Friday, November 30, 2012

Too much irony and careless insouciance...or not?

The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism. The same goes for ironic living. Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise. To live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect, a form of subterfuge, which means etymologically to “secretly flee” (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.....This kind of defensive living works as a pre-emptive surrender and takes the form of reaction rather than action....
While we have gained some skill sets (multitasking, technological savvy), other skills have suffered: the art of conversation, the art of looking at people, the art of being seen, the art of being present. Our conduct is no longer governed by subtlety, finesse, grace and attention, all qualities more esteemed in earlier decades. Inwardness and narcissism now hold sway....
I, too, exhibit ironic tendencies. For example, I find it difficult to give sincere gifts. Instead, I often give what in the past would have been accepted only at a White Elephant gift exchange: a kitschy painting from a thrift store, a coffee mug with flashy images of “Texas, the Lone Star State,” plastic Mexican wrestler figures. Good for a chuckle in the moment, but worth little in the long term. Something about the responsibility of choosing a personal, meaningful gift for a friend feels too intimate, too momentous. I somehow cannot bear the thought of a friend disliking a gift I’d chosen with sincerity. The simple act of noticing my self-defensive behavior has made me think deeply about how potentially toxic ironic posturing could be.
First, it signals a deep aversion to risk. As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. (from Christy Wampole's opinion piece in New York Times, on NPR's On Point website, November 30, 2012, below)
I encountered something akin to Ms Wampole's irony when working with a colleague who, when he made an error at work merely said, "I didn't do it!" Both he and I knew that he had, indeed, "done it" but he was more than content, in fact needed to disclaim and disown responsibility or was he merely detaching from his error? Being a "old fogie," I found his responses distasteful, even unacceptable, and mistakenly attributed them to a culture of a local region with which I was slowly becoming familiar.
Yet, there is an all-too familiar note of ironic "detachment" or "disinterest" in what we might call potentially "sand-paper situations" in which the encounter might be conflicted even troublesome, perhaps even inflicting a mortal wound to the relationship.
Living ironically is "to hide in public" something we all notice around us, all the time. First, we rode in "sealed capsules" those cars we chose to ride to and from work in, by ourselves, disconnected from the hurly-burly of whatever is going on outside the bubble. Then, we created "cocoons" in our homes, narcissistically padding every corner, soothing the atmosphere with elevator music in stereo, and then dolby, then we added fifty-inch television screens, imitating the movie theatre in our own space, adding whatever luxurious amenities we could afford, like hot-tubs, spas, bars, jet tubs, and digitized electronics. Then we began to hide behind, or in front of, the computer screen, "connecting" with the world through digitized images, and then we added the hand-held devices that "command" our fixed gaze, in some "electronic apparel" that we have permitted to speak for our identity. "What kind of cell phone is your's?" "How fast is your network?" "Is it 4G yet?" "Oh, mine is!" "What a shame your's isn't!"
We listen to what are called political debates, knowing, as does every participant, that they are all "political theatre," and certainly not to be taken seriously, either by the speaker nor by the audience. And, so there is another profound example of ironic detachment from reality, under the rubric of "informing the public" when, in most cases, the experience shelters and clouds and separates the public from the truth and the reality of the situation. And now, with electronic devices, we have all become pundits, and we have all abrogated the language and the stance of the political leader whose capacity to "entertain" is one of the more important criteria for election, certainly not his/her capacity to lead.
Reactive living, along with the failure to actually see and be seen, and the failure or refusal to engage fully in conversation permits us to "flip off" virtually all aspects of our lives, including those that might actually have some deep and lasting meaning.
And with that comes an arrogant insouciance (the cheerful feeling you have when nothing is troubling you) as if you virtually and literally could care less about everything. It's called "cool" and I believe it was Marshall McLuhan who considered television the "cool medium" while radio was considered "hot"....and we have been increasingly our capacity and our addiction to becoming cool and more cool ever since.
