Author’s note: Look, I’m an English major, and the way that we did things when I studied how to write (and the way that we still do things (I think)) is to get a little poncy with English, bandy around terms like ‘meta-irony’ and ‘normative’ and ‘austrocentrism’. The ostensible explanation for this being that we need extra-specific words for what we’re talking about; and being able to drop words like these arguably increases a writer’s, like, intellectual trust. I know it might seem like posturing, but I promise I have something important to say.
So I was on Facebook the other day (thrilling opener, let’s keep up the pace) and one of my friends, commenting on a post about Instagram, claimed that he used the social network to help boost his “fragile self-esteem”–you know, the sort of sideways, self-effacing claim that we all make these days. But this friend isn’t a person I know to have much trouble with self-esteem; in fact, they seem like a real model of a well-adjusted modern human: lots of friends, well-liked, accomplished, mature in character and composure. What fragile self-esteem?
We all post these sorts of things online now and again; we all say them out loud, too. We face down our shortcomings and draw attention to our own humiliation publicly, presumably for some kind of social currency. Elspeth Reeve at New Republic goes seriously in-depth dissecting this phenomenon among teenagers on Tumblr, but here’s a good snapshot:
Tumblr humor often focuses on what I think of as micro-humiliations, tiny moments of social awkwardness that can feel absolutely crushing for a teenager figuring out how to be a person in the world. Anonymous kids with witty user names like Larsvontired or Baracknobama post incisive one-liners confessing their most vulnerable moments of social mortification.
And that Tumblr fame (and Reddit too, if you know where to look) trickles down to Buzzfeed in the form of listicles like 18 Unbelievably Rude Texts From Your Anxiety and into the sort of social consciousness of folks like me. The thing is: as much as these are expressions of small personal pain–and I’ll get to that in a second–they are first and foremost entertainment and marketing.
There’s a sort of cynicism at work here: a lot of what I have to say in the next few paragraphs is predicated on the idea that almost everyone wants something (e.g. Buzzfeed wants page views because those translate into advertising revenue and journalistic legitimacy). I recognize that there are pockets of humanity that are creating and giving exclusively to make the world a better place (see the open-source software movement, for example) but I think a convincing argument can be made for the claim that Buzzfeed or Tumblr are not instances of these pockets. This argument requires untangling, but not here.
But going back, and I think here is an even more defensible argument than the last paragraph: self-esteem trouble, lack of self-worth, humiliation, and all the auxiliary troubles that come with that sort of complex, tend to be the sort of things that sufferers don’t want to talk about. From the perspective of the sufferer, issues of self-worth preclude talking about them: if you’re not worth much, then why would anyone want to listen to what you have to say? If you are humiliated, why would you want to spread the knowledge of your humiliation?
Okay, this is the point where it gets a little English-major-ey, so bear with me.
I would argue that ‘coolness’, whatever that is supposed to mean, is an extension of dominant aesthetic attitudes any given moment in time. See, for example, this graph adapted from Dick Pountain and David Robins’s Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude, and note the number of artistic movements named. I’m not trying to make a, like, teleological argument here–I don’t know which one comes first (artistic aesthetic vs. coolness), and I have no idea from whence coolness arises. But there is a correlation, I’m pretty sure.
But so anyway a dominant piece of a lot of art of the past, say, 30 years is irony. And this is important. A huge piece of the post-modern vocabulary. See AV Club’s article on grunge, or, if you’re in an ‘academic’ mood, this essay from the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (they reference a lot of very important literature about irony, but I don’t think I can get past the society’s name, blech).
Irony, however, sort of breaks down after a while, because, while it’s a terrific tool for skewering everything wrong with society, it doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions. And so, like every aesthetic trend that has come before it, it’s sort of falling by the wayside. The hipster of the mid-2000s is a decidedly aging concept.
So what comes next? Here’s my argument: the modern hipster (if you can still call it that) is a meta-ironist. There’s that word again. Sorry. But the fact of the matter is that the cool folks of today are ironic about being ironic. See Tumblr, see Buzzfeed, see Reddit, see basically any meme starting with ‘that feel when…’ and ending with something terrible happening. The ‘cool’ of today is not the listless detachment of the 2000s; not caring, standing aloof–it doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. What endears a person to others and cultivates a sense of cool is aggressive advertising of a person’s weakness.
