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?
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.