Christy Wampole, French professor at Princeton, tries to rally readers against irony, calling it a “pattern of negation [that] siphons energy from the cultural reserves of the community at large.”
There’s certainly a wrong way to go about irony: that kind of perpetually cynical, borderline nihilistic use of it as a Rortian defense mechanism against the clashing truth claims of a pluralistic culture. Detachment and cynicism congeal into a shallow sense of triumph. This, indeed, is a false way of living, for it is closed to the most basic philosophical and theological dilemmas of human existence; dilemmas like “what does it mean to ‘be good’?”, or “why is there death and why was I created and given life?” that are inescapable and demand answers. Wampole is especially concerned about the way this unseriousness impacts her students, young people at a top-tier school who (maybe more than anyone) ought to be feeling the power and urgency of these questions. In a follow-up interview, she opines that too many young people are “quite professional, eager, serious, and engaged,” inside the classroom but seem to behave quite differently (to put it gently) once gone. So far, fair enough.
But her denunciations of irony’s permutations eventually shade into a full-stop indictment of the mood. In doing so, she embarks on denunciations of anyone who “hides behind indirect language” and implores us to “look at your clothes. What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves? Do you attempt to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly?”
Is it even possible to live in a world not like this? I wear a “costume” “reminiscent of an archetype” every time I show up at the office or attend a nice dinner or venture outside in cold weather. As do cops, judges, monseigneurs, and mail carriers. And is Wampole’s remedy—urging people to shun artifice and express their “real” selves without restraint or subtlety—really all that countercultural in a society whose popular entertainment is mostly confessional and exhibitonist anyway? Couldn’t we do with some more ritual? More importantly for this topic, why does irony have to—always and everywhere—be opposed to seriousness?
But what is irony, then, if it’s something broader than what the professor attributes to fixed-gear bike riders and apathetic college students? At a basic level, irony is what happens when a statement proves pluripotent; when an event has more meaning to it than was intended. It’s a rejection of the premise that “A = A,” that the perceived and the actual are the same, and that talk of metaphysics must be mumbo-jumbo. Its careful use can lead us to a far richer, and truer, experience of the world. “Serious irony” can serve to remind us that earnestness is no guarantee of excellence or rightness. It can shock us into realizing that the neatest blueprints, the most powerfully-felt convictions, may still be misguided, blind, or illusory.
And more than that. What about those ironies of faith, which add up to a kind of divine comedy? Surely there’s something ironic about the statement that losing your life is gain; that an unanswered prayer or unexpected suffering can, in some inscrutable way, lead to learning and sanctification; that bread and wine appear to our senses unchanged but become the body of our Lord. Wampole is right to note that fundamentalists aren’t ironists; she’s wrong about the religious. That maligned “indirectness” is a major way we comprehend and relate to the divine.