Irony is for Suckers
January 23, 2023
“Irony used to feel like a defense against getting played,” writes the novelist Hari Kunzru, “a way for a writer to ward off received ideas and lazy thinking.” Broadly speaking, irony is the rhetorical strategy of saying one thing yet meaning another, usually the opposite. It also might be the most abused trope of our time. It’s beyond substance over style. It’s the absurd over the authentic. “It also made us feel nihilistic and defeated,” Kunzru continues. “More recently we’ve seen how it can be a screen for reactionary politics.” In the preface to his 1999 book, For Common Things, Jedidiah Purdy frames the overbearing irony of our era as a defense mechanism: "It is a fear of betrayal, disappointment, and humiliation, and a suspicion that believing, hoping, or caring too much will open us up to these." It’s an escape route, an exit strategy, a way off the hook in any situation, it’s become the dominant mode of pop culture, and we’re all tired of it.
In his book, The Comedian as Confidence Man, Will Kaufman explains the feeling, coining what he calls irony fatigue, the exhaustion of ironic distance as the promise of play collides with the pursuit of truth. He discusses the comedian Bill Hicks having to edit lines from his twelfth, unaired appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. Hicks maintained his “Warrior for Truth” persona, claiming all the while that they were “just jokes.” He didn’t mean to offend because he was just kidding. Having it both ways is perhaps impossible for a figure under public and media scrutiny, but what about your classmates? What about the coffee shop denizen? Are they for real, or are they joking? Why is everyone so veiled in irony? Princeton Professor Christy Wampole writes:
Ironic living is a first-world problem. For the relatively well educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.
Three major cultural epochs came and went in the meantime: cool became uncool, the nerds had their revenge, and stark sincerity was pushed to its breaking point. One was already faltering when the 21st century arrived. Everything that used to be cool is now remade, rebooted, or recycled. Resorting to irony is the only response that quells the cognitive dissonance of dealing with such a contradictory world. Between the death of cool and the ironic now, the geeks rose to rule all and emo culture came to the fore, the latter allowing young men to reveal their emotions. We all know the story of the geeks. Theirs was a rise to riches, an underdog having its day, but the emo kids never enjoyed such empowerment.
In America’s post-9/11 cultural climate of mourning, confusion, anger, and uncertainty, the emo subculture gained momentum as a way for young people to express and deal with their anger and uncertainty. The music and the open wounds allowed young people mourn in public. In his book Nothing Feels Good, Andy Greenwald frames emo culture as a teen phenomenon, a culture of kids who haven’t “thought the deep thoughts yet—they’re too caught up in their own private drama and they’ve found a music that privileges that very same drama—that forces no difficult questions, just bemoans the lack of answers.” Post-9/11 America might have been about forcing the difficult questions, but it was just as much about bemoaning the lack of answers, and emo made either one okay. Coming of age already leaves teenagers feeling uprooted and untethered, with no home and no sense of belonging. The feeling was only exacerbated by the events of September 11th. Now, not only were their bodies and relationships changing in unprecedented ways, but the world was doing the same thing. As Robert Pogue Harrison puts it, “Wherever the real imposes itself, it tends to dissipate the fogs of irony.” This lack of roots provides the backdrop for the mass emergence of emo culture. Emo allowed dudes to be as sappy and sincere as they wanted to be. “If we stay with the sense of loss,” Judith Butler writes, “are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear?” The feeling of being only passive and powerless is at the core of emo culture. She continues,
Or are we returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another? Could the experience of a dislocation of First World safety not condition the insight into the radically inequitable ways that corporeal vulnerability is distributed globally? To foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration is to eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way.
Where emo culture folds under the weight of affect and uncertainty, Butler urges us to follow it outward. Parks & Recreation creator Mike Schur says, “sincerity is the opposite of ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ or ‘ironic’.” All of these tribulations may seem trivial, but, as Jaron Lanier writes, “pop culture is important. It drags us all along with it; it is our shared fate. We can’t simply remain aloof.” If our pop culture is just recycling plastic pieces of the past, where it is dragging us?
Simon Reynolds draws a parallel between nostalgic record collecting and finance, “a hipster stock market based around trading in pasts, not futures,” in which a crash is inevitable: “The world economy was brought down by derivatives and bad debt; music has been depleted of meaning through derivatives and indebtedness.” After all what is emo if not punk-rock chocolate dunked in goth peanut butter? For better or more likely for worse, what emerged after emo culture was the cult of irony. In the ennui of the everyday, we no longer strive to be sincere or cool, but coldly ironic. Nostalgia for simpler times but times not taken to heart is our default stance. Filters on digital photos that make them look old represent not only longing but the undermining of that longing. It’s irony fatigue filtered in sepia and framed like a Polaroid.
Christy Wampole cites generational differences, the proliferation of psychotropic drugs, and technological connectivity as reasons for widespread irony. To live in the image of irony is to avoid risk. It means not ever having to mean. Wampole writes, “Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks.” You don’t even have to be cool, geeky or emo, but you can if you want to.
 Lifetime, “Irony is for Suckers” from Hello Bastards [LP], Wilmington, DE: Jade Tree, 1995.  https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/bret-easton-ellis-has-all-the-answers  Will Kaufmann, The Comedian as Confidence Man: Studies in Irony Fatigue, Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1997.  Christy Wampole, How to Live Without Irony. The New York Times, p. SR1. November 17, 2012: https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/how-to-live-without-irony/  Jedediah Purdy, For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today, New York: Vintage, 1999.  As Purdy put it in 1999, “They are not so much ushering in the next millennium as riding out the last.”; Ibid., p. 95.  Andy Greenwald, Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003, p.55.  Quoted in Wampole, 2012.  Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, New York: Verso, 2004, p. 30.  Ibid.  Quoted in Mike Sacks, Poking a Dead Frog, Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers, New York: Penguin, 2014, p. 38.  Jaron Lanier, Where Did the Music Go? In Paul D. Miller (Ed.), Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture (pp. 385-390), Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008, p. 385.  Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. New York: faber & faber, 2011, p. 419; see also Purdy, 1999.  Ibid., pp. 419-420.  Wampole, 2012.