Meet Joshua and Amanda.
Joshua is posting an update to Facebook about the mental boost he’s (allegedly) experienced just one week after self-prescribing a line of nootropic cognitive enhancers, #feelingoptimized. Amanda’s Instagramming the latest offering in the DIY origami collection she makes and sells on Etsy, #handmade. The two of them are doing these things on a Saturday morning while sitting at an impossibly trendy brunch spot, waiting for their respective helpings of #cagefree eggs and handmade organic sausages. The meals they’ve ordered don’t lack calories, which is why they’ll both use their respective FitBit smart fitness watches to track the extra miles they plan to walk this afternoon, #fitspo.
Joshua and Amanda live in an open plan loft apartment located in a gentrified urban neighborhood, a place where all the sketchy bodegas and independent laundromats that once populated the streets have long since been replaced with open kitchen restaurants, conventionally funky coffee shops, and gyms. The website for Joshua and Amanda’s upcoming #weddingofmydreams describes them a #workhardplayhard couple whose recreational activities include exercise, food, television, and travel. Joshua is a managing partner at a fledgling Venture Capital firm that invests in start-ups known for #innovation and a #fitnessaddict who routinely crushes it at the local CrossFit collective. Amanda’s a #rockstar graphic designer for a “mission-driven” creative agency and an avid long distant runner who chronicles her #runnerslife on Instagram.
Joshua and Amanda never display a hint of ambivalence when it comes to the activities that comprise their lives. They exude a marked sense of avidity for each and every pursuit they deem to undertake, even those which, upon first glimpse, might appear superficial or trivial. Whether it’s sampling the #smallbatch spirits produced at their neighborhood’s new micro-distillery, #stayingfit via their preferred form of exercise, #eatingresponsibly at their favorite artisanal restaurants, #bingewatching television shows on Netflix, or documenting their involvement in each of these activities on social media, they always go hard, #alldayeveryday. They stave off the fear of #FOMO by #hustling through one activity after another, without ever pausing for a moment of self-reflection.
Joshua and Amanda live in this manner because they are unfamiliar with the concept of irony. They fail to recognize the inherent silliness of restaurant menus that breathlessly detail the origins of ingredients, smartphone apps that do nothing more than accelerate convenience, competitive cooking shows, the idea of social media as a personal branding strategy, or the habit of smashing two or more words together and prefacing the resulting combination with a number sign.
Joshua and Amanda are, of course, fictional, but people like them are everywhere these days, setting the cultural tone and reflecting our society’s collective mindset. Welcome to the weird, unhinged, totally un-self-aware world of #winning. This is the era of hashtag ideologies, shameless self-promotion, reality television, and social mediated life.
This is the Avidity Epidemic.
It shouldn’t be surprising that it’s come to this. After all, American irony was never anything more than a hedge, a way for artless fools to sneak their love of schlock past “the tastefulness authorities”, as a particularly incisive article in Spy magazine once put it, by pretending to only like it “ironically”. All the constant smirking and jokey shrugging performed by previous generations of ironists were diversional tactics, underneath beneath which lay an avid desire to pursue, worship, and fetishize all manners of awful objects and even worse ideas. Now, the guise is unnecessary. People today are not only free to indulge their desires for everything and anything that happens to strike their fancy, but they’re encouraged to do so. Just so long as they do it avidly. Our efficiency and performance-crazed culture has transformed us into a nation of fanboys and girls. The wink-wink ambivalence of irony has given way to the ceaseless obsessiveness of avidity as nonsensical imperatives like the fear of missing out and a desire to #winthefuture fuel our current era of unironic ebullience.
There are those who mistakenly believe that irony is still the ethos of our age when in truth American culture has been living without a surfeit of irony for quite some time. For proof of this, just look at our youth. In the not too distant past, young people presented themselves as rebels without cares or causes. Their ironic detachment from mainstream society was evidenced by a practiced insouciance, the willingness to offer an eye roll or extended middle finger to any earnest entreaty that came their way. Past youth cultures elevated self-referential jokesters like David Letterman and sardonic outsiders like Kurt Cobain to god-like status.
Today, the sentiments of such former icons reek of antiquation. Young people now respond to those same earnest entreaties with bright-eyed smiles and barely contained enthusiasm. They flock to the always-striving-to-be-viral shtick of Jimmy Fallon and the bland, corporate optimism that’s an essential element of every major pop star’s aesthetic. They grew up watching Mad Men not because they enjoyed the latent social commentary but because they admired the way Don Draper, the most unironic pop culture icon of the past 20 years, mastered the art of the sell.
Indeed, the youth of contemporary America are always hyper-cheerful and ready to be sold, because they are always selling something, whether it’s an actual product or their own branded concept of self. Their heroes are Silicon Valley titans like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos or social media gurus like Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel. Their generation has turned entrepreneurialism into the dominant ideology of American society and erased the gap between a person’s life and person’s brand. It’s impossible to be ironic when a zealous faith in conspicuous achievement underlies everything you do.