Because here’s a fact about life: it’s fucking hard. Hard enough that we oughta feel obligated to stick a ‘fucking’ in front of it. That’s the story. Hobbes was right. Everyone is self-centered and inward-oriented. And until we have mind uploading or some Kurzweilian experience-sharing shit, there’s no way not to be self-centered and inward-oriented. Whoops. Do you understand your friend’s experience of eating a burger? Do you understand your son’s experience of learning to ride a bike? Sure, they can tell you all they want but you’re getting the experience secondhand. You’ll never have any idea. All you get are your experiences–you eating a burger or you learning to ride a bike. But we’re all different, and no one’s personal experience is the same as anyone else’s.
Unfortunately, that self-centeredness makes life necessarily tough for everyone, because we’re all just trying to get by, and in a lot of cases ‘getting by’ involves someone not quite getting by as well as you. I’m not criticizing anyone–I understand that there are evils in the world and we have to do our best to avoid them or avoid thinking about them too hard or we become a victim of guilt that the world foists on us. We don’t have a say in the matter. This isn’t your fault.
But so, going back: that’s why aggressive weakness-advertising is a pretty good tactic if you’re looking for some coolness points: because you’re expressing how hard it is to be you; and everyone else agrees, yeah, it’s hard, and they’ve all felt the same way. And at any rate everyone’s turned on hipsters and irony and so a dose of sincerity now and again is a tall, cold glass of water.
But wait. Remember what I said earlier? About people with self-worth issues having trouble talking about their self-worth issues? They can’t just be drafted into service of making you cool, and they certainly can’t be laughed about with a bunch of friends, because the only thing harder than expressing the pain of self-worth issues is getting laughed at for your self-worth issues. It takes a certain level of abstraction of anxiety to get to the point where you can cope with them and express them with people you trust. And that abstraction is so tough people write apps to deal with it.
The aesthetics of faux sincerity: that is meta-irony. Scoring points from being open, down-to-earth, honest about (big quotes) ‘who you really are’. But the Internet trends of quasi-anonymous weakness-advertising aren’t the only places you’ll find it. Look at the clothes that young men are wearing these days. Leather boots. Chambray work shirts. Juniper-scented colognes. Artisan axes. Enamelware. In the past couple of years young men have performed a complete 180 from ironic, sarcastic apparel, to style evoking the hardworking, downtrodden folk of the early- to mid-20th century. It’s telling, then, that the retailers like Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, who championed a lot of the 2000s ironic aesthetic, are tanking in the current zeitgeist. Telling, as well, that a lot of young men are no longer looking to music culture for style cues, but to their grandfathers.
(Corollary hypothesis: every reasonably stylish man age 18-30 owns at least one thing that belonged to his grandfather, and whenever that thing comes out, the man will say, “It was my grandfather’s,” with reverence. I’m also guilty of this.)
Of course, all of this style is, just like the weakness-advertising from above, grounded only very shallowly in fact. Just as people with socially-interruptive self-worth issues don’t talk about them, neither do the salt-of-the-earth folks made of sinew and grit actually wear $350 Chippewas and chambray. And you’ll be more likely to find a pair of Red Wing’s Iron Ranger boots in a San Francisco design firm than in Minnesota’s Iron Range, after which they’re named.
What does this mean? I suppose the working class folks that young men are trying to emulate have bigger things on their plate than a bunch of graphic design students wearing leather boots. Ditto for people with self-esteem issues–they’re coping with heavier weight than the number of reactions an anxiety article on Buzzfeed is getting. And at any rate, if you can abstract your issues of self-worth into some sort of marketable product, I applaud that–I suppose it’s a form of therapy. Is meta-irony harmless? Of course not; but neither was ironic hipsterism, nor whatever Kate Moss was doing in the 90s, nor any of the trends that came before them. Nothing’s harmless. Someone’s hurting somewhere, all of the time.
Will things change? Certainly. Trends come and go and right now we’re approaching the crest of some wave that will crash down eventually; and the style-leaders of the world (teens, let’s get real) will tow us all back out to the next wave to ride, and the next, until we get old and culturally-irrelevant and climb out of the water to sit on the beach until we die.