I remember when irony first dawned on my twelve-year-old horizon. I greeted it with open arms: it helped me to demarcate myself as a new teenager—that twisty-turny pathway of development during which one becomes particularly attuned to the arbitrary and nonsensical in life, and the requisite nihilism conjured by such nonsense.
Irony and its gang (cynicism, sarcasm, eyerolls) became my friends. You could tell us apart by the t-shirts we wore featuring inside jokes from absurdist comedies or vaguely sexual vintage ads. (This was the early 2000's, after all). With irony at my side, I was equipped and emboldened to express how predictably unpredictable and seriously farcical I found life to be, and irony made me feel imbued with universal street-smarts.
But that was a few years back. By now I’m cresting my mid-twenties, and I think I’ve outgrown irony. Sometimes it’s a real drag. I regularly find myself mired in the pits of irony in almost every public forum I encounter today. You know them well: Twitter battles, asinine comments sections on blogs and articles, mudslinging on Facebook. These sorts of conversations habitually implode into a black hole of irony, out of which it seems no trace of light or meaning can escape. I crave uplifting, sincere, give-and-take conversation, and instead I find the rhetorical equivalent of curb-stomping.
I am not alone in this sentiment. Amidst the fray, countless astute observers of pop culture have taken aim at irony. Some have claimed that irony is dead, and deemed ours the era of New Sincerity, like this piece in The Atlantic from a couple of years ago calling irony utterly passé. Yet two years later, writers in Salon made the case that irony was still at large (and it must be stopped). Both articles purport to have their finger on the proverbial pulse of culture, and they are but a slim sample of the myriad of pieces out there mulling over the prevalence and value of irony. So, which is it? What's irony really up to?
Irony sure seems rampant, but perhaps my sensitivity to it further exemplifies the very trend identified by those social critics. Perhaps what's changed isn't the prevalence of irony but my own distaste for it, and maybe that distaste just means I’m part of a larger trend.
At the same time, it seems that for every upwelling of responses to a perceived coloring of cultural attitude, one could assemble enough evidence to suggest the opposite. Barring a true measure of the aggregate moods, Big Data style, it’s one word against the other as we share competing impressions of our age. If everyone could say a different thing about a moment in time, are we actually saying anything at all?
This seeming disparity between various cultural perceptions makes a lot more sense if we regard irony as having a life-force of its own—a living entity within our collective unconscious. Irony would be easily tracked and measured were it a static, fixed thing, but it isn’t. Irony is alive! Distributed and decentralized throughout our Western minds, it has a very comfortable existence as resident critic, disparaging the other parts of our selves and our society that seek meaning and crave substance.
But irony is here to stay. It’s situated in our broader culture, but also within the micro-community of our own minds. It commands the evaluative attention of editorialists with a magnetism only a living thing can generate.
Regard irony as a living thing in a living community, and we begin to see that it behaves as any alive thing might: by jockeying for power and seeking significance within its social strata, just like we do. And more importantly, view it this way and we can see that the solution to an overly ironic culture isn't to vanquish irony any more than the appropriate to a crude dinner guest is to forcefully remove them from your table. Irony just can’t be done away with because it’s not a thing.
But if irony really is dead, we should mourn its passing. After all, irony is hugely valuable. For example, cloaked in irony, certain truths can be snuck into spaces where truth is otherwise not welcome. This is why, for example, one can offer social criticism within The Onion that could never be shared outright. Mockery, sarcasm, and satire are all really good tools for sussing out certain qualities from the aether that would otherwise go unnoticed. They repeat back to the world its most absurd features, pointing out the deficiencies of our time by outlining negative spaces. So it feels a little strange to be reading cultural critics’ condemnation of irony given that irony has become such a well-honed tool for social criticism.
Yet at its best, irony describes. As good as it is at telling us where we are, irony is terrible at showing us where to go. In fact, irony looks at what is commonly regarded as inspirational or motivating and, with a roll of the eyes, dismisses it all as precious. It can’t help it—that's kind of its M.O., and it’s just not qualified to offer much more. Besides, irony has a vested interest in disparaging the sincere, because doing so means job security. When it comes generating meaning, irony is out of its depths.
The thing is, irony doesn’t have a problem—we do. We have mistaken the matter of irony gone unchecked with irony itself. If irony has some kind of persistent life-force of its own, as I like to think it does, then what is needed is for the other trammeled members of our singular and shared minds to show up and assert themselves in the form of some good-old social feedback.
Because some may say that a world full of irony is devoid of meaning and substance, but I suspect the opposite relationship—that sincerity and substance depose irony, unseating it from its authoritarian position and restoring it to its rightful place as social critic (but not king). Because irony offers commentary, but it’s sincerity that moves the world forward.