The Backlash Against the Backlash Against Irony

The backlash against the backlash against irony has begun, and just in time. Deriding irony is now a reflex not just among the serious, such as Jedediah Purdy, the author of For Common Things, but among the ironic as well. Take Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace, who has called irony the source of “a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture.” Or former Spin editor and wit-about-town Michael Hirschorn, who, agreeing with Purdy in a SlateDialogue,” deemed irony “a comfortable perch from which we can be unserious about the environment, not to mention labor unions, third-world malnutrition, ethnic conflict, wage disparities, corporate malfeasance.” When master ironists feel the need to disparage, non-ironically, the very instinct that animates them, you know that we’ve all traveled too far down the path toward neurotic self-negation.

Hence Culturebox’s relief at the first glimmers of a countertrend–three articles and one movie defending irony in the past three weeks. The first piece was an unsigned Dec. 18 editorial in the Economist, endorsing the opinion of an essayist from the British Foreign Office who considers irony a necessary virtue in a post-colonial world: It “suggests a certain modesty about oneself, one’s values, and one’s aspirations. At least irony is unlikely to be used to justify programmes of conquest or extermination.” The second article was by critic and novelist David Gates in Newsweek, claiming in somewhat overblown newsweekly fashion that irony and ironic juxtapositions are “an inevitable response to the human condition. The original ironic juxtaposition, after all, is the spirit plunked down into the material world.” The third was Slate’s own Chatterbox, who argues for irony on the charmingly loopy ground that it is a fin de siècle condition, and that one corrective for the fin de siècle condition is, historically, the election of non-ironic presidents, whose ranks might include not just Al Gore and Bill Bradley but also the frightening Gary Bauer, Orrin Hatch, and Alan Keyes.

What unites all of these articles is a certain earnestness: Their authors are not joking (well, Chatterbox sort of is). Irony, they say, is good–good for foreign policy, good for the soul, even good for the presidency. Which brings us to Man on the Moon, a movie celebrating comedian Andy Kaufman, whose performances were ironic in the deepest sense. Sweet, gentle, and never sarcastic, Kaufman was a kind of holy fool. He refused to wink at the audience so as to let them know that his nonsense was a put-on. Wrestling irate women? Bashing the South, in the South? Being an inept and unfunny foreigner with no business on stage? Kaufman refused to reassure you that any of it was a joke. The movie has no such qualms, however. It is a conventional celebrity biopic, lionizing its subject at every possible turn, and congratulating itself for its insight. It winks nonstop. See? the movie says, See how great Andy was? See how stupid everyone else was, because they didn’t get it? See how smart we are, who do get it?

Man on the Moon is so insufferable it made Culturebox wonder whether the entire effort to defend irony nonironically, welcome though it is, is somehow doomed to fail. Does the very effort to defend irony to those impervious to its charms require you to trick it up as something it is not? After all, irony is not for anything. It has no higher purpose. It is a perspective on the world, one that takes advantage of distance and some weirdly skewed point of view to see everyday things–pomposity, convention, higher purposes, and the earnest advancement of points like this one–as ridiculous or sad or just somehow other than what they usually seem. It’s a lens that is morally neutral, deployed for evil as easily as for good. (There are philosophers who argue that the ironic sensibility is morally preferable, because it makes you aware of limitations, but Culturebox would argue that what they really mean by irony is the tragic vision of the world, not a particular trick of speech or performance.) 

Andy Kaufman would have been horrified by the implication that he was better than the people who failed to understand him, if only because that would have made him so easy to skewer. The people on whose behalf David Gates is pleading–Quentin Tarantino, Lorrie Moore, Beck–would not be happy to know that their particular slant on life expresses the universal human condition. The Economist gets a little closer to the heart of the matter when its editorialist writes, “Many people, when hearing an ironic remark, may not realize that it is meant in jest. … those who realize that an ironic remark has been made are instantly complicit, and they can enjoy the fact that there are others who have missed the joke.” In other words, irony is how the superior–presumably of class, certainly of intellect–get together and exclude the idiots. It’s funny, and it’s fun, and Culturebox, for one, couldn’t live without it. But it’s neither virtuous nor defensible.