On Irony & Idealism

Friday, 30 November 2012

I got called ‘overly earnest’ a little while ago. This was by someone who reads my blog. Now, this post is not about me getting defensive at all, because I don’t think being earnest and sincere is anything to be ashamed of. Yet this comment interested me, because it brought to the forefront some things I’ve been thinking about for a long time, about the way we talk (or don’t talk) to each other. About the dominant style or mode of my own generation. And I guess I’d call this mode ‘irony’. It’s not a very complex form of irony though, it’s often rather simplistic. Irony used to have so many different functions and meanings, one of them being to critique and to think. Today, it seems to have become co-opted into a general, boring and rather useless idea of ‘cool’.

Sometimes, this ‘cool’ is referred to as ‘hipster’. And yep, we’ve all seen those clone-like ‘individuals’, with the same glasses, same haircuts, same t-shirts, and same jeans, using the same ironic ‘humour’ to engage with the world. Hey, want to be sexist or racist but still look ‘cool’? Just use irony (your fans will love you and bow at your feet)! I hate to break it to them, but irony doesn’t cancel out being an idiot. Simply adding slick ironic humour is not a free get out of jail card.

But there’s something more going on here – an inherent mistrust of idealism; not a naive idealism, but a responsible, adult one. We’re assuming that saying what you mean, and caring passionately about what you mean, is a character flaw and a dangerous way to engage with the world that leaves you open to derision or criticism. But what’s so wrong with ‘criticism’? What’s wrong with actually being made to think about your own position? And what’s wrong with being, dare I say it, earnest?

I think we’re in danger of wallowing in some self-congratulatory ironic wankery. When I read through magazines that many of my friends like and read the dominant writing mode among my generation of writers is ironic. Same thing online. But it’s not just prevalent in niche or ‘hipster’ publications, it is now mainstream. And to me, idolising this mode of ‘coolness’, whether it be ‘mainstream’ or ‘hipster’ (to be honest, I see little difference between the mainstream and the ‘alternative’ these days though), is a cop out. I really don’t care how funny some of these writers are, I want to actually hear them say something they mean – even if their sincerity isn’t funny or ‘cool’, even if it requires me to think and learn rather than let a difficult subject slide off my back in easy, comfortable, and unthinking humour.

So when I read this article on Meanjin, I was relieved to hear someone articulate exactly what I’ve been thinking. And since Gabrielle Carey said it so well, I’d like to finish with her own words:

It is daunting because declaring any deeply-held belief is almost certain to expose you to some level of satirical scorn. When irony is the default tone, being sincere is not only difficult, it’s risky. If you appear earnest or as though you might be ‘taking yourself too seriously’, you will immediately make yourself a target for ironic ridicule and in an age of satire and cynicism, the worst social gaffe is to appear naïve, credulous or gullible.

Irony is not just an abstract concept. When it becomes the dominant cultural tone, it affects the way we relate to each other in very real and concrete ways because we live in a culture of correction—where we constantly see only what we believe needs ‘fixing’—rather than in a culture of forgiveness and acceptance. God knows how corny that sounds; how easy to send up, to parody, to ironize. This is the great risk of trying to say what you mean: you leave yourself wide open. Unprotected. It would be so much easier if I was speaking in double-entendres. Then I could pretend that whatever interpretation my reader might make wasn’t really the one I intended. ‘There is no safer posture of self-protection than ironic remove,’ notes writer Richard Powers. But if our self-protection has become so secure that it now resembles the bars of a cage, I would suggest that it is time for a new and different cry of freedom.

I’d prefer to be ‘unprotected’; sure, there’s risk involved in that position, but there’s also greater freedom and less bullshit.


Olga Bennett said...

So very true - I have thought about this quiet a bit myself. Not much to add - you and Gabrielle said it all.

amy said...

Yes. I tend to switch off when I sense an article heading down the path of irony. It's not the most exciting or interesting angle on a topic..

JS LC said...

I agree completely! Irony, in this sense is as dangerous to original thought and art as cynicism!

Well put, thank you.

suzie said...

So true…it can make one vary wary sometimes of actually speaking your mind. I guess like sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, irony is the lowest for of intelligent comment!
And yes, where EXACTLY is the boundary between the mainstream and counter culture anyway?

