The Null Device
As parts of its Why We Fight column, exploring the cultural flashpoints of (for want of a less loaded word) hipsterdom, Pitchfork has a piece charting the rise and metamorphosis of irony, and exploring the significance of knowingness. The timeline it posits looks like this:
Or, in other words, if this theory holds, Gen Y aren't only the first generation of digital natives, but also the first generation of ironic natives (or perhaps post-ironic natives, though that title might apply more to GenXers who came out the other end and made an accommodation with sincerity via their McSweeney's subscriptions). That is, for values of "first" meaning "since the mid-20th-century".
- Americans born from the late 50s to mid-70s grew up in a world where a lot of old certainties about society, work, family, and life had been eroded-- by big social changes in the 60s, by economic decline, by lots of things. And yet these people were still raised on culture full of old "certainties" that suddenly looked really, really false and corny. Elvis-impersonator corny, After-School Special corny. So they developed a kind of irony and skepticism, floating around smirking but rarely committing to anything. Some of them were good enough at it that, by the late 80s, it'd become an actual cultural aesthetic, a sort of slacker knowingness that could get as mainstream as, say, "The Simpsons".
- Those were Gen Xers, mostly. But even as people slightly younger than them grew up, through the 90s, on a steady diet of that attitude, some folks started to notice a kind of futility in the whole thing, a defensiveness, an emptiness, an inability to embrace anything-- at which point you could suddenly read thousands of words of David Foster Wallace on how damaging it might be, how much we needed to tap back into the kinds of "basic human verities" that actually helped us lead meaningful lives. Some people even started predicting the rise of some "New Sincerity."
- In fact, some of the people who spent the 90s trading in exactly that knowing, snarky sensibility recanted, and started going around bug-eyed, warning everyone about leaving it behind-- raving about climbing out of the hole they'd fallen into, somewhat oblivious to the fact that younger people weren't in the hole with them. Younger people knew how to be ironic and sincere both, and were digging themselves entirely new holes to deal with.
(Other Why We Fight essays on Pitchfork include: why Joanna Newsom is seen as pretentious and Lady Gaga isn't, and the aspirational qualities of shifting musical taste as a sort of hipster arms race.)
In an entirely different negotiation between irony and sincerity, Czechs trying to balance nostalgia with unease for the Communist regime that was imposed on them can now holiday in authentically preserved Communist-era holiday resorts, albeit with better service and a measure of ironic detachment (in the form of singing, dancing Lenin impersonators):
She is upset because I've asked if she was bothered by the bust of Stalin in the hotel lobby. "It's our history and it's inside us," she continues, still brandishing the sausage.