The Many Deaths of Irony, Part I
In my adult life, I’ve managed to mostly avoid affray, but one occasion recently sprang to mind. I was in my mid-20s and trying at the time to be a painter. I had made a body of work and an acquaintance had gotten me a show at a small space in Williamsburg, run by a friend of his. I was in a very celebratory mood and brought a bottle of Champagne to a friend’s apartment in Bushwick. The bottle of Champagne turned into more drinks and our small group (me and three or four other friends) was in a pretty cheerful and free mood when we got invited to join another small gathering a few blocks away. This was at the apartment of some other young painters, two young women, and when we got there it was them and one of their boyfriend’s, a somewhat older painter, who was then probably around my age now. Conversation turned to a recent big exhibition of paintings, it might have even been the Whitney Biennial, and the meaning of the work therein. I can’t remember if the work in question was felt to be on the too ironic or too earnest, but it was one of those. A little high on Champagne and my own very minor success, I offered a somewhat glib, and I hoped only slightly provocative, observation to the effect that the preference for either irony or sincerity changed according to fashion every few years and in that light that the whole discussion shouldn’t be taken so seriously or even was kind of a joke. This remark was apparently a bit too glib and provocative for the older boyfriend. Before I knew what was going on, this guy made his way across the room and started to slap me in the head. “How’s this for serious,” I believe he actually said.
Now, you should know that I’m usually not one to respond mildly to affronts against my person or character, but at the time I was so stunned by the sudden turn of events and also maybe still in such high spirits that I just couldn’t build up at the anger to defend myself. I just sat there while he whacked me about the face and head. Fortunately, two of my best friends—very brave young women—came to my rescue. After a furious counter-offensive of thrown drinks, shouts and shoves, our little band beat a hasty retreat out of the apartment. I wasn’t really hurt: the alcohol helped and his object I think was to make a point more than do actual harm. In retrospect, it was kind of a quaint throwback to the days of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism, when drink-sodden, macho painters would do battle in downtown bars. And, although I may have been lightly pummeled, I think this scene sort of ultimately proved my point: such aesthetic stances were just so many poses. I strongly suspect this act of minor violence was an attempt to demonstrate a certain type of sincere passion and so this display was a bit retardataire, as critics used to write,—an example of outdated style—the trite manners appropriate to an earlier age, when such performances would be found more convincing. Maybe that’s part of why I didn’t rise either to defend myself or escape: I just sort of didn’t believe it. — It was bit of an act.
The reason this episode returned to me was both because the subject was the perennial oscillation in the arts between irony and sincerity. It seems like “the death of irony,” or a new form of irony, or a “new sincerity,” or a return to an old sincerity is always being declared in literature or the visual arts. This is periodical and it happens mostly in periodicals, that is magazines. I’m probably being a bit too glib again here. There’s a reason this topic recurs beyond the change of fashion, or, rather, this topic is one of these places where shift in fashion gets some moral and aesthetic content, where the change in manners and style reflects a real shift in existential stance and subjectivity; in how people believe they ought to think and act. In short, the question of irony marks one of those places where art and life are very close to each other.
The condemnation of irony is never made on wholly aesthetic grounds, as something that is ugly or doesn’t hold our interest. Irony always involves the question of honesty and the proper level of commitment to important values. An overly ironical attitude is thought to risk the moral life by distancing us too much from the correct amounts of feeling or putting things that ought to be certain too much in doubt. Coldness, cruelty, egotism, and frivolity are said to be its ultimate results. But even irony’s celebration also has an intrinsically moral flavor. To its defenders, irony reflects a more adult, more wise, more authentic, more circumspect, and even, in so far as it accepts and expects weakness and folly, a more charitable attitude to life. Its moral suit is strengthened through its dialectical nature: by never claiming to embody the virtues directly, by always taking its moment of distance, the ironist can avoid not only the dowdiness, but also the conceits, self-deceptions, and the perhaps-inevitable hypocrisies of the overly sincere. It has the clearer view of itself and existence.
In the latest Bookforum, Christian Lorentzen endorses the aesthetic and moral superiority of irony. Writing that America has just left “the gothic nightmare” of the Trump presidency, he says we are now yearning in the Biden years for a return to the verities“sentimental.” Both modes are defective: “What the sentimental and the gothic have in common is that they are both at root children’s literature, delineating good and evil, marching away from ambiguity. Something is missing from each of these narratives: irony.” Lorentzen protests that irony allows for a higher moral register than is possible with mere sentimentality or the Gothic. If we can’t handle Lolita today, it’s because it’s not immediately obvious that Humbert’s passionate self-defense is part and parcel of Nabokov’s moral condemnation.” We’ve lost the patience and maturity to register what it can accomplish in art. Irony is even presented as a sort of heroic attitude in a world gone mad:
Irony is a way of saying things without meaning them and meaning things without saying them. It’s a way of being in two places at once: guilt and innocence; good and evil. Irony can be a numbing response to political and cultural malaise, as David Foster Wallace had it, but it can also be a form of defiance born of rage and pain. Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). The gothic horror show of 1930s America he traverses is recast as a brutal picaresque through the force of his voice.
