Living Ironically: The Upshot

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.)

-Mark Linsenmayer

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.


  1. Ross says

    Irony is a cruel mistress,  and your exposition is far to straightforward,  which in itself is ironic,  where is your dual meaning?  To me irony is an scientific art form that i occasionally hit with the help of others who take my words literally and mock me for them.

    An ironic life …  A long purposeful life preocupied with the shortness and pointlessmess of an individuals existence when in reality all life is pointless / purposeful.   A life dedicated to monetising the talk of the pointlessness of materialism.   I am just grabbing at straws.

    Dogmatic philosophers who deal in certainties and make statements like there is no god without defining what god means. (who actually believe in god)

    To proclaim an attempt to live ironically when all someone is really doing is living up to a 1 dimensional philosopher lifestyle cliche.

    What is an ironic life?  Writing wannabe clever posts about irony that no one reads or cares about?  😉

  2. Ross says

    On a more serious note for me irony is the ability to hold two opposing intellectual positions at once and take the micky out of both and set up someone else to take you literally.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      That being more or less my point, so I’m not sure why you felt the need to post an obnoxious comment dissing my for trying to clarify some idea that means something to me. Wannabe clever? Thanks, Internet! 😉

      • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

        To be less glib and actually engage your point (since obviously I’m starved to talk about this, even with someone who starts off being rude, but what the hell; I may as well extend you the ironist’s desired tolerance as I’ve described it, since you’ve been good enough to read my post): asserting two contradictory positions to be true is of course not the same as being undecided between them. A veiled incoherence would clearly be self-delusional, waiting for a Socrates to uncover the contradiction, but I think irony can be intentionally used without bad faith.

        I’d be game for taking up some of your examples, but you might want to just pick one and spell out what you take to be ironic about it and how that does or doesn’t argue against my thesis. …Unless for you, irony is just a way to give unclear arguments; I hope my attempted explanations here haven’t given that impression.

        Just to tackle one of them: an atheist philosopher already has plenty of fleshed out definitions of God ready to hand to deny; it’s not necessary to come up with a precise definition, when clearly, a whole class of already culturally demarcated positions are intended to be covered by the denial. Asserting the atheist position without argument is certainly sloppy, as is arguing against a personal God or a particular Christian conception of God and then asserting the argument to cover all possible conceptions of God, but I don’t see where irony comes into it, according to the definition you’ve given or my own. It seems from your examples, you’re trying to make irony cover any kind of hypocrisy or intellectual dishonesty. Too broad.

  3. joni says

    For a fun treatment of irony in art, you can read (or better yet, listen to the author read) Steve Martin’s comic essay, “Drivel”. It’s available on iTunes on the audiobook “Pure Drivel”. Another of his essays in the same book is a dialogue between Tabloidus, Moped, Socrates, and Clueless on the subject of privacy.

  4. Ross says

    :p, My post wasnt meant to diss you or be obnoxious, ( Maybe on some deeper subconsious level it was). It was meant to be self deprecation of my own post / life. Irony is meta humour. It is humour about humour being humourous….i find it most amusing when people dont find it funny. So when people dont think what I say is funny and get insulted and take it literally on one level thats ironic because I was aiming at being darkly amusing To my understanding It needs multiple layered levels of contradiction. Why did you take my post as an ad hominem attack? Pure drivel sounds like a decently ironic name for anything to do with philosophy. Isnt Having to spell out no no I was trying to be funny and explain each step including trying to define irony itself a bit funny? I think many people take things far to literally.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Ah, my apologies then, and you provided a nice example of your own point. As WordPress calls my blog entries “Posts” and yours “Comments,” that’s what’s in my head, so I took your last dig as ripping on my post and read the attack back into the rest of your examples.

      Yes, I see you’re caught in much the same net I am, and now that that’s established, you’ve got my trust or something functionally equivalent.

  5. dmf says

    I think that we should be careful about generalizing irony in the sense that I don’t think that Douglas Coupland and Kierkegaard, or Rorty, are talking about exactly the same things. That said I do identity all of these writers with a kind of Romantic desire for things among people to go better, be kinder and gentler, but an abiding sense of the limits of human knowing/Reason/communication and social engineering, the multiple tensions and intentions always at work in any circumstance, the dangers of certainty, and perhaps a kind of gallows humor, but maybe that’s just me. Perhaps a David Foster Wallace reading might be in order down the road, especially his last novel on boredom and bureaucracies, existentialism lives!

