I’ve always enjoyed ironic living, even (especially) before it was fashionable. I found it a useful coping strategy that helped me navigate late capitalism, especially in the long stretches of my life when I was broke. It allows me to appreciate the things that are discarded or disregarded by the dominant culture, as ugly, uninteresting, charmless or tasteless.
The most useful thing about irony is that it is cheap. Irony means you can watch a bad movie you found in an op-shop rather than going to a play, wear ugly jumpers instead of Comme de Garcon, and eat Twisties rather than Wagyu. And is anyone seriously going to say that the pleasure you get from watching Weird Science in your reindeer jumper while eating junk food is a less pleasurable-pleasure than their way? Probably. Killjoys.
But the interaction between irony and late capitalism is more complex than that. Now irony is a way of making money and doing business and a recognisable emotion. This is probably most notable in the mainstreaming of the hipster, who, as Christy Wampole argued in the New York Times last year, ‘is our archetype of ironic living’. These days, there is a routine inclusion of ironic ‘looks’ and ‘attitudes’ into the previously very serious world of making-money-out-of-selling-useless-shit (for an example, you can think about the Lynx ads – but I wouldn’t recommend thinking about Lynx ads for too long).
I am currently staying in Williamsburg, which I guess you could call hipster central, if centralisation wasn’t so painfully unhip. There is irony everywhere on the streets here. Girls dresssed up like 1920s hoochie-coochists. Boys dressed up like Andy Warhol but with better haircuts. People gather to watch heavy metal documentaries, or eat artisanal pickles in nostalgic beer halls. It’s also the setting for Girls, a program that speaks and lives out a very fashionable kind of blank irony, where people routinely say things that they may or may not believe, and do things that they may or may not enjoy.
The hotel I’m staying in was once a factory of some sort or another, no-one can really remember. Outside the hotel is a sign that says ‘Take photos of Williamsburg street art, increase your likes on facebook’. I take photos of the Williamsburg street art anyway, but maybe I do it a bit more ironically than I would’ve previously. And maybe that adds to the fun. But can you ironically consume food?
For the past week, I’ve been eating fairly non-ironically all over New York. Peruvian Ceviche, mole for brunch, snail ravioli. But in Williamsburg I plan to eat at a place called Pies’n’Thighs. Their website has a gif of a smoking pig playing the sort of guitar that you would call an ‘axe’. They serve southern, soul food, fried chicken, biscuits, pecan bourboun pie, marshmallow sweet potato pie. Seeing as Pies’n’Thighs is situated in what is possibly the whitest part of New York, and has a zero population of Good’ol’boys, you can’t really imagine this to be an authentic restaurant that serves the local community familiar, comforting food.
Williamsburg is surrounded by a sea of industria and rundown shingled houses that stretch on and on in a slightly overwhelming way. The main street, Bedford Avenue, is pretty much at saturation point with artisanal-fucking-everythings, but off that strip the gentrification falters and keeps on dropping out. Pies’n’thighs is a little out of the way, a walk, nothing too scary, just enough to make you realise that the Williamsburg bubble is just that. Pies’n’thighs doesn’t take bookings, and my partner and I walk down there a few times for dinner. Each time, there is a big line up, which makes me feel simultaneously very angry at the fucking hipsters that own it and like I want to go there even more.
So we come up with a plan. We’ll go at 11pm: it says it shuts at 11:30, but surely that’s not true.
We do this. There’s still a wait for a table, but a bearable one, and at last we’re seated in a restaurant smaller than my bedroom, done up diner style and simple. The staff look like they probably play in bands, and have fringes that they can hide behind if they’re shy, or laugh at us behind if they’re douchebags. At some stage, they drop down some laminated menus and we peruse.
My partner orders fried chicken in a biscuit with a side of macaroni cheese. I get a basket of fried chicken with a side of kale salad. Maybe there’s some fries involved too. I get key lime pie, he gets pecan. It’s okay, we don’t really have the sort of weight you have to watch. Our waiter takes our order and says ‘That sounds amazing’ with something that sounds like enthusiasm, but I know isn’t. On Manhattan, waiters are paid to be enthusiastic, or, rather, they are enthusiastic for tips. So I guess our waiter is commenting on the workings of American late capitalism with his expression of enthusiasm. Or maybe he’s just hungover.
When the food arrives, it is amazingly delicious. The buttery, sweet flake of the biscuit wrapped around a deep-fried piece of chicken coated with a honey, vinegary kind of sauce: sweet, hot, fatty, salty. The macaroni cheese: smooth, saffron yellow, soothingly gloopy. The key lime pie: three inches high, topped with a rosette of canned whipped cream. It’s like the Big Lebowski in my mouth. It really is astounding that soul food was mostly developed by people who weren’t stoned.
How do you get people in New York to eat food like this? More than any place in the world, perhaps, fatness is an issue of class. Fatness belongs to the poor, the consumers of McDonald’s and the drivers of SUVs. Skinniness means that you can control the temptations of capitalism and hence are a member of the elite. I have never seen so many skinny ladies as in New York. They are pointy like garden tools. They radiate ambition and core body strength. The fellows are also skinny to the point of frailty, whisper-thin legs holding up hillbilly beards. A hundred thousand Bonnie Prince Billies. Yet, all the skinny hipster customers in Pies’n’thighs are saying ‘MMMMMMM’, nodding their heads slowly and wiping the grease from their skinny chins.
I guess the answer is irony. Soul food comes loaded with the great nostalgia of movie America, where someone is always going back somewhere for the holidays and they are having soul food. People around here are aware of this idea, and aware that this, along with so many other Hollywood narratives, lives in their subconscious along with their Mom and Dad. And they’re using this implantation as a source of pleasure, a way of experiencing an ironic nostalgia for things they’ve never had or hoped to have or even desired. So you get this pleasure as well as the pleasure of how amazingly delicious the food actually is, as well as the pleasure of breaking all of the taboos of contemporary ‘healthful’ food culture. It seems like a good deal.
Finally, my partner and I have stuffed all the food inside of us, and we lean backwards in order to get more space for our alimentary canals. I reckon I’m looking pretty unWilliamsburg right now, because I’m feeling some pretty genuine feelings. In particular, I am feeling the need to lie down. So we pay the bill (cheap, but not vulgarly so) and then we walk the rolling walk of the well fed and well drunk back to the hotel. We lie down in our high threadcount sheets, roll through the cable channels, and watch Spanish soap opera and ads for anti-depression medication.
Eventually sleep comes over us. But there is a lot of waking too. Writhing. Discomfort. Nightmares. Migraines. Alimentary surprises. The next day, my partner and I can barely look at each other, and both suffer what I can only call a food hangover, our livers straining to get out of our bodies like a bulldog on a short leash.
There was so much pleasure getting the Pies’n’thighs food into my body. But the further that the food got from my brain, the worse the experience was. Perhaps irony is fundamentally a pleasure of the mind and as such has its limits. For example, I don’t really think it’s possible to have ironic sex, though it is certainly possible to have ironically bad sex. I don’t know if it’s possible to be ironic about smells, either, although there is a Williamsburg perfumery called I Hate Perfume that does a scent called London Pavement. It smells pretty good, though, not like dog shit and fast-food wrappers and expensive trainers at all.
So perhaps irony is pleasurable, but indigestible, like bubble gum. That seems like an appropriate metaphor, doesn’t it?