The State of Irony


For the remainder of our time together we should probably explore your critique of irony, which, if not the core of your book, is probably the section Slate readers are most interested in. You were careful to delineate the boundaries of your critique. But I would question the degree to which American culture (including pop culture) is ironic at all. England, France: sure. I started making a list of people in my head who fit the characterization in your book and stopped short after Sandra Bernhard and Maureen Dowd. This may explain why Seinfeld becomes the lightning rod (straw man, I’d say) for your argument. I think we could have a healthy debate (maybe over at the Entertainment Weekly Web site) as to whether Seinfeld is ironic or is in fact an elegantly gloved Jedediah Purdy-esque critique of irony. In fact, the final episode (a much-underrated encapsulation of the show’s recurrent themes) has an almost Waughian valence in its savage mockery of the loss of self and soul among the cosmopolite heathen. You’ll recall that the four lead characters land in a small New England town where they witness a crime and fail to intervene. They are jailed for violating the town’s Good Samaritan law (talk about the commons!), and the show ends with the four of them in a jail cell recapitulating the dialogue from the show’s first episode, creating an absurdist Moebius strip of solipsism, emptiness, and stone-cold loserdom. Is this not like Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, stranded up the Amazon reading Dickens into eternity for the crazed Mr. Todd?