Irony is in a state of disrepute. It’s been used and abused by hipsters who wear “ironic” clothing and facial hair based on the self-conscious selection of a style because it’s ugly or anachronistic or inappropriate for a grown man in his thirties. It’s an empty, hollow irony, as opposed to critical, elevating, or subversive.
That’s a shame, because an appreciation for irony is perhaps the highest virtue. Formally, irony (whether dramatic, verbal, or situational) is a kind of capacity for double meaning. Done right, it permits one to stand with one foot in two parallel universes, one meaningful and the other absurd, and live a richer life.
“The literal mind is baffled by the ironic one, demanding explanations that only intensify the joke,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in Letters to a Young Contrarian. To illustrate, he retells a true story from humorist P.G. Wodehouse, who was accidentally captured during the 1940 German invasion of France:
Josef Goebbels’s propaganda bureaucrats asked him to broadcast on Berlin radio, which he incautiously agreed to do, and his first transmission began:
Young men starting out in life often ask me—“How do you become an internee?” Well, there are various ways. My own method was to acquire a villa in northern France and wait for the German army to come along. This is probably the simplest plan. You buy the villa and the German army does the rest.
Somebody—it would be nice to know who, I hope it was Goebbels—must have vetted this and decided to let it go out as a good advertisement for German broad-mindedness. The “funny” thing is that the broadcast landed Wodehouse in an infinity of trouble with the British authorities, representing a nation that prides itself above all on a sense of humor.
Wodehouse’s answer, that the best way to become a German internee is to buy a villa in France, is hilarious because it confuses cause and effect so patently. But that’s what happened. He bought a villa in France and got captured by German invaders. By framing the literal fact as a kind of piece of advice to an aspiring internee his radio opening underscores the raw absurdity of the war.
And war is absurd. But to the “very serious people” like the British, this war was not absurd. It was a noble cause in the defense of freedom, justice, democracy, and all that is right. To be ironic about something as serious as that was frivolous bordering on treacherous.
The thing is, though, that war can be both absurd and serious. Wodehouse’s irony uses a degree of ignorance or naiveté (feigned, in his case) to convey a penetrating and self-conscious insight. Similarly, absurdity only exists by way of contrast with radical purpose, knowledge and intelligibility.
It’s necessary to living at all that we believe the word makes conceptual sense and that we exist in it with definite purpose. Nonetheless, on some level our social practices and biological imperatives are deeply arbitrary, even weird, in a way that ought to induce nervous laughter. The goal of irony is to reconcile these two truths—to maintain a level of awareness that is neither overly self-serious or frivolous to the point of nihilism, and, when possible, to put it toward an edifying use.
Skin War’s Dual Identity
Take Skin Wars, a reality TV show that pits a bunch of random artists in body painting competitions. I found it while flipping through the TV guide, drawn in by the title and my primal alertness to all things ostensibly nude and aggressive.
Not fully knowing what to expect, I was amused that such a niche show even exists, followed by stunned to discover it was in its third season. I immediately traced the holy cross across my chest in awe at “the extent of the market,” before I suddenly realized what the real appeal of the show was: An excuse for never-ending shots of side boob.
Essentially, the show is soft-core pornography with an art competition overlaid in order to provide the viewer additional fodder and a degree of plausible deniability. The fascinating part is how, couched within its brazen and kitsch totality, there are a dozen or so completely serious contestants.
With each body painting they explain the deeper meaning behind the work while being brutally critiqued by RuPaul. Half the time it feels like contestants are being rewarded less for their artistic ability than for their skill at impromtu apophenia. After the loser of each episode is eliminated, he or she invariably propounds one last time on the unappreciated genius of their Starry Night nipple integration, while casting shade on the remaining artists as unworthy hacks.
Taken as a whole, I believe Skin Wars is an excellent metaphor for the human condition. From behind the forth wall, as viewers looking in, the show is unapologetically absurd, if not borderline silly. And yet for the show to work at all it depends crucially on an internal, unironic kernel of purpose and earnestness in each and every participant. (Note: Nathan for You does an amazing job satirizing this common Reality TV dynamic).
Each half—from the show’s ratings savvy writer-producers, to their humorless Craigslist recruits—are necessary to the ironic whole. Just as one can forget to have fun through stern objections to the paucity of male models or the cynically slick editing, one can also become too invested in whose face paint was most on point. Only a sense of the show’s multifaceted irony allows for a critical though healthy engagement.
It’s thus appropriate RuPaul is a main judge. He embodies the exact same duality of serious artiste meets outrageous performance theater. Shakespeare also made great use of dramatic irony through mistaken (sexual) identity. It is no accident that appreciation of irony is required for appreciation of drag.
Yet if irony is going to be reclaimed from the hipsters it’s got to be handled with care. Too often irony done poorly collapses into straight-up cynicism, which is ironic, since the cynic is excessively sincere in his own way. And so as with all virtues, irony requires practice, judgment and finding the right balance.