The Rise of the Ironic Class


I have an article in the May/June issue of Relevant magazine entitled “The Rise of the Ironic Class,” which takes a look at why my generation is such an ironic one, what it means for our relationships, for communication, etc…

You can read the whole article here (the picture above is from the article’s title page), but here is a little excerpt:

It’s no secret: our generation—let’s very roughly say those of us currently between the ages of 15 and 40—is very, very ironic. That is, we look at the world, especially pop culture, through a highly sarcastic, “you’ve got to be joking, right?” lens. More self-aware and media savvy than ever, we are a growing class of ironists who speak in terms of pastiche, in Internet bits and pop culture bites, film quotes and song lyrics and “oh no she didn’t!” tabloid tomfoolery. We look the stupidity of culture in the face and kiss it—embracing The O.C. and drinking swill like Pabst because, well, because no one expected it and it doesn’t mean anything anyway.

There are reasons for our embrace of irony. We grew up in a world where earnestness failed us. Cold Wars were waged very sincerely, ideologies were bandied about with the best of intentions. Our parents married and divorced in all earnestness, and wide swaths of American homes were devastated by the sort of domestic disharmony that shattered any pretension of white-picket fence perfection. Meanwhile, we grew up in a constant orgasm of advertising and brand messaging. The conglomerates cornered the markets, the ad agencies figured us out, and MTV sucked our souls dry. But we also became savvy, and with the Internet and all the wiki-democratization it offered, it became easier to see through the charades of various culture industries and power-wielding hegemonies. Flaws were exposed, seedy schemes revealed amid the formerly shrouded machinations of “the man.” Nothing was sacred anymore, and all was ridiculous. (Read the rest…)

15 responses to “The Rise of the Ironic Class

  1. Pingback: My ironic generation «’s Blog

  2. David Foster Wallace, eat your heart out…

  3. Pingback: Refuseniks for Jesus « center & periphery

  4. Hey!

    Season 1 of the OC was great!

  5. Kevin Erickson

    As i said before: this article has some genuine insights and will likely be helpful to some folks. But ironic appreciation in youth culture can’t be rightfully understood apart from the dynamics of economic class and the the aspiration to middle-class respectability. Irony functions as a means of sublimating anxieties related to economic inequality without directly engaging questions of class. You don’t really get into that. Thus, your pun on Richard Florida is left curiously unfulfilled.

  6. Richie Heimbrock

    Your article reminded me of something called the “New Sincerity” which I was introduced to by The Sound of Young America’s Jesse Thorn. The link below is his explanation of it.

    In light of the CS Lewis quote you mention especially, I think Christianity offers a very broad foundation for recognizing the awesomeness of life around us.

  7. Hi, Brett, this is Jenny, I do still intermittently drop by, and I just wanted to say that I think this article is FANTASTIC. I think you really hit the nail on the head in terms of the causes of the phenomenon in our culture; it’s a defense mechanism against people who claim in all earnestness to know the sacred, the sure, or the sacred things with surety.

    It seems me to be not only a reaction against the ways in which these people fail – when earnestness isn’t enough, when intentions and/or religious fervor are misguided or accidentally white, dorky, or simple – but also against what seems to be the biggest no-no of all: any kind comfort, contentment, or happiness in an unhappy world.

    While we (as Christians or otherwise) obviously shouldn’t be totally comfortable and content with anything on this earth, fundamentally because it really is “less than perfect”, I think that ironic culture also largely resents people who feel like they’ve got it “figured out” to any even minor level simply because they think they’ve got it “figured out”.

    Granted, there have been a lot of unhelpfully self-satisfied people down through the ages, in both Christian and white-middle-class Full House circles, but it seems like a lot of the superiority of the ironic class is directed towards people who think they’ve got anything happily figured out when no one can possibly grasp the significance of the whole world, or even state the meaning of life clearly. Consequently, the ironic class loses the ability to distinguish between people who think they’ve got “everything figured out” a demeaning, belittling way, and people who think they have “some things figured out” – like the basic truths of Christianity – and are struggling towards a fuller understanding of that happiness, somewhat confusedly. Along the way, they label being “simple” or “naive” a worse crime than being “prideful”, “bitter”, or worst of all – “childlike”. The kingdom of irony is definitely not made up of such as these.

    I think that this is one of the real dangers of the culture – the idea that we should reject any kind of contentment, happiness, or innocent enjoyment just because not all the chips are down, not all the tangles are combed out, and we’re not five years old. There’s a powerful mixture of jealousy and superiority that goes along with viewing someone who is both happier and more clueless than you, and I think this is, in large part, what the ironic culture seeks out when it chooses its targets.

    It’s tempting to be snide about the fatuousness of people who get excited about riding in the cool youth group van or singing the dorky praise songs, and to get fatuous in our own snideness, as though we think that somehow being less happy ought to make us superior, de facto. It seems like that’s the point at which the logic of the ironic culture breaks – when you realize that its conclusion is that the less happy is, in point, superior.

    And while it is true that we shouldn’t ever be totally “happy” with riding in a church van or happy at all with the idea that we’ve got it all figured out and the world is simple, it also seems true that any mentality that rejects innocence and happiness per se is on the fast track to ruin.

