Isn’t it Ironic?

One of the things that confronts Americans daily is the way in which Irony has come to rule.  There is not much way to escape it.  The young delight in comedy, but it is comedy that is satirical and self-referential.  There is a constant dwelling on the falseness of appearance, the lie behind every apparent truth.  Occasionally up pops a inclination to go back to an age when Irony did not prevail, but this urge immediately is cut off at the knees.  Want to go back to the 50’s? Ah, our dominant narrative tells us, that was a black-and-white era of suburban repression, that yielded to the full-color tie-dye of 60’s authenticity.

I have no inclination to go back to the 1950’s (full disclosure: I do occasionally pine for the 1250’s).  Yet if one cares about anything seriously these days, it is hard not to be daunted by pervasive apathy in the face of any need to change.  David Brooks says we have lost our hope, our optimism.  There are cries of alarm at (15 years ago) couch potatoes, and (today) internet junkies.  As I said about texting a couple of weeks ago, so too I think the recurring alarm about TV and internet sapping our national energy is important, but often I think the alarm is misdirected.

What most passionately convinced me of this is David Foster Wallace’s essay entitled, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” As he notes, one of the major arguments against these media is that their content is so vapid. But those who deride TV for being “low” or “commercial” are missing the point.  As Wallace says:

Television is the way it is because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.

Mass entertainment, in other words, will always end up settling at some lowest common denominator.  This really doesn’t change when you diversify your sources of information on the internet.  Anecdotal digression: videos shared on Facebook are rarely specific, particular – they are almost always the video that everyone else has already shared.

What is interesting, however, is that even when we turn to supposedly higher or loftier topics through the media, the topic has great difficulty changing the tone.  And the tone, like it or not, is almost always irony.

The reason for this, according to Wallace, is that our dominant media demand of the viewer a constant complicity in multiple levels of illusion.  The suspension of disbelief is massive and constant.  Wallace does a great analysis of this that I want to paraphrase.  Say a friend, perhaps call her Kate, sits down to watch the latest episode of LOST.  Think about how many illusions she is accepting.

1. Kate first goes along with the illusion that the people she sees don’t know she is out there watching their travails on the island.  She takes a stance with the camera that the people on screen ignore.  But of course, at heart, she knows that they know that people are out there watching.

2. And of course Kate also chooses to ignore the fact that the people bringing these images to her are also constantly conscious of our presence.  J. J. Abrams does not know our friend Kate’s name, but she has a place on his demographic chart; she factors into his percentages.

3. Kate also has subconsciously accepted the illusion that these situations are in some way real, that these people are operating out of motives that are not influenced by the fact that she and millions of other Americans are watching.

4. And of course, she accepts the fiction that these “characters” are not actually someone else – she ignores for an hour that —- is actually —— with a mom and a family and a history complete separate from the story portrayed.

5. What is more, Kate accepts that she is watching people, when she is actually watching a bunch of electrical blips that were recorded months before and are being transmitted to her eyes only now.

6. And there is the fact that Kate is staring at, bedazzled by this charming electromagnetic radiation pouring out of her furniture, her décor.  As we used to huddle around the fire, so now we huddle around the illusion box.

Foster notes that once you start noticing how many layers of illusion are foisted on Kate and all of the viewers, and you notice how she (and she stands for all of us) accepts those layers for not just a few minutes, but the six or seven hours a day that the TV is on, it does not take you long to notice that there might be a reason that American life is dominated by Irony.  When the thing you spend the most conscious time per day doing is built around getting you to dissociate from reality, it is not surprising that you might think there is nothing in life worth taking seriously.

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4 Responses to Isn’t it Ironic?

  1. Virgilijus Kaulius says:

    Hmm, much there to digest, if one is to really
    sick one’s mind into the many facets of both
    culture and psychology pervading much of
    our Age!

    For me, Lawrence Kohlberg’s Paradigm of Maturity
    says a lot on this topic:
    most people are at Level 4 (of 6)in maturity.
    (There are few people at Levels 5 or 6 across
    the entire demographic spectrum, and in all
    professions, etc.)

    So, I’ve tended since studying him
    in the ’80’s to defend TV programming: it merely
    responds to, but does not create, people’s
    maturity level!!!

    And so maybe a “Part 2” is needed for this topic,
    because not only do just too many people tend to
    cop out on life in unreality, they also cop out
    by not being able to minimally ready their reality!
    They confront Double Bind and just maybe, hence
    give up on life by fleeing to illusion? Hmmm….?!

  2. You make a great point about how it isn’t surprising no one take’s life seriously. I hope you’re enjoying The Prep, my friend says you’re the best religion teacher there.

  3. Connor O'Brien says:

    While I agree with some of your points, I do think that it is necessary for a culture to be able to poke fun at itself and reveal its own flaws. If a country (or any independent nation, for that matter) was filled with yes man at its formation, they would have never become independent in the first place. Men like Dante or Jonathan Swift would have never written their greatest works, and the extreme nationalism that each nation would feel would lead to chaos. With every state unable to accept compromises because of some feeling of superiority, international diplomacy would disappear as we know it. Kind of went off on a tangent there.

    Anyway, I do agree with you that our culture has become self-mocking, unintentionally. We point the mirror so occasionally at ourselves, but we rarely offer up any solutions to fix the apparent flaws certain people are so eager to accentuate. Dissociating with reality, as pure entertainment usually is characterized as, is very difficult when all the outlets for entertainment only show us how depressingly funny that reality is. I do not agree with your inference that the 50’s were a better time, media-wise, because it was the polar opposite of what it has become today. It was totally and purposefully ignorant of the world around it, and heavily relied on slapstick and puns for comedy, and silly relationship problems for drama. If you are not making this inference, I apologize for putting words in your mouth, but that is the impression I got from reading the article. A “hearkening back to the days of yore” type of thing.

    My main point is that even though irony has become the main tenet of modern comedy, it cannot be condemned. While it is overused, make no mistake, I would still rather it dominate the media than the not so blissful ignorance of Lucy and Ricky.

  4. Michae! Magree, SJ says:

    Connor,
    Thanks for your insightful post. I think you bring up a point that I overlooked in this post, namely, that Irony is always a feature of human literature, and a very important and crucial one! There are few things worse than bloated, pompous writing that is not aware of its own faults. (For examples, see many of my posts on this blog…) But, as you note, my real point here is that excessive irony can be just as stultifying as bland, 50’s-era preachiness. If it seemed that I’m promoting “I Love Lucy” episodes, I’m not. I’m more commenting that I always laugh at the first 10 minutes of “family guy”, and then I start to tremble from Irony-overdose.

    If you’re interested in more on this topic, I strongly recommend the essay that inspired it, which I mention at the beginning of the post. It’s titled, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” It’s difficult, but rewarding.

    Thanks again!
    in Christ,
    Michael

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