Irony as an easy way out.

Irony is when something different from, and usually the opposite of, what you’d have expected happens. A policeman’s house being robbed, a fireman’s house burning down, a fact checker being fact checked. Camus, who supposedly said “I know nothing more stupid than to die in an automobile accident”, dying in a car accident.

Sarcasm is a way of verbalizing irony – saying something different from, usually the opposite of, what you mean. Irony is a feature of the situation; sarcasm is a way of expressing it. Perhaps you could argue sarcasm is negative, more biting than just irony but that’s a game of words.

Hypocrisy is a subset of irony – not all ironies involve hypocrisy, but most, perhaps all, hypocrisies are ironic. Irony is hypocrisy if the person knows the truth yet denies it or pretends not to. In that sense, irony and hypocrisy are opposites. The ironist reveals the contradiction or inconsistency; the hypocrite denies it. It’s ironic if a barber has a bad haircut. It’s hypocritical if a thief tells you not to steal.

Irony is Destructive

I don’t deny that irony and sarcasm are amusing. Sarcasm requires some wit and awareness. And in not excessive quantities it serves a positive goal, even if it does that in a negative way. It exposes inconsistencies, injustices, hypocrisies – the first step in paving the way (for others, because it restricts itself to mere expositions) to clear them.

Irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.

David Foster Wallace

But irony itself does nothing to replace what it seeks to expose. The ironist is the critic who nitpicks safely from outside, as opposed to Roosevelt’s man in the arena, the one who ‘strives to do the deeds’.

“This is why Hyde seems right about persistent irony being tiresome. It is unmeaty. Even gifted ironists work best in sound bites. I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly fun to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures. And as for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, or sitting through a 300 page novel full of nothing but trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow… oppressed.


Destruction and ground-clearing has its place and its time, but when a person makes it their specialization, it’s probably because they’re not good for much else – and they’re probably not much fun to be around, for long anyway.

Irony is Transcendental

I’ve long been aware that irony is a popular recourse. Partly that’s because it’s easy. It’s far easier to criticize something than it is to defend it or god forbid, do something about it. It’s a popular pastime to point out what X politician or Y CEO ought to do instead of what they’re doing.

“Flatness, numbness, and cynicism in one’s demeanor are clear ways to transmit the televisual attitude of stand-out-transcendence—flatness and numbness transcend sentimentality, and cynicism announces that one knows the score, was last naïve about something at maybe like age four.”


But that applies to criticism in general. What makes irony in particular appealing is that irony is elevating – you ‘transcend’ your circumstances when you shelter behind irony. It works in any situation where emotion and sentiment is involved. People arguing about which party is better, which ideology is better, which team is better, whether something’s right or wrong. Rather than taking a stand, or picking a side, you can just make a cutting remark about the stupidity – not of the parties involved, but the game itself – and at once position yourself above everyone in the fray, at no cost.


And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.”


It’s not rare to find someone taking recourse to irony when asked point blank what they believe. Sometimes it’s genuine, but frequently it’s a good way to sidestep any commitment, to sidestep the question without attending to it.

Irony after all is ‘saying what you don’t mean’ – which means the ironist is ‘impossible to pin down’. Anyone who does try insisting on getting an opinion out of an ironist really will come off as a hysteric or prig, one of those weirdly fanatical creeps who doesn’t get a joke and takes things too seriously .

So you never really find out what the ironist thinks or believes. Though in all likelihood they don’t believe in anything – irony as a permanent refuge is the resort of the cynic. The cynic being the one who’s too smart too believe in anything, who’s not ‘naïve about anything’. That’s why irony is ‘safe’, since you never stand by any thing, you’re never caught out. No one can show how you’re mistaken – because you’re never wrong, you ‘know the score’.

Think, for a moment, of Third World rebels and coups. Third World rebels are great at exposing and overthrowing corrupt hypocritical regimes, but they seem noticeably less great at the mundane, non-negative task of then establishing a superior governing alternative. Victorious rebels, in fact, seem best at using their tough, cynical rebel-skills to avoid being rebelled against themselves—in other words, they just become better tyrants.


That’s the tyranny of irony, that you have no weapon that can take it down. When irony was in the opposition, in the hands of rebels, it was a tool against the convention, the establishment, the usual way of things taken for granted. But what do you do when irony itself becomes the norm? Any attempt to out irony seems to involve conviction and sentiment, and these are the very things irony purports to transcend and put down. In irony, what was earlier a tool to expose now becomes the means to evade or insulate.

Being sentimental about anything – a person, a pursuit, a team, a country – isn’t very different from being naïve about it, loving it despite its flaws. Refusing to disengage and look at the whole thing dispassionately, as a spectator. Insisting instead on being a participant along for the ride. And being cynical about something usually sounds smart – though it can as easily be the fear of being sentimental. Preferring to be a spectator, refusing to attach, refusing to stake on anything. And that determines the difference between looking at it as patriotism or as an accident of birth, as a sport or as people chasing and hitting balls into squares.


The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.


What is a rebel? I think what’s usually called being a rebel is actually the opposite, being a conformist. In that it’s driven not by a sense of opposing something as much as it is by an attempt to belong somewhere – in a group of similar ‘peer-hungry’ individuals.

Perhaps the essential ingredient of real rebellion is ‘risking disapproval’. If you’re admired and praised, even tacitly, more than what you suffer for it, it’s hardly any different from any other game people play seeking status and admiration. None of which is to fetishize rebellion. In fact, what follows from all of this, I think, is that real rebellion is hardly something one ‘aspires’ to. It’s driven more by convictions strong enough to make worth paying whatever price one has to.

Probably, certain convictions – atheism, nihilism et al – were genuinely rebellious a few centuries back. Nihilists in Tsarist Russia, atheists and blasphemers during the Inquisition. Taking a more specific instance – Shelley losing his place in college and custody of his kids for his atheism. Now, they’re probably mainstream enough in many circles that not espousing them is almost rebellious.

Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool

Infinite Jest, DFW

What’s rebellious now is in fact actually espousing anything at all – that is, anything that’s not stamped with a seal of approval by whoever’s currently socially or intellectually (usually the same) influential. Things (not necessarily mine) like sincerely believing in god, abstaining from drinking or smoking or sleeping around out of principle, pursuing ‘weird / boring’ things like philately or mathematics or astrology. They’re impressive because you know that someone would have had to put up with a lot to hold on to them.

In that sense, today’s rebels run the risks of banality, naivety and sentimentality. The costs of espousing anything, endorsing any convictions or principles. But in return for disapproval, you win back originality, of not refraining for fear of gaze and ridicule.