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The Man in the Irony Mask

The Man in the Irony Mask

November 20, 2013

A few days after the now-long-ago closing show of Seinfeld, I went to a dinner party and ran into a magazine editor I know. “Thank god it’s finally over,” she said. “I’m so tired of the whole irony thing, aren’t you?”

I heard that comment everywhere in the next month or so. It was one of those viral topics. In conversations on the train, from peo­ple behind me in lines, in cabs and in restaurants. It seemed all New York had decided that, after Seinfeld, enough was enough with the irony thing. Of course, unlike the rest of the country, most real New Yorkers I knew hadn’t found Seinfeld all that funny in the first place. I believe they were unable to recognize them­selves in it, the way people whose personalities you steal for char­acters never recognize themselves in books.

A few years later, I flew to New York a week after the World Trade Center bombing. American flags flew everywhere, hanging from windows, draped across streets. People were taping up notes and pictures of missing people on fences and buildings downtown. Everywhere I went, at business lunches and dinners, people were shaken, different. The huge destruction, the terror, the death, the shock, the banding together—it was a strange New York, and the meetings I attended were loaded with grief and silence.

“It’s the end of irony,” the editor said to me again, unaware that she had said almost the same words a few years before.

It wasn’t the end. It was a brief breaking of the wall. Children who were 11 in 2001 are 18 today, and another flowering of irony is upon us. It blooms in the ranting of Comedy Central. Gossip sites snipe against celebrities. Ads rely on the cute-quips-after-scenes-of-­destruction formula. Gorn—that pornographic admixture of gore and violence that “isn’t serious,” that’s “just effects”—grows apace in popularity. Scenes of shaming and violence topped with the de rigueur snarky remark are everywhere.

Step back a moment and ask yourself: Why do you think this stuff funny? And perhaps more to the point: Where did you learn that it’s funny? Because irony is a learned response. Children and Aspies are not ironic; they don’t know what irony is. I happened to be sitting with my 3-year-old nephew in front of a TV when some large object in a commercial plonked down on a house and destroyed it. This was supposed to be funny. He said, “Didn’t it hurt them?”

We may tire of irony, but we cannot eradicate it, because it is a symptom of the kind of place America is now. It is a symptom, not a cause, of the gradual deadening of nerve endings in the soul of our culture.

First, though: Irony is a huge subject. It takes many forms. There’s literary irony and romantic irony, there’s cosmic irony and tragic irony, itself a kind of dramatic irony. There’s situational irony and verbal irony. But here we’re only concerned with the basics: irony as a rhetorical trope. When you say one thing and mean another— that kind of irony.

In Greek comedy, the eiron was a powerless but shrewd char­acter whose cleverness allowed him to triumph over the proud but dumb alazon. We see irony again in the “fools” of Shake­speare, who are “truth tellers” and can be relied upon to know what’s really going on, even though they’re considered the lowest rung of society.

Socratic irony was an outgrowth of this “seeming-dumbness/ actual-brightness” kind of irony. To win an argument without actually challenging a person of higher rank than himself, Socrates would act dumb in order to get his haughty opponent to explain himself and thus expose his own stupidity. Aristotle picked up the technique and described eironeia as a rhetorical gambit: the use of self-deprecation in order to mask intelligence and expose an opponent to ridicule and shame.

This masking, this pretending to be dumb but really being smarter than the person in control, has since been the traditional province of foot soldiers, inmates and the downtrodden. It is the humor of the prisoner, the origin of much ethnic humor. (In the old days, the “Soviet joke” generally turned on using the bureau­cratic system against itself, resulting in someone else’s getting shot, not you.)

Today the ironic stance is the pose of the designer or advertiser or comic who wants to show he is actually in control, that he is above his surroundings, disengaged from the plight of the fools around him. Where would he be without his sardonic pose? Without don­ning the mask of irony, how would he separate himself from feel­ing and from consequence? How would he rationalize getting up every morning of his life to make advertising or design or comedy that offers up only this same satirical disaffection to the viewer?

The strange part is this: It’s actually this pose of detachment that allows you to be controlled by others. The ironic stance is the province of the powerless. By masking your intelligence, you guar­antee that the boat will not be rocked, that no one will come down on you, that the dominant order will not be interrupted. Do you see what I am saying? Masking is the province of the beaten. To make ironic little asides to the camera means, in the last analysis, that you lack the power to change anything. It’s so much easier to laugh at the fools around you than to remove the mask, be earnest, try. So much safer to laugh up your sleeve. Ironic, no?

