self-aware."

Does that, we wondered, include the author herself? She was kind enough to answer a few of our lingering questions.

Have there been any specific criticisms of the essay that have caused you to reassess anything you wrote?
First, anyone who read the article as hipster bashing missed my point. I began with the standard hipster caricature and then asked people to take the derisive eye that many cast on hipsters and turn it onto themselves. I felt this was quite clear, but perhaps I could have formulated it more explicitly. I also should have been more clear in the distinction I made between irony (which has existed throughout the ages in many formats, serving many useful and/or necessary purposes; it is still useful and necessary) and ironic living; perhaps I should have written Ironic Living with capital letters to emphasize that I'm talking about something quite specific.    

You're a college professor: Which of the issues you describe are most prevalent in your students?
First, I want to say that I am a huge fan of Generation Y. The simple fact they were able to significantly impact two elections in a row makes me really admire them. Unfortunately, some readers took my article as a sign of generational warfare. I wrote my appeal to Generation Y (and to anyone else on whom the ashes of irony have settled) because they have a powerful voice and I hope they will find the means to channel it in the most fruitful way possible. My students do not manifest irony in front of me as their professor.

In class, they are generally quite professional, eager, serious, and engaged. But keeping a professional face in front of your professor is one thing. Personal life is another. When I see them on campus or run into them in town, or overhear random conversations of students around campus, here the ironic life manifests itself. There is a kind of constant hyperbolic pitch that maintains itself in their speech, and their interactions consist often of a sustained string of ironic utterances that dissolve into total negation.

How much of this essay comes from personal experience? Do you consider yourself, or have you ever referred to yourself as a "hipster"? Do your friends? Google says you play in a band and like to shop at thrift stores, and you've spent time in Berlin — all the superficial trappings of a hipster. How much of what you wrote applies to your own life?
Yes, probably if people saw me on certain days wearing certain things, they would immediately put me into the category of hipster. (I like my best friend's distinction; she claims that I am not a hipster but that I am just hip. But these are the kinds of polite, self-esteem boosting remarks our best friends are so generous to give us, whether they are true or not).

I tried to make very clear in the article that I applied the same scrutiny to myself that I ask others to apply to themselves. I wanted to conduct an honest self-assessment, which I invited others to do as well. I wasn't happy with my self-defensive behavior either but I'm willing to work on it.

Your piece is part of a tradition at the New York Times of writing about hipsters and places like Brooklyn and Portland, then getting made fun of online, as famously mocked by Brian Williams in 2010. There's also a huge body of work about "hipsters," from Time Out's "Why the Hipster Must Die" in 2007 to the n+1 collection "What Was the Hipster?" Where do you see yourself in this conversation? As a hipster might argue, was the early stuff better?
Yes, there is a long tradition of interrogations into the hipster phenomenon. I would say my contribution is of a much more pragmatic nature. I wanted to move from thought to action.

I'm willing to make myself vulnerable and be made fun of online. First, it only confirms my point. Second, it shows that there is still something in the conversation that hasn't be fully flushed out. If the hipster question were dead, why all the buzz?

This interview has been condensed and edited.