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.
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.
“Plurality of languages: [...] It is crucial 1. that there are many languages and that they differ not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar, and so in mode of thought and 2. that all languages are learnable.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, i.e. Thinking Diary, p. 42f
Hannah Arendt learned English quickly. In the year after her arrival to the USA in 1941, her work was already being printed by American magazines and publishers. In November 1950, as she wrote the above sentences on the “plurality of languages,” her groundbreaking book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) was ready for publication. Contemporaneously with the publication of her first book in English, and shortly before her “naturalization” as an American citizen, Arendt began her Denktagebuch; it was written in several languages—often, like the entry above, in German.
According to Arendt, the fact that an entity designed to bear and present things can be called both “table” and “Tisch” suggests that something of the “true essence” escapes from that which we produce and name ourselves. The belief that we can positively comprehend the essence of a table with the word “table” would only function under the assumption of a “homogenous human collective.” This hypothesis is in Arendt’s eyes just as “absurd” as the idea of a universal “world language” or one “human condition.” Such conceptions imply the danger of an “artificial forcible disambiguation of the ambiguous,” the entry in the Denktagebuch continues. In political terms this would mean: the abolition of plurality.
Plurality is a fundamental concept in Arendt’s writing. The many and the various are for Arendt the starting point from which to think in new ways about the political, whose meaning is freedom, in the age of totalitarianism. Arendt’s theoretical project responds to the political circumstances of the time: in more than one language. This passage written in German in the Denktagebuch on the “plurality of languages,” for example, is framed by a note in French and one in English—the languages of Arendt’s exile (she left Berlin in 1933 in flight from the Nazis, spent the next eight years in Paris and fled further to New York when Hitler invaded France.).
Interestingly, one German word of the quoted entry is put in quotation marks and thereby emphasized: “Entsprechungen” (“counterparts”). Arendt draws a correspondence between the experience of the “wavering ambiguity of the world and the uncertainty of people within it” and the experience that (mediated by the learnability of other languages) there are “yet other ‘counterparts‘ for our mutual-identical world.” In the echo chamber of the bordering entries in French and English, what would be the counterpart of the German “Entsprechungen”? Pendants, adéquations, équivalents – equivalences, analogies, counterparts? Or perhaps correspondences – correspondences?
Arendt came to speak again of “correspondences” almost twenty years later in her essay on Walter Benjamin. “What fascinated him,” she wrote of Benjamin, “was that the spirit and its material manifestation were so intimately connected that it seemed permissible to discover everywhere Baudelaire’s correspondences, which clarified and illuminated one another if they were properly correlated, so that finally they would no longer require any interpretative or explanatory commentary.”
In the same context, Arendt characterizes Benjamin’s special mode of thinking as “poetic thinking.” Is this to be read also as a response to her fundamental question, noted in her Denktagebuch in December 1950, in close proximity to her entry on the plurality of languages: “Is there a mode of thinking that is not tyrannical?”
A considerable portion of Arendt’s books and essays is written not in one, but in two languages. Depending on the situation, for example, first in English and then later in German, when the same text was published on the other side of Atlantic. Particularly fascinating in this respect is a comparative reading of Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) and the German version Vita activa oder Vom tätigen Leben (1960). Literally every page, every paragraph, and every sentence of both books shows how Arendt thinks and writes in two languages, “not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar.”
Take for example the presumably well-known division of human activity that Arendt deals with in The Human Condition: labor, work, action. As Patchen Markell has presented in his essay “On the Architecture of The Human Condition,” this conceptual triad is best understood “not as a single, functionally continuous three-part distinction,” but rather as “the fraught conjunction of two different pairs of concepts— labor and work, and work and action.” In a dense passage of §12 of The Human Condition, Arendt puts these distinctions into words in the following way:
Needed by our bodies and produced by its laboring, but without stability of their own, these things [consumer goods] for incessant consumption appear and disappear in an environment of things that are not consumed but used, and to which, as we use them, we become used and accustomed. As such, they give rise to the familiarity of the world, its customs and habits of intercourse between men and things [labor, work] as well as between men and men [action]. (p. 94)
In the placing together of “to use” and “to get used to,” Arendt’s systematic reflections on labor, work, and action as distinct and connected concepts verbally echo her thought. In the German version of the same passage in Vita Activa the scope and radicality of this thought is made clear in another way. Here Arendt works with the words “verbrauchen” (to consume) and “gebrauchen” (to use). While the first one refers to labor and the second to work, their conceptual proximity becomes visible in the shared stem: “brauchen.” In the same passage of Vita Activa, Arendt transforms the work-related activity into a noun, “Gebrauch” (use), which is a collective singular, while the plural form is “Gebräuche,” i.e. when the word enters the realm of plurality it opens up what the English version calls “customs and habits,” including manners and morals, i.e. phenomena belonging to the world of (political) practice and leaning towards action. All the terms in Arendt’s constellation of distinct yet related concepts share the word “brauchen.” Ironically or aptly, this German word means not only “to use” but also “to need” and in its reflexive form “to need each other.”
We need to read Hannah Arendt in the plurality of her languages, so that their differences can illuminate each other, if we want to grasp the political and poetic, poetic and political spectrum, legacy, and provocation of her thinking. Well, I might rather say: we need to begin.
-Thomas Wild, with Anne Posten