Michael Kinnucan

Looking and Wanting to Touch: Irony and Its Enemies


Till Krech, CPR masks for first-aid training, 2006, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Fear of Irony

You may recall a meme which made the rounds in the weeks after 9/11: the claim that the fall of the Twin Towers had “killed irony.” The Atlantic recently published a helpful investigation into the origins of that strange idea, but it seems to have become so ubiquitous so quickly that a definitive attribution is impossible—as though the entire commentariat had been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to sign irony’s death-warrant with the usual mixture of moralistic harangue and manifest glee.

Such unanimity demands investigation. If there’s an Urtext here, it’s Roger Rosenblatt’s distasteful editorial, published in Time on September 24, 2001, in which he purports to find a bright side to 9/11: “One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony.” According to Rosenblatt, in the decades before 9/11 we-as-a-culture believed that “nothing was real.” But no more! 9/11 was the Real Thing, the authentic encounter, the one that puts all efforts at detachment to shame:

History occurs twice, crack the wise guys quoting Marx: first as tragedy, then as farce. Who would believe such a thing except someone who has never experienced tragedy? Are you looking for something to take seriously? Begin with evil. The fact before our eyes is that a group of savage zealots took the sweet and various lives of those ordinarily traveling from place to place, ordinarily starting a day of work or—extraordinarily—coming to help and rescue others. Freedom? That real enough for you? Everything we cling to in our free and sauntering country was imperiled by the terrorists. Destruction was real; no hedging about that.

Rosenblatt’s ironist tries to escape the basic facts of life (death, destruction) but perhaps more importantly its basic values (freedom, good and evil) through some sort of amused detachment, what he calls irony. The destruction of the World Trade Center, while in many ways an unfortunate event, does have the virtue of kicking the purveyors of this effete and irresponsible attitude in the face and, as it were, screaming (in Rosenblatt’s voice, of course): “Who’s funny now, punk? Huh? Who’s laughing now?!”

But who exactly is this ironist attacked here? The answer is a strange one: Rosenblatt, the Harvard professor, best-selling author, and Time magazine columnist, blames a wicked cultural elite. It is “our chattering classes—our columnists and pop culture makers,” “the good folks in charge of America's intellectual life,” who have perpetrated this desecration of our values. The ironist is a threat not so much from within as from above: the aristocrat possessing the luxury of distance from Real Things like death and freedom.

Of course, this attack on an unnamed “elite” is standard fare among American conservatives, and has been for decades; our culture is always being undermined from within by a decadent Fifth Column of relativistic liberals, just as it is always under attack from the teeming and amoral brown masses from without. But whence the rich and deeply felt resentment for something as apparently innocuous as a sense of humor? The question is all the more pressing since it goes without saying that irony has never been the dominant force in a culture that watches Oprah religiously and turns Nick Hornby bestsellers into major motion pictures every couple of years. The idea of the ironist as omnipotent, dissolving cultural force is manifestly more hysterical projection than empirical fact. But what is the nature of this projection? What, precisely, is the threat of the ironist?

Rosenblatt’s piece offers a partial answer to this question: the ironist robs us of the pleasure of direct identification. To give oneself over entirely to the self-congratulation of freedom, the shared assault on an “evil” enemy, even the sentimentality of public, mediatized mourning: these are very great pleasures, but to appreciate them one must avoid certain forms of reflective consciousness.1 Rosenblatt’s decision to project this disidentified consciousness onto an imagined other is scarcely surprising—how else to exorcize such a threat from within? But he and the dozens of op-ed columnists who quoted him might have chosen several enemies for this purpose; the leftist intellectual, for example, always problematizing concepts like “nation” and “freedom,” might have been declared dead. Such people seem a good bit more threatening at first glance than the ironist, who after all takes nothing seriously. So why go after irony?

2. The Fantasmatic Hipster

In contemporary youth culture, the hipster is the ironic figure par excellence. But the hipster comes in two forms, and here we must make a distinction.

