Ode to Irony

Okay, so it has been said before, generation this, generation that, irony, consumerism, beer commercials, over-priced underwear, we are a generation defined by irony. So it's been said before but rarely in such a way that faces up to what this means to past-present-future old us.Let me first state that there is a blurring of the line between irony and sarcasm in modern usage: both are referred to as irony in most instances. While sarcasm is a negative or censorious kind of irony, for the purposes of this essay I leave this line blurred in order to discuss the results of too heavy a reliance on an irony that leans always in the direction of sarcasm.It's difficult to view anything these days without it first being filtered through the lens of irony, and indeed the state of the world in every way cries out for this filter, a filter that enables us to distance ourselves from every difficult thing.Because irony is distance. It is "deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning" according to Webster's, "the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning" in American Heritage. But what does this mean? How can words convey the opposite of their literal meaning? In truth, they cannot, without your help -- in order for irony to succeed, you have to understand that the context demands an ironic meaning. There is no signal of grammar or punctuation to let you know that when I say, "And yes, all good things in this world will someday be yours," it is with ironic intention. You must know me or my game or the stance of the magazine you're reading in order to hear it this way.What's so bad about this? No one hates an in-joke as long as they're in. Aha! But where are you what are you in? And can you will you get out? You might say that your irony is a tool, a liberator, a key to seeing the world as it is and living through an age in which words dominate yet often say very little. But what is this tool, this liberator, doing for you?In defense of irony a friend of mine pointed out recently that irony is linked to skepticism, and skepticism is linked to tolerance, and tolerance is preferable to intolerance, so irony wins the day. But where does this end? Must I tolerate famine and political double-speak and oppression of anyone who happens not to have a lot of money because tolerance is better than intolerance? Must I be skeptical regarding social change and therefore never attempt to exact it anywhere? Irony is an autophage! Like most things, it will eat its own tail if let be.A non-native-English-speaking friend of mine moved to Berkeley from somewhere in Europe, and, when he started seeing masses of cars driving around with bumper stickers that said "Question Authority," he began to wonder to himself who these people were who thought they were the authority for all questions. He read the two-word statement as noun-noun (a person who is the authority for questions), not verb-noun (an imperative demanding that the reader question authority), and why not? There's no signal of grammar or punctuation to indicate otherwise. Isn't that ironic? Well, not exactly.When he asked me about this, I said, "Don't worry, no one around here asks or answers questions anymore. And in order to be a Question Authority, you have to be willing to ask real questions." That was my response, irony, that is always my response, and maybe my tone will ooze with irony and maybe my life will follow suit and admit nothing definite, ask no hard questions, trust in the inability of most things to live up to my expectations, and in that act, fail to demand that it be otherwise.Irony may well be a useful tool when it comes to distancing oneself from an argument and seeing many sides, but I'm speaking of something else, the blurring of another line: the line between theoretical distance and calculative, quantifiable distance. There is little incentive to care about that which is measurably separate from us in a world already so demarcated by lines and distances. You know that when I write, "We are healing the world!", it is an ironic statement, aware that we are not.This is a use of language, one of many possible. Irony, as a use of language, does not exist free-ranging in nature. The juxtaposition of a beautiful sunset with a toxic waste dump is not in itself ironic. It is your interpretation, your words that give this scene its ironic character. "I am all a-quiver at the beauty of the sunset as viewed through the steam rising off the nuclear reactor." What does it mean that such interpretation is my favorite form of humor?An overdependence on irony splinters its users in two: one half exists in a world defined by irony, a world where you say one thing and mean another, in which you can only know a thing by speaking of it in terms of what it is not. "My goal in life is to slave at a job I hate for less pay than I deserve." Your other half views the first half and recognizes the split inherent in it. You are split and aware you are split at the same time, but this awareness does not heal the split. I mean, when was the last time a sarcastic complaint brought you success, happiness and social change, or got you any closer to what you wanted in making it? (Here I am making the bold assumption that most of us want more than to annoy our employers or entertain our coworkers.) This irony has the effect of making the next move or decision difficult, or impossible, depending on a person's will to plunge headlong into the ridiculous depths of uncertainty (life). Maybe it's the idea that life is never as we expect (reorders the ironic structure, imposing on us the opposite of what we intend) that we should face up to and give thought to. Resorting always to humor is a sad indicator of our will if nothing else follows. Amongst us middle class predominately white over-educated types, it's easy enough to go either way, there's not that much at stake and not that much to lose in either action or inaction. We can leave the world as is and be pretty sure that we'll at least be able to pay our bills, maybe even afford a VCR by Christmas. That's irony. I do believe that we are drowning in it, and I am trying my best to get out of the pool.Except that I love water. Well, some call me delusional, others pragmatic (is that ironic?); all I can say is, making decisions is not difficult for me. I make 'em all the time. They don't always bring me fabulous prizes, but I'd rather tread water than drown. (read: ACTION.) You may think I'm a preacher. Or a proselytizer. Actually, I'm just trying to be a pointing finger. But that's not irony, that's synecdoche. And I am the question authority.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.