A personal, intimate gift for a friend seeming too momentous, as Ms Wampole sees it, is another sign of the resistance to closeness, to being misinterpreted and considered "out-of-step" or "too intense"...and being, potentially, taken for granted, something that is akin to rape, for the contemporary ironists.
Fortunately, I have been considered "too much," and "too intense" and "too direct" all of my seven decades, through many social and cultural stages and masks to now revert to "ironic cool"...no one would believe it anyway, and I certainly would not sleep nights, if I even tried.
Risk aversion, however, is neither driven by, nor sourced in, irony, exclusively.
Risk aversion is wanting so much to be liked that one takes on the "protective colouration" of the environment, (in the case of humans that is the social-cultural-political environment, whereas with our four-legged friends, that usually means the vegetation). It comes with all ages, ethnicities, religions and generations. And it has since the beginning of recorded history. There are moments, however, when humans pull away from the conventional, and the comfortable, and throw off the expected, if only to demonstrate that they can to themselves, if not also to others, when something important seems to be "on the line" and then irony is no longer acceptable. For example men and women serving in Afghanistan peeled off their ironic mask the moment they landed in the war zone, as witnessed by the emails they sent to Ms Wampole in response to her articulate and provocative piece. When anyone comes face to face with a truth, perhaps a truth that might have been hitting them on the head, without their being either able or willing to name it, and then, suddenly, 'the light goes on' in their consciousness, there is, then no room, time or need for irony...it is like facing the loaded rifle of the enemy, and it is time to come clean with one's self. A gun, of any kind, pointed to the head, as the saying goes, does tend to focus the mind. That could be the gun of a potential loss of a marriage, or the gun of a potential firing, or the gun of a potential bankruptcy, or the gun of an iminent car crash....and while such moments are the sine qua non of most dramatic theater, they are not the stuff of "ordinary" daily bread and butter.
Religious leaders tend, too often, to try to paint conversion experiences in terms similar to the pointed gun, leading inevitably to "hell" or damnation or a closed door to eternal life....if the individual who is living "in sin" does not change his/her ways.
It may well be a metaphoric method of "focusing the mind" (on where the individual wishes to spend eternity) but is smacks of a complete and utter distortion and dissembling of anything that any God worthy of worship and trust would respect.
There is another "irony" in all this: that is that underneath our "carelessness insouciance" we are in fact, more caring and more compassionate and more willing to express that compassion, provided it is not merely another "staged" loading of the resume, for the corporate purposes of "personal aggrandizement" and another step up the ladder of "corporate, political and social success"....
And that just might be indicated in the plethora of non-profits that have sprung up in the last decade-plus, all over the world, conceived and executed by young people of all nationalities and cultures, on behalf of the millions we all know are struggling merely to survive, where irony is an insult to their very existence.
This is a highly sophisticated society of well-informed, and insightful young people, more highly educated then any of their predecessor generations, and also living in and through one of the most turbulent, even revolutionary times in memory, when more information is being generated, stored, disseminated, and analysed than previously, more and more subtle films are being written, produced, directed, acted and distributed, more books and periodicals being written and read and analysed and at the same time, there is a feeling of powerlessness that accompanies us, like our underwear, every time we leave home and enter the public arena.
Perhaps, this generation will be the ones to harness that powerless, bring their own creativity and imaginations to the task and generate models of collaboration that include the full range of literary, human, social, political and cultural expression, not to mention the inclusion of all races, ethnicities and religions...and that millennium would be one  which we would all choose to visit, if not move into permanently.
I prefer the view of the second guest on Tom's On Point, Jonathan Fitzgerald, author of the forthcoming Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity Is Changing Pop Culture for the Better and the editor of Patrolmag.com.
Fitzgerald, while agreeing that irony is not a sustaining ethos for an authentic life, nevertheless, does not have the serious concerns that contemporary culture and society is drowning irreparably in irony. Neither do I!
How to live without irony
By Christy Wampole, New York Times, from NPR's On Point website, November 30, 2012
Ms Wampole teaches French adn Italian at Princeton University, where, she says, her students do not use irony in any of their exchanges with her.
