The Irony Age
‘Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.’—Lewis Hyde
Recently, while walking past David Jones, I stopped suddenly, unable to believe what I was seeing. The window display showed a backdrop of red and black graffiti-style lettering while in the foreground was a strung cable, from which hung a pair of Nike runners, just like the sandshoes you sometimes see hanging from overhead wires. I kept staring, disbelieving, because only a few days previously I had been sitting in Newtown Police Station witnessing my sixteen-year-old son being interrogated about the spray cans in his backpack. Even the most cutting-edge, illegal, publicly-denounced acts are not immune. What is vandalism to many and a criminal record for someone else, is a marketing opportunity for another.
Irony, like graffiti, was once an act of rebellion. It was used as a means for the powerless to comment on the powerful: an encoded way of using language, ‘when to state anything plainly would lead to trouble,’ as James Joyce once said. In other words, irony became a way of speaking to power. So valuable was irony as a weapon that it was once described, says supreme ironist John Clarke, as ‘the glory of slaves’.
But something funny has happened to irony on the way to the forum. Some say it has sold out. Others say it has become commodified. Whatever it is, irony is no longer the glory of slaves. Irony is now mainstream. Television, films, advertising, theatre, literature—culture high and low—has become imbued with irony. Irony, which was once a tool for critiquing the system, has now been absorbed back into that system; or, to put it another way, irony has now been co-opted by the very forces it was intended to parody.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve got nothing against irony per se. Every night I laugh at The Colbert Report and I wouldn’t miss an episode of John Clarke and Brian Dawe. My point is that it may be time to recognise that irony has its limits. As a tool for rejecting and exposing false values, irony is excellent; as a lense through which to see the real world or to judge real people, it is not so wonderful.
I am not the only one who feels that irony has reached saturation point. Almost ten years ago, writer, cultural critic and gifted ironist, David Foster Wallace, wrote that irony had arrived at a stage where, rather than liberating, it was now enfeebling our culture. ‘This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an exclusively negative function.’ Indeed, he accuses irony of blanket tyranny. It is tyrannical because all irony implies one simple statement: “I don’t really mean what I say.” As a result, according to Wallace, ‘anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig.’ Therein, he claims, ‘lies the oppressiveness of institutionalised irony: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content.’ A simpler way of putting this, perhaps, is that when irony dominates, sincere, genuine, meaningful exchange becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.
This is what concerns me most about living in the age of irony, and its close relative, sarcasm: how it affects the way we relate to each other. For people like my son, who have grown up on a nightly feed of The Simpsons, the idea of, say, sharing passionate convictions (as we might have in the 60s and 70s perhaps) can be a daunting concept. It is daunting because declaring any deeply-held belief is almost certain to expose you to some level of satirical scorn. When irony is the default tone, being sincere is not only difficult, it’s risky. If you appear earnest or as though you might be ‘taking yourself too seriously’, you will immediately make yourself a target for ironic ridicule and in an age of satire and cynicism, the worst social gaffe is to appear naïve, credulous or gullible.
It is not just on a private level that irony interrupts the potential for dialogue. Martin Kettle, a Guardian commentator, recently wrote: “Satire can open minds up. But it can also close them down.” He fears that the constant sneering at politicians and government eventually instils the belief that ‘all authority is useless and probably all sense of collective improvement is useless too.’ This attitude, he says, results in a ‘profoundly despairing individualist view of human affairs.’ In other words, instead of inspiring us to act by exposing the truth about politicians and government, the ‘exclusively negative function’ of irony and satire destroys our sense of agency, leaving us feeling completely paralysed.
