A recent New York Times “Opinionator” blog post by Christy Walpole, “How to Live Without Irony”, made the social media rounds on Facebook for me last Sunday—first with earnest posters (myself included) and then with a wave of wry criticism once we’d all calmed down a bit.
It was, for me, the return of a frustration that had previously come to a head several years back. As my classmates and I were sitting in a graduate seminar classroom waiting for the professor to arrive, someone made a joking remark about us all going out and getting stoned afterwards. An equally facetious conversation ensued about when and where and how much. Then one student broke in with this meta observation: “Or we could just talk about it and then never do it. After all, we’re grad students, that’s what we do.”
I suddenly realized that my classmate had vocalized something that had been half-consciously nagging at me for awhile: Talking was all we did. There was no doing, there was no follow through, there was no risk and no commitment. And it wasn’t only true for our faux weed smoking plans—it was hard to take any claim, no matter how weighty, too seriously. Because it was just talk, just play, just a self-aware and detached performance of our own knowingness. Real arguments during seminar discussions were few and far between—and even in the extremely rare cases that they did break out they tended to blow away quickly with no hurt feelings. After all, there’d barely been stakes to begin with.
That realization marked the first time that I felt a little nauseous over what seemed like the total triumph of the ironic mode. My return to earnestness was short-lived and relatively adolescent: I sulked about it. I read Fight Club. Short sentences that punched. Said what they meant. And used the word “fuck” a lot—because that was how sincere as fuck prose worked dammit. Of course nothing’s quite as hyper-mediated as honest raw prose performing honesty and rawness in a million citational ways.
And this brings us to the criticism that was quickly flung at Walpole’s article once we’d all settled down a bit from our brief reconversion to the importance of being earnest. Who could take seriously any author who asked us to consider the question, “Do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves?” Where is this magical clothing logos, we declared disdainfully, with its immanence and self-presencing? One Facebook commenter seemed particularly gleeful over Walpole’s denunciation of self-aware advertising, eagerly inquiring after what the hell “authentic advertising” might be. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. In fact, Walpole’s questions towards the end of her article were so naïve (not to mention the sheer ballsiness of non-ironically titling your article “How to Live Without Irony”) that it seemed to cry out for its own immolation in a fiery tumult of ironic rhetorical questions . . . which I like to imagine was the point. The article took risks—perhaps even stupid ones—to try and reclaim risk taking.
And this, I think, is the reason why its fundamental argument still stands despite the too-easy holes we can punch in it. Because Walpole’s argument is not against irony itself, which she acknowledges as a legitimate form of critique; rather, her bone to pick is with an irony that refuses to truly confront the conditions that birthed it:
It pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful. No attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself. The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism. The same goes for ironic living. Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise. To live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect, a form of subterfuge, which means etymologically to “secretly flee” (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.
How did this happen? It stems in part from the belief that this generation has little to offer in terms of culture, that everything has already been done, or that serious commitment to any belief will eventually be subsumed by an opposing belief, rendering the first laughable at best and contemptible at worst. This kind of defensive living works as a pre-emptive surrender and takes the form of reaction rather than action.
The reaction against Walpole’s article was partially due to a belief that the only rhetorical mode her critique left open was one of earnest, positive assertion. But a return to earnestness can occur within the work of negation itself—and without recourse to suspect notions of “authentic” or “pure” being that are predicated on an impossibly unmediated relationship with the world.
What would it mean if our irony started to take its implications seriously? If we looked with a keen eye at the slow but certain demise of modernity and the Enlightenment rationality that sustained it? We would not, I think, get the essentially bourgeois ease that we currently feel as we fiddle while Rome burns; we’d take a much more sobering look at the ruins. While he is admittedly a privileged example for me because of my field and research, Paul de Man’s distinctively pessimistic mode of deconstruction gives us some idea of what it would mean to undertake—in earnest—the work of negation and critique.
Take, for instance, this selection from the conclusion of “Shelley Disfigured”:
to read is to understand, to question, to know, to forget, to erase, to deface, to repeat—that is to say, the endless prosopopoeia by which the dead are made to have a face and a voice which tells the allegory of their demise and allows us to apostrophize them in our turn . . . The Triumph of Life warns us that nothing, whether deed, word, thought, or text, precedes, follows, or exists elsewhere, but only as a random event whose power, like the power of death, is due to the randomness of its occurrence. It also warns us why and how these events then have to be reintegrated in a historical and aesthetic system of recuperation that repeats itself regardless of the exposure of its fallacy. (122)
It’s an unflinching and, yes, sincere nihilism that struggles with all its might to get us to stare into the abyss. Unlike the
proverbial hipster, whose style signals his knowingness about the collapse of meaning, de Man risks actually understanding it—and that is to risk all that we have left. This is not to suggest that negation, whether ironic or earnest, is the only mode that remains available to us. There is something to be said for taking a stand over the abyss—with all the naïvety and absurdity that that requires. Something to be said for the decision to stake everything by asserting anything.
For the real enemy is neither irony, which can in certain manifestations also involve true risk, nor sincerity; rather, it’s comfort.