In an essay critiquing the cynicism, self-reference, and black humour that had gained prominence in America David Foster Wallace famously wrote that irony was “ruining our culture”. In his eyes there was a time and a place for postmodernist irony, and it was the fifties and sixties. He appreciated that this ironic voice has always been great at highlighting the farcical and hypocritical nature of things. Where he thought irony and cynicism fell short was in their inability to provide a solution to the problems that they so effectively drew attention to. You may have debunked the illusion of ‘x’, (if in doubt probably the American Dream), but we’re left in a state of entertained apathy. It’s “an end in itself”. This admittedly makes a whole lot of sense – the problem is that the alternative is sincerity. Americans being sincere.
There’s been extensive discourse around this subject and it’s important to tie down what I mean by “the ironic voice”. When I’m using it I’m doing so as an umbrella term for this collection of irony, self-reference, cynicism, sarcasm, etc. I’m not referring to rain on your wedding day. Additionally, much of this debate has been focused on America; I’m from England and I think that this significantly plays into my viewpoint. To me, this ironic voice can be considered almost as fundamental to ‘English’ identity as manners or talking about the weather. We say sorry a lot, we inexplicably find entirely expected clouds noteworthy, and we deprecate with the best of them.
What I find particularly interesting is how media plays into this discussion – after all it’s the easiest gauge of popular culture. Where contemporary entertainment falls on the scale of cynicism to sincerity has fluctuated enormously. We’re supposedly in a unironic golden age at the moment, with the likes of How I Met Your Mother deriving clear morals from the narratives they present. This isn’t to say that they aren’t funny. They are often self-referential and are all too willing to draw attention to the shortcomings of characters. However, they then address the root causes of these shortcomings and how they can be remedied. Such shows are perhaps more a hybridisation of the earnest nature of traditional programming and some of the ironic voice that was introduced with postmodernism. Although it’s impossible to generalise about the sheer variety of media we’re saturated in, the general cultural consensus seems to have moved towards this compromise. To me it all ends up feeling too much like a Shakespearean comedy; as much as a subversion of convention may occur, at the end there’s a wedding and that’s that. To go back to Foster Wallace, he’d probably have taken less issue with this approach because the ways to resolve a problem are addressed rather than them simply being satirised, whether these resolutions prove platitudinal or not.
This return of sincerity, or more realistically an ‘earnest’ narrative with postmodern elements, has been viewed by many as an unambiguously good thing. I’m not going to argue that children’s programs should be made rife with irony and meta-narrative, I just don’t think that we always need an earnest message to proceed a crisis. The ironic voice is the thing I love most about programs like Peep Show, a sitcom that concludes with the two main characters sitting in their flat, their lives in tatters and no clear solutions in sight. There’s no moral. No earnest soliloquy. It’s great. Programs like this are an end in themselves, but that’s fine. I don’t think that we need TV to be dripping in redemptive sentimentality. In fact the very attempt to derive meaning from such content is in itself highly problematic. You shouldn’t be finding your answers in television or advertising anyway so why should they need to be earnest?