Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Irony is Sincerity. ;)

I keep hearing how September 11th, 2001, made irony go out of the world or something. It's true that before, during the first Bush administration especially and then all through Clinton (ever notice how we tend to date things just like Bronze Age chroniclers, "in the second year of the reign of Sennacherib son of Sargon..."?) there was that crippling "hipness-unto-death"*, as some wit called it, spreading everywhere. It made especially TV commercials give off this evil glow of you-love-being-manipulated-by-this, sure-it's-all-lies-but-you're-kind-of-in-on-the-joke, making everyone complicit in their own cooption. One nadir of this, among many, was Madonna's Truth or Dare, the whole miserable glamorama of Yes-I-yank-your-chain, but I'm-telling-you-I'm-yanking-it; look at me, being all honest and forthcoming! Yeah, yeah, (wink), you're not fooled, you clever one.

This meta-meta-metastasizing of culture was often noted by commentators, of course, either applauding it, or resigning to it, or denouncing it, but it was on a runaway course that seemed unstoppable. (The very best, bar none, send-up of it I know is David Foster Wallace's short story "My Appearance", in Girl with Curious Hair.) Then.... then what? Then "the world changed forever"? Then we came "face to face" with some indigestible something that couldn't be assimilated into the snide, the trite, the in-jokey?

Even as the sirens wailed, and the smoke billowed up above the buildings, before anyone even knew just what had occurred, people in the street catching each others' eye were exchanging a secret, a half-acknowledged, dares-not-speak-it's-name recognition: "Something big is happening right now"--(this no matter where you were, Manhattan or elsewhere)--"and I'm here for it." Almost a jealousy of those who were on the spot. 9/11 was the ultimate in-crowd maker. "We are all New Yorkers," the T-shirts declared, wishfully. If you were conscious ten years ago, you are, whether you will or no, in the club of "Everyone remembers where they were when they heard." Later, by a week or so, we divided into camps: "Why do they hate us?" vs. "They hate our freedoms" vs. "Inside job," mutually-incomprehensible languages, but even this schism did not prevent unheard-of popularity ratings for a President who could not competently read from a teleprompter. It took seven more years of shame to grind that inexorably down to the 20-percent basement where it belonged. (Which more or less tells you how significant popularity polls are.)

Amod has some pertinent thoughts on how "never forget" has slowly started to be...forgotten. The fact that 9/11 has begun to "fade" somewhat from the foreground of national consciousness is no doubt all to the good, given the points he makes; but I fear it has not much to do with the balm of forgetfulness. The racism Amod names is still, to our shame, alive and well; so is the righteous indignation; and so is the pain for those who lost loved ones that day or in the wars that followed. But capitalism has moved on, as it must, not without a tear for the lost. What we've seen in the past ten years is the inevitable commodification of 9/11: the digestion of the event into a few stock images and some memes of patriotism, terrorism, "where-were-you-that-day," and so on. It started the moment someone called it "our finest hour" without cringing.

It may be the war that has slowed the resurgence of so-hip-of-you-to-know-it's-a-lie commercialism which went out of fashion for a brief time. It's telling that it arose and flourished as the long post-Vietnam era went on, as wars became TV events and, importantly, as America's economy continued to prosper. But the acidic corrosion of ironism is already picking up right where it slowed down, and it will be a triumph of capitalism when said ironism can flourish in the midst of a war and in the face of record-high unemployment. Slavery is Freedom, War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, and being borderline culturally-literate enough to recognize (or make) an Orwell reference is a bulwark against tyranny. No, seriously.

* I apologize for the surfeit of hyphenated phrases in this post. Really.


  1. You might be right, capitalism won. But still, is not it better than having Special Laws enforced even in Europe and in the US? An Italian journalist (A. Polito) wrote, around the end of 2001 that we are all ready to fight for our Cokes and for the right to watch commercial TV, but not for the US flag/God/nation/values, since in Bush' enthusiastic proclaims these risk to resemble the terrorists' ones…

  2. I agree with Elisa - I like the world with capitalist irony better than the one that was supposed to be without it. I was terrified and enraged in the 9/12 era when I read articles in the Boston Phoenix and other self-proclaimed "alternative" publications declaring that irony is dead. It's not just that I enjoy a lot of this kind of irony - I do remember friends complaining "I hate it that now that we've been attacked, people say the kind of humour I like most is dead. Why not 'We've been attacked! Fart jokes are dead!'?" It was also seeing that if that kind of drastic change could take place in the culture, anything was possible - as turned out to be the case in the horrific 2002 and 2004 elections.

    But going beyond the 9/12 issue, the thing for me about that kind of ironic commercialism is, well, this is the world we live in, and there's precious little to indicate the economic system will change significantly for the better in our lifetime. (I am always reminded of Jameson's point that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism - just off the top of my head I can think of many realistic ways the human species could end, but realistically envisioning an alternative economic system now is a much greater challenge.) So why not have some fun with it?