Tuesday, January 18, 2011

the new sincerity: creating meaning out of the circuitous apocalypse we call irony

Does irony mark the demise of everything culture has built? One might even ask, can irony be equated with this felt notion of the immanent apocalypse?

A formal and thematic tendency toward self-obliteration can be seen in many postmodernist works. When we employ irony, we are self-deprecating or destructive of others, relatively speaking. What I mean is that consistently ironic texts cast doubt on all values, and maintain endless circularity. The postmodern phenomenon of ever-present, circuitous irony might even be seen as a kind of continuous apocalypse or 'end without end.' In The Illusion of the End, Jean Baudrillard attributes this ‘apocalyptic’ fascination to “the auto-dissolution common to both West and East … visible in the deterioration of the structures of power and representation." As in, conventional narrative structures are manipulated or broken down, or if such forms are reused, they are ironized.

So, postmodernism is not an end or a beginning. It is simply a response. It is contingent upon the problems of modernism, or what Baudrillard calls "the weight of the non-degradable waste of the great empires, the grand narratives, the great systems made obsolete by their own gigantism" which face either the recycling bin or the incinerator. Postmodernism does not actually destroy modernism because it doesn't create anything new in its stead: it rather perpetuates the cycle of criticisms that both denigrate and uphold it.

The irony of postmodernism is not a 'thing' in of itself. It's not a school or a creed or a new religion. It's simply a response to the problems of modernism. And because it offers no solution or alternative, ironic people and artworks remain hopelessly entrenched in their own alienation and nihilism. (Call it the pandemic of depression and anxiety afflicting the Western world, if you like!) This is the result of the breakdown of meaning that leads nowhere.

But people, I think, are starting to find ways to transcend this 'continual apocalypse' - to both include and transcend irony, to simultaneously acknowledge the criticisms made of past structures and paradigms while also acknowledging that new meaning can be created by moving through them.

It's like the age-old circle of life. Birth --> death --> rebirth. Irony is the death that can bring about, as some are calling it, the "new sincerity." 

So far this term seems to have been applied particularly to the music world - to musicians such as Joanna Newsom or Devendra Banhart. But really, there is a growing proliferation of pursuits that can be said to express 'sincerity wrapped in irony wrapped in sincerity': meaning that is aware of itself, how it has been constructed and has come to be, but is also still content with its existence. In literature there is David Foster Wallace, among others. In the film world (I just took a postmodern film class so I can dole out a number of titles) there is Alfredson's Let the Right One In (2008), Tsai Ming-Liang's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006), and others...

So I guess what I'm trying to say is, irony isn't the end - or not yet. It's been, and still is, a medium for creating newer (deeper, more complex, richer) levels of awareness...

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