From detached cynicism to irrelevance: Welcome to the coming world of post-irony
Since the mid-'90s, we've been warned that the end of irony was nigh. At the time, it was beginning to dawn on a generation nourished by irony from the cradle that however superior one felt watching Nick at Nite reruns, at the end of the day one nevertheless had wasted one's time watching television.
The distancing cynicism of the ironic world view lost much of its usefulness once it had become the all-purpose tool of the ad industry--our very lack of faith converted into a trusty means of binding consumer to brand. Yet for all the declarations that a post-ironic culture was emerging, it never quite seemed to arrive.
What will post-irony look and feel like, should it ever materialize? For starters, it won't resemble the vision of 23-year-old Jedediah Purdy, author of For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today. Championed by a coterie of gray-templed humanists, Purdy reigned as literature's It Boy for about three minutes when his book first appeared a couple of months ago. In it, he employs lots of big words to argue that media-fed irony has corroded the spiritual health of the young and calls for the renewal of commitment and faith. Alas, this is pre-irony, and not likely to make a return appearance soon.
A much better bellwether of post-irony can be found in the once-obscure literary magazine McSweeney's, lauded in the recent New Yorker "Next Generation" issue as the Next Big Thing.
Created by a dropout from the world of big-time consumer mags, McSweeney's was conceived as a home for rejected writing sacrificed on the altar of buzz. The alpha consumers who read it can be sure they won't encounter Harry Potter, Oxygen Media, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs or the convergence of Hollywood and the fashion industry in its pages. Its editorial policy disdains the topical and the timely--the very thing the New Yorker itself was famous for in the days before it took its editorial ideas from soft-drink slogans.
At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I'd say it is a wee bit ironic that this refuge of the untopical skyrocketed to Now status at the speed of the stock price of an Internet IPO. But for the trend-spotter eager to catch up with the post-irony curve, what matters is the light McSweeney's sheds on the smirkless cool of post-irony.
In the post-ironic age, irrelevance is cool. Post-irony breaks the "famous for being famous" tautology of the audience appeal. Its philosophy is that something is interesting not because people are interested in it, but precisely because they are not. McSweeney's is Murmur to Tina's Talk, designed to elicit mutters, not buzz. Trend-watchers take note: Its fans are the early nonadopters that set the pace for the post-ironic age.
What is McSweeney's about? Not much, which in context is a compliment. The print edition is hard to come by (especially after the New Yorker plug), but there is a Web site, designated as "Cool" on Yahoo!, where you can sample the jeux d'esprits and little nothings of post-irony. This stuff is so hype-phobic, it makes E.B. White seem like a coolhunter.
There's the stuttering minimalism of "The Employees at My Post Office, They Have a Good Time": "There is glass between them and us, so it's impossible to discern what makes them laugh and smile They are efficient and courteous. They are shaped differently, but wear the same clothes." In the background, a TV talk show natters, but our author, far from being ironically superior to it, simply refuses to comprehend it.
Or take "Summer of Summer of Sam," which is not, the author hastens to say, about the Spike Lee film, but rather about something that "happened to happen" to him around the time the movie opened. You see, in the detached ironic world, shit happens; in the post-ironic one, it just happens to happen.
If you think this can't catch on, consider This American Life, a cult public radio hit that now attracts a million listeners nationwide each weekend. Now in its fifth year, TAL is a post-irony pioneer. In an era in which experience-hungry consumers are snowboarding the north face and lighting aromatherapy candles in the bath, TAL tells stories of people who "choose not to live every moment to the fullest or smell the roses, and instead choose to withdraw from life, to make themselves numb."
There was one show that explored "the nature of not doing," featuring writer Geoff Dyer reading an excerpt from the book he wrote about why he did not write a book about D.H. Lawrence, while another hour was devoted to exploring "what we do when we're not doing something."
In our culture of nonstop sensation, post-irony takes refuge in the gaps between events, the moments more often ignored.
And you thought "edgy" was cool.