The truth is irony hasn’t ruled the roost outright in quite some time. There were some ironic elements in the iteration of the urban hipster that went mainstream in the late ‘2000s and early ‘2010s. That archetype’s glorification of purposefully anachronistic products like PBR—a beer so flavorless it can only be liked “ironically”—fixed gear bicycles, and late 19th century fashion reeked of ironic appreciation. But those layers of stylized irony were always offset by an implicit endorsement of entrepreneurial careerism. The real heroes of early 21st century Brooklyn, and the cultural movement it came to symbolize, weren’t anarchy driven punk rockers or arch comedians. They were twee entrepreneurs who couched their product pitches in appeals to the inherent value of small scale authenticity, even as they sought to scale their #artisanship to the mass market.
A contemporary “hipster-yuppie” may dress like a Gilded Age robber baron and wear facial hair so pronounced it verges on self-parody, but he (or she) also unabashedly celebrates capitalist striving and naked ambition, two things that have never gone hand-in-hand with irony. What else explains the sudden cultural cachet of craft beer, app development, self-actualization through social-physical exercise, and the attendant social media promotion that documents people’s affinities for these fanatically earnest fads? Trends like these resist irony because of the effort they require to come to fruition. You can’t celebrate craft beer or organic food or DIY wares ironically because the sincere dedication it takes to produce, market, and sell such products is an intrinsic part of their appeal. You can’t run a marathon or participate in a Tough Mudder event ironically—doing so requires an exhaustive amount of training that can’t be completed with a winking knowingness. And you can’t pursue a side gig or strike out as an entrepreneur in an ironic manner because that sort of salesmanship requires vigor and vigor necessitates exertion. Ambivalence has never been less vogue than it is now.
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Even watching television, an activity once considered the height of relaxation and silliness, has become an excruciatingly intense and semi-competitive hobby; unless you’re #bingewatching as many prestige television shows as possible, you’re not an adequate participant in contemporary culture. As author and journalist Carina Chocano argued in The New York Times, there’s been a generational shift “from cynicism and avoidance to an admiration of the hustle and an enthusiasm for all the enthusiasm.” And all this hustle and enthusiasm is avidity, not irony, epitomized.
It’s no coincidence that institutions of American culture that once functioned as repositories of irony have slowly come to favor avidity. Today’s most notable late night television host is not an ironic smirker à la David Letterman. It’s Jimmy Fallon, an avid fanboy whose always-striving-to-be-viral shtick is rooted in a desire to LOVE and be LOVED by everyone. “Fake news” programs like The Daily Show once offered audiences winking satire of bipartisan media spin. Today those same shows are nothing more than thinly disguised neoliberal bitch-fests anchored by individuals who would rather convey marked political messages than poke fun at the mass media’s obvious shortcomings. Saturday Night Live, once the stomping ground of persnickety humorists from Chevy Chase to Adam Sandler, now tacitly positions itself as an indispensable form of resistance to the current political order. Why crack a non-serious joke when you can use your platform to achieve influence?
If air quotes were, as writers Paul Rudnick and Kurt Andersen once argued, the “quintessential contemporary gesture” of irony, then the hashtag is without question the sign of the current times. Air quotes create an ironic sense of separation by signifying that you recognize the undeniable silliness of whatever cultural product you’re referencing but choose to like it anyway; you can’t be considered a rube because you are in on the joke. Air quotes are self-referential in an unserious way, a means to avoid full investment.
The hashtag serves the opposite function. It’s an avid statement of unrestrained affection, a tool for cultivating virality in the hope that whatever is being referenced will be seen by as many other people as possible. For every hashtag that’s conceived as an ironic joke, there’s at least fifty 50 conceived with the utmost sense of seriousness. Even hashtags that started out as obvious gags—#winning , #likeaboss—are now regularly deployed without a hint of self-awareness or irony. Every brand, entity, and person wants to distill its essence into hashtag form because doing so is the most direct way to convey rampant adoration. Do it avidly or don’t do it at all. That’s the unspoken mantra of the times.
How did we get from the ironic to the avid? Three things happened over the past 30 years that enabled avidity to gain a foothold in the culture.
The first precursor of the Avidity Epidemic was hip-hop. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, at the same moment celebrated white rock stars like REM and Beck were exhaustively flaunting their indie cred and/or sarcastically feigning self-loathing, black rap artists were sprinting in the opposite direction, creating a musical style and accompanying iconography that eulogized individual triumph and aggressive self-affirmation. From NWA to Biggie to Jay Z, there was nothing “ironic” about the way pioneering hip-hop artists presented themselves and their music.
Seeking to document the impoverished conditions long inflicted upon black urban communities, as well as the way it felt when individuals from these communities transcended such conditions on the pathway to success, these musicians struck a pose of in-your-face defiance and aggression. Their work implied that such traits were necessary means of self-expression, the only way artists from marginalized communities could make their voices heard in a culture long accustomed to looking the other way. And unlike their white rock counterparts, hip-hop artists didn’t worry about “selling out”. They reveled in the material luxuries success afforded them because these were the very luxuries white America had long sought to deny them and the communities they called home. There’s no reason to adopt a pose of bemusement or create an ironic level of separation between yourself and your success when that success truly stands for triumph in the face of unfathomable adversity.
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