The History of Irony and Why It’s Kinda Fucked Up
By Liam Hansen (he/they)
Almost every time I’ve walked into a room these past few months, I’ve compulsively blurted out “Howdy!”. I don’t know when or why it became my default greeting, and I don’t notice myself saying it until somebody comments on it. The habit of saying cowboy shit ironically became ingrained into my mind, being given a second life through its ironic usage. Now, I’ve come full circle. I am one with the yeehaw, and the yeehaw is one with me. What the fuck has happened here? Moreover, why does this keep happening? There are so many habits, pieces of media, songs, phrases, etc that I and many others started doing, saying and consuming as a pisstake, before we started doing it so often that we began genuinely enjoying it. This is essentially part of post-irony; one of many, many layers and deconstructions of irony that scholars (well, YouTubers and people on Twitter) have been discussing for years. Time for you to be dragged down the rabbit hole, and forget if anything you do is meaningful.
Firstly, how do you do something ironically? It’s hard to say considering the various types of irony that exist in the world, but for our purposes we’re mostly looking at verbal irony: saying a certain thing that holds an ulterior and usually oppositional intention. When I say ‘howdy’, I’m not aiming to have others perceive me as a wannabe cowboy - I want them to see me lightly making fun of cowboys, drawing humour from the absurdity of a scrawny teenager from New Zealand like myself using language I have absolutely no right to be using. Trying to explain why something is funny is really cool and natural, isn’t it? Ah shit, I just did a verbal irony again.
I don’t think verbal irony is solely verbal anymore - We can apply the concept to our deliberate actions as well. You do something, not to get its intended purposes out of it but to get its unintentional humorous outcome. Say, you watch the Fast and Furious movies - which were initially intended to make their audience entertained through dramatic acting, tense chase scenes, and awe-inducing visual FX. But you probably don’t give a shit about any of that - you’re only watching it because the scale of the drama becomes absurd, the feats of the car chases are insane, and Vin Diesel is a bit shit at his job.
You can even get extra irony points if throughout the movie you pretend to think it’s sincerely enjoyable! You can apply this system of getting joy out of something's unintended ramifications by listening to shitty music, wearing out-of- fashion clothes, saying irrelevant phrases, and onwards.
But then, there’s a second point beyond the irony, where the lines are blurred. The pretence of taking the piss slowly falls away, and you begin doing something because you’re sincerely enjoying doing it, or being ironic about your own irony. For example, I keep progressively seeing other students and young adults watching The Chase, to which we may claim “We aren’t ACTUALLY watching The Chase because we enjoy it - that’s what old people do. We watch it because we’re making FUN of old people who watch The Chase, and get VERY invested in getting every question right.” However, you can see a shift in mannerisms over time, between enjoying something ironically and actually becoming invested. That show is incredibly fun to watch with other people, allowing you to actually talk to them and bond whilst also proving that you could TOTALLY win. It’s great! We love Bradley Walsh! So why do we continue to mask our genuine enjoyment of media, and general sincere actions, with irony? Is irony even relevant in the modern age?
This is, unfortunately, the portion of the article where I have to try and explain modernism, and postmodernism. Just bear with me as I profusely generalise and under-explain these concepts - We’ll get through this together. In brief, modernist philosophy took centre stage as the default western worldview around the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. It was defined by idealism and innovation, generally branching away from religious schools of thought and embracing various new ones. These range from anarchism and communism, to fascism and the development of capitalism, which all created their own new grand narratives about the way that the world was run. Technologically, we saw radio, electricity, and cars built, thanks to the industrial revolution. In literature and theatre, experimentation was the primary goal - think along the lines of early surrealist and absurdist work. Those who embraced the modernist view had reason and hope. It sure would be a shame if the two biggest wars of western history happened within a single forty year period, with the interim seeing a mass pandemic and economic turmoil!
