Essay: Age of Irony

The dictum that historic events occur twice—first as tragedy, then as farce—has never been much use except as an insult to alleged second-timers. More and more, though, it is true of popular culture. For about six years now, beginning with the Saturday Night Live-inspired movie Wayne's World, programmers and screenwriters have turned their own archives into a satiric resource. Wayne's World was a pastiche of pop culture, mostly of 1970s vintage, in which heavy metal lyrics blended with stock characters and catch phrases from sitcoms and cartoons. Several years later, MTV presented Beavis and Butt-head, a cartoon whose eponymous anti-heroes spend their time watching MTV—and mercilessly mocking its melodramatic, oversexed videos. Now, from comedies to commercials, viewers are invited to join TV programmers in celebrating just how much more clever they are than TV programmers. Everyone is in on the joke, which is not at anybody's expense, but at the expense of the very idea that anyone would take the whole thing seriously.

This adamant species of irony is everywhere. Jerry Seinfeld, whose retirement from NBC's situation comedy rotation made the front page of the New York Times, is irony incarnate. Autonomous by virtue of his detachment, disloyal in a manner too vague to be mistaken for treachery, he is matchlessly discerning of the shifting surfaces whose creature he is. In the news media, his corresponding figure is Maureen Dowd, the youngest writer for the Times op-ed page. Her trick is to present political commentary as whimsical society columnry: everyone is trying to look good, no one in his right mind is treating it all quite seriously, and the devil (in the person of Ms. Dowd) will take the ham-handed or heavy-footed. In a time when media mavens are routinely accused of cynicism, Dowd helps us to see that this is not exactly right. The cynic stays at home and denounces party-goers. The ironist sees through everyone, too, but she goes to the party and, while refusing to be quite of it, gets off the best line of the evening.

This is not just something we watch; it is something we do. Irony is one of the prevalent personal styles, and something of a marker for the generation under 35. Although there is nothing so simple as a culture—or even a subculture—of irony, the attitude forms one of the most prominent strands of our thought and behavior. The ironic individual is a bit like Seinfeld without a script: at ease in banter, rich in allusion, and almost debilitatingly self-aware. The implications of her words are always present to her. Like the motifs of Wayne's World, our phrases are caught up in webs that we did not weave, from their history on The Brady Bunch to the President's recent use of them to their role in Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul or Marianne Williams's Course in Miracles. (Just try to say "I feel your pain" in earnest tones, and see if you don't feel like never using earnest tones again.) Faced with a choice between cliché and silence, the ironist in more earnest moments offers strings of disclaimers, sometimes explicit, more often conveyed in gesture or tone, insisting on the inadequacy of her sentences even as she relies on them. In lighter moods she revels in cliché, creating the oft-reported impression that today's youthful conversation is an amalgam of pop-culture references, snatches of old song lyrics, and bursts of laughter at what would otherwise seem the most solemn moments.


Irony does not stand alone. It is a way of passing judgment—or placing bets—on what kinds of hope the world will support. Jerry Seinfeld's stance resists disappointment by refusing to identify strongly with any project, relationship, or aspiration. We may not vote with Maureen Dowd, but if we take her attitude toward politics, we will never feel betrayed. When we are ironists, we would rather watch the wheel than put down chips. What are we so shy of?

We surely mistrust our own capacity to bear disappointment. So far as we are ironists, we are determined not to be made suckers. We will not be caught out having staked a good part of our all on a false hope—personal, political, or both. This is a generation accustomed to seeing its immediate predecessor as a bit naive, a bit irresponsible, and often a bit blameworthy for those foibles. Douglas Coupland, the author who coined the term "Generation X," presents his protagonists' parents as clueless at best, wild-eyed and acid-scarred at worst—all victims of an innocence that our ironists are determined not to revisit. Recent polls showing that college freshmen have fewer grand hopes and more drive to make money than ever in memory show less the grand avidity of Gordon Gecko than a weary suspicion that nothing else is worth the risk.

The ironic stance also doubts the depth of human relationships. Management guru Tom Peters urges the young and ambitious to "brand" themselves, to advance their lives as they would market a new product. "Starting today," Peters writes, "you're every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop" [see "How Low Can You Go?" TAP, March-April 1998]. We should make ourselves distinctive, keep our target audience in view, and not forget the bottom line. Marketing becomes a form of life. And just as we are too savvy to take commercials seriously, so we cannot attach ourselves too closely to people who we know are peddling themselves, and whose loyalties are the salesman's rather than the friend's.

