Lately I have been missing irony. I wanted to write an article in which I talked to a bunch of professors about if irony would ever come back, but none of them answered my emails. This, however, gave me confidence that irony is not dead and that I could write this article by myself, with mostly my own thoughts. Thus I will explain here why we need irony, but first I will briefly discuss some recent cultural trends generally, and present a nascent cultural theory of my own.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, you may remember, irony was very big. SPY, the official magazine of the Gen-X man who was slightly smarter and better dressed than men in the general population, published in 1989 an article on an offshoot of Sontagian camp that it dubbed the “irony epidemic,” or “a way for all kinds of taboo styles to sneak past the tastefulness authorities — Don’t mind us, we’re just kidding — and then, once inside, turn serious.” Irony then was a way to never grow up, a way to avoid taking anything seriously. But it was mainly about being cool.
After 9/11, however, the aloofness of irony gave way to the performatism of what Wikipedia and numerous unpublished dissertations on David Foster Wallace (probably) call the New Sincerity, which eventually made it acceptable for Arcade Fire to be a band and for adults to have Harry Potter-themed weddings. The introduction of schema-breaking terrorism into our lives injected a hearty dose of either jingoism or anti-war pathos into whichever political philosophy one identified with. You were either with America or against it. In any case, the jaded cultural milieu that produced Seinfeld and The Simpsons no longer seemed sufficient or appropriate to tackle the era’s issues.
I would argue that both of these movements have been not so much eschewed for new cultural moods but completely absorbed — “normalized” — by society, explaining why so many men over 40 still wear Vans. We are left, then, with a national trend borne from the potent marriage of irony and sincerity, one that is pervading most forms of media. I like to call it “Urgent Earnestness,” or, for short: Urn.
Urn is not just a trend, it is a state of psychosis dictated, and facilitated, by the internet. Urn mostly happens on Twitter, but sometimes in newspapers and other times on Instagram. Urn is saying the most obvious thing (“Donald Trump is a big whiny crybaby!”) really self-righteously (“Donald Trump is a big whiny crybaby and if you don’t think so you need to reexamine your life!”) and receiving acclaim for doing so (“Donald Trump is a big whiny crybaby and if you don’t think so you need to reexamine your life!” 3.1k likes 4.5k retweets). Urn is raging about whatever garbage David Brooks has written. Urn is signing an online petition.
Urn is tweeting a photo of Trump’s baby cages but then finding out that they were Obama’s baby cages and deleting the tweet. Urn is offering an 11-tweet explanation for why you deleted that tweet (a small point: if the tweet had just been deleted with no explanation offered, it would have been ironic. But the 11-tweet explanation makes it Urnic). Urn is fueled by context collapse: an Urner thinks they are speaking in one context, but they are actually speaking to everyone, rendering whatever they are saying nonsensical or worse, stupid.
Urn can be seen offline, too. Urn is “raising awareness.” Urn is how the Women’s March was dedicated to “creating transformative change,” but how no one could say what that change was. Urn is Rachel Maddow. Urn is Jimmy Kimmel. Urn is I-love-my-curvy-wife-body-positivity. Urn is the $300 T-shirt by the brand Sacai (in collaboration with The New York Times) that says “Truth. It’s more important now thanever.”
It’s true that my analysis of Urn is undergirded by a cynicism that, I freely admit, is a regrettable and prominent facet of my personality. But I do believe that people are using Urn in order to achieve the basest of accomplishments: fame. If there is a class of thinkers that is doing very well under Urn it is the hack class, or those who take obvious and even rote concepts and thread them together in a slightly clever way to near-unanimous praise.
The worrisome thing about Urn is that it’s a trend predicated not on ideas but feelings. There are no new ideas in Urn; there are hardly any ideas at all. More annoyingly, Urn demands a consistent literacy in current-event tick-tockery that is completely useless. The fragmentation of the news cycle, itself a truly postmodern phenomenon, succeeds not in making the general populace any better informed but in making a small class of elites with a lot of free time feel like they are freedom fighters.
This is where some healthy irony would be really great. And not irony in the SPY sense, which is mostly surface, aesthetic, and crass, but some nice, detached, philosophical irony, like real philosopher men used to do before women were allowed to participate in the dialectic.
Listen to an interview with Leah Finnegan for more thoughts on irony, quitting Twitter, and the addiction of Urn on The Outline World Dispatch.
Kierkegaard anticipated a lot of our current troubles with irony, like the argument that it doesn’t accomplish anything; that it makes fun of what is happening instead of engaging seriously with it. “Irony is the infinite absolute negativity,” he wrote in his 1841 treatise, On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. “It is negativity, because it only negates; it is infinite, because it does not negate this or that phenomenon; it is absolute, because that by virtue of which it negates is a higher something that still is not. The irony establishes nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it.” Irony might not provide new ideas, but that’s not its job. Its job is to kick up shit in ideas that we’ve grown comfortable with.
Elsewhere, however, Kierkegaard nods to the intellectual value of irony. “[The ironist] knows only that the present does not match the idea… That which is coming is hidden from him.” This is why irony is the perfect remedy to Urn, not because it negates it from a static place of smug authority but because it reopens the certainties that Urn has closed off.
Irony for philosophers of yore functioned in different ways as a tool of detachment in order to provide space in which to reflect, explore subjectivity, and, ultimately, find truth (this was an evolution from Socratic irony, in which the philosopher would pretend not to know what he was talking about so other people would say things that he could then challenge. Kierkegaard theorizes that Socrates did as much without a goal in mind, he was simply game to explore controversial topics intellectually in the safe, internet-free space that he occupied, much like Jesse Singal unfortunately thinks of himself whenever he writes an article).
In a 2003 essay in The Guardian, Zoe Williams argued that the modern trouble with irony comes not from a sociocultural need for sincerity and civic engagement but from imprecision. “Pretty much everything is ironic these days. Irony is used as a synonym for cool, for cynicism, for detachment, for intelligence; it's cited as the end of civilization, as well as its salvation. Pretty much every form of culture claims to be shot through with it, even (especially) the ones that conspicuously aren’t,” she wrote.
But what the humorless souls who hanker for irony’s death rattle — those Urners who say everything is so bad right now that there is nothing to laugh about — actually want is an end to postmodernism. An end to context collapse. An end to brand tweets. A return to the neat beginning, middle, and end stories of yesteryear. Further, the actual end of irony would be a “disaster.” Williams: “Bad things will always occur, and those at fault will always attempt to cover them up with emotional and overblown language… Irony allows you to launch a challenge without being dragged into this orbit of self-regarding sentiment that you get from Tony Blair, say, when he talks about ‘fighting for what's right.’ Irony can deflate a windbag in the way that very little else can.”
I don’t have much hope for restoring irony to its Kierkegaardian luster, but it’s important to recognize that a non-aesthetic, non-idiotic, punching-up irony is not only an effective way to declaw the powerful, but even a healthy method of processing bullshit, at least healthier than tweeting “everything sucks i want to die.” But first, irony will have to grow apart from Urn. Because if Urn demands a constant knowingness and subsequent sense of outrage, irony under Urn demands making fun of those things with a kind of grating, disaffected sarcasm that behooves no one but plays very well on tHe InTeRwEbz.
The two forces, despite seemingly being in opposition, work off of each other in a never-ending feedback loop, leaving no room for time to elapse or space to form so we can reflect upon and challenge whatever it is on which we are commenting. I suppose the irony in all of this is that Urners, wanting praise and attention, are not very sincere and the ironists, in their intellectual laziness, are not very ironic at all.
Get Leah Letter in your inbox.