Monday, November 24, 2008

Dead Irony Part II

I referred yesterday to a NYT article about the alleged murder of irony which has been committed by the naïve cadres of young Obamaniacs too eager to embrace anything but their Shepard Fairey posters and t-shirts.

In the article, Joan Didion represented the prosecution, but the journalist covering the NYRB event where she made her case missed all of her best lines, as you can find out by reading her remarks! No, seriously, take a moment to read—it's short, and it's crucial to what I have to say.

Let's examine Ms. Didion's basic argument. Two caveats first: I will frequently use "we" or "us" or "our" to refer to the 'generation' Didion believes lacks irony, as I consider myself a member of this target group. Secondly, I recognize that Didion is not a Boomer, but I will use this term to include her, as it seems to be an appropriate antonym of the 'generation' Didion has targeted.

Didion's harangue hinges on her appreciation of irony as a necessary political vitamin, which she seems to define (implicitly) as detachment, 'healthy realism' (i.e. skepticism) or pragmatism. This election, she argues, demonstrated a terrifying irony deficiency in the body politic, or more particularly in its youngest members. On whether or not Americans can survive this political scurvy, she does not offer an opinion. But from this deficiency, she diagnoses 1) age-ism (apparently we sneer at our parents while we're making really cogent arguments about who to vote for), 2) superficiality (we're not protesting our wars) 3) consumerism (namely, Obama baby gear), 4) cultishness (of both the suicide and cargo varieties), and 5) a menacingly ignorant naïvete which will somehow hamstring Obama's ability to govern when we realize he isn't... actually, I'm not clear on what Didion thinks we think Obama is, but I imagine it's somewhere between "imaginary hip black friend" and "messiah." Evidently, irony would cure all of these ills (symptoms?), but she doesn't see any forthcoming. Well, Joan, here you go.

May it please the court, Exhibit A in the case for the defense:This image comes from a site (as you can see, which hosts a very large number of similarly composed images, mimicking the very popular Lolcats format—large, all-caps lettering in the caption, highly informal speech, humorous and obviously inappropriate (even absurd) conjunction of caption and image.

From Didion's remarks, I get the feeling that this would not have been her facebook profile pic at any point during the campaign, as it was for a number of my friends. I am not sure what, exactly, she'd make of it. I get the feeling, though, that she would not likely see it as part of a 'healthy skepticism' of Obama's capacities or coolness, and that she might have a problem with me if I called it 'ironic.' But the question is, would she read it differently from this, the Obama-as-icon image?Then again, the real question is, does Generation Obama read these two images differently? Is either one read "ironically?" Is neither? Are both ironic? Well, not by Didion's lights, I think.

Didion's notion of irony—detachment, skepticism, "realism"—is, if I may generalize, the broad notion of irony regnant at least from the Baby Boom through "GenX": it's the irony of significance, which writ large is historical irony, writ small is Seinfeldian irony.

Irony is always built on dualism—the feeling that in some way, things are incongruent—with themselves, with something they're related to, with our expectations, with accepted definitions of what the thing is. Seinfeldian irony is primarily about things which assume enormous significance in our lives which generally have (or should have) no or little significance. We feel the irony when we experience them in disproportionate significance to their actual significance. Historical irony is, unfortunately, exemplified for the period I'm thinking of by Forrest Gump, which was the equivalent of a generation singing the whole Top Forty to itself. The irony the movie constructed was that Gump continually missed the historical significance of the events he kept participating in, but the events that he experienced as personally significant were repeatedly overwhelmed by history. The incongruity of personal and historical experience is the banal basic theme of Gump, and its success was a measure of how truly Boomers felt that disjuncture.

But what I think happens with the irony of significance is that the people who most felt its sting—i.e. the Boomers—often try to turn it around and fashion it into a virtue. There should be an incongruity between personal and historical significance; there must be a distance between the enthusiasm we feel and the reasons we hold for political action. And what they don't understand is that someone can disagree with them without arguing for total earnestness—an elimination of this incongruity and an ignorance of that distance.

