By Kaveh Nasseri
Irony: it’s everywhere. In a postmodern age where every trope, every theme, and every belief system has been wholly deconstructed, nothing is free from the hyper-cynical shadow that it continues to cast with reckless abandon. Indeed, irony is so widespread–particularly when it comes to internet culture–that the very idea of sincerity, once a profoundly intimate way to connect with another person or the world at large, has gone out of style.
If we’re to understand the implications of this sincerity deficit, we need to look to the past. Our contemporary cynicism is a direct byproduct of postmodernism: an intellectual movement that developed in the latter half of the 20th century and defined itself in opposition to the “grand” narratives and sociocultural characteristics of the earlier modernist movement. It’s a broad term that critics have always had trouble defining, but for our purposes, it’s important to understand that postmodern thinkers generally adopted a more cynical view of reality than their predecessors. In addition to this cynicism, they dismissed objective claims to truth, turning instead to a relativistic understanding of the world.
When we look at the cultural shift fostered by the move from modernism to postmodernism, it isn’t hard to notice a gradual change in our media, and by extension, in ourselves. From the 1960s onwards, the products of film and television developed a decidedly cynical and pessimistic attitude. While this was by no means a bad thing–some of the 20th century’s most significant creative projects were the consequence of this shift–it soon entered the mainstream, and it hasn’t left since.
Consider the development of television, for instance. The network TV of the 1950s and early 1960s traded in both family-friendly sitcoms replete with what we now call “heart” and the idealistic sci-fi of humanist programs like Star Trek. On the other hand, contemporary networks paint over their products with a distinct coat of darkness. Trends that began with HBO in the late 1990s and early 2000s have now become the norm: cynical and oftentimes heavily ironic prestige dramas and snarky adult cartoons are everywhere. In a similar vein, the once bright vision of comic book superheroes has given way to one of gritty and conflicted kind-of-heroes: compare for instance the Superman of Christopher Reeves to Henry Caville’s Man Of Steel to witness the evolution of this trend.
Critics began pointing to the negative consequences of such widespread cynicism back in the 1990s, when irony and sarcasm reached a crescendo in the cultural sphere. The late David Foster Wallace, a vocal critic of the ironic age, encouraged readers to turn away from excessive cynicism in favor of a new, reconstructive form of sincerity. Thinkers like Wallace were often categorized as being part of the post-postmodernist movement, a name which is itself the product of an ironic, tongue-in-cheek mode of thought. But despite their warnings about unabashedly ironic media and the cynical attitudes that characterized such creations, things haven’t changed much in the two decades since.
On the contrary, our generation is more ironic, more cynical, and consequently more detached than any before. This detachment is the crux of my argument: the problem isn’t with irony itself, be it as a form of humor or a vehicle for genuine criticism, but with how excessive irony allows us (and maybe even forces us) to detach from ourselves and others.
Meme culture in particular enables our generation to delve deeper into irony than ever before, a fine example of this broader phenomenon. Instead of conveying genuine emotion or even just using wholesome humor to get a laugh, our memes are deep-fried in a kind of contemporary bitterness that verges on the nihilistic. Social media has made it easy for such sardonic modes of communication to spread; and when these memes are unabashedly ironic, the only thing broadcast from one party to another is a particularly pungent brand of negativity.
Look no further than online trends in which themes of depression, anxiety, and even suicide are promulgated to no end under the veil of dark humor. We use crying emojis and skulls–historical symbols of grief and mortality–to express laughter. In any other context, this kind of behavior would invite more than a little bewilderment, but we’ve come to see it as being perfectly natural. The sheer frequency with which young adults make reference to suicide and other serious topics while concealing their actual feelings behind said irony should be incredibly concerning. Instead of raising alarms, though, these emotional barriers have become normalized to the point of being commonplace.
Meanwhile, the fact that adolescents dismiss memes promoting a sincere or optimistic worldview as products of a cringy and outdated epoch proves my point: we’ve let irony run so deep that it’s replaced sincerity entirely, and what kind of person would want to live in a world without sincerity?
The solution demands a return to authentic forms of thought, culture, and communication. In short, we have to teach ourselves to actually care about things, stripping away the ironic layers of cool detachment to reveal the softly beating heart of human compassion that lies concealed below. When all is said and done, then, moving past irony isn’t just about evolving into better creators and consumers. It’s about evolving as human beings, forever desperate to escape this cyclone of cynicism and run headfirst into the long-forgotten sanctuary of sincerity.