The State of Irony

The State of Irony

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Sept. 20 1999 9:31 PM

The State of Irony

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Jedediah, it must come as one of those ironies (and not the ecstatic kind, either) to find yourself unwittingly a celebrity of the sort you deride in your book. Public intellectuals, you lament, "are more and more overshadowed by celebrity intellectuals, notable less for the seriousness of their ideas than for their novelty and brass. They shock and titillate, or they intrigue by offering new explanations for our discontents, our neuroses, our disappointing bodies. ... They satisfy the desire that something should be going on to draw one's attention, provide some stimulations, give a feeling of ferment." But, honestly, even you must concede that had your book been published by, say, an assistant professor at Oswego State, it would not have generated nearly the same amount of attention. Happening upon a self-schooled polymath from Appalachia is like discovering a rare, indigenous tribe in Irian Jaya that has missed the 20th century: It's thrilling, a living, breathing exemplar of the road not taken. We want to poke at you, corrupt you, buy you Happy Meals, force you to watch There's Something About Mary. (There was a wonderful, brilliant, unblemished home-schooled guy in my class in college who also generated a fair amount of national attention: He was last spotted, so I'm told, wearing a full leather-man outfit at 3 a.m. in Manhattan's meat-packing district.)

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Prior billing had led me to expect your book to be a full-blown counter-offensive against irony. But like Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (in which the attack on declining literacy, standards, and values book-ended an extended perambulation through intellectual history), For Common Things sees the ironic posture as only one symptom of a national failure to act and to live in and for the common weal. And though the dissection of irony is posited as a problem "we" share, you concede that it is most symptomatic among more educated people under 35. You have, to paraphrase another apocalyptic sort, Allen Ginsburg, seen the best minds of your generation stand Prada-clad, quipping noncommittally while the barbarians smash down the gates. Or something like that.

I'm basically with you on this: Irony is spent as a cultural force. Around the time of Lenny Bruce, the ironic posture was a thrilling épater le bourgeois against repression, conformity, official smugness, and fatuity. Now that the edifices have been torn down, the ironic posture has itself become party to the forces of official smugness and fatuity. Irony, as you point out, provides a comfortable perch from which we can be unserious about the environment, not to mention labor unions, third-world malnutrition, ethnic conflict, wage disparities, corporate malfeasance, and the rest of the issues that seemed to matter hugely when Reagan was president but are now merely uncomfortable topics to broach with a Democrat in the White House.

The booming stock and job markets have made us giddy, shallow, and stupid. But what to do about this? Your advice is, essentially, that we should become better people: politically involved citizens to the core of our beings, passionately committed to our neighborhoods, schools, cities, countries, worlds. I was moved by this, challenged, and then annoyed. Of course we should all be better people: kind to our families, gentle with animals, not wasteful, and so forth. But the entirety of human history suggests that we will continue to be what we've always been: selfish, intermittently brutal, capable of occasional acts of empathy and kindness and globe-transforming greatness. The serious task of the political theorist is not to browbeat us into goodness but to posit a "commons" that encompasses and manages chaos, imperfection, the hopeless muddle of actually lived life. You offer up for inspiration and instruction the great Eastern Bloc intellectuals who toppled communism by the sheer power of their steadfast refusal to live in untruth. Why can't we all be like Adam Michnik? You neglect to point out that once Poland was finally freed of its shackles, matters rapidly disintegrated: The most popular movie right after the fall of communism was Porky's IV.

Jedediah, one challenge I'd like to put before you is to teach me (and the rest of us failed self-abnegators) how we can live meaningful lives without following your hero Wendell Berry to a farm in Kentucky? Isn't there room for shallowness and commitment? Irony and earnestness? Selfishness and empathy?

Peace out,

Michael