Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
4Dec/122

The Irony of Sincerity

A few weeks ago, Christy Wampole, a professor of French at Princeton, took to the New York Times to point to what she sees as a pandemic of irony, the symptom of a malignant hipster culture which has metastasized, spreading out from college campuses and hip neighborhoods and into the population at large. Last week, author R. Jay Magill responded to Wampole, noting that the professor was a very late entry into an analysis of irony that stretches back to the last gasps of the 20th century, and that even that discourse fits into a much longer conversation about sincerity and irony that has been going on at least since Diogenes.

Of course, this wasn’t Magill’s first visit to this particular arena; his own entry, entitled Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion That We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull), came out in July. Magill very effectively recapitulates the main point from his book in his article for the Atlantic, but, if you were to read this new summary alone, you would both deny yourself of some of the pleasures of Magill’s research and prose, as well as spare yourself from some of his less convincing arguments, arguments which, incidentally, happen to suffice for the thrust of his recent article.

The most interesting chapters of Magill’s book deal with the early history of the rise of sincerity, which he traces back to the Reformation. In Magill’s telling, the word “sincere” enters the record of English in 1533, when an English reformer named John Frith writes, to Sir Thomas More, that John Wycliffe “had lived ‘a very sincere life.’” Before that use, in its origin in Latin and French, the word “sincere” had only been used to describe objects and, now, Frith was using it not only for the first time in English but also to describe a particular individual as unusually true and pure to his self, set in opposition to the various hypocrisies that had taken root within the Catholic Church. Magill sums this up quite elegantly: “to be sincere” he writes “was to be reformed.”

Now, this would have been revolutionary enough, since it suggested that a relationship with God required internal confirmation rather than external acclamation—in the words of St. Paul, a fidelity to the spirit of the law and not just the letter. And yet reformed sincerity was not simply a return to the Gospel. In order to be true to one’s self, there must be a self to accord with, an internal to look towards. Indeed, Magill’s history of the idea of sincerity succeeds when it describes the development of the self, and, in particular, that development as variably determined by the internal or the external.

Image by Shirin Rezaee

It gets more complicated, however, or perhaps more interesting, when Magill turns towards deceptive presentations of the self, that is, when he begins to talk about insincerity. He begins this conversation with Montaigne, who “comes to sense a definite split between his public and private selves and is the first author obsessed with portraying himself as he really is.” The most interesting appearance of this conversation is an excellent chapter on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who suggested that people should aspire to self-sameness, should do their best to “reconcile” one’s self to one’s self, a demand for authenticity that would come to be fully expressed in Immanuel Kant’s moral law, the command that I must set myself as a law for myself.

Sincerity, the moral ideal first put forth by John Frith, started as the Reformation’s response to the inability of the Catholic Church to enact that particular principle, in other words, its hypocrisy. This follows for each of the movements that Magill writes about, each responding to the hypocrisy of their own moment in a specific way. On this matter he has a very good teacher, Hannah Arendt, an inheritor of Kant, who was himself a reader of Rousseau. Arendt writes, in Crisis of the Republic, what might serve as a good summation of one of Magill’s more convincing arguments: “if we inquire historically into the causes likely to transform engagés into enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first, but hypocrisy.”

Still, while what makes the sincerity of Frith (who was burned at the stake) or Wycliffe (whose body was exhumed a half century after his death so that it, too, could be burned) compelling is the turn inwards, it is Rousseau’s substitution of the turn back for that turn inward that appears to interest Magill, who decries “the Enlightenment understanding of the world” that “would entirely dominate the West, relegating Rousseau to that breed of reactionary artististic and political minds who stood against the progress of technology, commerce, and modernization and pined for utopia.”

The whole point is moot; Rousseau was himself a hypocrite, often either unable or unwilling to enact the principles he set out in his writings. As Magill moves forward, though, it becomes clear the he values the turn back as a manifestation of sincerity, as a sort of expressing oneself honestly. The last few hundred years in the development of sincerity, it seems, are finding new iterations of the past in the self. He writes that the Romantics, a group he seems to favor as more sincere than most, “harbored a desire to escape a desire to escape forward-moving, rational civilization by worshipping nature, emotion, love, the nostalgic past, the bucolic idyll, violence, the grotesque, the mystical, the outcast and, failing these, suicide.” In turn, in his last chapter, Magill writes that hipster culture serves a vital cultural purpose: its “sincere remembrance of things past, however commodified or cheesy or kitschy or campy or embarrassing, remains real and small and beautiful because otherwise these old things are about to be discarded by a culture that bulldozes content once it has its economic utility.”

The hipster, for Magill, is not the cold affectation of an unculture, as Wampole wants to claim, but is instead the inheritor “of the the entire history of the Protestant-Romantic-rebellious ethos that has aimed for five hundred years to jam a stick into the endlessly turning spokes of time, culture and consumption and yell, “Stop! I want to get off!”

There’s the rub. What Magill offers doesn’t necessarily strike me as a move towards sincerity, but it is definitely a nod to nostalgia. Consider how he recapitulates his argument in the article:

One need really only look at what counts as inventive new music, film, or art. Much of it is stripped down, bare, devoid of over-production, or aware of its production—that is, an irony that produces sincerity. Sure, pop music and Jeff Koons alike retain huge pull (read: $$$), but lately there has been a return to artistic and musical genres that existed prior to the irony-debunking of 9/11: early punk, disco, rap, New Wave—with a winking nod to sparse Casio keyboard sounds, drum machines, naïve drawing, fake digital-look drawings, and jangly, Clash-like guitars. Bands like Arcade Fire, Metric, Scissor Sisters, CSS, Chairlift, and the Temper Trap all go in for heavy nostalgia and an acknowledgement of a less self-conscious, more D.I.Y. time in music.

Here, Magill is very selectively parsing the recent history of “indie music,” ignoring a particularly striking embrace of artificial pop music that happened alongside the rise of the “sincere” genres, like new folk, that he favors. There’s no reason to assume that Jeff Koons’s blown up balloon animals or Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are any less sincere than the Scissor Sisters’s camp disco, just as there is no reason to assume that a desire to return to nature is any less sincere than the move into the city. Although Magill makes a good argument for the hipster’s cultural purpose, that purpose is not itself evidence that the hipster is expressing what’s truly inside himself, just as there’s no way for you to be sure that I am sincerely expressing my feelings about Sincerity. Magill, ultimately, makes the same mistake as Wampole, in that he judges with no evidence; the only person you can accurately identify as sincere is yourself.

-Josh Kopin


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