I’d been noticing lately that I don’t get the same enjoyment out of the new post-funny humor that so many of my younger friends do. This type of humor is exemplified by an ironic stance, where things worthy of ridicule are embraced with a knowing smile. I wasn’t sure why that was but had a feeling age or, rather, generational-zeitgeist had something to do with it.
The other part of the puzzle became clear to me from my recent sarcasm-dripping post re: MoveOn.org’s recent poorly thought out get out the vote campaign. This is how I instinctively react to something worthy of ridicule, by sarcastically praising it. I do this because this is how my friends and I related to the pseudo-sentimental baby-boomer controlled wasteland of a culture growing up. And then this language took over the cultural sphere for the decade of the Nineties, when Generation X briefly was at the wheel of the Logan’s Run-esque world of popular culture.
On the surface, the differences between irony and sarcasm can be subtle. In both cases something God-awful is being insincerely lauded. In the case of sarcasm, the true stance of the speaker is only very translucently obscured by a thin veneer of praise. As long as one knows the aesthetic proclivities of said speaker they can easily infer that the praise is not genuine. With the additional knowledge that no one cool ever so wholeheartedly embraces anything, the ruse becomes a priori obvious, “oh, you are gushing, must be sarcasm.” In the case of irony, by all indication, the speaker is genuine in their embrace of a given God-awfulness. Unlike sarcasm, there is no eye rolling, or over-inflecting to cue the listener in to the archness of the speaker’s stance. To the contrary, effort, often enormous effort, is exerted to present the stance of the speaker as genuine. It is only by shared agreement that the phenomenon being embraced in all actuality sucks eggs that the irony is made visible. The underlying similarity is that in both cases the archness is a means of performatively invoking hipness on the part of the speaker.
For clarification I will give an example: the invocation of Lionel Richie. Now, it is a widely shared and acknowledged belief among sane people with even an ounce of aesthetic sensibility that Lionel Richie’s music is crap, and for very specific reasons; namely, it is a pre-packaged, inoffensive, disingenuous aping of the very real, deeply felt human conditions of love, longing and loss. Even this attempt at description falls short of the complex, irreducible nature of Lionel Richie’s crappiness. Thus, by comparison, he becomes a safe and useful tool for expressing a type of disdain too rich with nuanced specificity to be expressed directly through description toward a given phenomenon through either the vehicle of sarcasm or that of irony. Someone of my generation would likely utilize sarcasm to invoke Lionel Richie as a vehicle for expressing an irreducibly specific disdain, and through it, perform hipness into being as follows, “Wow, that was some Lionel Richie level edgy shit! Way to push the envelope.” Whereas, a member of Generation Y/The Millennial Generation would more likely use their disdain for Lionel Richie to perform hipness by covering their walls and filling their turntables with Lionel Richie posters and albums painstakingly collected from the dankest recesses of the Internet, professing their love for all things Lionel Richie, and subjecting visitors to their domicile to Lionel Richie sing-along-marathons. While the means of affect are very different, the intended effect is the same.