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Oh, the Irony!

Irony is one thing I just can’t quit

By Courtney A. Fiske

My predilection for irony began innocently enough, with the occasional air quote and misanthropic remark. This occurred around the same time that Britney began conspicuously consuming Cheetos and Christina transitioned from blonde to black. My childhood icons flabby and fallen, general snark progressed to full-blown cynicism. Ironic comments evolved from a sporadic indulgence to a conversational a priori, while imagined acts of ironic consumption—monogrammed sweatpants, Lunchables, fresh-frozen anything—offered daily diversions. I lost the ability to communicate with the overly-literal. I cringed when others failed to grasp the incongruity of their actions. Eventually, even my choice of emoticons inclined toward the ironic, the wink always seeming more apt than either smile or frown.

After attempting to ironically watch “Jersey Shore,” I knew that I had hit bottom. The “so bad, it’s good” mantra could only excuse so much. This was the apogee of cultural awfulness—a show so brazenly self-parodying that it begged to taken in jest. Yet, unlike Samuel Jackson’s clenched stare in “Snakes on a Plane,” this concentrated camp was decidedly not fun. Fist-pumps, spray-tans, hair-poufs: The fruit was absurdly low-hanging. The joke was too obvious to admit irony; condescension, too easy to be worthwhile.

This realization—that ironic detachment could not compensate for the stalest of kitsch—proved problematic. Irony was fun, but it hardly served a higher purpose. Did I really want to pass my days studying Guidos in hopes of the chance to ironize later? Routinely taking a hatchet to a fly felt like overkill; what’s more, it smacked of elitism. Weren’t there more productive things to do than hate on the Snooki-ilk? If so, could I quit irony wholesale? Or would recession-induced cynicism only tighten irony’s hold on my worldview?

A post-ironic self, writer Michael Hirschorn surmised, can come in one of two varieties. One can submit to the lowbrow without recourse to cynical commentary. If executed properly, a fully sincere individual will emerge—one who derives nonironic pleasure from staid cultural clichés like strip malls and Baconators. Alternatively, one can force his or her irony underground. This entails going through the motions without appending ironic justifications: making air quotes in earnest, for example, or speaking pseudo-Italian at Starbucks sans snark. The first rang of corporate brainwashing; the second reeked of “ignorance is bliss” naiveté. A post-ironic self may have been palatable in the abstract, but its reality was far less so.

The irony wars began raging in the early 90s, when the market was up and malaise was in. Expert ironist David Foster Wallace likened irony to tyranny: the root cause of what he saw as pervasive cultural despair and stagnancy. Harvard alumnus Jedidiah S. Purdy ’97 continued the onslaught with his topical monograph, “For Common Things.” Branding political apathy, civic disengagement, and general dejection as part-and-parcel of the ironic posture, Purdy aimed his polemic at those whom he deemed hardest hit: young, Ivy League types made smug and soft by easy A’s and on-campus recruiting. Pro-irony forces fired back, lambasting Purdy as a sanctimonious simpleton who had confused irony with, well, something else. Defending irony non-ironically, however, proved a thorny endeavor. The media soon tired of its new buzzword, and the once heated back-and-forth ended at an impasse.

Three years into the Great Recession, Americans have ample reason to be ironic. Yet, even with Congressional approval ratings skirting 25 percent, this rhetorical-strategy-cum-cultural-scapegoat hardly makes the news. This, I believe, is too bad. Lest we forget, irony is an invaluable strategy of subversion: a subtle, intelligent way to criticize the conformist and the asinine. Far from apolitical, irony offers a potent mode of political intervention. As film critic Jeffrey Sconce noted, irony is not the refusal to believe in anything, but the refusal to buy into “something else’s something”—whether the latter be Dicky Cheney or Double-Quarter-Pounders. The ultimate inside gag, it provides way to laugh at the Man without him being in on the joke.

In the end, my ironic inclinations proved no cause for identity crisis. As my short-lived attempt at abstinence revealed, living un-ironically is distinctly un-fun. A world without irony, it seems, would be the true cause for despair.

Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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