@Spivonomist we’re all waiting for your thinkpiece on the age of irony.
— Pamela J. Stubbart (@amelapay) July 15, 2014
I still recall the moment it happened, my charming darlings. No, not the time when the America of my youth hucked aside its pretentious dalliance with painful sincerity, but the moment I finally grasped that it was never there to begin with. There has never in the history of civilization as I hazily understand it been a period characterized by anything even remotely approaching genuine sincerity. Quite the opposite, since even primates exhibit evidence of strategic deception.
For me, the eye-opening event was the 1989 release of Faith No More’s album The Real Thing. The music video for their still-occasionally-played radio hit Epic was making the rounds. Here, give it a listen:
See what I mean? Patton takes great pains to growl out lyrics of great portent, howling as only he can do, challenging your flippant notions of your own masculinity with a guttural sneer. But the contents of the lyrics? Perfectly vapid. He’s taking the piss out of pretentious hair metal bands a few years before Kurt Cobain achieved international acclaim by doing the exact same thing, only with a bit more Pacific Northwestern melancholy (and those unforgettable anarchy cheerleaders). For me, that was the day sincerity died. Not with a bang, but with a fish flopping around as Roddy Bottum played a wee tinkling dirge to its demise.
Is that any different from Kurosawa and Mifune’s Yojimbo taking the piss out of the preposterous bowdlerization of the WWII-era Samurai aesthetic? Or to Mozart’s impish antics deflating self-important Italian opera? Irony suffuses human history, and many of the best works that have survived the ages (seriously you guys, re-read the Iliad and tell me it’s not 99.9% tongue-in-cheek) tends very heavily to the side of pricking the vanity of the self-indulgent psychopomp.
But as in all else, temperance is a virtue. I think what Peej wants from me is a steely eye gazing an an unseemly excess of not just irony, but the Hieronymous Bosch-flavoured animatronic grotesquery of recursive meta-irony. She fancies herself a 140-character Helen and I her pied Paris to cross deadly waters.
Using game theory, it’s pretty easy to model a sincerity dilemma. With probability p, your interlocutor is being sincere (therefore, with probability 1-p, she is being insincere). Since you know the payoffs to the actions you can take, you have all the parameters you need to guide your response. As you vary p, your behavior should change. Easy peasy chicken sneezy.
Or is it? Not so fast, because what if p isn’t a parameter, but a variable? What if your behavior in this round influences the probability that others will either be sincere or act as if there were sincere in the next round? Go ahead and get all recursive with that. Take a moment and see if you can’t land on an equilibrium where every player is privately insincere but publicly sincere. If you were a naive observer, would you be able to distinguish between that world and one where everyone was actually legit sincere?
Take your time thinking carefully about that question before pondering this one:
What if foreign cultures have this same equilibrium? What if part of the cognitive dissonance expats experience a few months living abroad is the uncomfortable realization that their cozy adopted culture is just another gaggle of brooding hypocrites not all that different from the ones left behind?
The Age of Irony may as well be named The Age of Always. Adjust or perish as you see fit.
And the best way to slay the beast of tiresome meta-irony is to starve the damnable thing. Irony appeals to many of our ugliest human instincts. The virtuous wanderer acknowledges that these nasty urges exist, accepts them, and strives for excellence regardless. #Arete, young lady. #Phronesis.
It’s hard, but satisfying.