“We” the People

Can a public intellectual speak for us all in an era of fragmented culture?

Illustration by Ethan Rilly

Did you know the word evidence comes from the Latin videre, meaning “to see”? Did you know that explode and applause share a common root, plaudere, which means “to clap”? How about that distract means “to pull apart in different directions”? Nice originally meant “foolish.” Attention derives from the Latin tendere, which means “to stretch.”

These and more linguistic tidbits are strewn throughout Christy Wampole’s essay collection The Other Serious, to the point where it almost seems like a nervous tic. She does tendere twice in case you weren’t paying attention. This rhetorical device will be familiar to anyone who has taken a college course in the humanities, or taught one: a little bit of filler with just enough idea in it to evade the red pen. And it’s easy to see why Wampole makes such frequent recourse to etymologies: They project a comforting authority. They suggest that the writer is grounded in an older, less corrupt linguistic truth that has been recovered and presented to the modern reader. (By the way, did you know that essay means “attempt”?) While we take it for granted that our word usage shifts, slips, and changes according to the situation, we also tend to assume that at some hazy time in the past, words had solid, stable meanings, that they pointed to timeless truths about the human condition. In the contemporary world, the meanings of words have changed and are therefore, somehow, less true.

This is something like what philosophers call “the genetic fallacy,” or the claim that the truth of an idea is located in its origin rather than its present condition. While the essays in The Other Serious continually trumpet the novelty of their solutions to contemporary life in America, they remain, at their core, steadfastly committed to the genetic fallacy. Wampole, an assistant professor of French at Princeton, first came to the attention of the general public with her 2012 New York Times opinion piece “How to Live Without Irony,” which is revised, expanded, and retitled in The Other Serious. In the essay, she describes her own ironic modes of being (kitschy gifts, ironic shirts and coffee mugs, a love of plastic wrestling figures), diagnoses the culture at large as oversaturated by irony, and suggests a list of questions we might ask ourselves in order to close the distance between experiencing life and commenting on it. The last and, Wampole says, most important question: “How would it feel to change yourself quietly, offline, without public display, from within?” That this question, issued from within the Times’ Opinionator blog, caused enough of an online furor to warrant an explanatory interview in New York magazine (tags include “Oh Brooklyn” and “Hipsters”) suggests that irony might be with us yet.

It was the kind of exposure most academics secretly crave. And that question—“How would it feel to change yourself quietly, offline, without public display, from within?”—contains the core of Wampole’s concerns in The Other Serious: that we live overtechnologized lives that are simultaneously too “light” and too “heavy.” Our lightness, which she calls “a helpless ironization of everything,” prevents us from attaching ourselves to others; our heaviness—a “destructive kind of solemnity”—involves overcommitment to fundamentalisms, dogma, and ideological party lines. “We bob between two tendencies,” she writes, “the lightness of paper irony or the heaviness of leaden politics.” Wampole’s solution to this tension, offered in the title essay, is to urge that we practice “the other serious,” a kind of cool-headed, non-ideological attentiveness to the small joys of artistic creation and community. Most important is moderation and middle-seeking, a conscious avoidance of extremes, both in body and in mind.

Wampole’s style oscillates between the conversational and the austere, between chatty allusions to TV shows and mini-discourses on Diderot. She wanders through her subjects—awkwardness, distraction, “emotive spectacle”—like a dreamer lost in the forest on a pleasant day. She’s happy to meditate on an interesting mushroom or to remark on a squirrel that crosses her path, but she’s not too concerned about where she’s headed or how she’s getting back. “On Awkwardness” meanders from the difficulty of translating the word awkward to personal anecdote to philosophical rumination, swerves back to etymology, dips into some literary instances of awkwardness (Kundera, Calvino, and Emerson), and concludes that we, as a nation, have become more awkward than ever by “becoming increasingly alien to each other by virtue of the mediated existences we lead.”

Wampole frequently issues these kinds of collective diagnoses. “We” do this, “we” do that. On one hand, this is the kind of rhetorical conceit that many essays require in order to make their point. On the other hand, when the first-person plural is used in this way, it’s easy to get the impression that the writer thinks we’ve all got the same problems. There’s no pronoun that presumes more cultural authority than the general “we.” In using it so frequently, Wampole claims that authority without ever quite being clear on what makes her experiences so universal. She often tries to have it both ways, delivering personal anecdotes while claiming that they represent outsized cultural tendencies. The issue isn’t whether or not we can locate the universal in the particular—surely we sometimes can—but whether Wampole’s particular experiences, her claim to diagnose “our” problems, really are as universal as she thinks.

Through the “we” gesture, Wampole is laying claim to the role of public intellectual—a time-honored role in the American cultural imagination, one that’s traditionally been played by the stuffy, pipe-smoking old white guy. As with John Dewey, Lionel Trilling, William F. Buckley, or Allan Bloom, Walpole’s combination of erudite reference, style, and institutional authority jells to indicate that Wampole has the perspective and the intellectual firepower to explain us to ourselves. She’s a demystifier, an explainer of the “truth” beneath the surface of things.

One of the more admirable aspects of Wampole’s aspirations to public-intellectual status is that she means her book to change the way people behave in specific ways. She urges us to abandon pose, immoderation, and digital media. She urges us to treasure the wisdom of the elderly and to gather ’round the campfire for a group singalong. Seriously. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with singalongs, but there is something galling about being told how we ought to live by someone who sees “our” problems as purely matters of mindset and attitude. She tells us that “working hard at music, art, or other expressive enterprises is one of the signatures of a worthwhile life,” remorselessly hammering the point home by insisting, “A thought that is never written down or acted upon might as well have never been thought.” (So much for the quiet, contemplative life!) To those without the luxury of free time for artistic endeavors—single mothers or members of the “New American Generation,” as the book’s subtitle calls us, in the midst of a continuing employment crisis—she asks, “Would it be so taxing to leave a pad of paper next to your desk and write down thoughts as they arrive?” But surely that’s a tough prospect when you’re working the grill.

Ultimately, the praise of calmness, middle-seeking, and moderation strikes a false note—there’s not a single acknowledgment of the hedonistic impulse in this book, and that is something “we” ought to distrust. The new title of the irony essay, “The Great American Irony Binge,” is telling. The Other Serious serves as a diet plan for the sensibilities, warning us off of the intoxicating effects of edgy opinions, experiences, and points of view. It doesn’t deal with the central characteristic of hedonistic, overindulgent experiences, which is that oftentimes they feel really good. What Wampole describes as “moderating” often sounds like “deadening.” She assumes that “technology” and “media” are always added to our lives rather than integrated into them in a meaningful way, but many people, like those separated from their loved ones by great distances and those who find true friendship through the Internet, might disagree. If Christy Wampole wants to be a public intellectual for the “New American Generation,” she seems disconcertingly out of touch with it.

The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation by Christy Wampole. Harper.

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