A conservative-leaning friend e-mailed yesterday in response to my first diary entry challenging the resort to irony as a way to establish urban-sophisticate bonafides. Irony, he argues, is really a form of emotional dishonesty, a flight from the truth. He’s basically right: Irony is no longer an affect; it’s a disease. For the last year, I’ve jokingly (OK, ironically, though deep down I actually mean it) told people of my quest to move into a state of post-irony. I’ve attempted, gritting my teeth all the while, to respond honestly and sincerely to questioners, to allow myself actual enjoyment at culture, people, the world around me. My former assistant Victoria, who is so ironic she doesn’t even know when she is being ironic or not, said the hip thing now is to be ecstatically joyous about everything, like, say, the Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears.
There are, as far as I can tell, two forms of post-irony. One, the Victoria path, is the pop culture analogue to faith: You simply decide you’re going to enjoy the passing carnival of flossy entertainments while willing yourself not to resort to a critical knee-jerk. The other form of post-irony, which is arguably worse than excessive irony, is embedded irony: irony that lingers on until the air-quotes become vestigial and fall off. Viz. saying “ciao” in 1987 was a quicksilver ironic jab at pose-y Reagan-era swells; saying ciao in 1999 is just meaningless. I know this because I now catch myself saying ciao so reflexively I don’t even know why I’m doing it. As Kurt Andersen’s novel so pointedly asks: Is there any difference between looking like an asshole and being an asshole?
Arguably, irony remains a sensible, intelligent response to the debasement of sincerity, the appropriation of the language of genuine sentiment for the purposes of commerce and politics. Post-irony is as much a problem of language as it is of ethics: The conservative moralizers, for example, sound like buffoons these days not only because their message is so antithetical to the current American mood, but because their language is now the exclusive domain of bad Robin Williams movies and AT&T ads.
A natural conservative response would be to accuse me of wading too deeply into the pop culture swamp. I plead guilty: Recently, we’ve begun denying ourselves and our child television (she pathetically wanders about begging for “dubtub,” her word for Teletubbies), putting in our quality time, instead, reading books and listening to NPR reports on Guatemalan basket weavers. Meanwhile, the baby engages in what we sardonically refer to as “imaginative play.” We’re trying very, very hard not to be ironic about it.