Charles Emrich defends irony from its detractors. Sincerely.
I’m pretty sure you haven’t lived until the New York Times has declared you dead.
Today I am pleased to be alive, because middle-aged Princeton French professor Christy Wampole has declared irony delenda est in an NYT article. Wampole’s article, I regret to say, does not deserve the seriousness of the response we’re going to offer it. Her argument is a display of ignorance topped with hubris. It is an overfilled dish of irritated sentiments seasoned with misunderstandings, false nostalgia, demonstrable untruths, and weird neo-Luddite grumblings. It is, by and large, actually beneath notice. There are ways we never really need to hear another generation-gap-widening piece by someone who hasn’t taken the time to understand what they’re critiquing. But it’s a great example of its genre, and we need to talk about the genre.
It’s more than just “Kids These Days.” It’s more intellectual than mere incomprehension of The Youth as (mis)understood by academics. It’s an argument against an ethos and a way of life defined by irony. But it, and thus far every article like it that I’ve encountered, keep making the same damning mistake: the do not understand the practice of irony as it actually occurs in the wilds of Portlandia and Brooklyn.
In the end, this makes all the articles about irony read like the “travelogues” of European explorers: They describe Africa in a way no African would recognize. It’s all camelopards and Prester John. No one lives the ironic life in the way that these articles envision that they do. As such, attacks on this kind of ironic living (which Wampole calls Deep Irony) turn out to be misguided because they refer to almost no one who actually lives.
Let’s talk about the lifestyle of the mythical Deep Ironist. The Deep Ironist is someone who literally adopts customs, hobbies, and fashions not out of preference for those things but out of a perverse desire to illustrate the absurdity of their adoption. When they say they like a band, they are not talking about the band but making a meta-statement about the sort of people who say they like this band. All of their actions are calculated, and none of their meanings match their denotations.
These imagined people are Januses who always speak with two voices. Their very lives are not lived but instead act as commentary on what it means to be the sort of person who lives their life as a commentary. They are Caden Cotards, building worlds within worlds that talk to each other about themselves.
Their OKCupid profiles read “Likes: The 80s, Hip-Hop, Justin Bieber, Irony. Dislikes: The 80s, Hip-Hop, Justin Bieber, Irony, Myself.”
Thankfully no such people exist. Outside of certain particularly enterprising artists, people simply do not engage in this kind of irony. Even the relatively moderate “adoption of things as a comment on those things” is pretty much unheard-of. At worst, you see people wearing shirts for bands they hate. But the whole of the anti-ironic criticism genre seems to flow forth from this misunderstanding of actual ironists. I know ironists, though. Piles of them. Sincere Ironists.
Ironic Sincerity, a.k.a. the kind practiced by real ironists, is not a stance, but a way of actually liking things. It acknowledges that things can be ridiculous, kitschy, absurd, and worthy of mockery while nevertheless being enjoyable, perhaps even because they are ridiculous, kitschy, absurd, and worthy of mockery. Sometimes these things can even be great. But there are great-great things and bad-great things. Both great-great things and bad-great things are sincerely appreciated by real ironists. Example: I love Jim Wynorski films. They’re awful, but there’s something magical about titles like Chopping Mall that I just can’t resist.
When describing allegedly counter-ironic movement New Sincerity, Wampole mentions David Foster Wallace and Cat Power, apparently failing to understand that irony as she is actually practiced goes hand in hand with painful earnestness, and awkwardness. People who like David Foster Wallace are often ironists, and they don’t quit just because they like sincere things, too.
Sincerity is simply not irony’s antonym.
And ironists are always expressing. Wampole worries that the speech of ironists is not “meaningful” that they do not say what they mean, or mean what they say. This is as silly as it is wrong. Ironic speech is nuanced and multi-layered, but this gives it more meaning, not less. It may not be immediately clear how I mean “Reading Fifty Shades of Grey was one of the more enjoyable things I did this summer,” but I have said a thing I mean, and really do intend to say that thing.
