Dude, Where's My Sincerity?
Long before Alanis Morrissette conflated it with bad luck, irony was a literary tactic that rarely popped up in everyday speech.
But isn't it ironic — don'tcha think? — that snark and insincerity now seem to dominate today’s interactions?
From political satire to personal conversations dripping with sarcasm, we're constantly tasked not only with understanding the words others use, but also decoding tone and intention. And in an era where so much of our communication takes place virtually, figuring out what someone actually means can be downright exhausting.
How did we get here? Let's dial the clock back a hundred years or so to find out.
1916 – DADA LAYS THE GROUNDWORK
Having previously fled their native Germany for neutral Switzerland, poets Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings open the nightclub Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Celebrated for its anarchic, often absurd performances, as well as poetry and visual art that challenge the prevailing art establishment, Cabaret Voltaire soon becomes the de facto home of the global Dada movement.
Responding to the bewildering devastation of WWI, Dadaism rejects prevailing ideas about the value of things like truth and artistic beauty, in favor of anything that turns the status quo on its head. Though initially controversial, this guiding philosophy of contrarianism gains traction in subsequent art movements.
Perhaps more significantly, it sets a new standard for using irony as a weapon.
1928 – BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL
The famed Belgian surrealist René Magritte paints The Treachery of Images, a portrait of a pipe, accompanied by the French words “Ceci n'est pas une pipe” (translation: “This is not a pipe”).
In other words, this isn't a pipe, merely a representation of one.
Magritte’s winking commentary on the relationship between perception and reality also pokes fun at the superficiality of art itself – a self-effacing awareness that later reappears in countless works of visual art, cinema, and literature.
1939 – POSTMODERNISM THROWS OUT THE RULEBOOK ON NARRATIVE STRUCTURE
Two years before his death, James Joyce publishes his final work. The notoriously difficult to read Finnegan's Wake is considered by many to be one of the first “postmodern” novels – boasting a highly unconventional narrative structure, as well as many words that Joyce appears to have invented himself.
Bold readers powering through Joyce's dense, nearly 700-page tome are confronted with the nagging notion that the whole thing could just be an elaborate joke.
In the British magazine The Listener, Scottish poet Edwin Muir writes, “I cannot tell whether [Finnegan's Wake] is winding into deeper and deeper worlds of meaning or lapsing into meaningless.”
But while Finnegan's Wake is an incredibly difficult read, it opens the door for authors to build complex literary worlds, to play with narrative structures, and to pepper works with a wide array of cultural references.
1962 – ART POP BLURS THE LINE BETWEEN HIGH AND LOW
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) holds the exhibition, “Symposium on Pop Art.” At its core, Pop Art is a tongue-in-cheek attempt to elevate the mundane and the ordinary to fine art status – usually by reproducing images from comic books and magazines. But before long, the movement is absorbed into the larger consumerist culture it's attempting to critique.
Among the most famous Pop artworks is Andy Warhol's iconic Campbell's Soup Cans series. At a 1964 exhibition, called The American Supermarket, $6 cans of Campbell's soup bearing Warhol's signature are sold alongside $1,500 portraits of those same cans. In 2012, to mark the 50th anniversary of Warhol's paintings, Campbell's sells “limited edition” cans of soup, with labels that imitate Warhol's signature color palette.
Thus, an endless cycle of commodification, where art that questions the status quo ultimately becomes absorbed by it. Ultimately, the message gets lost, until a new wave of rebel artists emerge with a fresh attempt. Rinse, repeat ad absurdum.
1967 – IRONY AS ACTIVISM
Vietnam War-era activists, the “Yippies” (or “Youth International Party”) deploy irony as a political tool. Their most notable piece of performance art is the “nomination” of a 145-pound hog for the 1968 U.S. Presidential race. Nixon wins anyway.
Still, when compared with most other activism of the day — typified by deeply earnest marches and “sit-ins,” with lists of idealistic demands on display — the Yippies' performance represents a startling left turn. The Yippies' influence can be still felt in modern political movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, which made regular use of irony to get its message across.
But just as irony criticizes, so, too, can it help ward off detractors.
1981 – MUSIC TELEVISION EMERGES, SELF-AWARE
On August 1, MTV makes its debut by playing the music video for The Buggles' song, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” By poking fun at its role as a promotional outlet, MTV’s snide self-awareness is able to serve as a buffer from criticism. In ensuing decades, countless other media properties borrow the technique.
As musician (and early MTV darling) David Byrne later tells Time Out New York magazine, “People use irony as a defense mechanism. When things get so absurd and so stupid and so ridiculous that you just can't bear it, you cannot help but turn everything into a joke.”
Speaking of jokes...
1988 – DISCOVERING THE FUN OF FAKE NEWS
University of Wisconsin students Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson launch the satirical newspaper, The Onion. While the print version of The Onion proves popular on college campuses and in hip, urban settings, it is the eventual web version that becomes a phenomenon a decade later – flooding the internet with “fake news” articles read by millions who, in some cases, don't get that it’s a joke (Content warning: may contain strong language).
Of course, such is the danger with satire: when it's too good, people tend to take it at face value, thereby missing the point entirely — a concept comedian Stephen Colbert would see play out first hand twenty years later with his hit show The Colbert Report.
1991 – IRONY BECOMES LINGUA FRANCA OF GEN X
Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit” takes the world by storm, cracking the top ten in 16 countries (topping the charts in 4 of them). The song is at once a celebration and a parody of mainstream pop music.
The lyrics are deeply cynical, calling for revolution only to quickly wave it off. (“Oh well, whatever / Nevermind.”) It's a marked departure from 1980s pop songs, which, if not always upbeat, generally didn't undermine their own message in the last verse. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” becomes an anthem for a disenfranchised Generation X, and sets the stage for a decade defined by snark and ironic detachment.
1993 – IRONY’S OPUS
David Foster Wallace publishes “E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” in the summer edition of the literary journal, Review of Contemporary Fiction. Wallace criticizes the tendency of modern pop culture to be self-referential and self-mocking at the cost of addressing truly important questions.
“What do you do when postmodern rebellion becomes a pop-cultural institution?” he writes. “[Irony and rebellion] have been absorbed, emptied, and redeployed by the very televisual establishment they had originally set themselves athwart.”
But while Wallace's essay is widely read, it does little to stem the tide of systemic irony. Indeed, popular culture and irony only become more intertwined. By the end of the decade, the writing staffs of many popular TV shows are peopled by Ivy League grads — including former contributors to satirical outlets such as the Harvard Lampoon — who seemingly can't help but plant their tongues firmly in their cheeks.
Present: THE INTERNET DESTROYS SINCERITY
Television aside, nothing has done more to increase the provenance of irony than the internet. This is due in large part to “meme” culture, which combines over-the-top imagery with snarky text to create engaging, highly shareable content that “goes viral” all too easily.
Admittedly, the relationship between irony and social media is sort of a “chicken and egg” scenario. While self-referential commentary and glib humor existed long before the internet, their prevalence has increased exponentially in the digital age. And since text and images don't come with the same visual or verbal cues as in-person conversations, it's often difficult to decipher their true meaning. But even in person, it’s harder than ever to tell what’s real and what’s just sarcastic.
David Foster Wallace hoped that institutionalized irony could be defeated by a group of principled “anti-rebels,” “willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes [...] the parody of gifted ironists” that comes with both asking and answering earnest questions.
While this sort of paradigm shift likely wouldn’t rid the internet of misinformation, it could help restore irony to its former glory — as a powerful tool to be wielded deliberately by artists and satirists, and not the dominant form of communication.
And, like...that wouldn't not be cool. Ya know?