I am going to be polemic here and argue that what the (purposeful or inadvertent) disjuncture of personal and historical significance creates (or permits) is a very wan sense of commitment to a cause, a very notional sense of individual investment in political action, and that this notionality is what characterizes Boomers. This notionality is largely absent in my generation, but not because we experience all historically significant events personally or all personally significant events historically. But since we don't experience incongruity (irony) in the same place as Boomers (i.e. between personal and historical significance), it's very easy to accuse us of not experiencing irony at all, of believing that historical significance and personal significance are virtually identical. But my generation is not simply an antithesis of the Baby Boom. Where the difference lies is in how incongruity (or irony) is experienced in our lives.

A generation that experiences (and has experienced for most of its mature years) a very significant proportion of its personally meaningful interactions, commitments, pleasures, achievements, inspirations, and even education through the Internet is going to have a very different feeling for the incongruity of personal and historical significance. Someone might think that such a circumstance would aggravate the incongruity to unbearable extremes; the sheer size of the internet would make us feel constantly insignificant on a personal level, necessitating overwhelming amounts of irony to compensate.

Yet that has not happened; we don't find setting our facebook status to "VOTE for Change!!1!" ironic because we don't experience this conjunction of an ephemeral personal statement and a monumental historic event as an incongruity. This isn't about abandoning pragmatics (I don't really, earnestly believe setting my status is going to win hearts, minds or votes), nor is it about trendiness (lots of people knew I was for Obama, so how much cooler does changing my facebook status really make me?). It's very much about establishing a commitment, which is as much a communication to myself as it is to anyone else.

And this is where my generation's sense of irony comes in. For my generation, irony is not so much a question of detachment or skepticism as it is one of participation. It's not a question of taking the distance between personal significance and historic import. After all, what is distance on the internet? It's a meaningless concept. Instead, our commitments, our humor, our very mode of reading are persistent interrogations of what it means to participate in something, particularly what it means to be a part of (to participate in) an audience. Part of this interrogation starts with the sense that declaring one's participation in or attachment to something is first and foremost reflective. If I change my facebook status, that is (both literally and figuratively) a message back to myself before it is a message to anyone else.

Now, this self-reflection is not in itself ironic. It's also not, however, "irony-free" in the way Didion means—it's not closed off to irony or set against irony. It just hasn't acquired the necessary context for irony. That context comes through the acknowledgement of the potential existence of other audiences for this act of participation—and that we may be members of an audience (or many audiences) that we cannot define or delimit. This uncertainty is as true for an act of participation we initiate as it is for an action that induces or impels us to participate.

Let me be more concrete; let's take a look at the first of the two images I posted above, and the one immediately below. The first Obama image is, as I mentioned, a reference to Lolcats, as is, quite obviously, this image of Althusser.
Now, these Lolcats-type images usually appear in two contexts: "galleries" of similarly formatted and themed images (Punditkitchen or, in Althusser's case, there's a flickr group called Philolsophers) or as a personal appropriation (e.g. posting it as a facebook profile picture). The irony of these images is activated by the understanding that they are being diffused to an audience that cannot be rigidly or accurately defined. If I post the Althusser image to my facebook, I am completely unsure who is looking at it. Even among those whom I have "friended" on facebook, I am unsure who is even checking facebook and who might be looking at my profile. There is a further measure of doubt in that, even among friends whom I have reason to believe might be looking at my profile, I am quite unsure how many of them would get the Althusser joke. In other, Althusserian words, I am unsure both of whom I am interpellating, and to what degree my efforts at interpellation have succeeded. In the case of these images existing in "galleries," the terms change slightly: viewing them, I'm not sure what audience I'm a part of; I'm not sure how I'm being interpellated, or with whom.