It’d be disingenous, though, to pretend that irony is merely The Way We Like Things Now. Anti-ironic criticism is right that irony is a defensive strategy for navigating culture and choice with minimized risk. The critics point out the flaws with this minimizing of risk and the dangers of quashing discussion. But only rarely do they ask why people would live in a way that has these negative side effects. Wampole asks, and her analysis is typical of the genre:
The ironic life is certainly a provisional answer to the problems of too much comfort, too much history and too many choices, but it is my firm conviction that this mode of living is not viable and conceals within it many social and political risks.
So the ironic life answers an excess of comfort, security, and history? Really? Complacency in security is a thing that happens, sure; but imagining that irony serves only to bolster our already-overflowing basket of comforts strikes me as mistaken. It’s akin to looking at crime rates in depressed neighborhoods and inner cities and lamenting “why do they keep doing it? Don’t they know that crime is bad and risky?” Yikes, Virginia. You’ve stopped short of asking the right question: “What if they know that crime is risky, but they keep doing it anyway? If so, what must their reasons be?”
When we ask this sort of question about crime, we get much better answers about the causes of crime. We’ll get better answers to the question of ironic living if we ask “why is irony worth the costs, and the risks, to those who employ it?” Insofar as irony is a defense (and it is only partially a defense) it is plain to me that it is a reaction to worrisome insecurity rather than a surfeit of security.
I hate to make it personal like this, but I am a member of her irritating “ironic clique” and I can speak with the authority of experience here.
We are a generation of twenty-somethings with degrees, educations, plans, hopes and barely the faintest notion of how we’ll achieve them. We’re working dead-end jobs if we can find jobs at all. We’re moving back in with our parents rather than moving on with our lives. We are deeply worried, frequently depressed, and existentially troubled. We were told that we would succeed, that America was trending upwards, and that all we’d need to do was apply ourselves and we’d “get there.” Nothing of the sort has happened. I have nothing but flaring disdain for the position irony is the product of a generation that is “too comfortable.”
But are the harms of defensive irony worth the benefits? I’ll concede some points here. I happen to think that the ironic appreciation of things often presents real difficulties to discussion and engagement. Describing the decision of a self-aware ad to be self-aware as a method of defense, Wampole notes that “no attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself.” Ironic distance obfuscates sincere debate about the merits of things, but only those kinds of things that people hold onto ironically.
When I tell people that I find an action movie bad, I have to have the same discussion every time. See if this sounds familiar:
“Movie X (Or X3: X-Men United, as the case may be) is bad.”
“Charles, relax. It’s just a dumb action movie. It’s not supposed to be [Showa/Satantango/Shichinin no Samurai].”
“No, what I am saying is that it is bad at being a ‘bad action movie.’”
This is why I no longer have discussions about Sucker Punch. There is a veil of irony that must be pierced in order to get to the business of actually talking about a thing. I’ve spent more time than I’m proud of arguing that even if something is self-aware, even if it “knows what it is,” it can still be criticized. So yeah, irony can really get in the way of a good discussion.
But here’s the silver lining: the areas where irony hurts us are not going to kill us. No one except for Vermin Supreme holds political views ironically. No one except PETA holds ethical views for the purpose of ironic swagger. (The research gremlins insist that PETA is a sincere effort, but I do not believe them.) So even in the worst case scenario where irony is just an admittedly harmful defense mechanism, we still risk very little. And I’d argue that most of the time it’s much more than mere defense, but rather a fully engaged way of living.
Irony isn’t about pushing things away. Irony is about holding them at arm’s length so you can get a really good look at them. Maybe even, loving them not despite flaws, but because of them. And while irony is an aesthetic luxury, it is not a frippery. Irony is deeply honest, and only seems otherwise because it is emotionally unavailable. Irony is complex like that because it acknowledges complexity and absurdity. Irony is not a regressive reaction to “too much” of anything, it is a proactive method for handling culture as it exists.
Irony is a means to better living.