Among recent generations, although not exclusively, it has been popular to praise irony and find in it some kind of meaning. Whether this is the Generation X hipsters who wear t-shirts from bad 1970s TV shows and shop at thrift shops for memorabilia of crap they hated, or the hollow maneuvering for political effect by our leaders, irony is with us in an almost religious context. "Isn't it ironic that the one thing he hated was his downfall?" say the witty voices of our peers, with that certainty of having found some move to hold all our queens in check -- we're so used to it, even, that we don't flinch when every commercial ends with an ironic twist, or every military campaign has some symbolic destruction of the evil enemy by the very means that brought him to power.
It's easy to fall into the game of irony as well, since it's easy. Find something that is paradoxical in the character of another event or person, and hype it until you've taken it to an extreme where it is hardly distinguishable from its opposites. Aha! Now you are the witty one. This strengthens your sense of self-esteem, which is something external to your actual being - it's your impression of the impression a generalized group, peers or friends or socially-important people, have of you. This gives it a sense of religion, or that of finding something non-visible which is more important than the visible, because at this point what matters is not reality, as you perceive it inside of yourself or as it exists outside of your perception, but an arbitrary abstraction of reality, namely that impression of what the impression that the people around you might have might be. In this mechanism, the state of seeing irony as having some meaning at all sustains a thought process of the unreal taking precedence over the real.
Naturally, saying "the real" causes problems, since most people like to think there is no reality outside of their own desires and self-image, but when one reflects on it, it is impossible to deny an external reality in which forces of nature such as gravity and entropy do their work. If there is no external reality, picking up a bee would not result in a sting, since we would will the bee not to sting us - yet it's not the case. A lack of external reality would mean no death, and no suffering, and so on. But these forces act upon us, and even those who scream the loudest that we exist in worlds of our own creation cannot stop them. So - brushing aside the centuries of pointless debate over this topic, and the "thoughts" of our peers, we can see there's an external reality. For the sake of completeness, we mention that there's also an internal reality, namely that of our own preferences and desires, but this reality cannot be separated from its internal nature: it is what we desire, and what we know, from our own experience. However, this reality, like external reality, is often obliterated by considerations of the impressions of our peers, and irony is one form of this mechanism.
Perhaps the reason for this is that irony, while suitably as a conversational gesture or a technique of novel-writing, has no bearing on reality. Unless we posit, in a paranoiac sense, that some God watches over us and tries to communicate with us through symbols inserted in everyday life, there is no more significance to reality than any other event. So it's ironic that your best friend who turned her back on you years ago has finally come back to see you in a time of need - or maybe irony is a way of describing your reaction, and your thoughts, so that they can be communicated to others, and nothing more. It's like observing the humor in a car crash, with the chaos of flailing limbs and bending steel, a mockery of everything that is normal about passage down a road; it was not intended by an overlord of the cosmos, nor does it communicate in some universal and absolute sense any meaning; it's an interpretation of what happened, but an interpretation solely in a human context, for the purpose of communicating between two or more humans. It doesn't exist in external reality, nor exclusively in internal reality, because when one does not need to communicate some judgment of the events as they happened, there is no need for the irony.
It is precisely for this unreal nature that irony is popular. When we have no ability to change a circumstance, and yet it gnaws at us with its unfairness or wrongness, we have a tendency to shout at it, to curse at it, and finally, to get others to agree that it sucks. In this way, we feel that the wrong has been ever-so-slightly righted by the shared belief that it was a wrong, even if there was no tendency of the universe to commit a wrong or a desire of the gods to communicate some wrongness to us. Some things just happen as they are. If the rains loosen mud on a hillside and an avalanche buries our village, we can look at it realistically and see it as a natural consequence of gravity + viscosity of earth lubricated by rain + location of village. Should that not serve our own need to judge it as wrong, we can look at it superstitiously, and see it either as "good" (the judgment of a god on our village for, say, enjoying marijuana) or "bad" (an evil god striking back at us for persecuting his demonic pot-smoking followers). But these superstitions, are they real, inside or outside? They're a hybrid: an internal judgment of an external judgment in the minds of others, projected back into the outside as a means of making it as real as the event itself, so that we have a reason why where no reason exists other than the mechanics of external reality itself. In this way, we get away from concerns of gravity and viscosity of mud, and therefore, might be so dumb as to rebuild our village in the same location just in time for the next rainstorm. This is where natural selection comes into play, but that is digression.
