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The use of anti-irony

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Monday, Aug 28, 2006

I always thought the anti-irony backlash was a matter of fashion cycles on the one hand and commonplace American anti-intellectualism on the other, but maybe it is just another expression of good-old fashioned sexism and bigotry. At Pandagon.net, Amanda Marcotte makes an interesting point about the anti-irony backlash that has been building since the Bush presidency began: “I would also say the rise in irony has a lot to do with the growing mainstream acceptance of diversity and feminism—now methods of humor that were the province of ‘losers’, aka women, queers, the poor, and people of color—have room to be expressed in the mainstream and that growing power of the disempowered is causing this anti-irony, anti-sarcasm backlash.” This argument is predicated on the idea that irony is disguised rebellion, a way the “disempowered and marginalized” can speak truth to power without being imprisoned. (The nature of Soviet humor bears this out.) This all flies in the face of the assumption typically pedalled by cultural commentators of the David Brooks/Chuck Klosterman ilk, that irony is an expression of smug superiority, not of exclusion. They posit the ironist as an overeducated liberal type who needs to reject what other people do and disdain anything that becomes popular with their snide remarks. Unlike the earnest (the phony opposite of irony), the argument goes that ironic people express nothing “positive” and are too afraid to show any “sincere” interest in anything. Ironists are often depicted as elitist hipsters who think they are better than everyone, better than the rules of mainstream society itself, down to its very syntax and semantics. But this could simply be another instance of the persecution mania cultural conservatives seem to suffer from, in which the behavior of others threatens the putative normality of their own. They long so to be normal, yet the concept of normality is maddeningly in the hands of others, and the median and mean they generate. They sense emerging acceptance for something they find alien, so they ascribe a disproportionate amount of power to its purveyors, imply they are dictatorially imposing these alien ideas (be it irony, or marriage rights, or whatever) on a populace that can’t relate to them. So the free expression of non-mainstream ideas is squelched, producing ironic discourse, which is then taken as further proof of the twisted and abnormal and inauthentic (because not “earnest”) aims such groups who employ irony are harboring. The irony Marcotte suggests is on the rise, creating diversity and threatening that vicious cycle, may in fact be the necessary portion required to keep that cycle going. We need token funny minority characters (be they gay, female, or intellectual) to ensure that such groups remain on the margin. Being funny, then, may be a cultural stigma, and when you’re making people laugh, they are perhaps laughing at you, to keep you down.

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