These Ironic Times

Is contemporary irony our friend—or foe?

| September/October 1998

The dictum that historic events occur twice—first as tragedy, then as farce—has never been of much use except as an insult to alleged second-timers. More and more, though, it is true of popular culture. For about six years now, beginning with the Saturday Night Live–inspired movie Wayne's World, programmers and screenwriters have turned their own archives into a satiric resource. Wayne's World was a pastiche of pop culture, mostly of 1970s vintage, in which heavy-metal lyrics blended with stock characters and catchphrases from sitcoms and cartoons. A few years later, MTV presented Beavis and Butt-head, a cartoon whose eponymous anti-heroes spend their time watching MTV—and mercilessly mocking its melodramatic, oversexed videos. Now, from comedies to commercials, viewers are invited to join TV programmers in celebrating just how much more clever they are than TV programmers. Everyone is in on the joke, which is not at anybody's expense, but at the expense of the very idea that anyone would take the whole thing seriously.

This is not just something we watch; it is something we do. The ironic individual is a bit like Seinfeld without a script: at ease in banter, rich in allusion, and almost debilitatingly self-aware. The implications of her words are always present to her. Faced with a choice between cliche and silence, the ironist in more earnest moments offers strings of disclaimers, sometimes explicit, more often conveyed in gesture or tone, insisting on the inadequacy of her sentences even as she relies on them. In lighter moods she revels in cliche, creating the oft-reported impression that today's youthful conversation is an amalgam of pop-culture references, snatches of old song lyrics, and bursts of laughter at what would otherwise seem to be solemn moments.

Irony does not stand alone. It is a way of passing judgment—or placing bets—on what kinds of hope the world will support. Jerry Seinfeld resists disappointment by refusing to identify strongly with any project, relationship, or aspiration. When we are ironists, we would rather watch the wheel than put down chips. What are we so shy of?

We surely mistrust our own capacity to bear disappointment. So far as we are ironists, we are determined not to be made suckers. We will not be caught out having staked a good part of our all on a false hope—personal, political, or both. This is a generation accustomed to seeing its immediate predecessor as a bit naive, a bit irresponsible, and often a bit blameworthy for those foibles.

The ironic stance also doubts the depth of human relationships. Management guru Tom Peters urges the young and ambitious to "brand" themselves, to advance their lives as they would market a new product. This advice chimes eerily with the contemporary mood. There is a suspicion afoot that marketing is not a bad metaphor for what most of us do, most of the time. Doubting the depth of relationships comes with doubting the depth of personalities, and we are skeptical of the idea that people have anything like a "core self," a bedrock of character and belief where, if we can just reach it, we can stand with confidence. Instead, we more and more suppose that we are quantum spin, all the way down. In this view, irony is not a cop-out from deeper risks and relationships, but the only honest attitude.

Peters' doctrine has rather grand predecessors, notably Oscar Wilde, who declared, "The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered." But Wilde drew from wells that are now mostly dry. Despite his talk of artificiality, he was in some measure a romantic who believed that he displayed his true identity by flouting convention; his was not exactly a quantum self. Moreover, his eccentricities had the charge and thrill of dramatic dissent in a conventional era. Now, as cultural commentators ceaselessly observe, the fashions of dissent are on sale at specialty boutiques.

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