With a few comments on my last post to spur me on, here are some hopefully final thoughts on the ironic life for the moment.
Irony is one of the characteristic social modes for Americans of at least the Generation X (that would be mine, i.e. 40ish) and younger. I can’t speak for how pervasive it is demographically in terms of race, class, or education: I certainly read R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” ironically.
While irony is generally interpreted as being the same as sarcasm, or satire, I saw something different in, say, South Park’s portrayal of Al Gore, which is so silly that I can’t see it as an actual criticism of global warming alarmism. Instead, it just uses our familiarity with this phenomenon as a premise for something comic. This is also my reading of Sacha Baron Cohen’s social commentary and Howard Stern’s arrogance. As detailed in my first post on this, I see in these examples some suspension of judgment on the part of the perpetrators: if it’s a commentary, it’s an ambiguous one, rooted in some recognition of the absurd.
What are the social and psychological affects of this phenomenon? Is it overall a good or bad thing? These are huge questions, and I don’t think I can do them justice here, but let me make a few points:
Irony as a language game shared between someone expressing irony and people who understand it amounts to giving the ironist the benefit of the doubt. “Look, Jokey Joe, I recognize without your having to prove it that you are in fact a smart, thoughtful, and kind person, so that if you say something obnoxious, I will do my best to understand it as a comment on absurdity.” I feel like sometimes I should be wearing a T-shirt that says something to that effect on it. If you can (in certain social situations, at least; this is a little too much to expect of people in the workplace, for example) participate in an irony-strewn relationship, or group of friends, or subculture of this sort, it’s tremendously freeing, in that you can explore any kind of aesthetic notion or intellectual idea without fear of being condemned. You can wear an ironic mustache, you can listen to music that your intellectual faculties tell you is crap, you can make dumb jokes and indulge all of your “guilty pleasures” without shame. I think of this as largely a good thing socially, because as an uncool person (as permanently determined in middle school), I can’t get myself to care about actual fashions of any sort, which just annoy and frustrate me, so irony is a way of saying “screw you” to people’s carefully guarded standards, and if that, for instance, enables actual middle-school dweebs or other socially downtrodden sorts to let their freak flags fly, then I’m all for it: the nerd revolution in America has been successful.
Of course, the social is always more complex than that; ironic patterns become detached from their innovators to become new, oppressive fashions, etc., but I’m not going to worry about that here: overall, irony has been a social boon, contributing to the breakdown of pretentiousness that pervades more traditional, class-ossified societies. Whether or not that leaves a moral vacuum or something is a concern we can leave to MacIntyre and his ilk. Is irony good or bad psychologically? I claim that it’s a tool, and can be used either as an adventurous way to explore new ideas or as a way to avoid looking at your own motivations enough to take a stand. If you speak nothing but irony, you’re probably not actually saying very much; if just “putting out” these ideas is not yielding some insight, or humor, or any other benefit, then maybe it’s a habit you should curtail a bit. Also, be careful with the ironic racism; you may think you’re just joking about the fact that other people are racist, but it’s thorny. A hetero dude can’t perform ironic fellatio; it just doesn’t work like that. If you’re listening to the Back Street Boys while dismissing them as crap often enough, then you’ve got some cognitive dissonance you should come to terms with. In short (and this is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night), “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
At the same time, the “partially examined” part of our podcast’s credo is all about the limits of self-knowledge, not just re. what it’s possible to know about ourselves, but how much effort and consistency we really should put into this self-knowledge. Is having cognitive dissonance about your musical tastes really so bad? If you go to church in some sense ironically, maybe that works well for you. Psychological self-regulation is a delicate dance, and I don’t pretend to have all the steps down. Clearly, though, the ironic life, like any life, will mean that you’re doing things that you don’t fully understand, and I would call a recognition of the absurdity of this (i.e. which is, again, what living ironically amounts to) a step down the road to Enlightenment. (And yes, the use of that last word with its capital letter is itself irony; I have no idea whether there is such a thing or not.)
Image note: The iron picture above is from an article called “The Irony Habit” in the Oxonian Review by Tom Cutterham, which brings Rorty and Kierkegaard into this, so check it out.