We have irony all wrong: Alanis, David Foster Wallace and the truth about hipster consumerism

Whether punk fashion, political consumerism or simple charity, spending for status can often be a good thing

Published April 19, 2015 4:30PM (EDT)


Excerpted from "Cool: How the Brain's Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World"

In 2012, Christy Wampole, a professor of French and Italian at Princeton, sparked a firestorm of debate with her article in The New York Times titled “How to Live Without Irony.” Claiming irony the ethos of our age and the hipster the archetype of ironic living, Wampole chides the ironic Millennial Generation and offers them tips on learning how to live without irony. But in our opinion, Wampole’s beef isn’t really with irony. Rather, Wampole is really just a younger version of Benjamin Barber. Her screed is another declinist narrative, which, like Barber’s, sees infantilizing as the root problem.

In fact, she says as much in an interview about her article when she describes the United States as a self-infantilizing population. It’s not irony that’s at the root of this self-infantilization. Instead, she diagnoses it as the need to treat everything as a joke. She describes the Millennial Generation as only knowing how to engage through mockery and scoffing. While Barber looks back to a distant time, Wampole looks back to her own halcyon formative era, the 1990s, when people took things seriously, when the grunge movement was earnest, and when young people were hopeful. Leaving aside issues of historical accuracy (David Foster Wallace declared irony the ethos and problem of his age in 1993), we think Wampole is best understood as a reiterator of the eternal cranky intergenerational refrain: “Kids today, why can’t they grow up?” Actual data on the Millennials whom Wampole so summarily dismisses as self-infantilizing shows that they are harder workers, better community builders, more service-oriented, more committed to social and environmental justice, and more embracing of diversity than Wampole’s Generation X.

Let’s turn now to the issue of irony and ironic consumption. As Alanis Morissette inadvertently demonstrated in her 1995 hit song “Ironic,” much, if not most, of what passes as irony isn’t ironic at all. Likewise, much of what Wampole complains about—in her words, mockery and scoffing—aren’t necessarily ironic either. The same for snark, the blend of sarcasm and cynicism that’s so prevalent on cable news and talk radio. So what is ironic? Despite what Morissette sang, a black fly in your chardonnay isn’t ironic. Rain on your wedding day isn’t either. They’re just bad luck. Now, if the wine was purchased specifically to repel black flies, or if you carefully chose a wedding location where it never rains, then yes, it’s ironic, as a corrected version of Morissette’s song illustrates. What makes it ironic in those cases is the fact that the outcome is contrary to what was intended or expected.

As these examples of situational irony suggest, irony has to do with discrepancies between intention and outcome, or, in the case of verbal irony, between what one says and what one actually means. There’s another word for a discrepancy between what you say and what you mean: “misunderstanding.” So what’s the difference between irony and misunderstanding? Two main things: In the case of misunderstanding, an audience only comprehends the surface meaning of what you said. Your intended meaning escapes them. In the case of irony, they comprehend both meanings. But to make it ironic, they also have to recognize that you intentionally said something that had multiple meanings and that this intentional ambiguity had some effect on the discourse.

Irony, then, involves the intentional use of multiple meanings. Indeed, an ironist, such as Jonathan Swift, intentionally uses ambiguity to be partially misunderstood to create a dynamic interaction between the meanings (dialectical movement), a form of indirect communication that is richer and more revealing than direct communication.

What often gets lost in the discussion of irony is that particularly effective irony is often misunderstood by some of its audience, who take its literal meaning as its intended meaning. For example, Stephen Colbert had to invoke Jonathan Swift after he was accused of racism for a tweet mocking Dan Snyder of the Washington Redskins. Kazakhstan issued official statements decrying the character Borat, not realizing that Sacha Baron Cohen’s satire was directed at the United States, not at them.

So ironic consumption has to do with infusing products with double meanings. We mentioned consumer appropriation earlier in this chapter as involving the consumer’s altering the intended meaning of a product. Through how the product is used, it may come to have new meanings, and the original meaning is no longer attached to it. For example, punk fashion appropriated safety pins to use as jewelry. In ironic appropriation, the product retains its original meaning, but comes to gain new meanings or connotations as well. To be ironic, these meanings must contradict each other. Some ironic appropriation is likely to be a form of inconspicuous signaling.