The empirical hipster was originally a figure of the late 1990s, geographically localized (the Lower East Side, Williamsburg) and possessed of clear cultural markers (trucker hats, suburban-cheesy T-shirts). These cultural markers have mostly gone the way of all fashions, and term has broadened to the point of uselessness as a sub-cultural marker: as an empirical category, “hipster” denotes something much closer to a class position (white, urban, lots of cultural capital but not too much cash) than a genuine cultural category. The strange history of this term, and the ways in which it has eaten or been eaten by the mainstream of youth culture, begs for investigation—but it need not concern us here.

In our pursuit of the question of irony, we must address not the empirical hipster but his double, the fantasmatic hipster—the hipster whom everyone despises, or used to despise. While the concept of the empirical hipster is nebulous to the point of evanescence, that of the fantasmatic hipster is remorselessly concrete. He is, first off, a consumer, not a creator: he appropriates the fashions of yesteryear rather than inventing his own, curates his LP collection instead of releasing mixtapes, critiques the art of the past instead of producing something new. Yet in his appropriative activity he displays no genuine admiration for the past he pilfers, not even true antiquarian zeal; his consumption is distanced, inauthentic. His relation to the cultural signifiers he adopts hovers in the ambiguous zone between identification and mockery.

The worst of it, though, is that the hipster thinks all this makes him cooler than you. His recherché cultural knowledge is a source of strange power. By the time you fall in love with a band, it’s already “over” for him; scarcely have you found a neat ethnic neighborhood when he opens a vintage boutique there. The hipster is a figure of knowledge, not love, and he always knows a bit more than you. The hipster is the person in whom knowledge has overtaken pure, unselfconscious enjoyment—pleasure has become taste, authenticity has been buried under self-aestheticization.

In one sense, the hipster is to my generation what the poser was to the punk. The poser, too, shows up late to the scene of other people’s creativity and brings nothing to it, appropriating artistic authenticity and political commitment as mere fetishized style and consumption. The poser, too, is a projection, the product of punk’s quixotic attempt to link pop music with an ethic of personal authenticity and an anti-establishment politics. Some such effort has characterized a strand of American youth culture for decades now, and when it doesn’t work out—when music culture turns out to be a kind of fashion, and fashion turns out to be a kind of consumption—the poser, the enemy from without, must take the fall.

But the politics of anti-consumerist authenticity has lost much of its power by now—its last martyr, Kurt Cobain, died of its contradictions in 1994—and the figure of the hipster portends something different. If attacks on the hipster, particularly on his lack of political engagement, hark back to punk with a certain nostalgia, the hipster as we’ve described him nevertheless portends something new—both more insidious and more interesting. The poser, after all, was always susceptible to the charge that he was a poser: he aped the authenticity of the “real” punks and had to pretend he wasn’t faking it. Hipsters are different: one can’t very well tell a hipster in a trucker hat that he isn’t “really” a trucker. That he isn’t, and knows he isn’t, and wears it anyway, is precisely what makes him a hipster.

The hipster as hated occupies a place in the psychology of his detractors strikingly homologous to that of the ironic purveyors of culture in Rosenblatt’s imagination: he is a member of a self-appointed elite which, armed with all too much knowledge, disrupts unselfconscious identification and its pleasures. And just as the supposed ironic cultural elite permits Rosenblatt to paint his refusal of critical thought as rebellion against a dominant culture, the hipster as an enemy permits “post-ironic” sentimentality to think itself daring. And in both cases, the central concept in the polemic is—irony.

3. The Continuity of Socratic Irony with that of the Hipster

What, then, is irony? Here as elsewhere an investigation of origins can help. Etymology Online provides us with the following definition:

irony : c.1500, from L. ironia, from Gk. eironeia, from eiron "dissembler," perhaps related to eirein "to speak.” Used in Greek of affected ignorance, especially that of Socrates. For nuances of usage, see humor.