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Peters's advice chimes eerily with the contemporary mood. There is a suspicion afoot that marketing is not a bad metaphor for what most of us do, most of the time. Doubting the depth of relationships comes with doubting the depth of personalities, and we are skeptical of the idea that people have anything like a "core self," a bedrock of character and belief where, if we can just reach it, we can stand with confidence. Instead, we more and more suppose that we are quantum selves—just spin, all the way down. Among the things that the savvy know better than to take too seriously are people—inasmuch as they ask to be taken seriously. In this view, irony is not a cop-out from deeper risks and relationships, but the only honest attitude.

For all its ready laughter, the ironic mood is secretly sad. Tom Peters's doctrine has rather grand predecessors, notably Oscar Wilde, who declared, "The first rule of life is to be as artificial as possible. No one has yet discovered what the second rule is." But Wilde drew from wells that are now mostly dry. Despite his talk of artificiality, he was in some measure a romantic who believed that he displayed his true identity by flouting convention; his was not exactly a quantum self. Moreover, his eccentricities had the charge and thrill of dramatic dissent in a conventional era. Now, as cultural commentators ceaselessly observe, the fashions of dissent are on sale at specialty boutiques. Between Madonna and the fistfight between Jesus and Santa Claus that opened the cartoon series South Park, there is less and less left in convention whose flouting can elicit shock. A culture without pieties is as flat as one whose piousness is unleavened by irony. The ironic stance invites us to be self-absorbed, but in selves that we cannot believe to be especially interesting or significant. And so, despite our assiduous efforts to defend ourselves from disappointment, a quiet, pervasive sense of it is abroad.


Irony is no unmixed blight; perhaps it need not be a blight at all. Refusing to take oneself too seriously is one of the great moral accomplishments. For centuries, it has consistently been a friend of the humane spirit.

After the classical world, the founding ironist was the Renaissance Frenchman Michel de Montaigne, also the creator of the essay in its modern form. Writing in a Europe torn apart by religious wars following the Protestant Reformation, Montaigne saw high-mindedness and self-righteousness as sources of hatred and bloodshed. Against a violent cacophony of competing truths, he blended Christian humility, Socratic skepticism, and the earthy humor of classical figures like Aristophanes in devising an attitude whose dictum, famously inscribed on the ceiling of his private library, read "I reserve judgment." Montaigne never tired of mocking prigs and perfectionists, of soberly evoking the violence that their self-certainty issued in, or, lest he become too comfortable in the role of scourge, making light of his own claims to
be more than a soft-hearted, scatterbrained, and idiosyncratic observer of his world.

This is a lightness that is subtly aware of its moral weight. Irony is the great weapon against arrogance and cant, the sources of much bad. In Montaigne's tradition followed great satirists like Jonathan Swift and hard-nosed debunkers like Samuel Johnson. America has benefited from a particularly rich vein of irony. Benjamin Franklin shaped his character in just the manner that Peters urges, crafting his speech and manner to make himself an exemplary public man, and did us all a favor by the effort. Before Thoreau became our exemplar of woodsy self-reliance, he was one of America's great ironists—always serious in his ultimate purpose, but quick to strip away pretense and delusion. Mark Twain could be devastating in his irony, as could Will Rogers in this century. Twain, Thoreau, and Montaigne himself all wrestled with misanthropy, the occupational hazard of students of human self-importance and presumption; but all were, in their effect if not always in their sentiments, friends of decency, enemies of cruelty and irresponsible power.

Our contemporary irony has some of these qualities—notably in The Simpsons and Michael Moore's slack-jawed yet incisive interviews. Our irony is a response partly to the proliferation of cant in private life, where emotions have come to attract relentless and often unmeaning concern in recent decades, and to the confessional culture of talk shows that make that concern unabashedly public. The young ironist rightly feels that that sincerity is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Today's irony also reacts to a curious conjunction in public life between the rhetoric of evangelical revival and the behavior of low vaudeville: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker sometimes seem to have formed the mold for the public figures of the past decade. This perception is heightened by the frequently observed fact that a media by turns ironic and self-righteously cynical has stripped politics of what Edmund Burke long ago called "the pleasing illusions" that lend public figures a measure of moral authority.

