A brilliant and timely reflection on irony in contemporary American culture
“This book is a powerful and persuasive defense of sophisticated irony and subtle humor that contributes to the possibility of a genuine civic trust and democratic life. R. Jay Magill deserves our congratulations for a superb job!”
Cornel West, University Professor, Princeton University
“A well-written, well-argued assessment of the importance of irony in contemporary American social life, along with the nature of recent misguided attacks and, happily, a deep conviction that irony is too important in our lives to succumb. The book reflects wide reading, varied experience, and real analytical prowess.”
Peter Stearns, Provost, George Mason University
“Somehow, Americansa pragmatic and colloquial lot, for the most partare now supposed to speak the Word, without ironic embellishment, in order to rebuild the civic culture. So irony’s critics decide it has become ‘worthy of moral condemnation.’ Magill pushes back against this new conventional wisdom, eloquently defending a much livelier American sensibility than the many apologists for a somber ‘civic culture’ could ever acknowledge."
William Chaloupka, Chair and Professor, Department of Political Science, Colorado State University
The events of 9/11 had many pundits on the left and right scrambling to declare an end to the Age of Irony. But six years on, we're as ironic as ever. From The Simpsons and Borat to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, the ironic worldview measures out a certain cosmopolitan distance, keeping hypocrisy and threats to personal integrity at bay.
Chic Ironic Bitterness is a defense of this detachment, an attitude that helps us preserve values such as authenticity, sincerity, and seriousness that might otherwise be lost in a world filled with spin, marketing, and jargon. And it is an effective counterweight to the prevailing conservative view that irony is the first step toward cynicism and the breakdown of Western culture.
R. Jay Magill, Jr., is a writer and illustrator whose work has appeared in American Prospect, American Interest, Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Policy, International Herald Tribune, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Print, amongother periodicals and books. A former Harvard Teaching Fellow and Executive Editor of DoubleTake, he holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hamburg in Germany. This is his first book.
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Chic Ironic Bitterness
By R. Jay Magill, Jr.
THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESSCopyright © 2007 University of Michigan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGood Morning, America
* * *
Insofar as irony becomes conscious of the fact that existence has no reality, thereby expressing the same thesis as the pious disposition, it might seem that irony were a species of religious devotion. -Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony (1841) In the age of irony even the most serious things were not to be taken seriously. -Roger Rosenblatt, Time, September 20, 2001 You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably. -Jon Stewart on Crossfire to Tucker Carlson, cohost (2004)
Nine days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Time magazine columnist Roger Rosenblatt declared "The Age of Irony Comes to An End":
One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony. For some 30 years-roughly as long as the Twin Towers were upright-the good folks in charge of America's intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes-our columnists and pop culture makers-declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life.... The ironists, seeing througheverything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything. The consequence of thinking that nothing is real-apart from prancing around in an air of vain stupidity-is that one will not know the difference between a joke and a menace.
Rosenblatt continued by unleashing a hefty amount of anger against "the vain stupidity of ironists" who try to see through everything. There will be no room in this new and chastened time for "columnists" and "pop-culture makers," people who think that they're "oh-so-cool." Times now are serious, so the chatterers won't be around much longer. "In the age of irony," Rosenblatt offers, "even the most serious things were not to be taken seriously.... [even] death was not to be seen as real. If one doubted its reality before last week, that is unlikely to happen again."
Rosenblatt's opinion of irony, it turns out, was shared by many. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times the esteemed civil rights historian Taylor Branch thought that the attacks on America had brought the nation to "a turning point against a generation of cynicism." Gerry Howard, editorial director of Broadway Books in New York, told Entertainment Weekly, "I think somebody should do a marker that says irony died on 9-11-01." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Phil Kloer reported that September 11 spelled the demise of a popular culture "drenched in irony and cynicism" that was "a playground for postmodern hipsters," wherein the "appropriate response to anything is the jaded, all-purpose 'whatever.'" James Pinkerton of Newsday went a triumphant step further and decreed a victory for "sincerity, patriotism, and earnestness" and, countering the Seinfeldian premise, announced that "there's more to life than nothing, that some things really matter."
