The State of Irony

The State of Irony

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Sept. 22 1999 9:11 PM

The State of Irony




You know that I am somewhat frustrated that the attention paid to the book has concentrated so much on irony, which I intend as a way into a broader argument about indifference. My nightmare scenario involves being recruited as a style commentator on irony, distinguishing sheep and goats in the fall sitcom lineup or piecing together a list of America's Ten Least Ironic Cities.

Still, your question is eminently fair. One answer: In a country as marked by social mobility as ours, signals of status have always been avidly pursued. They have often had short half-lives. Alongside various ornaments and gear, and of course street address, manner has always been a major way of signaling where we stand (or want to think we stand, or want others to think we stand). So various kinds of false sophistication bulk large in American cultural history. In this prosperous decade, when the ever-pervasive desire to Get Somewhere has grown even bigger than usual at the same time that mere wealth has become less unusual than ever before, anywhere, the sophisticated manner counts for a lot.

I submit that our form of false sophistication these days is terminal irony--the kind that presumes to be the last word on every occasion, and that extends its reach so far that it becomes exhausted and exhausting. It is this idea of sophistication that commercials appeal to when they invite viewers to snicker, along with the ad writers, at the very idea of a commercial--to join ad writers in celebrating how much more clever they are than ad writers. (And, if you're that clever, this product is for you!) This is the approach to entertainment that Beavis and Butt-head didn't inaugurate but crystallized out of millions of living rooms. It is also the preferred manner of adolescent disregard for adults--not outrage or outright challenge, but the quiet contempt of the smirk, pre-emptive knowingness with no room for challenge. The manner that brings together all of this indicates by tone, word choice, and gesture that we know how easily whatever we are saying could be made into a joke, and that we intend to avoid that possibility by adding a tincture of ridicule to our own speech. We decline to stake ourselves on declarations, hopes, connections that might disappoint or embarrass us.

Objective methods can't do much to determine whether this manner really is pervasive. The only test is that of recognition. Is this your experience? Do you do this yourself, sometimes? Do you ever wonder why you did, and regret it? I have done both. So have many of the people who've read the book and discussed it with me.

I don't think America is at heart, so to speak, an ironic country. We might benefit from more of the Socratic kind of irony. Our current variety, though, is not much better than meretricious sarcasm.

I am not wildly interested in irony. These days, though, it seems to be interested in me.