Everything about this entry is suggestive, and first of all its reference to Socrates. (The very fact that to trace the origins of this word one must refer to a proper name is entirely characteristic.) Let us consider the activity of Socrates in its simplest form to see how well it accords with the definition given.

Some blowhard comes along and Socrates asks what justice is and the blowhard answers with a smirk that everyone knows what justice is, why, it’s such and such! And Socrates says something like: “How right you are, my dear friend, and how fortunate I am to have come across someone who knows all about this highest virtue! Yet I remain in the dark on one small point—do enlighten me...”

Socrates, of course, is being ironic. Why, exactly? Well, first off, his speech is in some sense deceptive, an affectation of ignorance. Socrates knows very well that this fool hasn’t a clue what justice is, and that after five or six rounds of questioning he’ll scarcely know which way is up. Socrates’ pretension to ignorance is merely a siren’s song, tempting him out onto the rocks.

But it’s a strange sort of dissemblance, because certainly no one is deceived: the Athenians knew as well as we do that Socrates’ protestations of ignorance and admiration were not to be relied on. The blowhard is being mocked from the outset and will be humiliated in the end.

Is what we have arrived at—the pretense of ignorance announcing itself as pretense, used to mock the interlocutor—an adequate definition of irony as the Platonic Socrates used it? Hardly. What we have defined, tellingly enough, is sarcasm. When you say, in response to some fool’s suggestion, “Oh, that’s a great idea—why hadn’t I thought of that?”, you’re making a pretense to ignorance whose tone shows it to be a pretense, in order to mock the one you’re addressing—and you’re being sarcastic, not ironic. You’re also being impolite. Socrates was never impolite.

How was Socrates different? The answer is clear: While he pretended to be ignorant, Socrates really didn’t know. He hadn’t a clue what justice was. This doesn’t render his speech sincere, of course: he knew a good deal more than his interlocutors, and was aware of this. But all he knew was their shared ignorance. The biting contrast which characterizes sarcasm is replaced by a more ambiguous distance. Sarcasm works by measuring out the distance between what is said (“that’s a great idea!”) and the truth (“that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”); irony works much more subtly, by measuring out the distance between here and nowhere. In sarcasm the truth is present, made manifest through its negation; in Socratic irony, the truth is absent.

The relationship between all this and trucker hats should be clear, but let me be explicit. Suppose you’re listening to Ke$ha’s hit single, “Tik Tok.” You may be listening to it sincerely, because you too brush your teeth with a bottle of Jack, though I suspect such sincere listeners are figments of the curmudgeonly cultural critic’s imagination. You may be listening to it sarcastically—mocking all the people who you imagine sincerely identify with this vision of the night life. (You self-satisfied douchebag, you.) But very likely you’re listening to it the way both I and my mother do: with an ambiguous savor of self-consciousness, a certain distance from the pleasures it describes, in short, a tad ironically. Similarly with trucker hats: you may be idealizing blue-collar culture with the grim, foolish sincerity of, say, Norman Mailer in “The White Negro,” or you may be mocking this culture from the comfortable position of class privilege. But most likely your position is harder to pin down: you sure as hell aren’t a trucker, but you aren’t exactly not one either: you desire the affinity and reference without quite making it your own.

Of course, merely wearing something you aren’t isn’t enough to render you ironic. Socrates doesn’t just say stuff he doesn’t know—that’s his interlocutors’ job. Rather, it is the consciousness of this ambiguity—the consciousness of an ambiguous distance between what one seems to be and a supposed but absent actuality—which generates the peculiar pleasures of irony. Socrates and the modern “ironic” share precisely this consciousness, and precisely this pleasure.

The difference, of course, is that Socrates is a pure case—he resolutely and continuously knows absolutely nothing, right up to the day of his death. Whereas we modern ironists—and very few of us these days fail to make use of irony one way or another—find ourselves on a gradient; we’re ironic without quite knowing nothing. Our fashions and poses are masks at times, and we know this, but we still suspect that behind the mask there’s a face.

