Well actually, I rather think that irony is very dead. And that is in itself an irony. Because these days everyone seems to take a ‘yeah, right’ attitude to life, they’ve seen it all before, are impressed by nothing and no one. If only they knew it, the joke is well and truly on them and, at best, the vast majority of us are utterly oblivious to the ironies which permeate all our lives.
Take, for example, Apple’s celebrated ‘Think different’ slogan with which it began it’s celebrated march to becoming one of the world’s biggest and richest companies. (By December 2011, its stock has risen 9,000pc since Steve Jobs returned to lead the company in 1997. Not bad for a company which likes to portray itself as the ‘outsider’). Yet to this day there are hundreds of thousands of bright young things worldwide who think they are somehow striking a blow for the counter-culture, the left-field, the individual when they buy an Apple laptop or desktop. (I specify those two because it is only in recent years that Apple has, for many, become more synonymous with other products.) They are, of course, doing nothing of the kind. They are, of course, just one more insignificant member of a particular herd. That their particular herd is smaller than the Microsoft herd is neither here nor there. They honestly believe that buying and using an Apple ‘says’ something about them, that it ‘makes a statement’. Well, actually it does ‘make a statement’, but not one I thik they would very much like to hear.
Then there’s the injunction, beloved by many a disaffected youth, to ‘challenge everything’ (you’ll find many people urged the world to do that, from Karl Marx to George Bernard Shaw). Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but the difficulties start for the bien pensant of this world when we decide to do exactly that and challenge what could be called the new orthodoxies. So I do wonder just how welcome I would be in liberal and freethinking circles if I did decide to challenge everything and challenged the new orthodoxies that ‘man-made carbon dioxide is causing global warming’, that ‘women and men are equal’ or that ‘homosexuals do not deserve equal rights with heterosexuals’ because ‘homosexuality is a mental aberration’. I suspect - no, I don’t suspect at all, I know full well - that I would be seen off pretty sharpish with a flea in my ear. Or what if I challenged the notion that we ‘all have human rights’, that the very idea of ‘human rights’ is just so much bollocks? That, too, would do down like a lead balloon at a Guardian drinks party. But why? All I would be doing was to be following the exhortation to ‘accept nothing, challenge everything’.
At this point a liberal might choose to argue - though he or she would most certainly be ill-advised to do so - that I have missed the point, that, for example, the ‘human rights’ we all possess are in some way unalienable, that they are something very close to a fixed point in the world. And because of their more sanctified status, they are an exception to the rule that ‘everything should be challenged’. They might argue along those lines in defence of the ‘rights of homosexuals’, the ‘equality between men and women’ and even ‘that man-made carbon dioxide is causing global warming’. Really? But didn’t the best thinkers of the 20th century in all kinds of disciplines establish, apparently beyond all doubt, that ‘everything is relative’? That there are no fixed points? And that because there are no ‘fixed points’, there can be no such certainties. Or am I missing something?
It could, I think, be successfully argued that from Soren Kierkegaard, who came up with the notion of ‘subjective truth’, to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity that the 20th century was the age of relativity. In art this notion that everything is relative and nothing is fixed was given graphic expression by Picasso, in music it led to the abandonment of form, in ethics it led the concept of ‘personal morality’ and the downgrading of ‘social norms’. Well actually, it didn’t: even though the 20th century’s modern mind disliked being bound by convention, it knew that rules, norms, laws, call them what you like kept society intact, that without them society would implode into anarchy. So what we did was talk about it all rather than live it, and - ironically - the one social experiment - the Soviet Union - which purported to be doing most to ‘free mankind’ very, very soon developed into a very nasty totalitarian dictatorship. So what does this all have to do with irony? Well, where do I start?
I once argued - and it became a pretty futile argument, something which I should have realised a lot sooner and thus saved myself a great deal of time - that every age is ‘modern’. The chap (or chappess, I don’t remember who it was any more) disagreed vehemently and even suggested that folk in, say, the Dark Ages knew that they were still in some kind of ‘dark age’ and that better was to come and that the ‘better that was to come’ had now arrived. He or she (or quite possibly it) refused to accept my point that every age regards itself as ‘modern’. Granted, perhaps, that the very notion of ‘modernity’ is reasonably ‘modern’, but that would still have no bearing on how each society, whether in Europe, Asia, Africa or the Americas, saw itself. I don’t even accept that we, here and now in the dying days of 2011, are in any way more ‘self-conscious’. Yet we do seem to believe - I would suggest against all evidence - that the Western world is somehow more enlightened than it was ten, twenty, thirty or 100 years ago. And as part of that new ‘self-awareness’ is the rise of a kind of pseudo irony: these days, it seems, we in the Western world greet a great deal in our lives with a pseudo cynical ‘yeah, right’. We regard ourselves these days as far to clued up, far to sassy, far too ‘aware’ to fall for any of the old hooey which so blighted society in the past.
I would suggest that we are, in fact, anything but clued up, sassy and aware. I shall not suggest that our age is in any way more stupid than all previous ages, but I shall suggest that I firmly believe it is just as bloody stupid as we always were.
We in the West pride ourselves, for example, on being more caring, on ‘valuing community’, in ‘worrying about the environment’, ‘preserving endangered species’. But are we really more caring when almost by the week we are shocked by revelations on the scale of child pornography? Are we really more caring when all we can think of doing with our old folk is stuffing them away in homes and if they show signs of protesting drugging them up to keep them quiet? Do we really ‘value community’ if, as a recent survey highlighted ever fewer of us actually know our neighbours?
Are we really taking to heart the interests of wildlife when we are highly selective in which species we choose to preserve? Ugly species, it would seem, have a far lesser chance of preservation than fucking photogenic snow leopards and cutie pandas. Are we really more enlightened when we fulminate against the dangers to health of smoking and castigate all those who still smoke, but refuse to outlaw smoking completely because we realised we can’t do without the tax we raise on the sale of tobacco and, anyway, the premature deaths of smokers has the benefit of keeping in check what we have to pay in state pensions? Yeah, right.
A few years ago a very entertaining cartoon hit the screens. It was called The Incredibles. In it, a mother consoles her child, who is a bit down in the dumps, by telling him: Everyone is special. To which the lad replies, rather pertinently: That means no one is. Exactly. We can’t have it both ways, but that won’t stop us trying. I am continually amazed at mankind’s ability to bullshit itself.