Our culture has been under attack for many years now by those who, feeling they have no efficacy in reality as a physical construct, have been building fantasy worlds as a means of gaining parity with reality - a form of revenge upon reality, for being so inaccessible to our inner worlds that often we feel it doesn't consider us at all. That's close to true; it doesn't consider us much, since we are like atoms which compose its fingernails. Try standing outside during a hurricane for a sense of your relative dimensions to that of natural reality. Feeling the winds carry them in ways they cannot control, and also feeling "unequal" to the demands and power of life itself, these people react by asserting a fantasy over reality. They talk in terms of irony, and morality, and duty, and money - in short, in any terms of a human reality, which they can control, over an external world they cannot control. Even further, it seems, they are trying to conquer their own internal worlds, and by standardizing them to an external world of the presumed opinions of others, to conquer the doubt they feel within. People like this hate anyone who is better according to natural, real world terms (strength, intelligence, character, looks) than them, and use things like irony to gain control. "Isn't it ironic that such a strong man was made weak? That defeat happened even to the victors?"
Their weapon of achieving such fantasy is a turning inside-out of their own doubt, and projecting it onto others. Guilt is one version of this, and another is the condescending mechanism of pity: feeling superior to another being and thus affirming that relationship by giving them something, defining the self as the giver and the other as the inferior, needy, receiver. It is for this reason that the most neurotic people in a society are the ones who offer helpful "advice" that sabotages the self-esteem of others, through these same mechanisms of guilt and pity. They suffer massive doubt, and in agony at their own ineptitude, turn that doubt onto others. When seen in this light, irony is doubt disguised as humor, or as poignant meaning; it is a means of revenge and nothing else. The most obvious cases of this ironic doubt are seen in the media spectacles that populate our daily lives: Saddam Hussein being led out of a hole in the ground, Ted Bundy executed by a female cop, white racists depending on affluent black lawyers, and ecological activists like Ted Kaczynski or Pentti Linkola being described as "failed" thinkers who then - naturally - turned to extremism out of their own frustration. Irony is universal, in that it can be used to debunk anyone, and the only people who are safe from it are those who never take a stand. It is possibly for this reason that the most recent generations in the West embrace irony as a way of life, as a means of getting themselves out of the line of fire and bonding sadomasochistically to that which is destroying their world.
What is important to remember about such irony is that not only is it not reality, it's not meaning. It is the anti-meaning, the sabotage of all possible meaning with doubt, such as the meek statements of mundane people to the effect that those who take on the burden of leadership will be consumed by it. Anywhere there is irony, there is the stench of those who are afraid and wish to lash out with doubt at any who are not afraid, thus preserving the uniformity and safety of a crowd who agree fear is the highest value. It can be seen in religious form in Judaism, which by its nature as a religion of materialism, or the physical world being the only measure of value, denies all but comfort and individual survival; in Judaism, there are few goals for which sacrifice of self is worthy. Similarly, we see Christianity, in which only the children of a god sacrifice themselves, and do so in knowledge that they simply go back to an ideal state, a heaven. In public discourse it is the democratic feeling which proclaims any loss of life, no matter how degraded, to be a tragedy, and condemns any who would deny to others the right to do whatever they absolutely please, even if it is destructive. Irony is a small form of the force underlying all of these assumptions.
In overcoming irony, and thus fear of the ironic, the individual gains more than increased self-esteem. What is conquered is doubt, in a small portion, and it serves as an innoculation against the larger forms of doubt. Once the individual realizes that irony belongs neither to the internal world nor the external, but to the hybrid world of judgment, which is an assumption based not only on our illusory personal perception but on the far more illusory impression of the impressions of a group, it is easier to deny this false reality and reach out toward what is actually real in life. Such a process helps us separate the real from the illusion, even if the real is not something tangible, as in the case of long-term predictions like global warming, racial annihilation, or spiritual death owing to the pattern of boring jobs, obedience and product-buying that is modern life. This is the step that those who embrace irony are afraid to take, the step beyond the consensual reality into a mindset where one must find both external and internal reality for oneself, with no safe guarantees or comforting conformity to hide behind. When encountering irony, remember that not only is it a petty form of revenge, but it's another aspect of the same disease that underlies our entire error as a culture, and, with this in mind, deny it.
May 14, 2005