Petra said...

very true, I've been thinking about this, too, and I notice it creeping up to me and influencing my style. it really seems that you better not take anything seriously any more. and I just wonder with what we are going to fill the void we create like that.

Sally said...

I've been thinking a lot about this topic lately, though it's been hard to articulate my thoughts. This article definitely added fuel to the fire:

It reminds me of how I feel about movie trends today, and the "torture porn" genre. I don't watch movies with torture in them, because it makes me sick - but it seems like it's the cool thing to do to harden yourself to such images, to become calloused to the horrors of the world. To some degree I almost cherish this sensitive aspect of myself, even though it makes me more vulnerable. I believe I'm maintaining an essential part of my own humanity.

Now that I've typed that out it seems a bit unrelated, but - I guess it all has to do with maintaining sincere feeling, and not being afraid to show it, instead of keeping mum to seem cool and blase about things.

Rambling Tart said...

I could hug you for this, Hila. :-) Sincerity and earnestness are the two traits I treasure most about you and your writing!!! While irony has its place, I will take a sincere person any day, even if they're sincerely different than what I hold to be true or worthwhile. At least I feel that our hearts have connected in some way, that some sort of understanding can begin.

Jessica Sue said...

well-said, as usual :)

Jane Flanagan said...

I read the NYT article linked above a few weeks ago too and thought of it again when I saw your headline and read your post.

I've also been accused of being too sincere and earnest. Also, more negatively, of taking things (and myself) too seriously.

I try not to think too much about isms, including hipsterism. Because I see such a broad group of people I like lumped into that category just because they like certain kinds of glasses, trends etc.

But I do think about dominant voices and note how irony has begun to turn in on itself... first subverting but now looked to for some kind of Truth (Jon Stewart is always a good example here). And maybe a lot of that has to do with the demise of what should be "trustworthy" sources and voices.

But of course irony normally entails a lie. So we're trying to communicate truth with lies, which is a strange approach. And it makes me wonder if people don't believe in Truth any more as an ideal, or if it just makes them feel too vulnerable.

Great post. So much to think about and say...

Hila said...

Olga: Thank you Olga.

Amy: Unless the author is really witty, I tend to switch off too. There's only some much cynical irony I can handle before I start to feel annoyed.

JS LC: I think cynicism is becoming the norm now too - which is irresponsible, because it pretty much says to everyone: 'don't bother caring about anything, just wallow in your own coolness'. I call bullshit on this.

Suzie: I don't see much difference between mainstream and alternative these days - at least not the 'alternative' scene that is hyped up on blogs, which seems to be a copy of the mainstream, only packaged 'differently'.

Petra: such a great way of putting it - yes, we are creating a void. It makes me feel really sad. I've been noticing too, this pressure to conform to the 'ironic' model of writing in order to get published by trendy magazines. It's assumed that readers my own age will think serious and earnest pieces aren't readable. Which is insulting to everyone, when you think about it.

Hila said...

Sally: It doesn't seem unrelated at all, I get what you're saying. It's like not giving a shit and losing sensitivity or empathy is a badge of honour now. I've never been a blasé person, I think this is obvious from the way I write. And I don't intend on becoming blasé just to fit the current trends. You're right, it is about keeping sincerity intact.

Krista: Thank you! That's nice to hear. I find it hard to connect with people who constantly hide behind a façade, or feel like they have to. And to me this mode of irony many seem to be using at the moment is a façade.

Jessica Sue: Thanks!

Jane: I get what you're saying about 'hipsterism'. I have friends too who like certain 'hipster' trends too (as do I). I guess when I was writing this, what I had in mind was the people who quite evidently copy and replicate 'hipster' trends simply because they're trendy. There's a lack of substance and honesty there that irritates me, and to see the same trends repeated over and over again is both mind-numbingly boring and a very limited diet of creativity. I also wonder when irony is applied as a dominant trend in writing these days, whether its aim is just to communicate the writer's own sense being trendy, and nothing more.

But yes, let's move on. I find what you've raised here about truth to be really interesting. I'm also wondering if people just don't believe in the idea of truth anymore, or if they are just scared of it and of being vulnerable. I have no answer, but it's something to think about some more ...