In this case, some members within a group introduce a new good and its ironic meaning diffuses through the group, at which point it may lose its ironic cachet and be abandoned. Inconspicuous ironic signaling may be playful, creative, and clever since it deals with plays of meaning.

We suspect that ironic appropriation has become more inconspicuous over time. A decade ago, ironic appropriation was often conspicuous. Goods to appropriate could come from salient outgroups that are positioned as mainstream or lowbrow. For example, a T-shirt or trucker hat from a company such as John Deere could easily be appropriated as a form of negative consumption. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s antipathy for the out-group, only that it creates humorous incongruous meanings (juxtaposing rural and urban lifestyles). When these goods come from dissociative out-groups, like a hipster wearing a Mitt Romney campaign shirt, the ironic appropriation is humorous within the group, but it stems from a negative judgment about the out-group. Culture and fashion critics have been complaining about trucker hats on hipsters since at least 2003.

By asserting that irony was the ethos of our age, Wampole also sparked a backlash from commentators such as Jonathan Fitzgerald, who asserted that sincerity was the ethos of our age. In an age of fracture, the notion that there’s a specific ethos strikes us as a non-starter. And the prominence of irony is overstated as well as misleading.

Suggestions that irony somehow squeezes out sincerity with its cynicism are misleading (as T. S. Eliot noted of Swift, “Real irony is an expression of suffering”). Beyond that dispute, there’s no doubt that sincerity remains firmly in place today. Indeed, one of the most influential TV series of late, Lost, was most striking for its absence of irony and its earnestness in presenting themes that would have been the subject of ironic treatment a decade before.

We think that hipsters are maligned especially by conservatives, who have a higher disdain for them than do liberals—not because of their irony, but because of their earnestness, particularly with respect to issues of ethical consumption. Hipsters are often portrayed as vegans, recyclers, bicycle commuters, “localtarians” (shoppers at local and farmers’ markets), obsessed with fair-trade goods. And that leads us to the question of whether cool consumption can be ethical consumption.

Can Cool Consumption Be Ethical?

We’ve argued that critics of consumption make many poor policy recommendations because of their mistaken assumptions about and mischaracterizations of consumerism. For example, critics such as Benjamin Barber and Naomi Klein argue that thinking of ourselves as consumers makes us feel and act less like politically engaged citizens. In other words, consumerism “crowds out” our citizenship, making consumerism dangerous to democracy.

We should be suspicious of this claim for two obvious reasons. First, political consumerism emerged to play an important role in the creation of American democracy. As the historian T. H. Breen documents, popular images of eighteenth-century colonists as embodying a self-reliant, homespun way of life are myths. Colonists enthusiastically participated in a global economy and had a large appetite for British-made consumer goods ranging from textiles and china to ivory combs and decorated snuffboxes. Indeed, by 1770 the colonies accounted for roughly a quarter of all British exports. When Britain began imposing special taxes on these goods, beginning in 1765 with the Stamp Act, colonists transformed private consumption into political action in the form of consumer boycotts. According to Breen, the colonist exercise of consumer choice in the form of the consumer boycott helped create a national sense of identity that had eluded the otherwise diverse and fractious colonies and provided the crucial link between everyday life and political revolution. Second, many of the most robust democracies today, such as those in Sweden and Denmark, also have the highest levels of political consumerism. The fact is, engaging as political consumers leads to people taking more political action and commitment.

The most egregious and pernicious misunderstanding of consumption is the idea that it’s morally suspicious because it appeals to status. Let’s take a look at the idea that status seeking is a suspect or even corrupt motivation that should be treated as a pathology. This comes in many forms. One is the Veblenesque idea that status seeking is simply a self-regarding, irrational impulse and an end in itself.

