Pitchforks and torches are raised; the Irony witch-hunt wears on. We Americans are addicted to killing it or declaring it dead or demonizing it. In recent memory we have: Seinfeld provoking a backlash against irony’s corrupting influence, Eggers’ “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” causing all sorts of nervous handwringing like this NY Times piece — & then along came 9-11 with heaps of blowhards and kneejerks, however wellmeaning, declaring Big Bad Bogeyman Irony dead (see this NY Mag article) or in desperate need of maiming. And now we have another well-meaning thinker on the subject, Christy Wampole, opining in the NY Times the other week about how to root out irony from our lives as if it were some evil little soul-mole that could be scooped up by the scruff and snuffed out. Way I see it, irony isn’t something to be disposed of, or something we should even want to erase, and that’s what I’m going to talk about in this essay. Irony’s not going anywhere, and our goal should not be to banish it. It should be to understand it, accept it, minimize it and, ghasp, even enjoy it.
First off: I like Wampole’s article. I like the frustration and spirit behind it. When she’s at her best she’s nailing a lot of what’s wrong with our age — our emotional apathy, our reluctance to put forth sincere feeling statements and actions, our disconnection from our own authentic reactions to the world, our defensive way of relating to people. Particularly sharp to me was this indictment of modern advertising which turns into a spot-on drumming of a particular kind of emotional and mental malaise (“ironic living” as Wampole calls it):
“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.”
There’ve always been people like this. We’ve all met them, whether we live in Williamsburg NY or Williamsburg VA, people who live tucked deep in smirks and winks; who, like emotional trauma victims, sadly spend far too much time in interpersonal retreat, smoke & mirrors & passive-aggression; who sarcastically joke about everything, about their own jokes; who turn the struggle of finding meaning and living meaningfully while we’re alive into a game. When I meet these people — and I’ve veered close to this kind of living myself at times — I’m troubled for them, I want to help them. They’re not just geek-chic mustachioed trombone-playing fixed-gear bike riders, to seize upon a few of Wampole’s expressed signifiers of “ironic living”. In my experience, they’re often depressed or otherwise (temporarily, hopefully) emotionally stunted, whether through trauma or through surrender to this aspect of the Zeitgeist. Addicted to the isolating comfort of their warm, hidden emotional pillow fort. It’s a dangerous mind trend that, in any era, has always needed serious attention as a kind of collective-spiritual bellwether, as it threatens to undermine and eat away at what’s best in us: confident, direct, purpose-driven, meaningful living. And so Wampole is dead right to sharply condemn this kind of living and advise us on how to watch for and avoid it in ourselves.
What I don’t like about Wampole’s article, and what diminishes its punch and keeps it from being a more powerful statement, are the following: 1) her conflation of these problems with other, unfocused shallower complaints, 2) her tired mis-identification of/focus on the “hipster”; 3) her failure to properly contextualize & explain the “irony” she decries (you have to understand your enemy before you wage war). But the most serious of her essay’s problems to me is # 4): her contention that irony is something that can or should be eliminated.
We’ll start with item 1). Take the first few paragraphs of her essay, where she succumbs to a kind of kitchen-sinkism of framing the problem, lumping together a good many behaviors and observations about who and what is wrong here in a soupy terrine of traits, most of them perfectly harmless and tangential to her main and most cogent arguments. Trombone playing? Bike riding? Facial hair experiments? Questionable fashion choices? All of these are gimmes, stock targets that mean little in the context of Wampole’s much more affecting passages about humans living emotionally-shallow lives and failing to connect with each other. Every era in the U.S. — from the 19th century bohos and revolutionaries hanging out at Pfaff’s to the 50s Beats free-versing to Charlie Parker — has had its dandies, their fashions dashing or disastrous, peacocks who happen to look to the “outmoded” (to use Wampole’s modifier) past for inspiration. Some of these folks have been posers, some wastes, but a good many of them have been genuine, authentically-living culture-shapers who lived forceful, authoritative, hungry lives. They weren’t just muttering Bieber-shirters. I mean Jesus, just about all artists and art-lovers engage in some healthy interaction with the past; without it we’d be ahistorical nimrods living in the perpetual iPad-tapping now, neglecting behaviors, expressions, instruments, modes of transportation and yes, even hairstyles of previous generations in order to learn from them, adapt them, recontextualize them. Name a true artistic revolutionary from the past two hundred years and I’ll show you precisely how they resurrected or engaged with some form of the ‘outmoded’ past to shape their then-contemporary critique, revolution, artistic expression. To the extent Wampole confuses value-neutral behaviors and hobbies and outward signifiers like trombone playing and mustachioing with much, much more noteworthy and corrosive habits and trends of mind and heart — emotional disconnecting, ultra-meta speech and signifying — her thesis suffers and comes like run of the mill 20-something alternative weekly “hipster” bashing.