Where once it was the fashion to respond with “ironic ambivalence” to consumer culture and its corporate supplier, now we are said to eat up without much question corporate attestation of virtue:
Back in the 1990s, popular and literary culture was marked by an ironic ambivalence toward consumerism, hostility mixed with acquiescence—think of the way corporations in Infinite Jest sponsor and rename the years of the calendar (“Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”), or the arguments in Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland’s Baffler anthology Commodify Your Dissent, in which rebellion becomes something that’s bought and sold. But the last decade has seen a shift toward enlightened or “conscious” consumerism. The buyer chooses among products that are more or less politically palatable; ad campaigns have shifted from marketing rebellion to marketing virtue. The villainy of corporations has become diffused in the competition of societal amelioration.
The “no exit” of ironic distance might be better than the “no exit” of credulous acceptance; after all the demand for sincerity has no more delivered us from consumerism and corporate power than irony; it’s just made us have to pretend to enjoy eating our vegetables. This is the second time David Foster Wallace comes up and for good reason. He is the author, back in 1993, of a famous polemic against irony, “E Unibus Pluram.” In that essay, Wallace gives television an almost, but not quite—he pulls back in several places—Gothic quality: it has captured American cultural life in a kind of web, a spell, and that ironic remove is one of its tools:
As Lorentzen notes, we sort of give the Internet a similar role today, and many contemporary novelists are trying to “figure out” what the Internet does to us and what we should to do it. For Wallace, irony was no longer liberating but “enfeebling”, once an act of rebellion, it is now the “system”:
Wallace imagines the possibility of a new crop of literary anti-rebels to break the ice:
This is probably far too simplistic an understanding of the dialectical reversals of artistic avant-gardes, who rarely just throw out the previous school’s formal accomplishments, but rather comment and build on them. Such a move, positioning itself knowingly against the prevailing fashion, would hardly be sincere or truly rebellious, but rather would be mere mannerism. It would be cynical, smarmy, disingenuous, and even a bit hypocritical: not an abrogation of self-consciousness, but a lack of willingness to deal with its consequences. It would be just the sort of the thing feared by a roughly contemporary account of irony and culture, Peter W. Kaplan’s and Peter Stevenson’s 1991 Esquire cover story “Wipe That Smirk off your Face: An almost irony-free guide to the New Sincerity.”
What’s remarkable about Kaplan and Stevenson’s article is that, although it’s from about the same time period and deals with the same medium—TV—it comes to the opposite conclusion: irony is now dead, a new form of sincerity is king, marked by the predominance of Jay Leno over David Letterman:
WE HAVE A NEW purported directness. And a sudden cessation of attitude. And a new emphasis on niceness, the lack of which was suddenly seen—from Nancy to Dice—as the great sin in the United States. It’s the determined trend toward clear exposition—making even The New York Times a McPaper so anybody can understand anything. It’s Regarding Henry, about an Eighties amorality case who is reborn Nice. It’s frontal, scrubbed, never enigmatic or layered. It’s Kevin Costner.
We’ve just come through a period in which subtext dominated: Certain cultural contributors—from Tom Wolfe to David Lynch to Spy—acted like consumer reporters, purporting to show the difference between what we were seeing and what really was. This was a kind of sincerity in itself—an attempt to puncture the ruses of the moment. A kind of universal ironic attitude became the tone of the day, as a network of underground cultural agents passed each other notes day and night, debunking the culture by reciting its jingles, slogans, and symbols. Yes, it was mean (Blue Velvet). But it was mean with a purging purpose.
The authors call this older, ironic attitude “the Old Sincerity,” which would be less confusing if they just called it “authenticity” instead. For the Peters, there is something phony in the New Sincerity: it is a manner. They point to a scenario where Kevin Costner approached Madonna after a show and called her show “neat.” Madonna was not pleased — She got that it was a dig:
…Costner, our Boy Scout, is coming backstage to smite the platinum harlot with ingenuousness. He later told The New York Times he didn’t think her show was “neat” at all. He thought it was kind of disgusting. Still, he wanted to convey what he wanted to convey, something that sounded like sincerity, and that is the New Sincerity…You can spot a master of the New Sincerity if he or she admits to not getting it, and waits openly and expectantly for you to explain it; he or she is waiting for some information, for you to drop your attitude so you can meet without pretension. The New Sincerity is nothing if not ingenuous. In public.
Once again, a considerable amount of confusion would be reduced if the proper word was employed here, which is “disingenuous” rather than “ingenuous.” The problem is the underhandedness of this supposed New Sincerity: it is really not very sincere at all, and it’s doubly deceiving—self-deceiving—because it thinks it’s unproblematically “the good guy,” a pretension that the ironist could never in good conscience adopt.
