Via Freddie DeBoer, a good article in the NYT by Christy Wampole about irony in our culture. It’s a good article, but it kind of misuses the word “irony”. Not that it’s much of a misuse, as most everyone nowadays uses “irony” in the same way. But the truth is that irony doesn’t have to mean lack of feeling or sincerity. Greek tragedy is replete with irony, but it does not detract its emotional power. In Greek tragedies, irony means simply that the audience knows the inevitable doom that awaits the characters. But just because you know what will happen doesn’t automatically mean you lose the emotional connection to the characters.
No, what people mean when they speak of those who do things “ironically” is that they have an air of superiority. In his post, DeBoer concerns himself mainly with this attitude in the political arena. I myself fall prey to this attitude, largely because I simultaneously am interested in politics and yet very cynical about most the public relations gimmicks that pass for statesmanship. I can’t help but be a little cynical and jaded about how we go about selecting our leaders, even if it is a very important issue.
The thing about politics is that almost everyone assumes the politicians are disingenuous, and yet they still have to listen to what they say, so consequently you end up being interested and detached at the same time.
As for irony in culture and art, long-time readers know, I rail against over-explaining or predictability in books, movies, etc. I like stories that leave things to the reader to imagine. I realized recently that many people do not have the same tastes in entertainment. I think some people get a kick out of watching predictable movies, for example, because it makes them feel like they are clever because they know what’s going to happen. Personally, I am usually not a big fan of that because it is boring, but to each his or her own.
To reconcile that with what I said above about Greek tragedy, I don’t think that means knowing the story’s ending ahead of time alone means the story is designed to make the audience say to themselves “I called it!” For example, I knew how Revenge of the Sith would end, but I still found it to be a very powerful film. Everyone knew how it would end; but the point of the movie was more about the psychological drama and philosophical underpinnings than it was just watching the plot develop. But there are other films and books, etc. that use the audience knowing the outcome ahead of time simply by using old trope after old trope. And I realize now that some people find this, at some level, reassuring rather than boring.
So, irony is sometimes a means of distancing oneself, but it seems like just as often, it’s a technique used for heightening the emotional power of a story. So, for the phenomenon Wampole describes, I think that “meta” is a better word than “irony”. It’s clever, but it’s also distancing.
What’s interesting is the idea that people are so insecure that they would need this kind of distancing technique to feel better, not just in art, but in everything. Still, I think it’s dangerous to over-generalize these sorts of things, and I think the Wampole article does some of that. “Irony” is certainly a trend in internet culture, but I don’t think it’s as all-pervading as the article would have you believe.