Life Without Irony

I was surprised at how much I liked this article on irony by Christy Wampole for the New York Times:

What would it take to overcome the cultural pull of irony? 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. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.

Here is a start: Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd? Listen to your own speech. Ask yourself: Do I communicate primarily through inside jokes and pop culture references? What percentage of my speech is meaningful? How much hyperbolic language do I use? Do I feign indifference? Look at your clothes. What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves? Do you attempt to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly? In other words, is your style an anti-style? The most important question: How would it feel to change yourself quietly, offline, without public display, from within?

Opinionator: How To Live Without Irony

I’m not sure her antidotes to irony work though… what’s wrong with wearing clothing in a particular style? What’s wrong with liking things that are absurd? Can’t nostalgia be sincere? Why shouldn’t you draw influence from historical periods that you didn’t live through?

Still, analysis of contemporary irony is spot-on, and these self-examinations are good starting points, even if you decide that dressing like a 19th century dandy is the best way to sincerely express yourself. Or whatever. (I can’t help but loop this sort of analysis of one’s own speech back to the Buddhist notion of “right speech”.)

Tangent: Wampole mentions the films of Wes Anderson as examples of a “New Sincerity” movement. I find that interesting because they don’t come across to me as sincere at all — I’ve found his work to be quite hipster-ish. But I have no idea if it’s actually sincere or not — I guess that’s part of the problem. Also: is irony such an infection that even sincere things can be shot through with irony? For example, I don’t care much for Quentin Tarintino’s films, but they strike me as very sincere in their nostalgia. I recently saw The Man With Iron Fists, directed by RZA and produced by Tarintino and it came off as a very sincere attempt at making a kung-fu movie. But while Tarintino, Rodriguez, Roth and the rest of the neo-grindhouse movement are clearly sincere in their love for this stuff, these pastiches remain immune from criticism. Lift lines and scenes from another movie? Treat women like sex objects? Fixate on torture porn? Well, why not — it’s an homage, these are the tropes of the source material — we can’t be criticized for their mistakes.


  1. Gah! No, no, no — her analysis isn’t spot-on because she fails to define her terms and thus commits a basic begging-the-question fallacy — you’d expect better from a professor. (I wish I’d seen this before the comments were closed at the NYT site.)

    Here’s the basic, philosophical problem she fails to address: To do away with irony, you have to do away with language, because language in itself is inherently ironic. How’s that?

    First, define the term: Generally, irony is rhetoric or discourse where the meaning doesn’t match the words; the referent used to convey a meaning does not line up with or is the opposite of it’s literal meaning. More specifically, when there is a gap between the way something is presented or perceived and the reality of that situation, that gap is where irony exists.

    This can be broken down into further categories, but let’s stick to the problem of language: All words in any language — in language itself are inherently ironic because the presentation of an utterance or written word refer to something else, and are themselves never the thing they refer to. The English word for tree, or the Spanish arbol, or the Albanian pemë, or the Hungarian fa, or even a picture of a tree, all generally refer to a woody plant with either leaves or needles, but none are the tree itself — there is a gap between what’s presented and the thing itself. The only way a referent cannot be ironic is if it’s about itself (which, ironically, would be fall into the trap of self-consciousness Wampole decries.)

    The problem is we can’t really know the world outside of language. Just try it. Once you’ve been infected with language, language infects everything you do and how you perceive the world. In short, the world is constructed through language.

    Mid-20th C. art and literature tried to deal with this problem through self-referential art, which was an interesting experiment, but often opaque and didn’t always convey much meaning. What that tells us is that we can’t really get far with just having referents refer to themselves; we inherently accept the ironic state within which language exists, and because of that, our world is always sitting upon a veneer of irony.

    We can’t escape irony, and the self-righteous cries against hipsterism and for sincerity ironically miss the point that what they call for can never really be achieved, only asymptotically approached. No matter how sincere someone’s speech or written words are, there will always be a gap between those referents and the things they refer to — and speakers/writers/audiences will either be aware of that gap, or fall into it.

  2. I’m still grinding my teeth about that article. Her assessment of punk and grunge — all wrong. Plenty of punk music toyed with irony — Dead Milkmen? Black Flag? Sex Pistols? Punk embraced the blues guitar styling of 1950’s rock and turned it on its head — showing that irony can still be sincere. The same goes for grunge’s relationship with both punk and 1970’s metal.

    And her claim that nature isn’t ironic — seriously? How about insects that disguise themselves as other insects for camouflage? Is that not disingenuous hiding in public? Check out this ant — er, spider — er, ant. The top image is actually a hipster spider (count the legs). Plants do something similar. Rat snakes in my region look a lot like diamondback rattlers, which makes them less likely to be messed with.

    Her byline says she focuses on 20th and 21st century French and Italian thought; has she never looked at Magritte’s The Treachery of Images?

    (…still grinding my teeth…)

  3. I agree with you about the fashion part definitely. Saying “What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype” is ignoring that all adornment is some sort of “style archetype” and what s/he’s calling a “specific style archetype” is more a deviation from the normal “specific style archetype”. A person’s clothes are, to a large extent, an homage to their gods. Not taking this into account when trying to figure out what clothes you like to wear is like not taking into account your christian upbringing when trying to find a right sexual morality. I do not find the Gods of the supply chain (Brands) to be beneficial to myself or want to live in a society that worships and sacrifices to them so I dress in a way that I find appropriate. I guess I agree though that taking various contexts from pop culture as different platonic forms to emulate and doing nothing but mixing and matching them in novel ways isn’t the best option. Instead people should dress as God intended them to dress. As Lizards.

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