The troublesome notion of modern irony

Let me pose a question: is it even possible for someone to like something ironically?

I know, I know, if you follow the pop culture pundits, bloggers, and next-door-know-it-alls you’ll be reassured that of course it’s possible to like something ironically, people do it all the time. Howling wolf sweaters, cut-off jean shorts, outdated art from thrift stores, recumbent bicycles, these are all supposedly the currency of the ironic.

For years we’ve been inundated with the idea that certain cultural choices are made—particularly by the current generation of twenty-somethings—because of the simple fact that they are, by definition, counter or antithetical to mainstream sensibilities.

Recently, Princeton University assistant professor Christy Wampole wrote a much derided, though thoroughly circulated article for the New York Times entitled, “How to Live Without Irony.” In it, Wampole takes aim to define the would-be “ironic movement” for the purpose of lambasting a culture that has been defined from the outside. Actually, this is being fairly reductionist but I can’t help to think that Wampole’s overall argument, condensed, echoes the thoughts of many on the topic of the ironic.

The basic idea is that the very fabric of our society is being ripped apart and made utterly meaningless by a group of people who can’t string together enough sincere statements to fill more than a Twitter post.

For fear of babbling, let me get to my point. For all of those who would take pleasure in making judgmental declarations about a cultural sect that is not their own: please, fuck off.

Historically, the effort to identify a group of people from the outside has, shall we say, been a foolhardy endeavour. Especially if you consider the fact that this group of people (no matter how insufferable or repugnant you might find them) may not self-identify with these labels that have been placed upon them.

According to Wampole, people who live in an ironic fashion do so in order to deflect the responsibility of what would otherwise be earnest, sincere sentiment. It’s a lifestyle that is inherently self-defensive in that it allows the ironic to hide in plain sight, never having to take ownership of real world choices.

Now, the majority of these critics, these crusaders who fight against the scourge of the ironic, are in no uncertain terms talking about a generational issue. It may make for a more concrete argument to claim that this cult of irony exists separate from a certain, particular age demographic but logistically that’s just false.

You know just as well as I do that when someone dismissively refers to something/someone as “ironic” or, often, a “hipster” (society has taught us that these words ought to be indelibly linked, whether we like it or not) their crosshairs are firmly aimed at those classified as the Millennials, the Generation Ys, the Internet babies, those who, try as they might, fail to understand the same principals and truisms of the pre-Instagram era. Insert sarcasm here.

Let me take a moment to stick out my neck and apply a tactic that is all but loathed in academic and journalistic circles; reference the dictionary definition of a word in order to prove a point (and no, that does not mean I am doing it ironically).

According to the handy-dandy multi-volume tomb that is the Oxford English Dictionary, irony is a “figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.”

Using irony as an active life choice can, strictly speaking, only be possible as conscious rebellion. That is, the disenfranchised would be using irony to make a statement about the culture of the world that surrounds them. This is not totally unlike the example of Kurt Cobain wearing a shirt that reads, “corporate magazines still suck” on the cover of Rolling Stone – vintage 1992.

But even still, my problem isn’t so much that irony is wholesale ascribed to an entire generation as a defining feature, but that the justification for doing so suffers the same darn pitfalls of those who are supposedly guilty of the assertion: it is lazy, half-hearted, ineffectual, and ultimately backwards.

Again I ask: is it even possible for someone to like something ironically? Or is this just a weak stereotype directed at a certain “type” of people in place of a real effort to understand something?

In fairness, it’s important to consider the massive, sweeping modern enlightenment that is still expanding with the dawn of the Internet era. Beginning in the mid-to-late nineties the widespread availability of the Internet effectively broadened any and all niche horizons 100-fold. Be it one’s affinity to a certain children’s cartoon show, a penchant for creating/riding odd-shaped bicycles, or what would previously be considered an otherworldly notion of sexuality, the age of the Internet exploded our world of cultural possibilities. And it just so happens that those who were coming of age during this time period have thus far proved the most adept at harnessing these tools to encourage their growth as a person.

In Wampole’s estimation the Internet age has indeed helped a certain ironic sensibility to flourish and to an extent that is true, but let’s not diminish the significance of this shift – everything expanded and flourished with the advent of the World Wide Web. This made possible a new age of information that saw the emergence of an unprecedented frontier of connectivity.

What this means is that beginning with the late Gen Xers / early Gen Yers (or whatever you’d like to call them) you actually have the early stages of an absolutely unmatched level of celebration. And with that you have many people—again, many young people—who are afforded the opportunity to truly celebrate whatever they want, no matter how bizarre, esoteric, or obscure.

When you view the whole “ironic” argument from this perspective it’s actually—truthfully—a little disheartening to think of the reaction that has led to the vastly oversaturated use of the term irony.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Degrassi Junior High, vintage clothing, fringe sporting events, lo-fi music and, of course, the triumphant reemergence of the moustache – like it or not these are all celebrations of the eclectic rather than referential shrugs from an emerging youth who doesn’t give an honest shit about anything or anyone.

The kind of society-destroying irony you only read about in books is just that: a complete fiction. Worse, it’s one perpetuated by the people who, simply put, just plain old don’t like the generation of youth that at some point in the line has followed their own.

National Post writer David Berry, for one, did a spectacular job in identifying one of the many falsehoods in the assertion that today’s youth are any more or less inclined to ironic tendencies, even when the study sample is hyperfocused for prime results.

“Things don’t actually get much better if you narrow it down to hipster-approved culture,” says Berry, ““there is [the television show] Community, and what have you, but read Pitchfork sometime and try to say with a straight face that [this] whole scene’s problem is that they’re not sincere enough.”

And as many have since pointed out in the past week, you just don’t get record numbers of youth voters turning out in the past two U.S. elections from a generation that is so insincere they can barely get off the couch.

In time many of these activities currently serving time in irony detention will be freed, so to speak, and future generations will be able to crochet an afghan without getting beaten to death with the notion that the sentiment behind it isn’t honest.

Unfortunately these things tend to be cyclical so although the overabundant use of the words “irony” and “hipster” will soon fall by the wayside (overflowing with characteristics to the point that any understandable meaning washes away – see: alternative) we can be sure at some point in time a new codifying term will emerge to both categorize and belittle a new generation of youth. Maybe there will be another MTV generation, who knows?

Until that time comes when these fast-aging perceptions shed their current place of cultural relevance, I can only hope the next set of loosely tied beliefs directed toward an unwitting demographic will be a little more original than: “they do the things they do for the sake of being ironic.” That one, to me, just feels so uninspired.