With her song, “Isn’t it Ironic?” Alanis Morissette unwittingly makes the case that irony is one of the most misunderstood words of our time. Rain on your wedding day isn’t ironic (though some might call it good luck), nor are 10,000 spoons in most situations. Real irony is all about subverted meaning, and its excess usage in art can be damaging. It’s ironic, then, that pop culture is so utterly saturated in something so few understand.
David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest and other highly-influential works, talked in length about irony and postmodernism’s ill-effects on our culture, and TV in particular, before he took his life in 2008. A video by Will Schoder unpacks this sentiment by demonstrating the problem with irony, and why many television shows are shifting away from it at long last.
But first, let’s set Ms. Morisette straight. What is irony? One might simplify a complex topic by saying it’s the middle ground between what is said and what’s meant, or what’s done and what’s intended. In reality, it can be situational or cosmic, characterised by contradiction or sharp contrast. So a rainy wedding day might be ironic if your husband-to-be was the sun god, Ra. And those 10,000 spoons might be ironic if you needed a knife to perform surgery on an ice cream clerk.
Though all of this is relevant, it’s really dramatic and postmodernist irony I want to talk about. As a literary device, irony is used when the audience knows more than a character, creating suspense or more frequently, humor. Once upon a time, it was edgy and provocative. Often, it serves to flatter the viewer into feeling smart and watching more. Almost always, it’s a protective shell against naivety.
David Foster Wallace’s critique of irony pertained to its usage in postmodernism. Postmodernism was and is a rejection of Modernism’s grand proclamations of meaning. In general, it rejects large-scale truths through self-deprecation, shining a light on hypocrisy and flawed logic. In art, it winks at its audience and refuses to take itself seriously. As a medium of cynicism, it does not seek earnest meaning or lesson—instead, it deconstructs the world we know already with no intent to transcend it.
So, what’s the problem? In moderate doses, not much. It can be entertaining to see a show make fun of itself, and sarcasm, as a form of irony, is always enjoyable when you’re in on the joke. As a form of social critique, it’s a brilliant way to unpack complicated topics. As Wallace himself said, “Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it.”
In television, this approach can be seen in comedies like Seinfeld, South Park, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. While these shows aren’t without value, there comes a point when irony is no longer productive—it’s just ridicule. If our culture were to fully embrace this, sincere works of art would be laughed out the door. (Which, when you think about it, could be why poetry is a dying art. Unless it’s ironic, that is.)
The real problem is that irony isn’t edgy anymore—it’s both widely used and commercialized (another irony, considering irony was initially a weapon against commercialization). In addition, it’s never been prescriptive. It provides no real solutions, or as the video puts it, redemption. An oversaturation of irony “corrosive to the soul,” or as Wallace stated, “gone from liberating to enslaving.”
I don’t have a hard and fast solution, but recognizing irony’s shortcomings is a good first step. This doesn’t mean we must return to the unbridled optimism of Modernism. But it does mean letting our guard down sometimes to embrace sentimentality and meaning.
Ironists may look down upon earnest work, but it still has its place, and the two can coexist as one. Wallace didn’t live to witness “The Golden Age of TV,” but as the video points out, many modern TV shows are characterized by earnest characters that yearn for human connection (the video sites The Office and Parks and Recs as popular examples). Irony is utilized within these shows for humor and critique, but the jokes are tied up with sincere messages about love, life, and happiness. It’s not irony for irony’s sake; there is a healthy sense of balance and purpose.
In my opinion, artists have a duty and responsibility to create intelligent and life-affirming works, whether it’s through cinema, literature, comedy or TV. That’s why this critique of irony resonates to deeply with me—because at times it seems as if irony is leading our culture down a road without redemption, one in which we are detached, cynical, and narcissistic. But if you know where to look, earnest art is out there.
I have faith that we’re already turning this culture around, because as much as we may need irony from time to time, we need sincerity every day to be thoroughly and unapologetically human.