Irony and a Genuine Love of Absurdity

“If irony is the ethos of our age — and it is — then the hipster is our archetype of ironic living.” So opines Christy Wampole, over in the New York Times’ opinion section. This opening suggestion, and the examples that play out through her entire piece, have a weight to them that has taken me awhile to pin down. They ring true, but something else rings false here.

The article traces our tendency to hide from direct praise: if you only give ironic gifts, for instance, you’ve failed to interact with your loved ones in a personal way. This is a problem for many, and reflects our fear of attachment or genuine love; after all, love requires risk. Technology has played a role here, but our tendencies are older than this internet-influenced world. She eventually sums up what she wants to convey:

Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.

There’s a lot of good here. I’m a fan of saying what we mean, and meaning what we say. I’m not convinced the ethos of irony is quite so definitive of our age as the author believes, but I like her solution nonetheless. Well, mostly. Moving forward, she suggests:

Here is a start: Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd?Listen to your own speech. Ask yourself: Do I communicate primarily through inside jokes and pop culture references? What percentage of my speech is meaningful? How much hyperbolic language do I use? Do I feign indifference? 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)?

There’s something of a false dichotomy here, I think: I’m not convinced I can only really like things if they are not absurd. Can’t someone enjoy an absurd thing because of its absurdity without it functioning as an ironic love, some sort of deconstruction of its genre or purpose? The speech is a much better question, I think, though even then I suspect someone could intend those sorts of references to carry much more meaning, not unlike allusions in literature (well, not entirely unlike them).

Many action films, for instance, are patently absurd. Look at The Expendables, which really was just this strange sort of inside joke: round up as many action stars from years gone by and from the present as you can, and see what happens. There are moments where you laugh because of the absurdity of it all. I’m not convinced that this makes my enjoyment of the film ironic, because I do think it is genuine. I’ll tell you that The Expendables was a good movie. I may qualify that and say that it is good if you like action movies, but it need not be an ironic “if you like films that poke fun at what films are.”

Perhaps I’m ironic when I watch anything that The Asylum puts out. I admit the films are terrible, even as I genuinely enjoy the experience of watching these films with company that will yell at the screen. I can live with some irony. I happen to enjoy some things that are absolutely absurd (I mean, have you played a Call of Duty game lately?).

But if I can’t genuinely enjoy something that is absurd, because that somehow doesn’t measure up to a genuine enjoyment, then I’m not convinced irony is worth ironing out of our lives.

As I said earlier: I’m not convinced this ethos of irony is as prevalent as the author suggests. There are plenty of millennials who live quite differently than the description provided: many of them are committed to living lives that are profoundly genuine. Many commit themselves to clearly non-ironic causes, whether this be a religious conviction or a strictly humanitarian one. Whether it be Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, ending human trafficking, feeding the homeless, or helping starving children in third world countries, my generation is actively involved in all sorts of behavior that is far from ironic.

Let’s take some steps towards sincerity, but let us never forget absurdity. Let’s enjoy silliness genuinely, and praise God for our senses of humor.