What’s Ironic About That? Or why I don’t know what to think is exactly how to start to think. Or the most earnest discussion of earnestness with a twist.


About a year and a half or two ago, back when I thought the only real debate to be had in our time was over religion, I came across a video on that YouTube. In the video the writer and fatwa holder Salmon Rushdie was talking with the journalist and antitheist Christopher Hitchens. Which was nice to watch. In the question section Hitchens was asked what he would most gladly give up his life for? His answer, to the surprise of the audience, was irony… he went on to justify the position in the most elegant of terms (terms I would love to quote but I cant seem to find the video so…). The sentiment expressed, although this is half remembered, I believe championed the freedom of expression offered in the device that allows for the kind of breadth of discussion not available if you are not able to talk across purposes. It is more than mere obfuscation, it offers up improbable new angles on any issue, providing precise criticism backhanded praise, more accurately describing human experience than nearly any other device.  And he’s right… but there are of course problems… starting from when and where we live.

When, is more than 40 year after 1968 and where, is the west. Now I am not nostalgically harking for the ‘simple’ past nor am I claiming in a condescending postcolonial way an understanding of the prescience of eastern wisdom, rather looking at problems I have experienced in a particular culture of which I am a part. Hitchens often likes to ignore this problem[1] but after 1968 the west became saturated in poststructuralism, which after forty years of stewing has stagnated to the extent that irony has been coopted and disabled by the very people it was traditionally used to defeat, whilst numbing those who would have cared to an apathetic miasma. We are paralyzed when it comes to making something of value as opposed to something profitable. We have umpteen ways of making something that’s profitable and no longer any understanding the value of anything[2].

This problem is, as most things are, expressed better by the late author and genius  Foster Wallace this extract is from a BBC radio documentary broadcast shortly after his death. When speaking about the concerns of writers in the 1990s,

‘…we are afraid of being trite, we’re afraid of being sentimental, we’re afraid of being mawkish, we’re afraid of being stale and formulaic, unless, we are stale and formulaic in a way that pokes fun at its stale and formulaic qualities. I mean we have been taught so much both by the lessons of television and the saturation of television what are the things to be afraid of… and one of the big reasons why irony, which has become the mode of discourse in the culture for the last thirty years, has ceased to be palliative or helpful is that irony is this marvelous carapace, that I can use to shield myself from seeming to you to be naïve or sentimental or to buy the lush banalities that television gives. If I show you that I believe that we are both bastards and that there is no point to anything and that I was last naïve at about age six the I protect my self from your judgment of the worst possible flaw in me sentimentality and naiveté.’      

When Wallace said this in the mid to late 1990s irony was reaching the peak of what could still be referred to as postmodern, and now we lack (to the extent that I am aware [which is admittedly not enough]) a framework of understanding for contemporary experience. All the problems Wallace[3] describes above are still going on and if anything are currently worse given the developments in access and media (not harking back just noticing). What can anyone produce as valuable when we are expected to think (this is a bit of a dated reference but it is the clearest way to talk about this thing) an advert for chocolate is an ironic comment on what advert is[4]… Or for a bit more currency the Virgin Media advert where Usain Bolt pretends (with a minimum of effort) to be Richard Branson[5].  I mean what the hell… Well what can you use irony for if the main way people understand it is to sell things? The only thing that it seems is left is to revert back to absolute sincerity but I am afraid that might not be good enough

My friend the drunken scoundrel and thoroughly honorable human being Matthew linked me to an article I assume he must have read at university (I don’t know I didn’t ask) entitled ‘Sociology and the Irony Model’ by the philosopher and person I know little about Edmond Wright.  The article was written in 1978 so not long enough into the stewing as to be able to utterly defeat any view of opportunity for originality and it’s a good read.  He essential call for a sense of balance between the limiting ‘objectivity’ displayed by modernist and the solipsistic excesses of poststructuralists lost in the mires of ironic interpretation. He suggest that understanding and awareness are what allows us to use irony in a positive way,

It’s a theory of misunderstanding and understanding, of falsity as well as truth. What is more, it warns the rebel against pretending that his private meaning is the only possible interpretation and the conformist against pretending that all that matters is ‘fact’ and ‘public agreement’ by the very same admonition: what is implicit for each cannot all be explicit for both’    

But what does any of this have to do with music et al. Really it’s about all art, (I consider music art which can be an unfashionable attitude I know) and art’s relationship to what irony has become very different to a traditional understanding of the relationship. It would be good if we could learn the lessons of the years of stagnation and work out something that doesn’t offend our desire to seem cool or detached while still allowing us to make some something that is worthwhile.

Gosh that one just went on and on…wasn’t really clear how to say it… will probably need to have another go…


[1]Obviously he doesn’t as his chapter in Why Orwell Matters  ‘Deconstructing the post-modernists: Orwell and Transparency’ he does engage with all this stuff but seems to resent having to.

[2] This isn’t a high/low art thing that I’m talking about here. That has always seemed like a shortsighted bigoted way of understand the idea of value in art.  It’s more about the old art/entertainment chestnut again. Is the content more for your money and time or are you ‘meant’ (contentious I know) to take more that a half forgotten memory from it.* *To anyone who links this to the up coming passage well done (I am ashamed to admit I am only recently able to get the reference myself).

[3]I know Wallace also wrote a great deal on the subject of those who sneer about the entertainment media while consuming it and I am writing with that in mind even if it doesn’t quite come across.

[4]That gorilla Phill Collins thing for Cadbury’s.

[5] I first saw this sort of surreal thing on ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’ when Hugh Laurie introduces the special guest Michael Jackson and out walks Stephen Fry* dressed as Stephen Fry which is hilarious. But if an advert can do this sort of thing what’s left for people who want to make things that don’t sell but aren’t heartbreakingly earnest. *Also what a crazy whore for ad money S. Fry has become…


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