Tuesday, November 20, 2012

On History and Irony

Posted by Amy E. Slaton on 11/20 at 09:04 AM

There’s a lot to dislike in Christy Wampole’s piece decrying our modern irony-laden lives, which appeared in the New York Times philosophy and culture blog, “The Stone” this week. 

A scholar of French and Italian literature and thought at Princeton, Wampole surprisingly seems to have missed a vast tract of cultural scholarship in her observation of contemporary consumerism, linguistic trends, and what appears to strike her as a generalized aesthetic turpitude among the young urbanites she lumps together under the term “hipster.”

I think any reader of the PACHS blog would instantly see how some history of technology, science or medicine might have deepened or enriched her inquiry into the moral limits of disaffection.  Or optimally, derailed the project altogether, because characterizing people and then complaining about their characteristics seems less cultural theory or moral philosophy than simple discrimination.

First, what the history of technology might have taught Wampole: The ascription of social values on the basis of material possessions is inadvisable at best.  Historians of technology (and cultural historians) have long known that even a mass-produced object (“the fixed gear bicycle, the portable record player”) has multiple and layered meanings for those who choose to purchase it, or to whom life circumstances have brought that object.  Why assume as Wampole does that any vintage mug purchased from a thrift store as a gift reflects its buyer’s insincerity and “existential malaise,” rather than a knowledgeable appreciation for the history of industrial design? For the varieties of vernacular expression in a capitalist culture?  (And who is to say that the Brooklynite sporting the “ironic mustache” is not appropriating the form to comment ironically on the popularity of “ironic mustaches”?  American culture is full of just this kind of critical echoing: Has she never heard of Warhol, Rauschenberg or Koons? Or--since Wampole seems to think irony was invented in her lifetime, we might add--of those ruthlessly self-referential 19th century trompe l’oeil still-lifes?)

Although she names and supposedly shames herself as the former disaffected mug buyer, there is no real reflexivity to the piece. Why does the garbage-picked 1950s chair in the young artist’s loft shout a nihilistic absurdism or baroque artifice to Wampole, when the Eames chair displayed in MoMA (or for that matter, the Louis XIV chair in the Met) presumably would not? She is the Barbara Tuchman of her age: some historical objects merit our respect, others do not, apparently, and her role as arbiter is not to be interrogated.

Projection abounds in the piece. What Wampole assumes to be clothing chosen by its wearer to be “deliberately ugly” may not in fact seem ugly to its owner; she declares it ugly and projects that judgment back onto the person she condemns for making that judgment.  Similarly, individuals’ values regarding cost, spending and sustainability are rendered moot in Wampole’s selective interpretation of her subjects’ motives. Please, Dr. Wampole:  see Susan Strasser on the diverse cultural meanings of household re-use!  Reading ennui and pretense back into consumer choices as Wampole does selects for meanings that serve her argument.  And her apparent belief that the meanings of objects can be evacuated altogether is deeply problematic for any historian concerned with material culture: How can clothes possibly “refer only to themselves,” a goal she prescribes for our wardrobe choices? 

As we read on, Wampole’s irony-cleansing recommendations prove to be not merely sloppily construed, but pernicious.  To whom should we turn as models of “non-ironic” living, Wampole asks?  Her answer includes “dictators” and “fundamentalists” (“who are never ironists”); apparently to inflict suffering is to be “real” …Exactly why she feels this way is not made clear.  Because that infliction is deliberate, in her view? Unmediated by aesthetic choice? Really, no possible understanding of her claim here is intellectually or morally defensible.

But in a move that is equal parts bizarre and disturbing, Wampole goes on to indicate that to experience suffering (as she defines it) is also to be “real.”

Non-ironic models include very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places where seriousness is the governing state of mind. My friend Robert Pogue Harrison put it this way in a recent conversation: “Wherever the real imposes itself, it tends to dissipate the fogs of irony.

The history of the social sciences, anthropology, and medicine, as well as age and disabilities studies, help us see the depth of Wampole’s discriminatory outlook here.  The passage is essentialist, proceeding from the idea that people who are young, who are elderly, or who live with “severe mental and physical disabilities” have particular and uniform experiences.  Persons of each “type” should be seen to constitute a group on the basis of the trait she highlights. In so proposing, Wampole reasserts the existence of inherent, systematic human differences with a seamlessness that Josiah Nott or Francis Galton would have admired.

To make such claims in 2012 is not only ignorant but frightening.  It presumes that the experiences of young, elderly, disabled, or politically oppressed persons are not only to be delineated from those of others in society in predictable rather than dynamically understood ways, but also to be valued for the entirely questionable reasons Wampole has indicated.  The wild child, the tribal elder, the noble savage, the political prisoner:  We are urged to listen to them as would an anthropologist; to correct with their authenticity for our merely fashionable “silliness” and “sarcasm.” But historians of science and social science have taught us that “listening to” others in this objectifying way is actually the “constructing of.” Such constructions are not liberatory, but the opposite, privileging the classificatory systems and norms of the listener. Save us all from the sympathetic interventions of Christy Wampole.  The only thing worse than being an object of her derision might be being an object of her respect.

Tags: charles eames, christy wampole, francis galton, hipsters, irony, josiah nott, new york times, princeton university, the stone