Perhaps most famously and oft cited was Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair and former editor of the defunct satirical Spy magazine, who predicted immediately after September 11 that "there's going to be a seismic change. I think it's the end of the age of irony." His pronouncements went rippling out into newspaper opinion-pages and websites across the nation. "Things that were considered fringe and frivolous," Carter claimed, "are going to disappear."
This reaction against frivolity is entirely understandable. Blogs and web pages of places like Reason, Salon, and Slate buzzed with commentary for and against Carter's and Rosenblatt's statements. Finally, a free-for-all topic. Everyone had something to say about attacks on irony, in part because, for those who use it regularly, it seemed so personal. More broadly, however, the logic of the cautionary tales seemed to hint at something bigger: a Marx-like alchemy at work: all that is ironic melts into air. The literal dissolution of the Twin Towers heralded a new day, a dispersal of irony into the ether. Patriotism and earnest engagement would rise like so many phoenixes from the flame. Earnestness regained.
Even on television! In a wise move, the Fox Network, which operates one of the most enthusiastically and self-consciously "pro-American" cable news channels, pulled the movie Independence Day-the defining image of which is an exploding White House-from its Sunday, September 15 airdate. Likewise, the Family Channel yanked the movie Earthquake in New York, scheduled for September 18. Television comedians were faced with similar dilemmas. David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, and Jay Leno, showing great tact and public remorse, did not deliver their normal comedy routines. Outted by the tragedy of September 11, ironists and the postmodern hipsters who populated advertising firms, magazine editorial offices, and sitcom writing rooms were being seen for the plague on the land that they were. In this "new and chastened time," they would have to shape up or ship out. Somehow irony and terrorism became, in some more ethereal realms and for abstract reasons, conceptually interrelated: both were against holding society together.
But: popular culture to the rescue again-with irony, warts and all. New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani went on Saturday Night Live three weeks after the attacks of September 11 to tell the country that it was okay to laugh again, that New York was "open for business," that life could get back to normal. Emanating from the hallowed portals of satire, the city's mayor avowed that the work of the nation could continue.
September 11's concrete horror, its piercing reality and unrelenting moral weight, in total effect, its seriousness, was supposed to have spelled the end of ironic disengagement in America. Pundits like those above argued that a whole generation of Americans, most notably so-called Generation X, having never felt truly threatened, would now have to shed their cynicism and take life seriously, as had their grandparents of the Greatest Generation. The morning of September 11 was supposed to have shorn Americans of their moral relativism and leniency, reignited earnestness and civic union. It was supposed to have summoned another, sustained, Great Awakening.
It did not do that. American popular culture now and the sensibility necessary for the consumption and understanding of that popular culture is even more satiric-critical than before September 11. Though the political discourse (and corresponding political reality) has become more serious-grave, even-very little in pop culture has changed. The youthful taste for the ironic, sarcastic, and biting-especially as utilized in the critique of power-is perhaps now even more widespread on cable television, print publications, and the Web than before that fateful moment in American history.
Perhaps most interestingly over the past few years is that the most strikingly truthful and enlightening points about society and politics are being highlighted by the most ironic among us. As the real news becomes more like a blockbuster movie filled with loud noises, PlayStation-like graphics, theme music, shiny things, and exhausted clichés, the most surprisingly truthful criticism of political leaders, culture, and social realities is coming from fake-news sources and satire. And some of the many places that summon and continue the satirical tradition-wherein irony serves to liberate thinking from deadening social forces, old clichés and stereotypes, stupid biases, hypocrisy, and oppressive public mores-are various television shows on Comedy Central, The Colbert Report, Chappelle's Show, Adult Swim, and South Park, and on The Simpsons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Family Guy, American Dad!, Da Ali-G Show (now exclusively Borat), The Office, Extras; magazines and websites like Harper's, Gawker, Jest, McSweeney's, Salon, and The Believer; and satirical newspapers like The Onion, about which the über-earnest Ken Burns has written, "Unlike any other entity in our media culture, [The Onion] offers a refreshingly honest look at our complicated life." In a culture seen as having false values, honesty speaks most loudly under the cover of outlets posing as the real.
