Justin E. H. Smith
O who could have foretold
That the heart grows old?
–W. B. Yeats, “ A Song”
I am a salaried functionary and a family man. I long for peace and quiet and a good night’s sleep, and I wear whatever my wife tells me to wear. At this point I no more belong in Williamsburg than I do in Sadr City. I send none of the signals that would assure the natives of my right to be in either place.
Just yesterday things were quite otherwise, at least as far as Williamsburg is concerned, and I attribute the changes not to will but entirely to necessity. Physiologically, I simply did not have the luxury of extending my membership in metropolitan youth subculture indefinitely. My temples went grey, my body shape changed, and college students started calling me ‘sir’ at an age when I was still holding out the hope of being invited to their parties. In large measure it was unfavorable genes that forced me out of what would otherwise have been a life of unrepentant hipsterism.
By ‘hipsters,’ I mean the youth in the developed world who construct their social identity primarily in opposition to the prevailing sensibilities of the age, without however conceiving this opposition as political. On a global scale, hipsters seem to have emerged out of the Reagan-Thatcher years in those countries that earlier witnessed the cultural shift known in Western Europe as “’68” and in the US more broadly as “the sixties.” (To some extent, the origins of the new form of opposition can be found in the sixties themselves, from French situationism to Abbie Hoffman’s advocacy of ‘revolution for the hell of it’, but the prevailing ideals of that era remained serious ones.) The complete account of hipsterism’s emergence out of the ruins of 1960s utopianism is beyond our scope here, yet the genealogical link is clear: where sex, drugs, and rock and roll were not a principal cause of historical change, where instead the youth were contending with wars, dictatorships, and real –government-imposed– cultural revolution, today there is little or no hipsterism. Today you will see stencils of Mr. T (or whomever; you get the idea) spray-painted on the walls of London and Amsterdam, but not Bucharest.
For hipsters, prevailing ideas and values are not necessarily oppressive, just stupid; not necessarily worthy of anger, just ridicule. (They generally focus on cultural output from the recent past, for reasons we have yet to consider.) Thus for example hipsterism encourages its adherents to propose, in writing, on their t-shirts, to sell moustache rides for five cents, not because they intend to give anyone a moustache ride, and not even because the apposition of ‘moustache’ and ‘ride’ is seen as a source of humor. What is humorous is that in some imagined Country Comfort Lounge in Amarillo or Cheyenne a generation ago some big slab of a man actually sported a moustache of which he was proud, which he believed could function directly and un-ironically as a sexual attractant.
In Bucharest in contrast you will see t-shirts bearing the following messages: “Action Product Girl,” “Ultimate Outback All-Star Crew,” “Surfing Life-Style #1: O-Yes!” You will see the suggestive “Varsity Marine: Red Bum’s Up in Seemans Quarter,” the poetic “Rebellion Speed Inside Energy World’s,” and, my personal favorite, “Fertile Enclosure Fashion 56.” Have there, I wonder, been any sociolinguistic studies of these English-sounding strings of words? Clearly, they are generated and displayed in part out of a simple fetish for the sterling-standard idiom of the era of globalization. But for the most part I suspect there is no intentionality at all behind them. These words are not bearers of meaning; they are strictly decorative. Whether I am right about this or not, one thing is clear: one does not wear such t-shirts as a joke. They either convey nothing at all, or, to the extent that the message is understood by the wearer, they convey an earnest wish to say something serious about oneself: ‘I am an Action Product Girl,’ ‘I participate in the Surfing Life-Style.’ They are a world away from the “moustache rides” message. They are the product of a different history and a different logic.
But why is hipster ridicule directed at the cultural output of a generation ago? Why is irony focused upon the recent past? Contrary to some facetious fears that the retro gap is closing, and that soon we will be celebrating for its ironic value the cultural output of this very day, in fact it seems that the ironic focus is eternally fixed upon the detritus that was floating about right around the time of one’s own origins, the things that could help to explain how one came to be at all, including the invitation to a moustache ride that just might have led to one’s own conception.