  8. Actually, the whole time I was writing this, I had a quote from Evelyn Waugh in my head that I couldn’t quite remember in which he says that all our hatred of the simple, innocent, and uninformed is jealousy. It’s something that I agree with and disagree with quite violently; I think I disagree with it in a way that means it must be true.

    At any rate, I didn’t find it, but I did find a passel of other Waugh quotes that seemed to address the same subject:

    “Pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”
    — Evelyn Waugh

    …I don’t know if you’ve read much Waugh, but he was definitely one of the most superior ironists and satirists of his generation, and as I flipped through a webpage of his quotes – mostly from Brideshead Revisited – I was suddenly struck how this bitter irony isn’t all that new – in some ways, it seems to fit most strongly with the ‘smart set’ after WW1, addressed as ‘the Clevers’ by C.S. Lewis in his _Pilgrim’s Regress_.

    It seems that the loss of belief in anything in our generation has had an effect not wholly unlike the losses the culture suffered in World War 1. Not perfectly like, but in some ways, strong enough to note.

  9. Jennifer Anne –

    I think your response is spot-on. One question: throughout your comment, you link innocence and happiness. Is it at all possible to de-couple them? To imagine a childlike disposition, an innocent orientation to the world, into which an awareness of pain / imperfection / injustice / suffering is nevertheless folded? To imagine a person who is, say, innocent but perceptive? Innocent yet uncomfortable, unhappy?

    That would take the force out of the defense of irony implicit in your comment. (Though we should make a distinction between literary irony and the puerile irony of everyday conversations and attitudes. I’m quite happy to give up the latter, nervous about a gag-order on the former.)

    I think a next step in this theo-ethical exploration of irony would be to look at the New Testament call to innocence, to construct a biblical / theological definition of “innocence” (could we perhaps see it as a cognitive and spiritual ability rather than as a marker of inexperience and cluelessness?).

    Irony doesn’t just rip the scales off clueless eyes: it hurts our ability to get genuinely excited about *anything*, and I think it damages our ability to take each other seriously.

  10. Oh, definitely, but thanks for making the point! I don’t really think you have to look much further than Alyosha Karamazov for a spotless example, or, really, any of the ‘holy fools’ of the Russian literary tradition, or most of the greatest and most alarming saints – Saint Francis jumps to mind quickly. :)

    I was quoting Evelyn Waugh in my follow-up – I also think his character Cordelia from _Brideshead Revisited_ is supposed to fulfill this role in an explicit way, in contrast to the other characters. She can border on inexperience and cluelessness at points, but in the end, I think the reader is supposed to get over their initial disdain and realize that they are the ones left inexperienced and clueless in their cynicism. I don’t know if you’ve read that – I can never figure out whether it’s obscure or not!

    I think this is really the position that Christians are *supposed* to occupy on this planet, pure in our own moral actions and yet saddened by the destruction around us. Unfortunately, I think that sin obviously keeps us from reaching this lofty goal, so, ironically, flipping those words around – to ‘not innocent, but happy’ – is a good way of describing people who are on the journey towards this end, working out their salvation in fear, trembling, and a struggle to regain innocence lost – but with ultimate hope, and thus, at base, happiness. I think that writers like Lewis, Chesterton, and others who emphasized both measuring the brokenness of human actions and their wonder urge this viewpoint in their nonfiction.

    >>(could we perhaps see it as a cognitive and spiritual ability rather than as a marker of inexperience and cluelessness?)

    Oh man, my favorite Chesterton essay in the entire world is all about this; it’s called “A Piece of Chalk”, and in it, he urges his audience to look at the color white – standing for purity, which is basically the same thing as innocence – not as an *absence* of other colors or blemises (INexperience, clueLESSness), but as a positive flaming virtue and state of mind. I don’t know if this thing likes HTML or not, but here’s the link: A Piece of Chalk.

  11. I was just re-reading my comment (stupid time to proofread, Jenny) and realized that it’s hard to say ‘innocent and yet unhappy about the evil around’ without sounding like I’m calling for self-righteous condescension. Bummer.

    It’s actually funny how people who embody that mentality, come to think of it – innocent but deeply aware of unhappiness in the world around them – are some of the people who seem upon description the worst. What an annoying and self-satisfied, or at least boringly unflawed and unrealistic character Alyosha Karamazov is when you describe him – in some ways, even moreso his mentor Father Zosima – and yet, in the end, they are some of the most memorable and transcendent personalities in all of our literary canon.

  12. The discussion above is great, Jenny & Periphery.

    2 comments: I think we should notice the social location of earnestness and irony. In Brett’s article, the earnestness that the ironic class reacts against happens at the level of the Cold War, mass advertising, cultural phenomena like rising divorce rates. In some of the defense of irony from Purdy and related discussion, irony is a defense against individual pride, taking one’s self to seriously. Without resources other than snarky irony, resources that build constructively at levels other than how seriously we take ourselves, will the ironic class enjoy itself, see the world better, but effectively cede the field to those still willing to be earnest and dangerous (think earnest writers of legal briefs endorsing torture)?

    Second: maybe the rise of irony makes ours an especially exciting time for Christians. To be earnest/innocent in a Christian way in the midst of the ironic class requires the virtue of courage. Staring down the snark with a Biblical, theologically thought out innocence would be a courageous action and engaging calling.

  13. Pingback: symconlyd: episode 1 — the oreo

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