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Irony in the unreal America

January 31, 2010

From the first line, it calls itself “a response to an ironic time.” Jedediah Purdy’s For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today introduces itself as a manifesto against irony, but this impression is misleading—unintentionally so, one can only assume. For one thing, it comes out, albeit in the last chapter, that irony as such isn’t so bad: the right kind of irony is actually a good thing! For another, irony turns out to be only one among several symptoms of a deeper sickness, and not even the most prevalent or pernicious. Nevertheless, you get the sense that the book began in aesthetic distaste—for Jerry Seinfeld and Beavis and Butthead—and only later grew into a reflection on the broader impoverishment of our moral, cultural, and political lives.

To be clear, then, For Common Things is not a work of literary or pop culture criticism, at least not directly. It’s really about the pervasive ethical degradation of our public and private lives. In short, we have become disconnected from the values of honesty, devotion, love, discipline, purpose, dignity, community, and hard work. We mouth endorsement of them, but we no longer live by them. In consequence, we withdraw from our friends, our fellow citizens, and our environment. We embrace distorted or counterfeit values; we live on junk food rather than whole grains. This explains why our politics is so shallow despite its rhetoric, why we abuse the environment and call it sustainable development, why we are tricked into privatizing schools, prisons, hospitals, and utilities, and ultimately, why we are so lonely, frustrated, and unhappy.

That’s all true, and pretty obvious. For Common Things was published a decade ago, but still, if you’re happy with the amount of venality, stupidity, and self-deception in American life, you haven’t been paying attention. Most of us still live lives of quiet desperation.

Purdy is more interesting as a kind of pop sociologist tracing the different lifestyles that feed on this ethical withdrawal. He discuss four, and irony is really only important to one. The first is a literal withdrawal from the world, a hermit-like refusal to have any more than minimal contact with the world, on any terms. This seems to be more or less what his parents did—they abandoned more conventional lives to work a farm in rural West Virginia—until his mother ran for the local school board, a pivotal event in the book. So it’s surprising that it gets only passing mention, uncommon though it is. The other lifestyles that Purdy identifies I will call narcissistic futurism, sentimental hedonism, and naïve ironicism. As social types, these are the hard-charging businessman, the soft-minded housewife, and the affectedly jaded college freshman. As cultural artifacts, they are Wired magazine, Touched by an Angel, and Seinfeld. In different ways, each avoids facing the challenges and possibilities of human life: by self-improvement through faith in ever newer technology, by self-medication through faith in the power of positive thinking, and by self-protection through a lack of faith in anything, including the things one says.

Purdy really needs to be clearer about the distinction between irony and what I have called ironicism. The problem, as I say, is never actually irony but the worship of irony. Irony itself is just another tool, like technology or positive thinking, that can be abused and fetishized, used to do things it cannot ever do and invested with significance it cannot ever have. What is dangerous is not the ironist who simply means something different from what he says but the ironicist who, in his attraction to irony, forgets to mean at all, including what he says. (Clever ironicists sometimes claim to be meaning something, namely the impossibility of really meaning anything, but they more than anyone should recognize how feeble an evasion this is.)

To return to the main topic: Purdy’s best insight is that these three lifestyles, futurism, hedonism, and ironicism, spring from a common source: wounded nihilism, which is to say, disillusionment. Observers as far back as Tocqueville have identified a strand of individual exceptionalism in the American psyche. That is, we all take radical autonomy as our birthright. We all think we are talented enough to achieve dreams of our own design on terms of our own choosing. When we inevitably fail at this, it’s our own fault. This is an insane recipe for psychic self-mutilation, for it imposes impossibly high standards: you not only have to succeed, you have to do it your way. But instead of actually rethinking our hereditary exceptionalism, we build elaborate defense mechanisms. Worse, we deceive ourselves into thinking that life’s hard questions are not worth even an honest attempt, that having no answer is as good as having one, that the traditional answers are indecent, and that the easy and self-serving answers are better than most.

This, I suspect, is why the ironic temperament becomes exhausted so easily. It begins from the idea that each of us should be radically independent, should generate ourselves from our own will and imagination. When that ambition disappoints, and his phrases and acts do not glisten with newness, the ironist treats his own derivative behavior with the vague contempt that a selfishly expectant parent might show toward a child who fails to perform.

At least in the abstract, the antidote to this disillusionment is clear: less individualism, less exceptionalism, finding meaning in one’s one place in the larger community and in the larger tradition. “The exercise of a good mind, or a good personality, is the accomplishment not of escaping a tradition but of having understood its elements well enough to make them one’s own reflectively, to sort and distinguish among them.” Far less clear are the concrete steps to this goal. There are powerful suggestions though. Purdy radiates an attachment to the farm life that he was raised on. He speaks approvingly of Wendell Berry, who rediscovered the joys of a simpler, earthbound life when we returned from New York to rural Kentucky. But he falls short of actually making a general endorse of the agrarian ideal. Berry is treated mostly as an example of how, with freely chosen commitment, we trade some our freedom for greater fulfillment. When Purdy discusses his own idyll, it’s always with the disclaimer that, well, he can’t help it, it’s what he knows, it’s the means by which more general lessons were first taught.