This cultural acid bath has much to do with the distinctive tone of contemporary irony. It is a truism that the credibility of what we say depends as much on who we are as on our words themselves. Particularly, when a person declares a moral commitment, we must be able to believe that he is the sort of person who might be able to act by that commitment. Exhortations to chastity don't mean much from a philanderer, nor does praise of patriotism from a quisling. Realizing this, we have long walked a crooked and not entirely fair line between honest skepticism and studied obtuseness. We don't listen to the sermons of the neighborhood drunk, but neither do we demand to know everything about the minister's emotional life and private tippling. Everyone now knows that the moral authority that John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., exercised rested partly on the public's not knowing the details of their private lives, and most people will grant that ignorance did the country some good.

Somewhere along the line, though, we adopted two ideas that together make it difficult for us to take anyone's seriousness very seriously. Self-aware in the extreme, we are permeated by Freud's view that "we are all ill," that everyone's motivations are in some measure selfish, ignoble, or neurotic. From Shakespeare to Joyce, good minds have always been able to perceive the base in the trappings of nobility; but more and more, the debunker's language is our vocabulary of first resort. Today's young people are adept with phrases that reduce personality to symptoms, among them "passive aggressive," "repressed," and "depressive." It is revealing that anyone who regards his own standards a little too reverently is likely to be labeled not "proud"—hardly a compliment for most of our history—but "anal." We all have it in the back of our minds that our behavior is subject to psychologizing interpretation, and that we, creatures of multiple and obscure motive that we are, cannot protest our integrity in response.

This idea has combined with a mainly unspoken presumption, not universal but increasingly widespread, that "values" are not unchanging, impersonal standards. Instead they are intensely personal guideposts, selected because they help us to shape our lives at particular times, then replaced as we grow and move on. It is surely one of the reasons that divorce has become so frequent and accepted—and a reason that many see good cause to honor, if not exactly to celebrate—that we are more inclined than ever before to say that "people's values change," and that new projects discovered in midlife may simply carry people onto irreconcilable paths. On this view, in professing a value someone does not so much acknowledge an objective de mand as say something about the shape that he has given his life. It is now common even to hear religion discussed in these terms; if there is a meaningful distinction between religion and the fashionably vague "spirituality," it is that the shape and content of spirituality are almost exclusively personal. All of this means that "values" are more descriptive than prescriptive. Just as economists take our choices to be "preference-revealing," show ing what we really want, so we more and more take our actions to reveal what we really value.

One consequence of this attitude is that someone who professes loyalty to some principle is perceived to be saying something about himself, his own strictures and aspirations, and not about the principles that he is subject to as a Christian, a Jew, or just (his view of) a human being. This means that, when a visible gap appears between his professed principles and his behavior, he is not just another sinner, or "all too human," but a hypocrite. Hypocrisy, unlike other flaws, can be resolved by redefinition—by professing a set of values closer to one's actions. So we increasingly take high principle to be a sign of hypocrisy or delusion, rather than acknowledgment that we are called to be better than we are. We are all ill, and pretending otherwise—what aiming to be more than all this is routinely taken to signify—is to invite debunking. The morally flat, criticism-proof Woody Allen exemplifies this stance, albeit nearly by caricature. In a sense, our being human has become a strong argument against our cleaving to demanding values or respecting them in others. In contrast to, say, the Christian tradition, in which human sinfulness is intricately interwoven with the obligation to struggle against sin, this is a flat picture of morality. Contemporary irony takes some of its distinctive lassitude from this picture.


Irony does not reign everywhere; it cannot be properly said to reign at all. Although its idiom is recognizable in most places, its great prominence is among media-savvy young people and elites. Most people—even most within those groups—move between irony and seriousness as their settings and projects change. However, it is powerful enough to have inspired clusters of cultural backlash. Especially among the wealthy and educated, visible minorities of young people commit themselves to subcultures whose practices supplant irony with intense sincerity. Particularly on the West Coast, a small but growing population professes "deep ecology," a more or less explicitly religious movement that offers moral anchoring in honoring and tending to the natural world. In the same vein, an idyllic view of direct, sincere, and generous community attracted tens of thousands of suburban young people and college students to the community of "Deadheads" surrounding the roots—rock band the Grateful Dead until band leader Jerry Garcia's death in 1995. The more conventionally minded may find themselves drawn to Michael Lerner's "politics of meaning" or to the new syncretic spiritualists like Williams and Moore.

