I had an emailer asking why I haven't written about the current Israeli campaign in Gaza, given that I wrote so much about the topic during the last such incursion. I don't have a good reason other than to say that I am utterly, utterly defeated by it, and every attempt to write about it has ended up with me giving up. Maybe sometime soon. For now, here's something with much lower stakes.
It seems, I'm sorry to say, that the irony wars might start up again. Christy Wampole, a professor at Princeton, has published a big think piece in the Times titled "How To Live Without Irony." The combination of the piece's prominent place of publication, sweeping consideration, provocative title, and well-trodden subject matter will probably make it irresistible to essayists and bloggers. (Like me!) Let's face it, for many or most of us, "How We Live Now" pieces are catnip, particularly when they present the opportunity for that particular combination of judgment of others and self-implication that many people enjoy. (Again, like me.) But that doesn't mean that I find this particular conversation enjoyable or Dr. Wampole's piece entirely satisfying.
I find the irony wars an exhausting, exhausted conversation. Irony is something specific and important, but it's also true that we have a broader concept of irony that we lack a different vocabulary for. So we tend to talk a lot about irony as a placeholder for a whole host of ills that are cultural and social and (for lack of a better term) spiritual. I do recognize a great deal of what Dr. Wampole is talking about. But irony is not really the target that she needs to hit. Irony itself is never too plentiful or too scarce. Irony is instead poorly distributed; it is too present in places where it has no business being and not present in places where it is desperately needed. Your average review at the AV Club employs irony in a place where it can have no positive effect; your average bit of Obama hagiography cries out for more. Worse still, the piece wanders into the tired territory of hipster anthropology, a subject I think most everyone has had more than enough of. The hipster discussion is a distraction; hipsterdom, while not easily definable, is still easily identifiable, and thus doesn't pose the kind of threat that a broader and vaguer sense of chosen meaninglessness does.
All that said, I do think that Dr. Wampole's piece makes a lot of observations that are just true. Perhaps obviously true, but worth saying. For one thing, she makes a point of discussing the difference in behavior between children and adults, noting correctly that children live life without irony and seem to be happier for it. She also correctly defines the constant projection of irony as a defense mechanism, a strategy to avoid risk. Both of these are the kind of annoying old nostrums that are old and annoying because they're true. But their status as cliche, whatever the reason for that status, won't do Wampole any favors. I imagine that her piece will receive a lot of pushback.
I'll show my cards. I don't think the issue is irony. I think that the issue is the cult of the trivial. And it only matters insofar as it makes people feel better or worse. I have observed that many people spend an inordinate amount of their lives devoting obsessive attention to subjects while simultaneously working to demonstrate that they don't take those subjects at all seriously. Not just that they don't take them seriously but that they couldn't possibly. This tends to be expressed in a tone that we typically identify as ironic, but I doesn't have to be, and the focus on irony misses the essential point. I think that people need a sense of narrative in their life, they need self-belief, they need to feel like their life stands for something. And I genuinely believe that the way a lot of people spend the majority of their time-- electronically mediated, participating in a constant digital conversation about whatever has captured the mass attention, and making fun of absolutely everything about it-- is just deadening of any sense of purpose or deeper meaning.
This past election season had plenty of moments that demonstrated what I'm talking about. Any major campaign event was endlessly discussed and analyzed online by people whose attention was curiously combined with an attitude of blase superiority. On Facebook or Twitter, you got dose after dose of people making fun of that on which they were obsessively focused. When you step away from it, it's bizarre; why would people spend so much time observing and commenting on events that they believe to be beneath them? What makes it especially depressing is that so much of it seems so obligatory. Whenever some notable event happens, it's like people feel that they just have to get some "clever" remark out there. They cannot let the moment pass without getting their own take in, regardless of whether that take is actually perceptive or funny. Everything seems so rehearsed, everybody seems to be going through the motions.
People tend to take my cultural criticism as deeply harsh towards the people it discusses, but the point has always been that I don't think this stuff makes people happy. And I don't mean to make this about me, but certainly, my earnestness or whatever has been one of the common criticisms since I started this blog. But earnestness itself has never been the point, not for its own sake. If I appear earnest it's only in service to living in a way that I find worth living. That's not a defense against criticism of the content of my beliefs. It's just a statement of the value of belief. It may be because of the idiosyncrasies of my biography, but I have never understood complaints about a lack of meaning or purpose in life. I know what it's like to feel ridiculed or ridiculous. I know what it's like to feel powerless. And I know what it's like to feel hopeless. But lacking purpose, self-possession, meaning-- never. Many people, including some of my critics, suffer because they don't stand for anything.
If I felt that the urge to trivialize everything didn't have emotional consequences, if I felt that people could spend so much time demonstrating superiority to the subjects that they obsess over without issue, I wouldn't care. What difference would it make? Tell jokes, be clever, amuse the crowd, knock yourself out. But I suspect that this behavior actually makes people feel deeply unhappy. Devote your life to the trivial and you end up feeling as though your life itself is trivial. What do you expect?
I don't know what a culture's ethos is, beyond its expression in particular behaviors. And I don't know what spiritual death or cultural exhaustion are beyond their consequences for human life. We have enough problems without mistaking irony as some sort of stain on our social character independent of how it makes people feel. But that's where I find common cause with Dr. Wampole and others who decry this age of irony, whether that's the right term or not: I am against it because it makes people unhappy, deeply unhappy, and yet so many of them seem afraid to try anything else. So many people I know seem hostage to their own self-defense.
Update: Oh, and-- Wampole's real failing is in thinking that argument could change this. The most inevitable consequence of her piece were people on Twitter bashing her piece, and sounding very, very threatened in doing so. The immediacy of the agreement to trivialize anything-- I'm not taking this thing seriously, you don't take it seriously, too-- it's more powerful than mere words.