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The Irony Habit

Tom Cutterham


We are less afraid that people will not understand us than we are that they will understand us all too well. Irony is a built-in get-out clause for thoughts and feelings we’re unsure about, or possibly ashamed of. Richard Rorty, the pragmatist philosopher, said that this is a good thing. Ironists practice a sort of radical uncertainty about their own beliefs; an ironist, said Rorty, “does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others,” which makes her much less likely to get into fights.

Soren Kierkegaard, on the other hand, thought it was pretty important to know what we do and don’t believe in; he was a Christian after all. He wrote, “the ironist is a vampire who has sucked the blood of her lover and while doing so has fanned him to sleep.” Irony is seductive but it leaves you with “troubled dreams,” and a shortage of blood. He would have labeled pragmatism bloodless, if it had existed when he was around.

It’s hard not to share Kierkegaard’s anxiety. He worried about irony’s effect on its audience. Specifically, he was thinking of Socratic irony, the feigned ignorance that tricks and traps its victims into undermining their own arguments and instincts. Irony is great at destruction, but “singularly unuseful” on the constructive side, as David Foster Wallace pointed out. “Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig.”

Irony is so ubiquitous that it is the default option for discourse, and sincerity becomes impossible. Remember in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), John Cusack’s hit-man goes to his high-school reunion? He tells his old friends straight-up: “I’m a hired killer.” But his love-interest is shocked when she finds out he actually is. “You were joking! People joke all the time about the horrible things they do, they don’t do them! It’s absurd!” Then, in the film’s most tragic – and ironic – line, she tells him, “You’re a liar.”

The irony habit makes liars of us all. No-one can differentiate the real thing from its mock form. Hence the mirage of authenticity, which melts away as you approach. Think of twee music (or equally, heavy metal), in all its earnestness, with all its unabashed kitsch; isn’t it also irretrievably self-conscious, knowing, double-edged? Just the existence of kitsch makes the point: things we like only because it’s so absurd to like them. But does that mean we actually like them, or not?

Rorty’s conception of the irony habit goes further than Kierkegaard’s, because it sees how it turns back against itself: the ironist is not just a performer, she is also in the audience. The instincts and arguments we bring into question are our own as much as anyone else’s. We can no longer say what we like or believe, what we “actually stand for.” We ironists are vampires who suck our own blood.

The irony habit was born, for modern times, to fight the fascist ideologies that sought to build worlds in the image of themselves. Theorists and artists in the post-war era, at least the ones who weren’t Marxists, reacted against the kind of confidence that had led Europe to destruction. They built postmodernism on uncertainty and the pervasiveness of double-meanings, a refusal to be pinned down that now marks our ironic culture.

That culture is a useful antidote to the new fundamentalisms of both east and west. But on the other hand, as Wallace says, it’s just so negative. Can we make something, or believe in something, and still be responsible, pragmatic, uncertain? Maybe the next epoch will be neither sincere nor ironic. It will know that it knows nothing, and yet long to know. Maybe it will yearn to be understood all too well.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in American History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Tom is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.