On September 18, 2001, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, declared, “I think it’s the end of the age of irony.” He was trashed for the sentiment. Only a month after the event, Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times mustered an impressive list of examples of how over the centuries, cultures responded to “disturbing historical events” not with “PG-rated displays of inspirational good taste but darker works of art resonating with a culture’s deepest fears and forebodings.” It was, she wrote, Jay Leno’s inanely bland humor that already seemed out of sync, while Will Ferrell’s George Bush impersonations, up and running on Saturday Night Live by early October, and The Onion’s pertinent fake headline “U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We’re at War With” seemed most apposite. Apparently, a thriller called Don’t Say a Word (I don’t remember it either; I was running around Chelsea with a wet hankie to dampen the lingering smell of burning buildings and flesh while fretting over its effects on the lungs of my then-3-month-old boy) was No. 1 in the last weekend of September.
Carter’s statement also occasioned some dispute over what irony meant—Carter seemed to have been referring to reflexive postmodern irony of the sort that produced Seinfeld and The Simpsons and was shallow and disengaged and trite and just not sufficiently serious for a moment when the U.S. had been shaken out of an isolationist reverie like the kind that preceded Pearl Harbor. There were calls, like one in a wonderful essay by Zoe Williams in the Guardian (I remember reading it in 2003) that suggested we were using irony in a sloppy fashion, à la “postmodern” or even “post-ironic,” and that irony should be parsed more precisely, leaving room for an engaged irony that fights back at shallow patriotism, pompous rhetoric, and the lies that those in power use to bludgeon the rest of us into line.
“The end of irony would be a disaster for the world,” Williams wrote. “Bad things will always occur, and those at fault will always attempt to cover them up with emotional and overblown language. If their opponents have to emote back at them, you’re basically looking at a battle of wills, and the winner will be the person who can beat their breast the hardest without getting embarrassed.”
If this sounds a lot like the past decade—indeed a precise description of today’s Washington—it is most likely because irony never really did make a comeback after 9/11. It may never be provable that 9/11 is the reason irony went tits-up, but it’s certainly curious that irony reared its pointy head neither during the boom years nor during the bust that (in classic ironic fashion) followed. It takes only a cursory review of the events of the past ten years to see how ineffective irony—both of the self-congratulatory spokie variety (Où sont les trucker caps d’antan? ask the furry Brooklynites now earnestly singing call-and-response songs from the fifteenth century at their Montauk CSAs) and the Swiftian exposing-the-absurdity-of-the-modern-condition variety—has been against the forces of darkness. Those of us who cast about in our workstations in the early and mid-aughts trying to craft sentences and post blog entries that would shake the world into action about how George W. Bush would take the world to the brink of global economic collapse while inadvertently aiding and abetting the rise of Islamic extremism, found little purchase while the president more or less did exactly everything we feared.
Where irony mustered, it did credit to its lineage. I can count the usuals: Stewart and Colbert and Morning Joe. The Office was smart about the absurdities of lumpen white-collar life. Saturday Night Live went “political” and occasionally was okay, while early Gawker led a blogger charge past irony into the murkier precincts of snark. But they were rara avises and semi-effectual to boot, after Stewart: It is hard to cite an influential author, essayist, blogger, artist, or musician who has brought to bear the full range of ironic whizbangery to strike even merely an emotionally satisfying blow against the ever-more-powerful political-financial complex, one that is dragging this country to Depression-era levels of income inequality, while Washington frog-marches us toward a new kind of banana-republicanism.
More concerning, even, is how the discourse seems to be corrupted, the language of truth itself undermined by sinister Ailesians manipulating the potent tools of cable TV and the web and social media to propagandize. Irony works best when forces are arrayed in a coherent fashion. When facts are made stupid things and there is no coherent center to mediate truth, most irony starts falling on deaf ears because there is no lingua franca—the reference points are fuzzy, or the jokes hit but without breaking skin.
World War II may have given us Catch-22 and the Vietnam War Dispatches and Apocalypse Now, but the more recent wars have yielded us little beyond, say, Three Kings. The most effective instruments of information counterterrorism have been documentaries like The Tillman Story and Restrepo and scripted but documentary-feeling films like the Academy Award–winning The Hurt Locker, which strove to use the emergent idiom of handheld “realness” to give us intimate portraits of soldiers caught in the PTSD-inducing miasma of asymmetric combat. The odious General McChrystal was taken down by a magnificent Rolling Stone article, though—ironically—McChrystal himself has been inexplicably rewarded with an Obama-administration sinecure. When reality itself moves past irony to absurdity, irony starts seeming like a lot of frantic waving of hands.
No sixties-style counterculture emerged to challenge the current dispensation. Whatever is left of indie culture is choking on its own tweeness: Fleet Foxes, the moment’s most ubiquitous indie outfit, is earning plaudits with “Helplessness Blues,” an anthem of pre-apocalyptic capitulation and retreat: “If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore / And you would wait tables and soon run the store.” The “millennials” (a generation named at a time when the millennium actually seemed like an epochal moment, rather than what came after) may be the most earnest generation ever, dewy-eyed-ly making bespoke beer and chocolate and taking over a digital future only they intuitively grasp.
Indeed, it may be the confluence of 9/11 and the dominant culture of webby self-expression that may have dealt irony a double death blow. The habit of retailing one’s innermost thoughts and feelings, now abetted by Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr, was born in the ashes of 2001. They are mediums that seem to repel the ironists and embrace the earnest-ists in a warm, gooey, communal hug (insert emoticon here). We are all now brave little soldiers, working our orchards till we’re sore and hoping one day to run the store.
Michael Hirschorn, the founder of Ish Entertainment and the former head of programming at VH1, writes regularly on technology and its impact on culture and society.