Ironically, it was someone on this very magazine who told me once that I must never use the word "ironically" in my copy. It was bad style, mostly meaningless, unnecessary, cliched and one of the words that he thought should be banned. So here I am using it again, but only in an Alanis Morisette sort of way. For Alanis, rain on your wedding day is ironic. For most of us, it is only to be expected. You see, we Brits pride ourselves in having some sort of Nobel Prize for cynicism. America may dominate the world culturally and politically, but we've got the failing NHS and a wonderful sense of irony. Doesn't that just give you a warm glow?
Actually, and this is the real irony, we are not even as good at it as the Americans. Sure, there are those vast pockets of American life in which people appear to talk to each other as if they were Hallmark greeting cards. Last time I was there, I brought home spectacularly nauseating cards with the legends "I love you even though you are not my child" and "It's OK to have differences of opinion". Aaah!
Nevertheless, the supposedly ironically challenged Americans continue to produce everything from The Larry Sanders Show to The Simpsons, Bret Easton Ellis, Beavis and Butt-Head, South Park, Beck and grumpy old Lou Reed. But never mind the stars, the point is that irony is striped through almost everything we touch these days. Irony is no longer the possession of an elite, it is the dominant discourse. Very little exists oustside quotation marks, except perhaps Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The pursuit of money for nothing remains as pure as ever. The distinction between a sophisticated high culture full of irony, disdain and poised detachment and low culture full of cheap sentiment and emotional overgush no longer exists. Some find such a world deeply unsettling, as John Seabrook appears to in his book Nobrow. He argues that one of the ways in which one previously located oneself in terms of class in American culture was precisely through such distinctions.
Yet we have produced a generation born into, if not out of, irony. Our children have been fed the notion that "nothing really matters" since they were born. Teenagers have grown up in a world of ironic sex - women with enormously ironic breasts displaying them in lads' magazines - and ironic ketchup Tarantino-style violence. It is only the deeply uncool who worry about such things. To care is to be deadly earnest, and the worst sin of all is to be committed. The Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment has been reincarnated in the non-committal stance of the global mall rat. Whatever. As if. Duh! The mantra of the teenage valley girl has become the attitude of the mainstream social commentator.
Only people from the other world, the olde world, get worked up about such things, because they have beliefs rather than style. It is hardly surprising, then, that another book should come out of America that argues against irony. For Common Things: irony, trust and commitment in America today by Jedediah Purdy is pushing for what the New York Times has christened the New Sincerity. Purdy wants to do away with all the distance and detachment that the ironic mode embodies in order to reconnect us with community politics, earnestness and a faith that we can be sincere in both our personal and political relationships.
While the puncturing of cool is always a joy, it is hard to see how we will be able to get back to the kind of sincerity that Purdy advocates. We wrap ourselves in irony as a protection against an overloaded and over-mediated world. Irony is the postmodern modus operandi - a way of showing that, if we are not exactly coping, we are still clinging to the wreckage. More and more of our cultural products depend entirely on the assumption that we understand their references to other cultural products. Ali G couldn't work if we didn't have a fair idea of what yoof TV conventions were.
The fine lines between irony, satire and subversion blur in front of us. Irony can be totally apolitical - Seinfeld, Loaded, Austin Powers. It doesn't make it any less funny, but I am fed up with the depoliticisation of popular culture and imagery. So-called irony has made acceptable for my daughter's generation what wasn't acceptable for mine - that any woman who achieves a degree of fame has to take off her clothes to prove her worth. This is not ironic, not funny or clever, just sad.
Why, then, do I feel so hostile towards the New Sincerity? Mainly because I don't think it is possible. How do we unlearn distrust? We already know too much, and we have been lied to too many times for our politicians to attempt to cram sincerity down our throats. It's values, stupid. We can't have sincerity spun at us any more than we can suddenly fake a brand new set of founding principles to live by. Irony, for all the accompanying political paralysis it may induce, at least depends for its existence on a multiple viewpoint. Sincerity, though, depends on a unity of vision that can have disastrous consequences. The most sincere are actually fundamentalists of all persuasions. One doesn't immediately associate irony, for instance, with the mujahedin, any more than with Ian Paisley. The choice, as I see it, is not between irony and sincerity but between ironic discourse, whose motivation is actively to undermine certain attitudes, and irony-lite, the kind that most of us use most of the time to suggest world-weariness. What I am asking for is irony that cares. Passionate irony. Third Way irony.
If you believe that is possible, you'll believe anything. The irony is that I myself am off for a while to attempt something more deep and meaningful than column writing, but doubtless I will soon be lured back into this lovely, shallow, egotistical little world. Missing you already.