We all kinda became cynical dickheads after WWII - which is understandable, considering the whole ‘mass death & destruction’ thing. Many of the idealist concepts behind modernism were either denconstructed, disproved or completely fucked over. Apathy around the economy rose as The Great Depression came and went and half the political philosophies proposed during the period caused mass genocide in The Holocaust. Thus, postmodernism isoften viewed as a response to the failures of modernism. It saw sceptical questioning of the perceived truth, and a complete abandonment of the grand narratives from the modernist era. Stories of the time became incredibly meta and ironic, constantly deconstructing and making fun of itself as somewhat of an attempt to be above the concept of hope. Work was constantly referencing itself and other pieces of art, parodying each other and pushing the extremes of genre beyond their limits. Think about the way Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy, Pulp Fiction, Monty Python, and (according to the Wikipedia page for Postmodernist Cinema,) Shrek, take tropes of their respective mediums and genres before completely warping them into satirical takes on themselves. Other genres get folded into this wider concept, with dramatised reality TV shows and extended multiverses slotting right into postmodern media tropes. With the way that media influences the rest of our lives, postmodernism has made it difficult to take anything seriously.
To many, postmodernism largely replaces trust in grand narratives with that of one's lived experiences. Rather than basing your idea of life on the concepts presented by a particular school of thought, you based it off of what you’ve seen in your everyday life, the people you’ve met, and the things you’ve gone through. But the sceptical and insincere world we’ve lived in for so long has become increasingly prevalent, to the point that now seemingly everything is built to be ironic from the ground up. This has had an effect on practically everyone born during or after World War II. We take the piss out of everything and anything - Think about how quickly the death of Queen Elizabeth II was shared through the medium of shitposts and brutal tweets. We all live in a constant echo-chamber of references, irony, and insincerity. Or at least, we used to.
Postmodernism has never really died out. We all view things through our own lens of the world, but society has been completely skewed by satire. Everything, from ads to products to books, is now self-aware and the first to make fun of itself. I don’t think we really can let go of irony anymore, when it’s honestly a fun perspective to analyse and discuss life through. The whole appeal of philosophy is seeing our world deconstructed - we just got to a point of deconstructing that one time over. However, we’ve seen a rise in a progressive post-ironic art and actions, especially on the internet (credit to YouTuber Jreg for coining this concept). Where in saying something ironically means you’re doing it with a different outcome that’s intended, doing something post-ironically means you are doing something sincerely, whilst insinuating that you’re doing it ironically. As with everything in this stupid fucking article, this is impossible to explain without an example : “I Love You”, said sincerely, means I love you. You could say this to your partner or to however else, and fully mean it. However, you could also say “I Hate You” with a wink and a nudge, making a joke about how you obviously love your partner, so it’s absurd to say the opposite. These days however, you may say “I Love You” with an excessive wink and a nudge to your partner, pretending that you’re being ironic. This, in of itself, is a joke about a joke. It’s even more absurd to be insinuating that you’re only saying “I Love You” to your partner as a joke about how much you hate them. It’s a double subversion, where the joke is that you’re pretending to lie. The irony itself is ironic.
This is why any article that claims “Irony is dead” is a bit bullshit - because it’s not. We’re just in a state of post- postmodernism, where we joke about the fact that we’re being sincere. This, as with everything in life, brings me back to The Chase. Just as verbal irony can be applied to your actions and media consumption, you can indeed watch something post-ironically. Kind of. Watching The Chase sincerely means you watch it because you enjoy the comedy of the host & the chasers, plus you like to compete in game shows - especially in the company of other people. But in saying that, you’re aware of the appeal the show has for older audiences, and perhaps just how invested they can get into it. For some people, this is the only way they’ve viewed The Chase - so when you chuck it on at 5PM on the dot, you may be doing so in an effort to make fun of how absurdly attached to a show some people can get. But then, we become attached to the show genuinely, and enjoy it for the aforementioned sincere reasons. I’ve continuously seen people sarcastically pretend they only watch it as a joke when we know damn well that we just enjoy it. This same context that balances genuine enjoyment with a sprinkle of irony is honestly one of my favourite ways to enjoy TV, media, and life in general. Holding a general attitude about the world around you that’s generally sincere and optimistic, but not absent of a bit of fun, shitposting is just plain fun. Let go of endless pessimism, and make fun of your own sincerity if you want to. Nothing matters, and if you enjoy greeting people as a cowboy for no reason, then be my guest, partner.