If irony is the ethos of our age — and it is — then the hipster is our archetype of ironic living.
The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.
He is an easy target for mockery. However, scoffing at the hipster is only a diluted form of his own affliction. He is merely a symptom and the most extreme manifestation of ironic living. For many Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s — members of Generation Y, or Millennials — particularly middle-class Caucasians, irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt. One need only dwell in public space, virtual or concrete, to see how pervasive this phenomenon has become. Advertising, politics, fashion, television: almost every category of contemporary reality exhibits this will to irony.
Take, for example, an ad that calls itself an ad, makes fun of its own format, and attempts to lure its target market to laugh at and with it. It pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful. No attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself. The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism. The same goes for ironic living. Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise. To live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect, a form of subterfuge, which means etymologically to “secretly flee” (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.
How did this happen? It stems in part from the belief that this generation has little to offer in terms of culture, that everything has already been done, or that serious commitment to any belief will eventually be subsumed by an opposing belief, rendering the first laughable at best and contemptible at worst. This kind of defensive living works as a pre-emptive surrender and takes the form of reaction rather than action.
Life in the Internet age has undoubtedly helped a certain ironic sensibility to flourish. An ethos can be disseminated quickly and widely through this medium. Our incapacity to deal with the things at hand is evident in our use of, and increasing reliance on, digital technology. Prioritizing what is remote over what is immediate, the virtual over the actual, we are absorbed in the public and private sphere by the little devices that take us elsewhere.
Furthermore, the nostalgia cycles have become so short that we even try to inject the present moment with sentimentality, for example, by using certain digital filters to “pre-wash” photos with an aura of historicity. Nostalgia needs time. One cannot accelerate meaningful remembrance.
While we have gained some skill sets (multitasking, technological savvy), other skills have suffered: the art of conversation, the art of looking at people, the art of being seen, the art of being present. Our conduct is no longer governed by subtlety, finesse, grace and attention, all qualities more esteemed in earlier decades. Inwardness and narcissism now hold sway.
Born in 1977, at the tail end of Generation X, I came of age in the 1990s, a decade that, bracketed neatly by two architectural crumblings — of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Twin Towers in 2001 — now seems relatively irony-free. The grunge movement was serious in its aesthetics and its attitude, with a combative stance against authority, which the punk movement had also embraced. In my perhaps over-nostalgic memory, feminism reached an unprecedented peak, environmentalist concerns gained widespread attention, questions of race were more openly addressed: all of these stirrings contained within them the same electricity and euphoria touching generations that witness a centennial or millennial changeover.
But Y2K came and went without disaster. We were hopeful throughout the ’90s, but hope is such a vulnerable emotion; we needed a self-defense mechanism, for every generation has one. For Gen Xers, it was a kind of diligent apathy. We actively did not care. Our archetype was the slacker who slouched through life in plaid flannel, alone in his room, misunderstood. And when we were bored with not caring, we were vaguely angry and melancholic, eating anti-depressants like they were candy.
FROM this vantage, the ironic clique appears simply too comfortable, too brainlessly compliant. Ironic living is a first-world problem. For the relatively well educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.
Obviously, hipsters (male or female) produce a distinct irritation in me, one that until recently I could not explain. They provoke me, I realized, because they are, despite the distance from which I observe them, an amplified version of me.
I, too, exhibit ironic tendencies. For example, I find it difficult to give sincere gifts. Instead, I often give what in the past would have been accepted only at a White Elephant gift exchange: a kitschy painting from a thrift store, a coffee mug with flashy images of “Texas, the Lone Star State,” plastic Mexican wrestler figures. Good for a chuckle in the moment, but worth little in the long term. Something about the responsibility of choosing a personal, meaningful gift for a friend feels too intimate, too momentous. I somehow cannot bear the thought of a friend disliking a gift I’d chosen with sincerity. The simple act of noticing my self-defensive behavior has made me think deeply about how potentially toxic ironic posturing could be.
First, it signals a deep aversion to risk. As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom?

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