Funnily enough though, Peter Kaplan, reflecting in 2011 on the 1990s for New York magazine, remembered it as a decade of irony, an “Age of Irony” even:
New York had temporarily stopped, basking in itself, freeze-drying time. Irony was the voice of the city—a voice easily assigned to a town without heroes—smartness without wisdom. Seinfeld’s epic whine was our “Leaves of Grass.” Sincerity, purpose, emotion were déclassé. Incomes and real-estate prices climbed ceaselessly and so did exhibitionism, steeped in wealth, full of avarice without apology. Needless to say, it was also somewhat of a gas.
Kaplan abruptly states in that piece that “irony isn’t dead,” but the following day Michael Hirschhorn wrote in the same magazine that it was, confirming Graydon Carter’s post 9/11 declaration of irony’s end with the addendum of the Internet:
Indeed, it may be the confluence of 9/11 and the dominant culture of webby self-expression that may have dealt irony a double death blow. The habit of retailing one’s innermost thoughts and feelings, now abetted by Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr, was born in the ashes of 2001. They are mediums that seem to repel the ironists and embrace the earnest-ists in a warm, gooey, communal hug (insert emoticon here). We are all now brave little soldiers, working our orchards till we’re sore and hoping one day to run the store.
Lorentzen thinks it happened around the time of Obama, which would agree with Hirschorns chronology. But, as Lorentzen points out in his essay, there is an entire, if somewhat suspect community of ironists (if such a thing can be imagined) online: “Disaffection used to be cool, but irony has never been more suspect: online it’s common to see people diagnosed as “irony pilled,” “irony poisoned,” or sick with “irony brain.” One might counter here that some significant amount people think it’s still cool, in fact maybe he only cool thing left, but others think the aspiration to coolness, itself a distancing attitude like irony, is slightly suspect. Displays of warmth, openness and emotional effusion are more the order of the day, even though the constant performance of this in public, where it is a social requirement rather than a living sentiment, requires almost Hallmark-card levels of cant. Attractive or interesting people, even when they are not classical beauties, are today more likely to be labeled “hot” than “cool,” where once enough of the latter quality could overcome the tyranny of genetically-endowed looks through cultivated stylishness of dress or bearing. In any case, perhaps it’s high-time people cooled off a little bit.
To return for a moment to Wallace’s essay, I found it striking how similar its arguments are to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s 1983 book Kritik der zynischen Vernunft, translated into English in 1987 as Critique of Cynical Reason. Whereas the spirit of cynicism, irony, and satire had once been the great tools of enlightenment (the German is Aufklärung, enlightenment as in The Enlightenment) against prejudice, tyranny, and unjustified authority, now Professor Sloterdijk attests they have “switched sides” to the forces of order by virtue of the kind of downbeat “realism” they inculcate in the masses—they have become agents of the “great despair and stasis” that Wallace wrote of:
Cynicism is enlightened false consciousness. It is that modernized, unhappy consciousness, on which enlightenment has labored both successfully and in vain. It has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice. Well-off and miserable at the same time, this consciousness no longer feels affected by any critique of ideology; its falseness is already reflexively buffered.
This disaffection knows, it is knowing, but cannot or will not act. The world is too complicated, we must resign ourselves, albeit bitterly, sardonically, to our roles. The educated, the sophisticated, the “enlightened,” in short the sorts of people who read magazines and books, no longer have it in them to carry out the task of revolution, reform, or critique;—careerism has taken over: “The compulsion to survive and desire to assert itself have demoralized enlightened consciousness. It is afflicted with the compulsion to put up with pre-established relations that it finds dubious, to accommodate itself to them, and finally even to carry out their business.”
Sloterdijk’s proposed solution to this impasse is not to imagine a new birth of sincerity and credulousness, but to recover the authentic, cheeky, anti-authoritarian, and truly rebellious roots of this cynical tradition, something he calls “kynicism” to distinguish it from the new, bad form of cynicism.
(But this is getting a little long now: — in the next installment I’ll take a look at that that tradition plus the rise of “mass culture” and what Hegel, Kierkegaard and Zoe Williams have to say about irony.)
Wheels within wheels within wheels... This is yet another excellent piece, John. Digging this low-internet high-octane writing vibe and how you’re leveraging it. I have sometimes used a mental model as a teaching device on topics like this where we take a nuanced complex spectrum and then gird it... For example here: Take an X and Y axis with earnestness at one pole of the X and Cynicism at one pole of the Y.... The use of two dimensions is arbitrary, but 3 is too hard to conceptualize... It’s a construct that allows a mapping of cultural artifacts using pretty much the same set of attributes, but shown on two axes, which is what allows tone and emphasis to pop out, rendering explicit some of the subtleties of dealing with irony that you are exploring here. One can map works of, say, “earnest cynicism” (Vidal?) and one can have very “unearnest uncynical” (Warhol?) work products... At any moment in a culture, all kinds of products are being created... but our tolerance, tastes, favor, exhaustion points us towards highlighting different parts of the grid. Your exploration of how those shifts take place is... neat. (Had to. But seriously: neat. Really.)