Big Smoke

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In Defense of Irony

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Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll have taken aim at today’s Millenial counter-culture in what they feel to be “lazy cynicism” and a “recursive irony:” Co-opted by corporate forces and wallowing in their own ennui, today’s disaffected youth, they argue, are directionless and mere driftwood upon their artistic betters in the postmodern world. Irony is fucking up culture. It’s true: We certainly rely a lot on snark and satire, from the interminable pages of the Onion to the comforting glow of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When, they posit, will we snap out of it and start producing something substantively, honestly real instead of just cracking wise?

These men lack perspective. They quote David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon’s prophecies of cultural vapidity and sneer at Tao Lin’s hipster self-critique Shoplifting From American Apparel with “New Tao Lins publish every day, feeding the culture’s desire to watch its own destruction,” but their criticism on the over-abundance of the Millenials’ directionless languor bears strong resemblance to that which the Boomers heaped on Generation X’s punks. Ashby and Carroll laud the inevitable counter-counter culture, in the form of ‘earnest’ postmodern art, but that path has been walked before: Though it came from the UK, Trainspotting is a good example of a stark reaction to presumed punk counter-culture malaise. Likewise, how else could William Wimsatt’s Bomb The Suburbs have been written, if not to highlight suburban ‘wiggers’ and the tragedy of those youth? But these, like Tao Lin, could not exist in any earnest way without acknowledging exactly why the aimless disaffection exists in the first place and why the first impulse is to deflect and mock.

Or, perhaps they could consider the Silent Generation’s criticism of the Boomers’ hippies, with Bob Dylan’s ironic co-option of folk music inflection as an explicit means to be seen as more authentic, much as a lot of today’s indie bands seek ‘amateur’-sounding recording sessions and emphasize acoustic instruments. Or we could go back to the iconic Rebel Without A Cause and discuss the inherent shortsightedness contemporary sociologists called the wave of Angry Young Men at that time. Consider Kerouac’s Beat epic On The Road, to which Truman Capote flippantly panned, “that’s not writing, that’s typing,” and the subsequent backbiting amongst critics on who was the bigger poseur, or the wise-cracking yet futureless delinquents Sondheim lovingly lampooned in West Side Story.

This is to say, it’s a generational thing, and today’s self-consciously ironic Millenials are no different in how they have chosen to deal with the world. Tao Lin’s apathetic pallor may differ stylistically from Chuck Palahniuk’s or Trent Reznor’s simmering rage, but it’s all equally masturbatory, or rather it’s all equally a coming-of-age thrashing about to come to terms with what is, at heart, a fucked-up culture to begin with. That’s why counter-culture exists, and the art simply reflects that. To demand that artists deal with it differently is a foolish request, for what that is asking is to pave snark over with smarm; a culture so obsessed with authenticity ought to know better. Indeed, that is Ashby’s and Carroll’s central premise:

“Dishonesty is the biggest obstacle to making original, great art. Dishonesty undermines a work’s internal integrity — the only standard by which a work can succeed… Irony alone has no principles and no inherent purpose beyond mockery and destruction. The best examples of irony artfully expose lies, yet irony in itself has no aspiration to honesty, or anything else for that matter.”

What, then, does that make Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller? How is Jonathan Lethem ‘worse?’ American culture has a long tradition of sarcastic, sardonic, detached self-reflection. What was Hunter S Thompson pointing out if not the fact that that earnestness was also by nature self-destructive? We have, are, and will continue to muddle on. Today it’s hipster irony, which, as a means for a generation stuck in the Second Gilded Age while about to double-dip back into the Great Recession to vent their spleen, is a far cry better than the bullets and bombs they could very well pick up instead.

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