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Emma Orlow Headshot

Reacting to a World Veiled in Irony

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Irony: noun. The expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

"Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd?" asked Christy Wampole. Last week, the New York Times published one of the most topical pieces for my generation: "How to Live Without Irony" by Wampole, an assistant professor of French at Princeton University. The article was centered on the idea that filling our lives with irony is essentially hiding behind a mask to avoid meaningful discussion. The illustrations in the article particularly highlight her point: The first image is a couple, clearly older than Justin Beiber's demographic, who wear his concert T-shirts mixed in with their own styles. It is clear to all that the couple doesn't really love or listen Justin Beiber at all -- or if they do, it's in a way that makes fun of the teenage singer.

In the article, Wampole asks us to look at our own environments and detect the elements of irony we've used to construct it. As I was reading the piece, I really did look around my room to follow her line of questioning. Only, I really couldn't find much. Now, maybe if Wampole saw me and my room she'd think otherwise, but, with the exception of "The Clique" movie I bought on DVD in 2008 (as a silly homage to the cliqueness of my own middle school) everything I do, I do because I really want to, not because it is an act of irony. Am I alone in thinking like this? I am some breed of Frankenteen?

Wampole begins the article talking about the hipster as the personification of irony. This archetype, she says, "Manifest[s] 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)." At first, when I read this, I thought that to some extent I fit the very mold that Wampole lays out. I am often culpable of romanticizing the 1960's -- I listen to music of the era, dress in vintage flower power dresses, and make art that references the time, too -- yet I don't particularly see this as an indication of irony. I like the 1960's because I find it meaningful to dip into the past. I do so not because I think it's ironic to connect to aesthetics from a bygone era, but rather, because I live in a society where there is so much pressure to create the Next Best Thing -- to create the most shocking/funniest/darkest painting/movie/book, what have you -- and sometimes, looking back in our society's history is my small way of slowing down this obsession with the new. If this is irony, then I don't want to be right.

Still, there is something to Wampole's depiction of irony's repeated offenders. The people Wampole describes in the article seem more like cartoon characters than real human beings. But there are plenty of real people who say they love Justin Beiber when they really think his music is crap. They do so because they think it's funny and witty, and it allows them to operate in alternate realm other than their own, where they can explore what it feels like to be a JBeibz fangirl for a moment. In dosages, I don't see what's wrong with that. I make jokes all the time that involve sarcasm and irony. Irony is a brand of humor just like black comedies are. But if my speech depended solely on irony -- that is, saying things that are the antithesis of their original meaning -- I would always be relying on this form of humor to hide the message that I am really trying to get at in the first place. On a long-term scale, why is it that we are so afraid to be confident with our interests that we revert to irony as an easier modus operandi? Are we really so scared to be judged as ourselves that we have to cloak our tastes in a veil of irony?

A screenshot of when I searched "irony" on Google. Is this me being ironic? I don't know anymore.