Television-news journalists and reporters were shocked in early fall 2004-particularly Bill O'Reilly of The O'Reilly Factor, who swiped at Stewart's "dopey show" for speaking primarily to "stoned slackers" (that was Half-Baked, holmes)-to learn that among nineteen thousand surveyed young adults in their twenties, 16 percent trusted Comedy Central's Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, more than they trusted two of the three major network news anchors. Moreover, "viewers of late-night comedy programs, especially The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, are more likely to know the issue positions and backgrounds of presidential candidates than people who do not watch late-night comedy."
Stewart and the writers at The Daily Show, as well as at The Colbert Report (both created by Stewart's Busboy Productions) deliver the news in spotlessly wry fashion, utilize irony, sarcasm, and general bubble-bursting to report on major events of the day from the perspective of the secretly-still-idealistic-but-presently-disappointed-in-everything observer. Colbert's entire show takes place under the cover of irony, from the cheesy patriotic graphics, theme music, bold typography, to the part he plays of the ultraconservative, vigorously pro-American talkshow host, mocking en extremis Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity of Hannity & Colmes. But it is crucial to note that The Daily Show, in particular-being the far more serious of the two-also repeatedly and rigorously holds politicians and other official figures accountable for their past public statements, which are, ideally, consistent and not duplicitous.
Highlighted, of course, is the radical inconsistency and blatant contradiction at the highest levels of government and authority. At this point the show trades satire for brutal, bleak reality, accentuating the hard fact that this is, ultimately, no joke. In this sense The Daily Show values logical and moral consistency by using select video clips and actual quotations to do what many other talking-head shows do not (save Sunday mornings, Mr. Russert): actual analysis and setting standards for condemnation or praise. For these reasons-for both satire and bleak truth-the show's following is enormous (over 1.1 million each night), and Stewart's book, America: The Book was number one on the New York Times best-seller list for several weeks and a worldwide best-selling book in winter 2004-5. The host's appearance at the 2006 Oscars ceremony-impressive in itself for someone not yet a household name-received mixed reviews, many saying that Stewart simply floundered. It must be hard to parody something that is already unwittingly parodying itself.
Nonetheless, when Stewart satirically reports the news, he is perceived as more honest and credible not because his words are more honest, that is, literal, matching directly word for meaning-for they mostly mean something other than what they say-but because his audience is interpreting the subject and sentiments that are behind those words: a melancholic yet searingly truthful account of how citizens feel about what is going on in the world as reported on network news. Through satire (not fake news, as the stories are always pegged to real events) The Daily Show, at the same time it mimics the format of serious news, also shows the artifice of other "unbiased," or "objective" news networks by highlighting the clichés and mechanisms by which they function. Through ironic posturing, that is, Stewart and the writing staff at The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are paradoxically communicating authenticity, sincerity, and honesty-legitimacy. Comedy keeps watch on journalism now; it is the Fifth Estate, so to speak-especially when journalism all around seems to be exhibiting increasing degrees of shoddiness, feigned objectivity, and an ability to be swayed by political "inducements."
The interesting and important conflict between the figure of the ironist and the television pundit was brought to a head in a now well-known spat between Jon Stewart and conservative talk-show host Tucker Carlson, along with cohost Paul Begala, on CNN's Crossfire in fall 2004. In the conversation, it is Stewart-the-ironist, the satirist, who tells the "serious" host that his program is not helpful to American culture, that Crossfire is not doing debate, it's doing theater; it's "hurting America." Stewart reaches a point of credible earnestness and concern for the public good; Carlson seems like the pundit who is not actually concerned with the public good, but rather, his television show and public persona (bow tie and all). Here's an excerpt from the official CNN transcript:
Stewart: You know, the interesting thing I have is ... You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.
Carlson: You need to get a job at a journalism school, I think.
Stewart: You need to go to one. The thing that I want to say is, when you have people on for just knee-jerk, reactionary talk ...
Carlson: Wait. I thought you were going to be funny. Come on, be funny.
Stewart: No. No. I'm not going to be your monkey.
Begala: Go ahead. Go ahead.
Stewart: I watch your show every day. And it kills me.
Carlson: I can tell you love it.
Stewart: It's so-oh, it's so painful to watch.
Stewart: You know, because we need what you do. This is such a great opportunity you have here to actually get politicians off of their marketing and strategy.