Here is the problem: irony is the comedy of derision. Of ridicule. And also, possibly, of paralysis. Another great writer who has moved away from strident irony is Jonathan Franzen. The literary critic James Wood described Franzen’s shift as a move from a ‘comedy of correction’ to a ‘comedy of forgiveness.’ The difference between the two is that the ‘comedy of correction’ belies a tone of judgement, of the writer trying to ‘correct’ reality—correcting, of course, being a major theme of Franzen’s The Corrections—whereas the ‘comedy of forgiveness’ is based on a playful recognition of the gap between the ideal and the real and a forgiving acceptance of human faults and shortcomings. In other words, the laughter is no longer based on derision. Whereas the ‘comedy of correction’ masks an automatic urge to reform and ‘make right’ all that is wrong with humanity, the ‘comedy of forgiveness’ entails a loving and laughing embrace.
Which brings me to one of the greatest ironic writers of all time: James Joyce, whose work has been described as the comedy of acceptance. One of Joyce’s themes, perhaps even his central theme—is nothing less than the fall of humanity. But it’s precisely within this fall that he locates his comedy.
Let’s face it, the most basic comedic riff is the slapstick fall. For some reason, when someone slips on a banana skin or falls out of a boat, it is always funny. When a person is standing upright he also, in some sense, stands for ‘uprightness’; when he falls he is all wrong but it is in this wrongness—this gap between the proper and the improper, the ideal and the actual—that opens room for laughter. Being wrong, or incorrect, also opens other possibilities, other realities. Or, in Joyce’s famous phrase, ‘errors are the portals of discovery’.
Behind Joyce’s comedy of acceptance is his idiosyncratic take on the Catholic concept known as ‘felix culpa’, which translates as ‘fortunate fall’ or ‘happy fall’. His radical idea was that we should celebrate rather than lament our fall from grace precisely because our very humanity is a result of our fallenness. We are human—and therefore loveable and capable of love, because we are fallen—not the other way around: ie we are fallen and therefore need to be redeemed in order to be worthy of love.
When comedy is based on derision—the basis for satire—it is essentially, trying to be a corrective. It is pointing a finger at the fallen man and ridiculing his lack. But Joyce’s idea is that it is essentially this lack which makes us need, want and love each other. Without this lack we would be self-sufficient, complete—perhaps even perfect. But we would also be very, very lonely.
Irony is not just an abstract concept. When it becomes the dominant cultural tone, it affects the way we relate to each other in very real and concrete ways because we live in a culture of correction—where we constantly see only what we believe needs ‘fixing’—rather than in a culture of forgiveness and acceptance. God knows how corny that sounds; how easy to send up, to parody, to ironize. This is the great risk of trying to say what you mean: you leave yourself wide open. Unprotected. It would be so much easier if I was speaking in double-entendres. Then I could pretend that whatever interpretation my reader might make wasn’t really the one I intended. ‘There is no safer posture of self-protection than ironic remove,’ notes writer Richard Powers. But if our self-protection has become so secure that it now resembles the bars of a cage, I would suggest that it is time for a new and different cry of freedom.
Gabrielle Carey teaches writing at the University of Technology, Sydney and is presently finalising a book on the Australian novelist and poet Randolph Stow.
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21 Nov 12 at 13:48
DFW is wrong: irony does NOT serve an ‘exclusively negative function’. Is the dénouement of Oedipus ‘negative’? Tragic, sure, but hardly ‘negative’ (self-canceling?) in Wallace’s sense. The ironic can function, as it did for Socratese, as a means of talking about the inexpressible, the indefinable.
Satire often uses irony to expose the hypocrisy of the self-righteous, who usually deserve it. What is Joyce’s attitude toward Haines and his ‘it seems history is to blame’ if it isn’t derision?
Hipster ‘irony’ is a very small piece of the total compass of irony, which has been expanding for the past 2500 years, from Sophocles to Plato, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Mann, Rorty, and beyond. It’s the myopic ‘think pieces’ (among other threats) that tend to contract it into a one-dimensional banality....
10 Dec 12 at 16:53
It is better if we do not believe the people who are just known. In my opinion, this could be one of the things you can do to avoid actions that could harm ourselves. Be wary of this kind of course is better than too credulous people who are just known. Nightcomforter.com.au...