Hipster irony is at bottom a preoccupation with the problem of origins, and as I have said the portion of one’s life one can appropriately devote to hipster irony depends in large part on the course set for the body by the genes. But the changes in my case were not just physiological. Psychologically too, at some point all my interests either became earnest interests, or no interests at all. I offer an example from that most common measure of subcultural identification: music. In the mid-1990s, I made the rare discovery (for an American) of Joe Dassin, Dalida, and other French and Italian pop stars from a generation prior. I would put on Dassin’s “L’été indien” at parties and the guests would marvel at how treacly and over-the-top the string section was, how the rhythm made them think of ‘70s swinger parties of the sort Michel Houellebecq would later ruthlessly de-eroticize, or of some French smoothie in a Jacuzzi, again with a moustache, inviting a topless female reveler to ‘make love’. And most of all they would marvel at how recherché my CD collection was, at how well it reflected the desire among those of my generation for music that fascinated precisely because it was originally created for listeners whose lives we could scarcely imagine.
And yet, today, my wife and I put on Joe Dassin when we are at our respective computers writing, for the simple reason that we enjoy the sound of it. Why, my heart now wonders, would anyone listen to music that he does not, straightforwardly and earnestly, like? Why, for that matter, would anyone take an interest in anything other than in view of its genuine interestingness? Just what are the smart-ass youth, who like trucker hats precisely because they look down upon truckers, and who appreciate cowbells in music because naïve disco-goers once truly appreciated cowbells in music, trying to pull off? What, in short, is irony in its latest and dominant form?
History’s greatest philosophical ironist conceived of philosophy itself as nothing more or less than a preparation for death. When Socrates said that to philosophize is to prepare to die, and when Montaigne echoed this at the dawn of modernity, they did not mean that philosophy consists in tending to one’s last will and testament or constructing one’s own coffin out of plywood. They meant that the project of becoming wise is one that culminates late in life in a stance of equanimity vis-à-vis one’s own mortality. “I have seen men of reputation,” Socrates tells the jury about to convict him, “when they have been condemned, behaving in the strangest manner: they seemed to fancy that they were going to suffer something dreadful if they died, and that they could be immortal if you only allowed them to live; and I think that they were a dishonor to the state, and that any stranger coming in would say of them that the most eminent men of Athens, to whom the Athenians themselves give honor and command, are no better than women.” His tranquil acceptance of his hemlock is a reflection of his wisdom. Yet in his speech to the jury he also points out that he is now 70, and probably would not live much longer anyway. His death is not met as a sacrifice, but with indifference (this in marked contrast to the death of Jesus Christ at 33). No one could expect a youth to meet death with indifference. A corollary of this point is that no one expects a youth to be wise.
Philosophy today is age-blind, which is to say that (other than a few thought-experiments involving infants), philosophers talk about the way people think and act as though people do not go through stages of life. Imagined rational agents, making decisions about the most just society from behind a veil of ignorance, or deciding whether to pull a lever at a switching station, are presumed to be adults, certainly. But are they 20, or 70? Isn’t it reasonable to expect different sorts of behavior in the one case than in the other? There is general agreement that some degree of selflessness in one’s conduct is morally laudable, but the scientific evidence tells us that the changing quantities of hormones in the body throughout the stages of one’s life have a good deal to do with whether one will act egocentrically or not. I find myself growing more concerned about the well-being of others, but I do not think that this is because I am becoming ‘more moral’. It is only because I am no longer driven by that mad fire that used to course through my veins and cause me to strive for nothing but my own advancement and gratification. I couldn’t have done otherwise then, and I can’t do otherwise now.