A reliance on irony gives a person a way to “control” the vast confusion of the world-picture without having to parse it, with­out having to think it all through or feel it for himself. It’s the pose of the sensitive person who has gone underground. “If I take this pose of separateness,” he says to himself unconsciously, “then I cannot be touched by pain. And if I also denigrate those who are in pain, those who feel pain, then I am above emotion and above pain: I am at the top of the hierarchical heap, I am freed from being human, I am Superman.”

“Status inconsistencies are hothouses of social shame,” says Sighard Neckel [1]. To overcome shame, people don masks. When you have the creeping feeling that you are not quite good enough, that there’s something inherently not right about you; when, per­haps, your shaming culture has told you your teeth are not white enough and your clothes not sexy enough, and you’re fat; when its messages of your own deep valuelessness have gotten through to you—that’s when you’ll start practicing the art of separation. That’s when you’ll start viewing the world as farce. You are the object of an enactment of humiliation by the media of your cul­ture, and you will do anything to get away from that shame. This is not new. Look what Helmut Lethen says about Weimar Germany:

“People, seeking escape from the heat of shame, trying to establish themselves as separate from it, assumed a variety of attitudes marked by their ‘coolness.’ … Members of the intelligentsia sought … to remove themselves from the mechanisms of disgrace by becoming observers.” [2]

We all want to be observers. We want to be above the fray, above the pain, above having to deal. Why? Because we don’t think our­selves mentally tough enough to take on the world as it is. We believe—because we have been taught to believe—that we are inadequate to the tasks at hand. We don’t want to feel guilty for environmental disasters not of our own making. We don’t want to feel sad for people starving in Africa. We don’t want to have to take on any burdens other than our own, because the problems seem too big, the insanity unsolvable.

Sociologists used to say that there are two kinds of cultures:
“guilt cultures” and “shame cultures.” Guilt cultures were deemed higher in the hierarchy than shame cultures. Guilt cultures taught their citizens to modify their own behaviors through guilt, through an internalized “conscience.” Shame cultures had not yet figured out how to get the individual to curb his own behaviors, so they relied on humiliating him in front of a crowd.

These black-and-white divisions between shame and guilt cul­tures have long since gone by the board, but for this discussion the division is useful. When a person is presented with a crisis of con­science, he will regress into the externalities of shame culture. In other words: If your internal stress is too great, you’ll look for a scapegoat. You’ll start poking fun at those around you. You’ll start saying to yourself, “Thankfully I am not the oaf he is.” You build a wall between you and them, you project your own inadequacy onto others. You become the man in the irony mask.

Contemporary art’s quarter-century-long vogue for taking things apart, for subverting the distinction between “high and low,” for irony, for pastiche, for the abjuration of concepts of totality, unity and determinate meaning, for fragmentation—well, that vogue never really has sat well with design. We’ve tried, but it just doesn’t. “Erasing the distinction between art and design,” which we’ve heard so much about in recent years, is impossible for this reason: Design, by its definition, is generative. It is the process of making things. Taking things apart is the opposite of design. Irony—creating distance—is the opposite of real communication, which is the underlying aim of graphic design.

We designers are a “making” tribe. Unlike the Dadaists, whose pose we emulate, we live in a world already fragmented. As to the avant-gardism we still lean on—that long-ago radicalism that set out to shake up a Victorian worldview—its notions of chal­lenge and subversion are still important to contemporary art. But the importance of those notions in design has been eclipsed by greater urgencies. We live in a challenged, confused and subverted world. We don’t need to put any burrs under any saddles. We have enough burrs for a lifetime. We have enough distance. The great challenge now is to find relationship.

* * *

On Thursday, Sept. 18, 1698, a new governor of the Bastille arrived to take charge and, according to notes taken at the time, “brought with him, in a litter, a longtime prisoner, whom he had had in cus­tody in Pignerol, and whom he kept always masked, and whose name has not been given to me, nor recorded.”

The man in the mask had been imprisoned at least 18 years prior to his arrival at the Bastille and perhaps as long as 33 years. It was considered that his face was such a giveaway as to his lineage that masking him was the only way to prevent social upheaval. The report says the mask was velvet. Comfort aside, the effect was the same: No one knew who he was. He could not write, so that was no clue. No one was allowed to speak to him, except when he went to Mass or served as a valet to another prisoner. Five years later, on Nov. 19, 1703, he died in confinement. That’s the end of his story. He wasn’t saved by a dashing Hollywood swordsman. He didn’t rip off the mask and take over the throne. He died with no identity other than that of his mask, all other characteristics having been expunged by the bureaucracy around him. Call it a parable. I know I do.

[1] Status und Sham: Zur symbolischen Reproduktion sozialer Ungleichheit, Frankfurt am Main, 1991
[2] Cool Conduct: The Culture of Distance in Weimar Germany, University of California Press, 2002

© 2008 Natalia Ilyin. First published in Step Magazine.