Carlson: Is this really Jon Stewart? What is this, anyway?
Stewart: Yes, it's someone who watches your show and cannot take it anymore.
Stewart: I just can't.
Carlson: What's it like to have dinner with you? It must be excruciating. Do you, like, lecture people like this, or do you come over to their house and sit and lecture them? [Do you tell them] they're not doing the right thing, that they're missing their opportunities, evading their responsibilities?
Stewart: If I think they are.
So it is Stewart who, in the end, has the last word on civic responsibility on a program that boldly exists to foster civic responsibility through debate. "If your idea of confronting me is to say that I don't ask hard-hitting enough questions," said Stewart, whose show at the time was preceded by Crank Yankers, where foul-mouthed puppets make crank phone calls, "then we're in pretty bad shape, fellas." Shortly thereafter, deliciously, Carlson was fired from Crossfire.
For the reason of Carlson's release, CNN's then-new president, Jonathan Klein, "specifically cited the criticism that the comedian Jon Stewart leveled at Crossfire when he was a guest on the program during the presidential campaign," wrote New York Times' Bill Carter. And when, shortly thereafter, Crossfire itself was canceled, Klein said he agreed "wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart's overall premise." Especially after the terror attacks on September 11, Klein believed, viewers were less interested in opinion, more in actual information.
To be fair, though, Carlson, who went to MSNBC in February 2005, said he had actually quit Crossfire prior to Stewart's appearance. He had agreed to stay on until his contract was over and said he actually had a deal as the host of a nightly program on MSNBC. (Either more or less embarrassingly, he was then eliminated from Dancing with the Stars in September 2006. No further comment is necessary.)
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a bit over a year later, Leslie Moonves, co-chief executive of Viacom, owner of CBS and Comedy Central, speculated in January 2005 that Jon Stewart might take over for outgoing CBS News anchor Dan Rather. Moonves then let the conjecture slide, but even that this option was considered evidences the bizarre equivalence of real and satirical news and, moreso, how Stewart's credibility trumped that of other potential candidates-that is, actual journalists.
This begs an interesting question: Is The Daily Show just doing really good news, or is the real news becoming more like sketch comedy? Without a doubt, and more scarily, it is the latter; but it is in part because The Daily Show is highlighting the operational strategies, false sentiments, and techno-aesthetics of major-network and cable news programs, undercutting them as sources of trustable information. Of course, they make it easy: many segments are created simply to fill airtime. Stewart himself denies that his audience is getting their news from his show, per se; jokes on his half-hour show require preknowledge of political and historical events to comprehend. Apparently he's right: the Annenberg and Pew Studies (there you go) both confirm that young political sophisticates come to The Daily Show more for a sense of like-mindedness than to get the news.
Excerpted from Chic Ironic Bitterness by R. Jay Magill, Jr. Copyright © 2007 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
ContentsINTRODUCTION You Are Being Sarcastic, Dude....................1
CHAPTER ONE Good Morning, America....................15
The Ironist Sensibility: A Poorly Drawn Sketch....................29
Two Manifestations of a Social Character: Ironic & Cool....................35
Recent Talk about Contemporary Irony....................52
Irony & Cynicism....................59
An Extended Note on Nostalgia....................68
CHAPTER TWO Excursus on the Genesis of Irony as a Worldview....................73
Irony in an Early American Vein: Two Figures Every American Ought to Know....................81
CHAPTER THREE European Romanticism Ushers in New Meanings of Irony....................87
German Romantic Irony....................96
CHAPTER FOUR Irony and Civic Trust....................111
Irony Is Just Another Word for the Disintegration of Measurable Social Capital....................115
Jeremiads: The Social Tonic....................130
CHAPTER FIVE Trust, Civil Society, and the Social Contract....................147
Protestant Values in the Social Contract....................162
CHAPTER SIX The Descent of Inner Dependence....................173
Calvinism and the Self....................184
CHAPTER SEVEN Inward, Christian Soldiers....................195
The Wake of Romanticism....................209
And Now: The Debate Recast!....................212
Elected Official, Heal Thyself....................223
CHAPTER EIGHT Conclusion (i.e. Everything Summed Up Nicely)....................227