Irony is a force that gives us meaning

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This is not a mustache
  • cuttlefish
  • This is not a mustache
It's come to my attention that you don't understand what the word irony means. It's OK, no big, I actually have no idea either. This was pointed out to me earlier this year by a "friend" (put in ironic quotation marks because he's not, per se, a "friend," actually my boyfriend—am I doing this right?) after he'd read something I'd written in which I'd misused the term, or that's what he thought. He probably doesn't know what he's talking about either. Anyway, it came to my attention more recently that neither does Christy Wampole, the Princeton French professor who wrote about it for the New York Times. The writer Elif Batuman tweeted, not long ago, that it's confusing that there are two different meanings of the word irony—"bad hipster 'irony'" and "good Romantic 'irony'"—like there are two different kinds of cholesterol, good and bad. Why not just two different words for these very different modes of expression?

Alanis Morissette was a pioneer of misapplying the irony label, but hers wasn't just a confusion of degree. She misunderstood entirely. She was just talking about bad luck. Irony isn't bad luck, though bad luck can be ironic. It's ironic that somebody can be acclaimed as a songwriter and make so simple an error of language. Isn't it? That basically ties up your irony argument right there.

Last week Maria Bustillos stood, correctly, in defense of irony as a sort of adult, reasoned posture in response to the various horrors of the world. (Sincerity, on the other hand, Wampole considers the province of the young, in addition to a cohort including—no shit—"elderly people" and "people with severe mental and physical disabilities.") Bustillos manages to defend irony without considering the weak heart of Wampole's argument, which indicates that Wampole herself has a pretty loose grasp on the concept. (Standard disclaimer about having no idea what I'm talking about.) Wampole makes one or two good points on the general subject of sincerity and the generally salutary effects that sincerity has on society at large—sincerity being, in her world, the very opposite of irony—but she really is only attacking one kind of ironic being, the "hipster," so the object of her argument doesn't amount to much more than a straw person: the bad-cholesterol ironist.

(You know what's ironic? Red blood cells. I stole that joke from a coworker.)

Who is the hipster? Wampole rehearses the well rehearsed: the hipster is an urbanist who wears a mustache and rides fixed-gear bikes. Hipsters do this because they're afraid of sincerity, under which social regime they'd be asked to reveal a little bit more about their interior lives. Weirdly—ironically?—this was akin to an argument that sprung up last week on The O'Reilly Factor, when Papa Bear interviewed a guest psychiatrist about the song "Gangnam Style." Both thought that its popularity could be attributed to the overall loss of sincerity in the world, about the fact that, in the psychiatrist's words, "people don't want any meaning right now . . . folks are losing their center. They want not to be reminded of what they think and feel, but more conveyed away from it."

It's too bad for Christy Wampole, who comes across as nothing so much as well-meaning, to have her arguments echoed by a couple jackasses like Bill O'Reilly and his fake psychiatrist. Is that ironic? When I wrote about that interview last week, I mentioned some other conservative antics: as a sort of art satire (?), Glenn Beck had submerged a plastic Barack Obama figurine in what was allegedly a jar of his piss. For his efforts he received a full-on art review by New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz, who this week, in an end-of-the-year top-ten list, nominated Clint Eastwood's famous tete-a-tete with the empty chair as this year's best art exhibition. Saltz anointed a new genre of performance art for it, "Neo-Verity": "the performance equivalent of the visible money shot in porn: something real and unreal at the same time."

So this would seem to convey an ironic sensibility: the willingness to look at both substance and surface and appraise—perhaps even to laugh at—the distance between. It's a necessity when you're faced with the reality of, in this case, plenty of people looking at Clint Eastwood as some sort of genius satirist. It's also a far cry from a damn mustache.

Revisit this space next week for the difference between irony and sarcasm. NOT.

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