Thursday, 12 February 2009

Cultural Irony Ain't What It Used to Be

In the last post I discussed trend uptake among trendsetters, hipsters and regular joes. In evaluating whether or not to partake of a trend, members of each group consider both their peers’ evaluations as well as the prevalence of the trend in their “community.” I just wanted to show how cultural items could be moved from the periphery to the mainstream by the mutually interdependent choices of motivationally distinct cultural sub-groups.

But that post didn’t really address what happens after the trend peaks. Most trends end, but not all end the same way. In the next post I’ll look at one class of trend ends: the ironic embrace. However, before I can do that, I need to look more closely at the contentious and much discussed subject of cultural irony itself. In particular, we’ll look at what cultural irony is commonly believed to be, what it probably really is, how it has changed and why some trendsetters reacted to the change with calls for “earnestness and authenticity.”

The Myth of Cultural Irony

Irony seems to be bound up with intention. Specifically, cultural irony is assumed to be like literary irony in that it’s the often comic tension between specifically doing or saying one thing but meaning or intending some totally different, often opposed, thing. Cultural irony is valorized in the literature as a critical strategy in the sense of being a self-conscious critique or questioning gesture. Back in the early ‘80s, Paul Fussell used irony as an identifying feature of his “Class X,” the class of urban and urbane hipsters and intellectuals who use camp and kitsch as a critical cultural tactic. Cultural irony in this sense is embrace – of bible school t-shirts, Jean-Claude Van Damme or velvet paintings – with a self-conscious commentary attached. It’s not doing what’s normal to fit in, it’s doing what’s “normal” to point out (particularly, to point out supposed tackiness, baseness or all around inanity).

But about 10 (some say 15) years ago cultural irony transformed into a fashionable style. Trendsetters and hipsters had made the strategy so visible and its cachet so great that it finally caught on among the regular joes. Effectively, ironists’ self-aware embrace of the normal as a supposed critique of the “normal” was progressively replaced with a jokey cultural caricature, more reflexive than reflective, a fashionable scare-quoting of practically everything. The trendsetter’s strategic irony was overtaken by the regular joe’s purely stylistic version which mimicked some of the tropes and techniques of the earlier critical “ironists” without actually being critical. This caused some serious hand-wringing among the old ironic trendsetters and hipsters. As a result, a few years ago many trendsetters (and then hipsters) began advocating a return to earnestness.

Frankly, I don’t completely buy the above story of valiant and true trendsetting cultural ironists robbed of a vital critical technique by non-reflective, novelty-hungry cultural gluttons. I think it’s more likely that cultural irony is an in-group norm, which defines an esteem game. Let me elaborate.

The Game of Cultural Irony

Kierkegaard apparently claims that the greatest ironists want to be misunderstood. Half true. The greatest ironists want to be misunderstood by everyone, excluding a highly qualified and estimable few. That is, for irony to be ironic it has to allow the possibility of being taken at face value, but that possibility can’t be so overwhelmingly likely that absolutely no one gets the joke. Irony no one gets isn’t really ironic while irony everyone gets isn’t very good. The art comes in creating the aesthetic tension between appearance and intention; basically, coding so that the intention is hidden enough but still apparent to the initiate.

Like Kierkegaard’s great ironists, the greatest cultural ironists want to be understood by a sufficiently small and personally esteemed circle while being misunderstood by everyone else. In my preferred terms, they want to participate in a necessarily bounded esteem game that’s played by taking the appropriate attitude to pre-existing cultural artifacts.

Research on social group formation and identification suggests that they develop arbitrary conventions to increase both in-group cohesion and out-group difference. Consider styles of dress, types of music, uniforms, etc. and the presumed attitudes that go along with them. Sometimes these conventions develop into full-blown social norms with prescriptive impact (i.e. telling you what you’re expected to do in the ought to do sense of expectation). Among other things, norms – both conventions and social norms – define evaluative structures within social groups, i.e. esteem games within which members compete for esteem and evaluate each others’ performance in terms of the group’s prevailing normative standards.

My suggestion is that cultural irony is a norm: a coordinating set of strategies (conventions) for imbuing existing cultural artifacts (bands; t-shirts; cars; music styles; silly, cause-related rubber bracelets; etc.) with new, in-group determined meanings different from those of their original context. It may start with some sort of vague critical intent, but ultimately it stabilizes as one of several possible methods a self-consciously oppositional (counter-) cultural lineage manages to coordinate on for defining and evaluating in-group behaviors, attitudes and aesthetics. More simply, cultural irony is one of the many possible mechanisms a counter-cultural group can coordinate on to produce in-group cohesion and out-group difference. It's an internally coordinating means of external dissent. But once coordinated on, it determines an esteem game, a structure within which group members can attempt to gain esteem or status using various conventional strategies for appropriating and re-deploying other groups' cultural artifacts.

