“Generation internship”, “Generation facebook” or “Generation debt” : The persisting effort to name our generation after THE defining feature is arguably one of the most desperate disciplines in public discourse. Literally everything has been used to brand the post 1980’s, albeit without much success. Neither “Generation Internet” nor “Generation Spoiled” really stuck.
Looking at ever new attempts to pin a name tag onto our generation – most recently “Generation Shoulder Bag”- one realization seems to be comprehended rather slowly: Our Generation can only be defined by the impossibility to define it. In accordance with the general goodwill that our generation has experienced in terms of labelling, this insight is by and large presented in its negative version. What we stand for is not everything but nothing.
Following this idea Princeton University Professor Christy Wampole analyzed in an article for the NewYork-Times the “Hipster”-phenomena and the role of Irony. What Wampole eventually gets to sounds worrying. Irony, which she identifies at the center of the hipster-movement, “functions as a shield against criticism” and reflects “a deep aversion towards risk”. For Wampole the hipster-trend is a reaction to “the problems of too much comfort, too much history and too many choices”. “Irony”, she says, “is the Ethos of our Age”.
This, however, is not necessarily a new insight. Looking at hipsters as a movement without beliefs, means looking at a problem that is everything but new, namely: the paralyzing potential of postmodern thought. Many of us learned in University to appreciate the power of language and narratives at the expense of an old understanding of “facts” and “truth”. Postmodernism looks at the the truth as something naive. Everything depends. Everything is relative to its historic context. Accordingly I dealt during my Bachelor in History much more with the question ‘why something was understood as being true’ than looking for a historic truth or facts itself.
But abandoning the existence of facts, naturally, is not especially revolutionary: If everything is relative, nothing really true, why even fight? The danger of this postmodern disillusionment has been widely acknowledged. “Don’t be a maybe” demanded Marlboro’s latest advertising-campaign. On the posters it said: “maybe never fell in love” and Christy Wampole adds: “People who move things in the political landscape are never ironists”. Even Pope Benedict joined the call for more sincerity and warned of a “dictatorship of relativism” (obviously for his own questionable ends).
Wampole’s point is that this relativism can be comfortable for a generation which feels that “everything has already been done” and which is overwhelmed by the the amount of available standpoints. Every position seems to have a valid contra-position. Eva Berendsen recently wrote for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that “Universalism is at least as out as the truth”. Can we really project our western values to other cultures? Or is this neo-colonial?
Wampole has a clear answer to how our generation deals with conflicts like this. According to her we just avoid them. We rather put on funny clothes, grow a mustache and escape into the safe haven of Irony. And as much as I agree with her that Irony “has leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself”, this is where her article becomes too one-sided. Agreed: Irony is a common solution to our postmodern confusion, but looking at my generation I don’t find that it is “the Ethos of our Age”. Looking around I don’t see a generation that loses itself in irony and disengagement. I also see people who care and get involved in spite of the absence of easy solutions and guiding ideologies. Occupy wasn’t Irony for sure. The fact that people know too much to blindly promote either of our societal blueprints, shouldn’t make us overlook the ones that are thinking about alternatives. Young adults that do position themselves on all kinds of issues.
Maybe my view is biased because I have surrounded myself during the last year with journalists who get involved professionally, but in all honesty Christy; I think I can assure you: Our generation is more than just Irony!