Race, gender, and sexual orientation have captivated academic imaginations for the last few decades, particularly among leftists in the humanities who had grown bored with the traditional focus upon class antagonism as the engine of history. Race and gender are more or less fixed social categories, notwithstanding the opportunity medical technology has offered to a very small minority of people to change the biological basis of their gender identity, and notwithstanding the ultimate biological illusoriness of racial taxonomies. Sexual orientation is fluid, even if the tendency in our society is to conceive it on analogy to race and gender, that is, as constituting part of one’s ‘essence’ and thus as being coextensive with one’s own existence. Yet all the while age remains well outside the radar of the organizers of conferences and the getters of grants, and it is interesting to note in this connection that unlike sexual orientation there is no possible way to essentialize it, that is, there is no way to conceive of the predicate ‘…is young,’ say, as pertaining to the identity of an individual always and necessarily. Being young, like sitting or sleeping, is something that can be both true and not true of the same subject.
‘…is young’, as I’ve said, is a predicate that pertains to me less and less, and it is perhaps for this reason that I have, of late, begun to hope for the reintroduction into philosophy of reflection upon what used to be called the ‘ages of man’. I do not know whether aging is something to be thankful for, as Socrates seems to have thought, but I do know with certainty that it is not something to be awkwardly and unconvincingly denied, as balding hippies, with their scraggly ponytails and their irrelevant cultural reference points, insist on doing. And there is no use in pleading that, though the ponytail thins, the gut expands, and the stream weakens, one is nonetheless ‘young at heart’. For the body is the body of the soul, and these outward signs of the approach of death are but reflections of internal changes. Yet it is characteristic of the postwar generation to deny that the heart must grow old, to insist that it is free to follow a course entirely independent of the geriatric corporeal substance.
But what I am concerned about is my own generation, those who have worn “moustache rides” t-shirts for reasons several degrees removed from their original intent, and its prospects for aging well, which is to say its prospects for dying with grace and equanimity. At first glance, the fact that hipsters share irony with the West’s wisest condemned prisoner would seem to bode well for them. Yet Socratic irony and hipster irony could not be more different. Hipster irony has to do with taste, not truth, and it only makes sense relative to a certain context of commitments and preferences, while what Socratic irony strives for is a contemplative detachment from all partis pris. In an absolute sense, there is nothing more in Death Cab for Cutie or Arcade Fire that commands one’s earnest and straightforward appreciation than there is in Boxcar Willie, Juice Newton, or Perry Como. From a certain perspective, it is all garbage, and from another it is all fascinating. Hipsters still hope to draw a distinction between the genuinely good and the merely humorously good, by means of a bivalent logic in the end no more subtle than the ‘cool’/‘sucks’ dichotomy through which Beavis and Butthead filtered the world. An elderly ironist in contrast has had the time to watch enough cultural flotsam go by that he can no longer pretend that one instance of human productivity is intrinsically much more ridiculous than any other. Fully convinced of this truth, he might truly be prepared to die: he knows what to expect from the world, and so expects nothing more.
But that of course is no fun, while youthful irony is a blast. It will thus be interesting to see in the coming decades whether the irony that has defined the world view of an entire generation of educated Western children will prove capable of aging along with those former children’s bodies. It is still far too early to tell, though it is likely that the repellent example set by their aging parents, who remain deadly serious about the ‘accomplishments’ and enduring relevance of their generation, who never really learned how to be old because they remained so loyal to the moment of their youth, will serve as an incentive towards reflection on how to age well, which, again, the old philosophy tells us, is the same as to die well.
Even in my own case, it is far too soon to tell. I am sure as hell not yet wise, as I find myself nowhere near ready to die. Like some modern-day Ivan Il’ich, I cannot begin to imagine how I –who once impressed party-goers with my selection of “L’été indien,” and who mixed it seamlessly in the mid-1990s with some other bit of music that had just come out of London or Bristol, something they called ‘trip-hop’ that set the crowd to dancing on my packed living room floor– could possibly do that well. I am serious, all too serious, about all those bits of flotsam to which I’ve happened to cling, and which have kept me buoyed and breathing.
19 June, 2007
For a comprehensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com