  6. swallerstein says

    I often sense in constant irony a fear of commitment, of giving oneself wholly to some project or at least a fear of recognizing before others that commitment.

  7. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

    Yep, you guys are getting where I see this located in connection with existentialism.

    The way I’ve sketched it (which certainly isn’t the same as all uses of “irony,” and my point is not to be the language police here), the being-ambiguous part of irony is a matter of not committing, but whether that’s bad or not is entirely dependent on the context. I normally see irony as part of a chain of inquiry (or, if that word sounds too earnest and focused, let’s say “kicking around an idea”) where some worry or crazy notion makes its way into the conversation, and then, assuming that it was on topic, you follow it up with “but seriously…” and use the thing you’ve just admitted to to go on and attempt an actual explanation. (Assuming that the going on in this way is not too tedious and pedestrian to be worth the effort; in many cases, the serious point “goes without saying.)

    So, Swallerstein, I thought your letter about “the problems” with our humor on the podcast expressed a real issue (which I had already addressed directly with you when you made it) that would be interesting to throw to the group. Our reaction was initially jokey in probably exactly the way you object to (my earnest apologies if you’ve got scars from the reign of Pinochet), but the point was that it’s a difficult communication/aesthetic barrier, i.e. we can’t actually just throw in a few Chile-tailored jokes the way Jen was talking about altering her act for the troops. I thought the joke adequately made that point, and that what Dylan and Seth then had to say in addressing it adequately wrapped up the issue for our purposes in that segment. So, that absurdist joking (not only the bringing in Pinochet, but bringing in Castro, as if to say “ha, ha, isn’t it funny that we stupid Norteamericanos are so self-centered that we can barely recall the most surface-level details about important goings-on in Latin America… again, a real flaw, but one I’ve not had the motivation to deal with on a personal level, given my time commitments in investigating Ancient Greece and Early Buddhism and all that) was acknowledging your concern and the difficulty of adequately addressing it. There was a lack of commitment to actually solving it, but not in this case a fear of taking a stand.

    It sure is hard to explain these things without spelling out an example in detail, but spelling it out (just as Ross was having to explain himself) sure does feel yucky… thus the aesthetic appeal of irony as a way of not having to spell our difficult things… again, not our of fear, but our of aesthetic/stylistic considerations.

  8. swallerstein says

    Hello Mark,

    I did understand that your irony about Castro and Pinochet was playful or I would have protested very strongly. I and my family do have scars and deaths to mourn from the Pinochet regime, but I more or less did capture that you were mocking yanqui imperialism rather than endorsing it.

    I don’t know you and so my comments about commitment were not specifically directed towards you, but an observation on people in general.

    I have observed that in many people constant irony is a defense against commitment. It’s is true that commitments to any defined position always involve a limitation of sorts, perhaps even dogmatism or sectarianism, a closing off of possibilities and I think that some people fear defining themselves, limiting themselves and defend themselves against that with irony.

    Actually, constant irony may be a commitment of sorts, a commitment to irony, to being an outsider. That gets lonely.

    • dmf says

      I think that we need to be careful to distinguish between a kind of Heideggerian mood that has one in its grips and a style or pose that one can adopt or not as one chooses. And yes loneliness is one of the deeper aspects of existentialism that wrongly often gets attached to death but is better understood in terms of being a condition of our living as earthly critters and yet not-being-at-home, of living with/in the un-canny.

  9. Ross says


    Apologies for not using the word comment rather than post.   
    Wannabe clever comment was my meaning.  Is it ironic that i got the word wrong and sparked off such a response? Especially when you mention language police (i originally wrote word nazis,  which is an example of my loose grip on what people say, sloppy language use can lead to war, especially flame wars)

    I agree that irony can betray a lonely uncommital cynicism.   But at the same time im sure gregarious, commited believers in a cause can take part in an ironic joke albeit un wittingly, maybe even wittingly if they have intelligence and a sense of humour.

    Irony is a word game fractal it is recursive, reflective, reflexive and recursive.

    “Is stop being ironic” an oxymoron?

