New books — From the July 2015 issue

New Books

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 3 )

The young are strange and new, but they’re not so hard to get to know. All you have to do is listen. It’s easy — so easy that I cannot imagine why Christy Wampole, a professor of French and the author of THE OTHER SERIOUS: ESSAYS FOR THE NEW AMERICAN GENERATION (Harper, $25.99), hasn’t tried it. In her disquisition on “The Great American Irony Binge,” she poses a riddle whose earnestness does nothing to mitigate its fatuity:

As a Gen-Xer, I wonder how it must be to grow up in this environment today. What does it feel like to be in high school, for example, where your life is constantly available for comment online? . . . Can you ever say how you really feel, using your own name?

Wampole doesn’t answer her question about what life is like for others, but she’s happy to share what it’s like for her. Some will chalk this up to the self-investigatory mandate of the essay, but Wampole’s speculative humblebrags smack of bad faith. “I shy intuitively away from all of today’s necessary posturing,” she writes, “knowing all the while that if I were in high school now, I’d probably just shut up and adapt.”

Self-Portrait as a Heel, Part Two by Jean-Michel Basquiat © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images

Self-Portrait as a Heel, Part Two by Jean-Michel Basquiat © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images

The Other Serious escalates the war on irony that Wampole first launched in the opinion pages of the New York Times. She describes contemporary culture as a contest between “The Bad Serious,” which covers everything from apocalyptic thinking to Internet trolls to mass shootings, and “irony,” which she traces from the ancient haze of the 1990s (decade of her bêtes noires Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Beavis and Butt-head) to the much-theorized hipster and his much-theorized mustache. (Cultural historians of the future will doubtless be less flummoxed by turn-of-the-century facial coiffure than by our obsession with it.) Irony, for Wampole, is epitomized in online comments, which are clever, flippant, and mean. She does not dispute that “everything is relative” or that “what we believe in today will be annulled tomorrow,” but she insists that “there are scores of other ways to express or resist this state of affairs” without reducing “civilization” to “one big punch line.” She proposes a “nuanced management of the ironic binge, a recalibration of our sensors,” achievable by reading The Idiot, sitting by a creek, or spending time with children or the disabled. Ultimately she advocates for what she calls “The Other Serious,” a state of mind that is calm, attentive, moderate, and joyful.

These are virtues, and they are worthy of a better spokesperson. Wampole condescends to the reader. She substitutes etymology for argument. She celebrates nature as a pure antidote to the corruptions of society. She identifies plausible symptoms of this corruption — careerist undergraduates, a distracted populace, the clean lines of Apple computers, comedies of “awkwardness” — but her diagnoses are inadequate. She mistakes material conditions for collective failures of character. “I know so many people who listened to tons of new music in high school, who filled sketchbooks with drawings, who wrote little poems in private,” she writes. “As grown-ups, they’ve abandoned all that essential stuff to watch TV. . . . Do a favor for your future elderly self: make cool things you can dig out of a box and say, ‘I made this.’ ”

I wonder: Why don’t more people come home after eight or twelve hours of work — work that just might involve doing things that they consider meaningful — and unwind by writing poetry or making “cool things”? If this is serious, give me irony, mustaches and all.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share

More from Christine Smallwood:

New books From the December 2017 issue

New Books

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2019

A Play with No End

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Call of the Drums

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Brutal from the Beginning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Alps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.