Blinded by Thrift Store Irony

Article excerpt

EVERY FEW YEARS, LIKE A drunk on a recovery kick, American culture vows to get more earnest. Back in 1989, Paul Rudnick and Kurt Andersen plumbed the "irony epidemic" in Spy magazine- even though they, and the magazine, were prime latecentury ironists in their own rights. In a post-9/11 flourish of self- regarding seriousness, Andersen's one-time Spy co-founder Graydon Carter primly announced "the end of the age of irony." And no sooner had the spiteful 2012 election cycle run its course than the online editors of the New York Times featured a much-discussed anatomy of the ironic life and its many spiritual enervations, called "How to Live Without Irony," by Christy Wampole, a professor of French literature at Princeton University.

Wampole focused mainly on the terminally self- insulating implications of the ironic style. "The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism," she argued- and the criticism-averse subjects trapped within it have adopted a near-fetal pose of immunity. "Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise," Wampole explained. "To live ironically is to hide in public."

This is a useful reminder of the wages of cultural irony - even though this, too, has been a fairly obvious objection ever since American letters began fording the narrow, snaking cul-de-sac of meta-narrative back in the 1970s or so. Still, what's most striking about our periodic jeremiads against the ironic style is the persistent misstatement of the key terms of debate. For one thing, it makes very little sense to characterize irony, strictly speaking, as a matter of self-presentation. Irony isn't about individual motives or this or that gestural conceit- which are subject to some measure of personal control- so much as external outcomes, which by definition do not concern the self.

Put another way, irony doesn't equate with whimsy, or playful misappropriations of popcult camp, or a thrift-store wardrobe; it is, far more distressingly and fundamentally, a category of spiritual disappointment - the grim yet also potentially absurd results when unintended consequences thoroughly trounce our conscious designs. …