Which leads me to closely-related objection #2) — I have a problem with Walpole’s reliance on the semantic trap “hipster”. A verbal quicksand, a joke-word run ragged and obliterated to wisps, seven letters we’re all better off avoiding, and which, like ‘alternative’ was in the 90s, much too over-determined & charged with assumptions to be of any use. It’s simple: Hip = trendy = fashionable = sceney, and hip people across eras have never just been space-wasting nostalgia-bots. They’ve always been located somewhere in the continuum defined by the twin poles of A) feeling, thinking, contributing members of society helping shape culture and leading authentic emotional lives; B) vacuous empty hangers on, leeches and posers. Instances are few — but how spotlit and pounced upon! — of true cases of B). And yet that’s what everyone wants to focus on when they say “hipster”. Trucker hat empty-heads, layabout inheritors. It’s mostly a bogeyman, a myth. I’ve lived in NYC for 10 years and spent a great deal of time in Williamsburg and surrounding neighborhoods. Most fashionable looking, hip young kids I meet — whether they come from money or not — are sincere and trying to do something with their lives. I’ve rarely met the irony exemplar Walpole describes. That’s because they rarely exist. It’s a mental phantasm we construct and uphold in order not to focus on the real issue — why we’re not doing more to change our lives and the world. Easier to rail against this scary fake arch-Ironiste scapegoat than get to work and make a difference ourselves.
And speaking of fraught terms, let’s move to item 3) — the big daddy – “Irony”. Here’s where I really start to take issue with Wampole. Because once you understand irony and it’s place in human relation to self and to other, it’s kind of hard to make grand pronouncements that one must or should lead a life without it. Wampole didn’t establish an irony baseline in her piece, a benchmark of what it means in this context, and her only version of ceding the point comes here: “Throughout history, irony has served useful purposes, like providing a rhetorical outlet for unspoken societal tensions.” If we’re doing something as significant as trying to address a malaise of the age, it just seems right that we define and address the issue and agree on what we’re fighting against. I’ll give it a shot: Irony is tension. Tension between what we mean and what we say, between surface meaning and deep meaning. It’s been with us since humans learned to speak, and it’ll always be with us. We find it in everyday speech, in plays, in poems, in movies, in novels, in gestures, in actions. Sometimes we do it out of fear — passive-aggressively saying “It’s fine!” to a friend when they put us off for the third weekend in a row. Sometimes we do it for pointed and controlled effect, like when we resort to ridiculous hyperbole that we can’t possibly mean to make an effective point. There are infinite ironies, and infinite contexts for them.
Which brings me to #4) — is Irony something we should aim to eliminate? Even if we all agree our spirit is, or is approaching, one of unchecked ironicizing? Hell no. Irony is in us because saying what we mean all the time, and acting authentically 100% of the time, is impossible for socialized adults (Wampole’s point that children and animals are bereft of irony is meaningless; that’s like saying quartz crystals are devoid of pubic hair or tulips are devoid of mammary glands). Otherwise we’d all be running around thinking, acting and living with absolute candor and immediacy, which would lead to a social implosion. If I said everything I meant and felt fully constantly I’d be bludgeoned to pulp within a halfday. And if everyone around me did the same, I’d probably be in jail for doing the bludgeoning. Why on earth would I want to live without irony? Or live in a world without irony? I need the cognitive palliative and padding of distance. What’s more, I’m delighted by controlled, occasional irony usage. I love a sharp sarcastic barb. I love a writer deftly satirizing a hypocritical political leader. I love 19th century British novels where slippery innuendo-laden ironic dialogue hypnotizes with shifting subtexts of meaning. I like that with my close friends I enjoy an occasional little verbal teasing dance of ironic imagery and wink.
I believe humans need irony — not only as artistic technique whereby detachment entertains the audience and allows the creator to transmit feelings and ideas in different, otherwise-difficult-to-access registers; but also as an inescapable life strategy whereby we create emotional space to weather, over the years, the impact of living with ourselves and others. Irony isn’t Evil, it’s an unregulated reliance on it in our lives that’s the problem, a sustained pattern of feeding and mutating within us what should just be a small part of our overall response to the world. When we’ve overfed the normally-occurring irony response within us, it’s much easier for us to succumb to alienation, isolation, cowardice. And THESE are our true enemies. Not irony, but what its cancerized form allows to come darkly oozing out of our human spirits: institutionalized apathy, everyone disconnected from each other, everyone afraid to connect and put themselves forward except through FaceBook photostreams and sniping blog comments; communication that’s mostly memes and circuitous non-talk. Or, less troublesome but extremely annoying, people who, day to day, can’t even come out and articulate what they like and dislike, but who instead rely passively on other forms of communication, like clothes and images, to clandestinely speak for them: young adults wearing New Kids On the Block shirts (who don’t love but hate New Kids on the Block), or who wear shirts with awful airbrushed scenes of, say, wolves howling against the full moon sunset or something (knowing it’s a cheap dated look and flaunting their anti-fashion), who wear Camp Jesus Christ pins on their messenger bags when they think Christianity is a joke. Think of this form of Mutant Irony as one of many immuno-compromising spirit ills that allow the true virii — fear, apathy, isolation — to swoop in and sicken the soul. In the words of poet Charles Bernstein, “The absence of irony in a work [...] is like a windowpane without a window: impossible to justify” (Harper’s, Dec 2012). A “work” here is not just a poem, it’s a life. Irony is not the enemy. Irony is just a lens we live with. But don’t make your whole house out of window glass, fool.