This story’s not as cool as the critical outsiders version, right? I agree, but think about it: Do you really think that all or even most of the culturally ironic fashion choices of trendsetters or hipsters through the ages – from today’s hip urbanites wearing funny thrift store tees touting middle American values to art savvy sophisticates collecting velvet paintings a couple of decades ago – were enacted with the sort of individual critical awareness that that story demands? No one really believes this. More often than not, our live choices are bounded by the coordinated conventions of our in-groups and those conventions are largely about heightening out-group difference. Sometimes we may more or less intentionally choose our in-group, but once chosen our actions tend to spring – not fully intentionally – from our desire to become and stay part of that group and our conditioned, group-appropriate expectations, esteem standards, dispositions or values. After a while – even if we're esteem seekers – we don’t reflect upon social norms and conventions, we act from within them. Generally it's only when we’re confused by a situation or a norm breaks down that we reflect on its content.

Also, it seems pretty clear that trendsetters and hipsters, within their in-groups, are just as motivated by esteem as everybody else, maybe even more so. Conventions and social norms are the strategies and standards of esteem games; they determine the viable moves as well as the criteria for evaluation.

So, the majority of trendsetting cultural ironists probably are not intentionally critiquing mass culture. Rather, they're participating in a group-defined and group-defining conventional game with others in their in-group. But cultural irony is in some sense critical. However, it is most often critical only at the strategic level – the level of in-group coordination on a mechanism of out-group differentiation – not the individual level. From a distance, the actions of cultural ironists appear critical because they re-define the cultural artifacts of other groups and times in order to define themselves. Yet at the level of personal choice, these actions are most often simply fashionable or conventional moves in an esteem game. Clearly, this is where the analogy between cultural and literary irony breaks down. Literary irony is also a convention, but it’s an intentionally selected one at the individual level. Cultural irony, on the other hand, is a norm coordinating consumption of and relations to cultural artifacts that is more often than not simply enacted rather than intentionally chosen.

Odds, Ends and Earnestness

Okay, but if cultural irony is a norm why and how did it spread like a trend? And if it was always a convention (like fashions), why does today’s fashionable cultural irony seem different from yesterday’s?

First of all we just need to notice that the spread of cultural irony seems to have the same structure as the trend curves model of the last post. It moved from trendsetters to hipsters and then, in its present form, to regular joes. By the time regular joes jumped on, trendsetters began moaning about the need for a return to earnestness (particularly the emo and indie rock kids of the early ‘90s).

Obviously, one group’s defining norm, which is a conventional and possibly prescriptive (i.e. ought) strategy, can be seen as simply an aspirational fashion by outsiders. That is, the emotionally charged, self-reinforcing and group-defining cultural mechanisms of one group can become the emulated fashion of another. Particularly if the object group has some sort of cultural cachet or is otherwise aspirational. How does this work? Well, remember that cultural irony is most likely critical only at the strategic level – the level of group coordination – but not really at the individual level. It stabilized as a mechanism by which oppositional groups defined themselves, but the people in the group tend to live it as simply a fashion. When it’s emulated it loses its original group defining function – its oppositional or critical function – effectively reducing to a fashion or a simple coordinating function. The differentiating function has washed out through context change – from the oppositional trendsetter context to the less self-conscious regular joe context – leaving only the coordinating function.

Certainly, regular joes can be culturally ironic. But remember that good cultural irony depends on some people getting it and others not getting it. Quality irony requires a certain oppositional – in-group vs. out-group; those who get it vs. those who don’t – stance, and for regular joes that oppositional component is largely missing. Cultural irony is reduced to a funny fashion that may commandeer cultural artifacts, but it’s not really about re-defining those artifacts for oppositional in-group/out-group games. Everybody gets it. Effectively, when everybody’s ironic, nobody really is. Maybe this accounts for the felt but seldom articulated difference between the currently fashionable cultural irony and the sainted old sort fondly remembered by now aged hipsters and critical theorists.

But few, if any, old school bohemians were ever really culturally ironic in the idealized sense of fully self-consciously critical. That stance rapidly became an internalized or estimable way that folks who dig the cultural cachet of the fringe gain esteem among their select peers. Those critics and hoary old hipsters pining for the glory days of critical irony are greatly overstating – and oversimplifying – their case. Basically, their kvetching is more a matter of wanting to maintain counter-cultural cachet and difference than real sorrow at the dumbing of irony. As predicted by the trend curves, when cultural irony caught on among the regular joes, the trendsetters started clamoring for something different – authenticity and earnestness in this case – effectively coordinating on a new esteem game. That game, however, doesn't yet seem to have caught on like irony did.