Consumerism’s critics often claim that these irrational impulses come from “extrinsic” values. These are morally suspect and include a desire to be popular, to get a good image, to have financial success, and to conform. The reason critics call them extrinsic is because they are supposedly “other-directed,” in David Riesman’s term—directed at impressing others and provoking their envy to fill a narcissistic void, to substitute for healthy self-esteem. Unsurprisingly, these critics claim that consumption feeds, and feeds on, these values, making it complicit in perpetuating pathology. They continue that the better part of our nature comes from our “intrinsic values,” which include our desire to affiliate, to accept ourselves, and to enjoy community. Worse yet, these critics charge that extrinsic and intrinsic values are antagonistic, so appealing to an extrinsic value, such as status, harms intrinsic ones.

This line of thinking leads to a critical misdiagnosis of the role of status norms in ethical consumption. For example, the journalist George Monbiot says that activists have tried to motivate consumers to buy green by appealing to their worst instincts—telling them that “by buying a hybrid car, you can impress your friends and enhance your social status.” This tactic is a bad idea because it “also strengthens extrinsic values, making future campaigns even less likely to succeed. Green consumerism has been a catastrophic mistake,” Monbiot concludes. On the contrary, green consumption actually turns Veblenesque wasteful signaling on its head. That is, green signaling, akin to competitive altruism, can induce an arms race among consumers to display austerity that minimizes the environmental impact of consumption, which produces
social benefits rather than waste.

Monbiot’s view, which was also central to a major 2010 report by Common Cause, fundamentally misinterprets the nature of status. Indeed, the deep irony of regarding status as morally suspect is that our emerging understanding of human morality rests on the same theory of signaling and social selection that explains consumption. That is, many moral behaviors signal our commitment to moral norms, such as equity and fairness, for which we gain esteem as moral actors—from which esteem, in turn, we gain high-quality social partners. None of this suggests that we are somehow morally duplicitous. Nor does it suggest that our morality is some sort of disguised scheming, any more than understanding the biological basis of parenting behavior invalidates the genuine feelings of love that parents have for their children.

To see why, consider that there are two keys to our capacity to build and live in complex societies. The first is the extent to which our biology prepares us to internalize and act on the basis of social norms and rewards us right within our own brains for doing so. The second is our collective ability to change norms, some in response to changing environmental and economic realities. Others we change through a process of moral reflection, debate, disagreement, and negotiation, as when we extend notions of justice to previously excluded persons and groups.

What about the intuition that appealing to status results in selfish behaviors that harm society rather than help it—like Monbiot’s calling green consumerism a catastrophic mistake? An enormous amount of research debunks this intuition. Consider a few examples.

When Switzerland adopted a mail-in ballot system for elections, they discovered that it did not raise voter participation, despite their strong intuition that making voting more convenient and less time-consuming would do so. In fact, in some communities it actually reduced voter turnout. By turning a public behavior into a private one, the mail-in ballot eliminated the esteem incentive of being seen taking time to vote, a costly signal of one’s civic engagement.

Similarly, many charities these days raise a large percentage of their revenues by holding athletic events or challenges (runs, triathlons, and so on) for which people pay substantial entry fees or raise sponsorship money. Wouldn’t it be easier for people to save themselves the time it takes to prepare and participate in these events and just send a donation instead? Most people who participate in these charity events are not regular exercisers, as indicated by the high injury rates at such events. People participate eagerly in these events because they are costly signals of generosity and altruistic giving. And, a related point, why is it that anonymous donations to charities—despite having the same tax-deduction benefits—account for less than 1 percent of total charitable contributions?

As these cases illustrate, esteem incentives are aligned with social benefits. There is no basis for the claim that esteem incentives must be antagonistic to social benefits.

Excerpted from "Cool: How the Brain's Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World" by Steven Quartz and Anette Asp. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright 2015 by Steven Quartz and Anette Asp. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Steven Quartz

Steven Quartz is a professor of philosophy and cognitive science and the director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. He is the coauthor of "Liars, Lovers, and Heroes" and lives in Malibu, California.

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By Anette Asp

Anette Asp is a political scientist, public relations and communications professional, and pioneer in the field of neuromarketing. She is a former project manager at the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and is currently the communications manager of a leading telecommunications company. She lives in Stockholm, Sweden.

MORE FROM Anette Asp