Now, it's been awhile since I've read "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," but I'm pretty sure that doubt—or what I'd prefer to call undecidability—was not a constitutive part of the process of interpellation, and I don't think irony factored in either. At any rate, this undecidability is where the irony of these images crystallizes: there is a deep incongruity between the ideal audience and the knowledge I have of how close the image's eventual audience is to that ideal audience. I would even go further and offer that this incongruity is so extensive that it overwhelms even the possibility of the self as an ideal audience, injecting considerable self-doubt into our feelings of control over the images, over which direction, precisely, the interpellation has run.

The Obama Lolcats image is subject to the same undecidability, the same irony. Partly, the irony is again a question of who is being interpellated, and to what extent, questions which can together be rephrased as "what audience are you(/am I) a part of?" or "how much of the joke do you(/do I) get?" But in this image there is also a further question, a more radical uncertainty, which is "how much of a joke is there?" I first saw this image almost immediately after the Republican Convention, when McCain got a big bounce and everyone was wailing about how Democrats would find a way to screw this one up too. The image was therefore very directly addressing that concern and the people who had that concern, but it also forced you to confront whether or how much you shared in that concern as well, and it did so by asking you how much of a joke the image seemed to be. The "everyone" of the caption was therefore permanently undecidable, as you could not place yourself in a stable relation to the "everyone" that is being addressed.

The Shepard Fairey poster is really no different, although its hyper-iconicity begs exactly those questions which Joan Didion asks: is my generation (or any part of it) irony-free? Have we (or any part of us) become cultic in our exuberance for Obama? The Shepard Fairey image confronts us directly with these questions by asking us forthrightly whether we are part of the (possibly imaginary) segment of our generation which would read this image without skepticism. (It's notable that Shepard Fairey was previously most famous for the OBEY GIANT posters, which may be the bluntest pop culture questioning of interpellation imaginable.)

The Fairey poster asks us, "How are you interpellated into the Obama campaign? How do you fit into the movement?" These are slippery questions, and to be honest, I can't give you an answer, even from a personal standpoint. The Fairey posters, like Obama himself, spoke to a radical uncertainty about politics in general, an undecidability which could be phrased as, "Who's really addressing me? Which public am I a part of? Which America am I a part of?" Obama's "big" speeches—which have as their consistent theme "a more perfect union"—probe these questions with stunning directness. The speech on race, in particular, but also the 2004 convention speech acknowledged the rifts in America by denying their permanence, their inevitability. We—my generation in particular—are unsure, radically unsure, where those rifts are in relation to our position as citizens, and we are uncertain as to where they will be, or where they will be healed.

For my generation, undecidability of audience (whom do you address? who is addressing you? who is addressed with you?) is the primary form of irony because it is a complete and completely felt incongruity. But it is not skepticism or "healthy" realism or detachment. It's not about keeping the proper distance from events. It's also not about making blind commitments, about prizing ignorance or about moralizing pragmatic questions. We are not irony-free either. We experience irony in the conditional, and we act in the declarative.

I wonder if Joan Didion's form of irony isn't the opposite.

Note: This post has changed slightly from what was first posted. I found a new mode of addressing what generates irony in "my" generations' experiences. I feel what is now posted is both clearer and more comprehensive in describing these experiences. Also, I apologize for the length of the entry. However, I think irony is one of the most significant and most contested sites in the struggle to define powerful abstractions like "generation" and the zeitgeist, and so the subject justifies the expansiveness.


Adam Kelly said...

Superb. The "generational irony" question is a really difficult topic to address, because it is so thoroughly misunderstood by virtually everybody. This is by far the best effort I have seen, and really clarified things for me. Thanks for the extensiveness of your effort.

Of course you may never read this comment, so temporally distant is it from the original post. Ah, the irony!

Andrew Seal said...


I'm so glad you're digging through Blographia's archives. This post in particular is something I spent a lot of time on but which (I think) didn't make much of an impression when I posted it. It's really gratifying to know that now it's being read and enjoyed.