So how do we live with irony? Accept that it’s part of how we relate to the world. Call it a flaw, a foible — I prefer to see it as immutable fact, just another lens in the eye we happen to have to see through as socialized adults. It’s there, so learn to use it on occasion. Like cayenne chili powder or ginger when cooking: a little goes a long way, and creates a nice tension in the mouth, some pain and some pleasure, some fascinating disharmony. Sarcasm at the right time, ironic distance at the right time, whether relating to ourselves or to others, whether in literature or in art, can add a delicious spike of friction. Or maybe it’s an inside cliquey catchphrase that only you and your friend know, one which means something totally different than what it appears to. Maybe it’s just saying you’re happy as a clam when inside you’re ready to rip sinews out of throats. Sometimes irony is a lot like lying, and lying (in doses) is part of being functionally social. We lie — whether we admit it or not, whether we want to or not — to protect ourselves and others, to spare the emotional exhaustion that results from 100% emotional authenticity. I don’t like it any more than you do, but it’s there. Another way to frame all this then is that irony is part of the necessary lying we do as humans, and knowing how to deploy it within reason, and while giving primacy and most of your energy and attention to truth and authentic living as best you can, is part of the complex contradictory spice that makes being human so damned deliciously awfully weird and wonderful. “Within reason” is the key here — watch for unchecked irony abuse in your manners and speech, and examining why you use it. Are you using it because you’re depressed, anxious? Because it’s safer to not put yourself out there than to utter true pronouncements consistent with your ideas and feelings? Or are you using it responsibly within the context of a life largely spent being connected, honest and real with yourself and others? We should always be checking in with ourselves about our motivations for how and what we do and say; this is just one more set of questions to ask so that we can make proper use of irony as a fun, frisky, tense, challenging part of our social and expressive toolkit.
I’ll end this essay how I started it: I like Wampole’s essay a lot and I urge anyone who’s concerned they might be hyper-ironicizing their existence to read it. While judicious deployment of irony brings humor and fun spiky tension to life, there is a line; watch for it, feel for it, be mindful in walking up to it. If all you’re doing with your friends is trading vacuous non sequiturs, if you’re sarcastically rasping at everyone in your life, if you’re drawn constantly to the worst postmodern pastiche endlessly-referential shit-art, you’re probably dumping too much of that aforementioned cayenne powder on your scrambled eggs. You’re gonna numb your tongue out.
(P.S. — As a footnote, and possible precursor to another essay, I wonder about Wampole’s feeling that the “ethos of our age” is ironic. Mutant irony is perhaps rampant, but I think I also see much more of the equally frustrating opposite — whatever we choose to call it — a kind of kneejerk over-emotional screeching from right wing and left wing alike; (the worst of) OWS and tea partying, anonymous hate speech, people saying exactly what they mean +1000 in very loud ALL CAPS all over Twitter and everywhere else they can microblog and ramble, SMH Fuck-My-Life Facebook-generation overreactions, Best-Ever sensationalizing, conspiracy-theory-fed reactionary bigotry & outrage. In short, I see a lot of decidedly unironic anxiety-driven unregulated emotion. I know I’m lumping a lot of stuff into one glob. I’m trying to describe an ill that I sense to be on par with Wampole’s rightly identified malaise of emotional inauthenticity — a kind of falsehood of spirit in the other direction, just as damaging, of unchecked emoto-burst, explosive feeling-flare. Too much immediacy, too little detachment, so much discharge of feeling that all perspective is lost in an unsubtle blast of Worst.Weekend.Ever frothing. We need to watch for that trend too.
P.P.S — Oh and one more thing — in the second half of this essay, I’ll treat two modern artworks, “The Comedy”, directed by Rick Alverson and starring Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, and Heidecker & Wood’s album “Starting From Nowhere” — artworks which both, for better/worse, either treat or employ irony heavily enough to be right in the thick of this conversation.)