These Ironic Times

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.

Irony is no unmixed blight; perhaps it need not be a blight at all. For centuries, it has consistently been a friend of the human spirit. After the classical world, the founding ironist was the Renaissance Frenchman Michel de Montaigne, also the creator of the essay in its modern form. Writing in a Europe torn apart by religious wars following the Protestant Reformation, Montaigne saw high-mindedness and self-righteousness as sources of hatred and bloodshed. Against a violent cacophony of competing truths, he blended Christian humility, Socratic skepticism, and the earthy humor of classical figures like Aristophanes in devising an attitude whose dictum, famously inscribed on the ceiling of his private library, read “I reserve judgment.”

This is a lightness that is subtly aware of its moral weight, and in Montaigne’s tradition followed great satirists like Jonathan Swift and hard-nosed debunkers like Samuel Johnson. Mark Twain could be devastating in his irony, as could Will Rogers in this century. All were, in their effect if not always in their sentiments, friends of decency, enemies of cruelty and irresponsible power.

Our contemporary irony has some of these qualities–notably in The Simpsons and Michael Moore’s slack-jawed yet incisive interviews. Our irony is a response partly to the proliferation of cant in private life, where emotions have come to attract relentless and often unmeaning concern in recent decades, and to the confessional culture of talk shows that make that concern unabashedly public. The young ironist rightly feels that sincerity is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Today’s irony also reacts to a curious conjunction in public life between the rhetoric of evangelical revival and the behavior of low vaudeville; Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker sometimes seem to have formed the mold for the public figures of the past decade. This perception is heightened by the frequently observed fact that a media by turns ironic and self-righteously cynical has stripped politics of what Edmund Burke long ago called “the pleasing illusions” that lend public figures a measure of moral authority.

This cultural acid bath has much to do with the distinctive tone of contemporary irony. It is a truism that the credibility of what we say depends as much on who we are as on our words themselves. Particularly when a person declares a moral commitment, we must be able to believe that he is the sort of person who might be able to act by that commitment. Exhortations to chastity don’t mean much from a philanderer, nor does praise of patriotism from a quisling. Realizing this, we have long walked a crooked and not entirely fair line between honest skepticism and studied obtuseness.

Somewhere along the line, though, we adopted two ideas that together make it difficult for us to take anyone’s seriousness very seriously. Self-aware in the extreme, we are permeated by Freud’s view that “we are all ill,” that everyone’s motivations are in some measure selfish, ignoble, or neurotic. From Shakespeare to Joyce, good minds have always been able to perceive the base in the trappings of nobility; but more and more, the debunker’s language is our vocabulary of first resort.

This idea has combined with a mainly unspoken presumption, not universal but increasingly widespread, that “values” are not unchanging, impersonal standards. Instead they are intensely personal guideposts, selected because they help us to shape our lives at particular times, then are replaced as we grow and move on. According to this view, in professing a value someone does not so much acknowledge an objective demand as say something about the shape that he has given his life.

One consequence of this attitude is that someone who professes loyalty to some principle is perceived to be saying something about himself, his own strictures and aspirations, and not about the principles that he is subject to as a Christian, a Jew, or just (his view of) a human being. Thus, when a visible gap appears between his professed principles and his behavior, he is not just another sinner, or “all too human,” but a hypocrite. Hypocrisy, unlike other flaws, can be resolved by redefinition–by professing a set of values closer to one’s actions. So we increasingly take high principle to be a sign of hypocrisy or delusion, rather than acknowledgment that we are called to be better than we are.

Still, the wish to escape irony is probably mistaken–though the hope of enriching it is not. Just as we cannot live in the flatness of irony, we cannot breathe the cloying air of anti-irony. The human reserves of pompousness, self-seriousness, and the leaden earnestness that always threatens to run molten are unlikely ever to be exhausted. Among our most trustworthy weapons against them is an intelligent and resourceful irony. That irony depends on the recognition that our moral situation is tragic–that we are base and worse, even while recognizing that we should be good, and that we can keep ourselves from growing worse yet only by holding our frailty and ridiculous self-righteousness always before us. This recognition has a converse that is less bleak: Understanding that we can never be all we should be is reason not for despair but for renewed effort in a task that, even if it is doomed, is kept from futility by the fact that we pursue it. Rescuing irony from itself may prove quixotic, but one could have worse company in bad times than Twain, Swift, and Montaigne.

From the American Prospect (July/Aug. 1998). Subscriptions: $25/yr. (6 issues) from Box 383080, Cambridge, MA 02238.

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