This is a bit annoying, though. It shades into the idea that the rural life is somehow in itself magical, incorruptible. It’s no doubt better than many, and better than most people think. But it’s no guarantee; everything, even idyll, has its degraded double. Fortunately, I’m quite sure Purdy isn’t so simple-minded. But in that case he owes us I think some suggestion of what the fabric of non-rural but similarly grounded life would look like. It’s hard, but important: without it Purdy’s ethical ideals are bound to seem remote. If Purdy’s upbringing entitles him to his rural touchstone, city- and suburb-dwellers are entitled to help in finding theirs.

Purdy’s championing of tradition and community can also come off as significantly more parochial than (I think) it is. To be sure, we are shaped by our communities. The withdrawal of a few can make a community collapse like an ecosystem: as more people withdraw, the incentive to stay committed goes down, and so the pace of withdrawal accelerates. And to be sure, common things are among the most precious, useful, and visible things threatened by ethical withdrawal. But other, private things are also degraded. Purdy sometimes suggests that this is because common things are being degraded, but it’s not as though community and tradition are the special founts of value in the world. However, he sometimes gives the impression that community is the key to it all: “so far as we care for anything at all, we must hope for a great deal from a great number of people, institutions, and relationships in which whatever we immediately care for is caught up.” But in general, things don’t have power because they are part of a tradition. More precisely, they might, but only a secondary kind of power that it would be criminal to mistake for their core. It’s the opposite: more often than not, things are part of a tradition because they have power in themselves. Traditions get things wrong, and can be added to or revised in novel and unexpected ways. This is because the power they draw on is independent of them. The same thing goes for community. It’s good to be connected to a community, but most valuable things connect to us to a community only because they have real, independent value, not vice versa, which at its worst is an insidious kind of collectivism.

Perhaps inspired by a farm life in which man and nature seem to fit together, Purdy has decisive tendencies toward a kind of holism. The parts of his universe are not just impressively organized but fused. Straightforward prose is connected to personal earnestness is connected to manual work is connected to social democracy is connected to an affinity for nature is connected to an ability to feast on mundane beauty. A threat to a part is a threat to the whole. Purdy’s somewhat surprising focus on irony is partly explained by his epigraph, Czeslaw Milosz’s claim that ‘what is unpronounced tends to nonexistence’. In other words, irony threatens earnestness and so the things it is worth being earnest about. But is this true? Does Seinfeld threaten mountains in West Virginia? Does reading Wired magazine lend covert support to school privatization? There is something unsettling in the thought that the human world, because continuous with the natural, should have a moral order as precise and fragile and total as nature’s ecological order. It may not amount to much, but Purdy is awfully fond of the phrase “moral ecology”.

Surely the human world is more complex and fractured than all that, with complicated and sometimes contradictory lines of dependence. Everything is connected, but only more or less, and often in ways that we are free to shape. But even as we inhabit different spheres, we are still individuals: we do only one thing at a time. Because of this limitation, irony can help us navigate and explore our complex and sometimes conflicting commitments. Ironically, Purdy is often a good spokesman for irony. He thinks it was crucial to Montaigne’s ability to negotiate of French life in the wake of religious war, and used correctly, irony can work “surprise, delight, and reverence” from banal materials.

It’s certainly bad to get wrapped up in symbols instead of the important things they’re supposed to stand for. There is far too much of this nowadays, but it has nothing much to do with irony. If anything, irony can help prevent it. Nevertheless, the ironist is an easy target because he is hard to read. Instead of considering what he is actually saying, you can criticize him as duplicitous for not speaking straightforwardly and as cowardly for his (apparent) failure to commit himself. Irony sometimes masks these defects and worse, but modern irony is often a response to the complexity of our times, and it is easier to rail against the ironist than examine the conditions which make irony necessary.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2010 9:43 am

    hi Matt,

    This is a lovely, thoughtful post. As an artist and storyteller, I find Irony an essential tool. Given the immensity of the craziness around us, the use of irony seems a required skill. But, as you note, irony has its own built in challenges.
    – Michael

  2. Bruce permalink
    February 25, 2010 3:03 pm

    Good insight on modern irony. I would just add that “eternal irony” is somewhat of a more persistent historical theme – how do we manage the recursive or pragmatic fact of immutable incompleteness (of knowledge)? I see eternal irony as pointing in a very hopeful direction – it forces each of us to examine things in context and, most ultimately, learn to appreciate the grander project of understanding (as opposed to the less grand project of generating knowledge) through reading, appreciating, and working together. As a writer, this is what I attempt to convey in my work. Hopefully the message makes it way out as I intend it.

    Thanks, and keep up the good thinking.

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