A New Irony

by Steve

“Take, for example, an ad that calls itself an ad, makes fun of its own format, and attempts to lure its target market to laugh at and with it. It pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful. No attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself. The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism. The same goes for ironic living. Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise. To live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect, a form of subterfuge, which means etymologically to “secretly flee” (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.”

How to Live Without Irony, Christy Walpole, New York Times

“Isn’t there supposed to be an irony, some grim humor, some sense of the peculiar human insistence on seeing past the larger madness into small and skewed practicalities, into off-shaded moments that help us consider a narrow hope?”

Mao II, Don DeLillo

The first quote is from an Op-Ed piece published last weekend, the second from a novel published in 1991. Concerns around irony are not new. Irony itself is certainly not new. And it is almost beyond argument that irony is the pervading sensibility in society today, and has been for some time. It is no longer a minority sport, but permeates our culture – from TV and advertising, to our speech patterns, dress and relationships.

We are all ironic, or at least we all display ironic behaviours – well, certainly the ‘We’ that is Western and Generation X or Y-ish. There are, of course, degrees here. The hipster, discussed at length in the first piece above, defines themselves by their irony, distancing themselves from the world, acting deliberately arch and mannered. The pose appears to be simultaneously one of defence – from a world wary of sincerity, and of attack – on those that still display any traces of sincerity themselves.

Yet for us to continually pit the realms of irony and sincerity feels a little reductive. Both forms can be useful.

We can fear sincerity, but what sort of life are we leading if we can’t be open, honest and vulnerable, at least with those we hold dear?

And irony has a place too. It can help make sense of the world, it can make us feel less alone. The community of irony, of being in on the joke, feels like something that isn’t necessarily all bad, yet something we should perhaps develop further. Irony can be a comfort in a cold soulless world – it is that grim humour or light relief, it can deflate egos, make modern life feel a little less scary. Irony does not necessarily depend on income, or background. It is an accessible form of community, of comfort.

But, of course, the flip side of the community of irony is not being in on the joke, being outside that clique. Irony stops being a comfort, and so loses its primary benefit, when you’re forever in fear of being on the wrong side of it.

Irony should not be a method of attack, be it direct or perhaps more insidiously, a method of passive-aggressive attack. Irony feels like a blunt weapon. Nobody wins an argument through irony alone. Holding up signs with ironic messages at a protest event might raise a smile, but they won’t change minds, they won’t change the world.

We were promised that technology would bring us closer. Yet, instead we are surrounded by Irony Machines, putting fake glosses over our photos, enabling us to post pithy one-liners, upload ‘comedy virals’, reblog corny old pictures from other people’s’ pasts. There is a place for that. Or perhaps I’m just as guilty of that as the next person. But it is not enough. There is more to communication and to community than the hipster pose to one extreme and the über-sincerity of the slightly scary Facebook mother to the other extreme. We don’t have to be terminally over-earnest, but we don’t have to pretend we don’t care either.

I don’t know exactly what it looks like, but where is the more meaningful, inclusive irony? An irony that is aware of its limitations, that isn’t afraid or disdainful of sincerity, but doesn’t want to completely surrender to sincerity’s more saccharine tendencies either.

This is probably all bunk, and ill-thought-out bunk at that. I’m just thinking aloud, really, as bloggers are wont to do. Most of it has probably already been said, and said far more eloquently. But I thought I’d share anyway. I’ve decided to not be scared of ironic responses. I’ll probably enjoy some of them.