Irony, Culture, Religion, and Meaning -- M. Christian Green

Shortly after September 11, irony was pronounced dead

By M. Christian Green|January 10, 2002

Shortly after September 11, irony was pronounced dead. The "death of irony" discourse is said to have originated with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter's prognostication shortly after the attacks, "There is going to be a seismic change. I think it's the end of the age of irony." Cultural observers, including the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Phil Kloer, reported the demise of a popular culture that was "drenched in irony and cynicism" and that had become "a playground for postmodern hipsters," in which the "appropriate response to anything is the jaded, all-purpose 'whatever.'" James Pinkerton of Newsday proclaimed a victory of "sincerity, patriotism, and earnestness" and a new realization that "there's more to life than nothing, that some things really matter."

Some commentators laid blame for the ironic culture on the much-maligned Generation X. Others sought the comments of Gen X-ers, particularly twenty-something cultural critic Jedediah Purdy, who created a literary stir in 1999 with the publication of his book For Common Things, in which he critically reflected upon the state of irony, trust, and commitment in America. In the aftermath of September 11, Purdy is said to have recanted somewhat, praising anew the kind of irony that can "work to keep dangerous excesses of passion and self-righteousness and extreme conviction at bay" -- a form of irony that seems to have been entirely lacking in the worldview of America's terrorist attackers.

Another common theme is the contrast in much of the "death of irony" discourse between a putatively defunct ironic culture in which "nothing is sacred" and an allegedly emerging ethos of sincerity, tradition, value, and meaning, all of which have deep connections for many to religion and faith. Americans have clearly had to struggle with questions of good and evil, tragedy and hope, justice and revenge, righteousness and relativism. But a bright line between ironic culture and the sacredness of faith seems unhelpful in arriving at meaningful answers to these questions -- and it raises others besides. Is irony in a culture necessarily antithetical to faith and meaning? Is there a role for irony in religion? I would like to suggest that, in these struggles of meaning and culture, irony can be a resource--and aprofoundly religious one, at that.

The religious resourcefulness of irony hinges on three primary connections in which irony deals -- the connections between reference and normativity, detachment and engagement, and reality and aspiration. First, irony is normative in nature and function. This normativity is missed by most of the "death of irony" pundits, who view the ironic attitude as some sort of irredeemably descriptive miring in the muck of earthly existence, that which is, the saeculum. Indeed, in Divine Irony, Glenn S. Holland observes "Irony is the product of humanity's fallen condition, since it depends on the distance between what is and what should be, how a thing is perceived and what it is in reality." Holland also points out that irony is necessarily referential. The dictionary definitions of irony bear this out in referencing possible functions of irony as expressing something other than literal or descriptive meaning, and as suggesting the incongruity of actual events or results and intended events or results. These ironic references make no sense and have no meaning except insofar as they correspond or fail to correspond to our expectations -- and those expectations are normative in nature. When those expectations are offended and the gap between what is and ought to be becomes too great, as was the case with the events of September 11, it is both tragic and ironic.

The second factor to consider in the religious use of irony is the central role of detachment in successful irony. The "death of irony" pundits were, of course, happy to do away with the kind of detachment that becomes sociopathic. Detachment also seems antithetical to religion and its project of linking us to the divine and to each other through communities of faith. Yet the interpretive discipline of hermeneutics, particularly the work of Paul Ricoeur, has demonstrated the importance of detachment in making the connections between understanding and explanation that are central to making meaning of the situations in which we find ourselves. In the same vein, Holland instructively observes, "Irony is a result of the human capacity for mental detachment from the stream of experience. Because of this capacity, human beings are able to step back from the rush of sensory experience and render it an object of contemplation." Indeed, detachment can be essential in times of violence and tragedy, and the best ironies do take the hermeneutical turn back to reengagement. As writer David Beers observes in his article "Irony is Dead! Long Live Irony!" "To note these ironies is to engage yourself in the grave purpose at hand and take some responsibility for helping to think it through -- and that's the opposite of ironic detachment." Indeed, in making this point, Beers quotes World War I-era, twenty-something, cultural critic Randolph Bourne saying, "The ironist is ironical not because he does not care, but because he cares too much."

The third, and central "religious" factor in irony (and the humor that so often accompanies it), is its key role in helping us make meaning of our lives. This is, no doubt, why irony abounds in religious texts. From Sarah's laughter, to David beating Goliath, to the sufferings of Job, to the mystery of virgin birth, to the myriad rhetorical and actual overturnings of cultural assumptions by Jesus Christ (just to reference the biblical traditions with which this writer is most familiar), religion deals in irony in making sense of human experience, both its heights and its depths. As Purdy has observed, "Just as we cannot live in the flatness of irony, we cannot breathe the cloying air of anti-irony. The human reserves of pompousness, self-seriousness, and the leaden earnestness that always threatens to run molten are unlikely ever to be exhausted. Among our most trustworthy weapons against them is an intelligent and resourceful irony. That irony depends on the recognition that our moral situation is tragic -- that we are base and worse even while recognizing that we should be good, and that we can keep ourselves from growing worse yet only by holding our frailty and ridiculous self-righteousness always before us."

Perhaps then, religion and culture, and faith and irony, need not be rivals, but rather resources in the search for meaning. Perhaps religion, like culture, can reclaim and renew its sense of irony. After all, in the Washington Post's list of trends for 2002, irony was "in" and death-of-irony instigator Graydon Carter was "out."

-- M. Christian Green is a doctoral candidate in ethics at the University of Chicago. She also works as a research associate at the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith, and Ethics

Editor's note: A full list of citations from Ms. Green's article is available upon request.