    Here is an example of irony,

    I was in a virtual world trying explain something to a young gamer and they respond with this statement,
    “I am not an moran YOU RETAR.”
    Is it ironic that I was just trying to be helpful by answering their question.  Who was the real moran?

    The fool or the fool trying to teach a fool. Both playing  a foolish game. Or maybe its the fool who gets angry at the use of the word fool.  Or maybe its the fool who writes about fools to a foolish world that doesnt really care.

    Again im not trying to single anyone out.   I think we are all a ship of fools on a quest for truth and knowlege boldly sailing the wrong way to ignorance that may turn out to be the right way.

    It is very easy to get lost in the land of mirrors that is irony.

    Better to be silent and thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt.

    Words I live by. 😉

    I love ironic moustaches, but sometimes I lose track of what they are trying to say… movember ftw!

  10. dmf says

    in my own experience being ironic isn’t a failure of commitment in the sense of not actually caring or even acting upon it’s more of a sense of the tragic/absurd aspects of trying to get complicated things done that for whatever reason bears an element of humor along with the queasy despair. One just is at a slight remove in terms of seeing the more than one simple side and so lacking the shiny-eyed faith of the “true” believer. As St. Fish corrected Rorty we can’t really have a non-believing stance on what strikes us as true (even if we are deeply historicist and aware of contingency) but we certainly can be bound by an understanding of complexity and politics. This seems related to Wittgenstein’s understanding of the limits of reason-giving to overcome deep divisions in predispositions/foundational-beliefs, and the always already gap between what ‘should’ be and what is which makes for a kind of contrast effect gestalt like my re-marking that someone’s face is like an ass.

  11. swallerstein says

    Reading the above comments, I realize that the U.S. is a much more complex society or at least one with more social and culture variables than Chile, where I live.

    With so many social and cultural variables in the air, commitment to any set of them become problematic, so to speak.

    Probably, if I lived in the U.S. (and were younger), I’d be more ironic myself.

    Maybe the worst sin in contemporary society (I’m a bit crazy today) is to be comfortable, in spiritual or
    ethical terms. Irony keeps you from getting comfortable. Bless you all.

  12. Dave says


    “Not committing” is a problem. I think we can be a little simpler about this.

    The college kid wearing a trucker hat is ironic. So is the video game “Buck Hunter” and drinking working class Pabst Blue Ribbon in a college hipster pub. What is the point of this? That this urban college kid would never hunt or drive a truck? I think he feels he’s above it. But, a trucker these days might make more money and be more successful than some Lawyers.

    The guy wearing an “Iron Maiden” shirt as irony is absurd. He himself is in a generic hipster band that isn’t going anywhere. But “Iron Maiden” in their niche and time, actually was successful at what they did. I’m not saying they were great, but they seriously believed in the Metal scene and were good at it. Why make fun of that? Why can’t the hipster reference a band he likes and wear their t-shirt?

    I doubt anything of quality will come out of referencing pop culture in an ironic way. Mark, I believe you are giving the “Ironic Generation” way too much credit. Half of them don’t even realize what the irony is about. It’s more like: Everyone else is wearing a trucker hat, so I will too mentality.

    It also adds so much confusion, very much like this thread. Committing to something would lend itself to criticism and conflict which would lead to quality IMO. Not committing but referencing kitsch pop culture leads to mediocrity IMO.

    Did “Cake” ever make a better song than the disco one they covered? It’s too easy to reference and difficult to create.

    • Kyle H says

      the hipster wearing the cap may or may not be aware of the irony. It is easy to find irony in the cyclical nature of cultural fads.

      Definitely agree that an overload of irony as seen with marketing, advertising exasperates cultural ennui. Get the irony overload in particular with apple commercials where it has been cool to be nerdy for some time now. There is directed or designed irony for advertising purposes and there seems to be outside observer seeing irony where it was not fabricated

      (a funny truth)
      “the assistant to the assistant manager”

  13. Joan says

    not sure why, but this discussion make me think of this: IMO, the whole ‘occupy’ movement is incredibly ironic, with hipster groupies that sing and chant while checking their iPhones, and fighting the po-lice, who are actually part of the so-called 99%, which actually means nothing, but is ironic in its own right….we could go round and round.

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