The search for relief from irony has also given new life to the old cultural habit of primitivism, the belief that unsophisticated folk enjoy a rich, immediate kind of experience from which the worldly are barred. Having visited Polynesia in the nineteenth century and American blacks in much of this one, primitivism has now settled on poor whites, and especially their children—unsophistication within unsophistication. Ireland and the American South have gotten by far the greatest attention, in works like Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, and Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. Real experience, like real moral conviction, comes to seem the province of the earthy and unworldly.

All of this touches, obliquely, on politics. In drawing these connections, one is always on treacherous ground. Bob Dole's 1996 praise of Independence Day, like his earlier attacks on Hollywood, went wrong in imagining that the content of movies is something like the content of campaign platforms. Instead, movies and other cultural events have their own programs, whose relation to politics is ancillary. Pulp Fiction did not so much endorse violence and drug use, or even desensitize its viewers to these, as confront us with our own callousness in the most severe way possible: by making horror exhilarating. Independence Day had a more straightforward program: showing more and bigger explosions than any earlier movie—a distinctly American ambition, perhaps, but hardly the cut-and-dried patriotism that candidate Dole professed to find between the frames.

However, any popular turn of mind will find reflection in politics. The ironist is inhospitable to ambitious reforms, not so much because he perceives them cynically as because their dependence on high moral ambition and trust in institutions strikes him as jejune. In the same manner, the ironist checkout clerk at Wal-Mart is perhaps the employee least likely to respond to a union organizing drive, with its intrinsic requirement that the newly organized trust the integrity and courage of their fellows; the ironist is not made to resolve prisoner's dilemmas, much less to achieve solidarity. Indeed, irony tends to discourage civic involvement of all sorts. From local school boards to congressional campaigns, politics means taking public stands, throwing in one's lot with a standard-bearer, and constantly risking being caught out as a hypocrite, a sucker, or a naive minority of one. Unhappy experiences for anyone, these are anathema to the contemporary ironist. The genial libertarianism of former Massachusetts Governor William Weld is perhaps the ironic politics par excellence.

Also interesting to politics is the question of what might come after irony. Two episodes from history suggest widely divergent possibilities. The proto-Germany of the early nineteenth century experienced the breakdown of the Hegelian system that had organized all the history of ideas and culture to culminate in an idealized version of the Prussian state. In the wake of Hegel, cultured individuals experienced what was called "epigonal consciousness," a sense that past and present had alike lost their significance and that whatever came afterward would be a rearrangement of scraps arbitrarily gathered from perished cultures and institutions. Out of this stagnant setting came Karl Marx, who, seeing history as exhausted, developed a theory in which history would abolish itself, ushering in an era of perfect freedom uncluttered by the pointless historical residue that drove his fellow epigones to irony.

A century later, in an interwar Weimar Republic whose humanism was widely perceived as sterile and effete and whose politics was often fatuous, young Germans reacted against their rulers in what historian Peter Gay has called "the wish for wholeness." In romantic and nationalist poetry and literature, and in outdoors clubs whose celebration of the native soil sometimes verged on a peculiarly Teutonic pantheism, the country's youth worked to set irony aside.

The consequences of both movements are notorious, and it would be indecent and fruitless to invoke them against our contemporaries. They do, though, throw into stark relief some of the chief routes of escape from irony. The aspiration to an absolute freedom that will leave the tired old culture behind thrives among the would-be world makers of Wired magazine, who imagine that each person might eventually become an electronic universe unto himself. Deep ecologists, some communitarians, and other romantics seek the "flight from freedom" that Gay describes. Less exotic but more influential, the Christian right does not so much flee freedom as seek to bar it at the door of home and school.

All of this suggests that the wish to escape irony is probably mistaken—but that the hope of enriching it is not. Just as we cannot live in the flatness of irony, we cannot breathe the cloying air of anti-irony. The human reserves of pompousness, self-seriousness, and the leaden earnestness that always threatens to run molten are unlikely ever to be exhausted. Among our most trustworthy weapons against them is an intelligent and resourceful irony. That irony depends on the recognition that our moral situation is tragic—that we are base and worse even while recognizing that we should be good, and that we can keep ourselves from growing worse yet only by holding our frailty and ridiculous self-righteousness always before us. This recognition has a converse that is less bleak: understanding that we can never be all we should is reason not for despair but for renewed effort in a task that, even if doomed, is kept from futility by the fact of its pursuit. Rescuing irony from itself may prove quixotic, but one could have worse company in bad times than Twain, Swift, and Montaigne.

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