Section 4: Fear of Irony

What is it that’s threatening about the ambiguous distance of irony? We might learn a bit about this from the fate of Socrates. It is well known that Socrates’ irony got him followers among the best of the Athenian youth, and that it also got him killed in the end. What’s easy to miss is that these two consequences stem from much the same source: the misunderstanding proper to irony.

At his trial, Socrates was accused of “refusing to recognise the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own; … [and] of corrupting the young." (This according to Xenophon.) Which is strange, when you think about it, because Socrates didn’t preach anything—least of all a new religion. In the Apology, Plato has him point this out: he was and remains ignorant. Would it not have been more natural for the Athenians to accuse him of being an atheist and a nihilist, a know-nothing cynic of the kind so ubiquitous in the Greco-Roman world?

On the contrary, no one could mistake an ironist for a cynic. Both know nothing, to be sure—but the cynic announces his position in plain words for all to see. The ironist begs the question and leaves it begging. Socrates never found out what virtue was, but he did not cease to ask: he kept his ignorance always in play. For the cynic, non-knowledge is a closed door, but Socrates held it open. This was what made him so destructive and convincing: his interlocutors were sucked toward him by the force of his ignorance, and their knowledge disappeared into the black hole behind his irony.

Given this, the accusations against him begin to make sense: the Athenians saw, quite correctly, that there was something “behind” the facade of ironic ignorance. Irony always asks the question as to what truth it veils and refers to. Innocents that they were, the Athenian people could only imagine that some new religion was at work here, could only hypostatize as a new form of knowledge what in truth was just infinite ignorance.

Socrates’ enemies were not alone in seeking something behind his mask. Alcibiades, in his ode of love and hate for Socrates in the Symposium, compares the man to a clay statue, ugly in appearance, which, when cracked open, reveals the most beautiful treasures. All his talk is faintly ridiculous, but behind it there is something else. This something else evokes in Alcibiades a lust more intense than he has felt for any other man—yet when he tries to seduce Socrates, he fails utterly. He’s driven to the lengths of making his offer explicit: he will give himself to Socrates in exchange for wisdom. To which Socrates of course replies with amused irony that if Alcibiades were right and he possessed wisdom, he’d be making a very foolish exchange (since what is sex compared to wisdom, after all?) but that Alcibiades, of course, is quite mistaken: Socrates knows nothing. This Alcibiades refuses to believe.

We begin to understand the corrosive effect of irony. Irony announces itself as a mask but refuses to confess what it is masking. Accuse it of bad faith, ill will, nihilism or emptiness: it doesn’t have much to answer, but it retains an open question. This refusal to be concrete produces a hunger for the concrete, a longing to unmask—a hunger which can take the form of love and even idolatry, as in Alcibiades’ case, but can also take the form of hatred.

Those who believed that 9/11 must surely destroy irony believed the encounter with death would show us who we really are, that terror would burn away all masks and force us (us ironists) to subscribe to the creed of Freedom. They believed in an identity and an identification which would be absolute and inescapable—and called everything else hypocrisy. To the ironist, though, every statement is a hypothesis for debate, every self-fashioning a faintly laughable choice; this politics of the undeniable self, this ethic of authenticity, is one such choice among others. I would not want to claim that the ironic position is in itself political—our society allows endless opportunities for ironic self-fashioning which leave it entirely unchanged. Irony is even the ideal position of the consumer in modern society—the person who must assemble an identity out of images purveyed in ad campaigns, who doesn’t of course believe the ads but doesn’t have much else to go on. Still, against those who seek to center a politics squarely on the true self, and would portray the absence of such a self as a form of bad faith, one really must side with the ironists.

1 The Onion captured this idea well in its headline last week, “Nation Would Rather Think About 9/11 Than Anything from Subsequent Ten Years.”

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