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The Price of Irony
by Benjamin Barber

If you follow these things, you will know that Martin McDonagh’s new play The Pillowman – it’s about torture, fratricide, child murder, totalitarian law enforcement, and lying — is being celebrated as a “spellbinding stunner” (The New York Times) and is the hottest ticket on Broadway. For all its cleverness, however, it is ultimately just one more fashionable example of the dismaying hold irony has over our culture. As we really do torture terrorists at Guantanamo, as nine year olds really do murder eleven year olds in New York, as the global disparity between rich and poor widens, as cultural war threatens our civility and the media make a mockery of journalistic integrity (they recently paraded the convicted criminals of Watergate to offer “objective” witness against the “treachery” of revealed deep throat whistle blower F. Mark Felt), McDonagh spins tales within tales about the darkest places in the human spirit without meaning a word of what he says or illuminating any of these sorrowful matters, and our popular culture sinks deeper and deeper into the distancing consolations of irony.

Irony is the postmodern form of conspicuous self-consciousness and suits our era’s puerility – its fey aestheticism and political cynicism — to a tee. It is complacency’s rationalization, disengagement’s excuse, the alienated spectator’s self-justification. The ironic bystander (the phrase is redundant) is the citizen’s jeering nemesis and the poet’s wily shadow trying to make sure that truth and beauty and goodness, those stalwarts of the world before it was disenchanted, do not re-infect the post-modern’s cool voice with hot earnestness. Or make us think too hard or feel too keenly. While intellectuals work – Stanley Fish making irony respectable, Richard Rorty wrapping it in the cloak of privatization to minimize its political impact, Jedediah Purdy laboring more recently to expose its costs to community – artists play, assuring that irony endures and spreads in sanitized screen violence (Kill Bill or Sin City), television news wryness (The Daily Show), knowing Broadway shows (The Pillowman) and teen consumer advertising (the beer commercials, for starters). For irony allows us to armor our self-consciousness, and make our moral puzzlement and anxiety seem almost virtuous – though we can only utter the v word ironically.

As Claire Colebrook has noticed in Irony, irony is deeply implicated in “the huge problems of post-modernity; our very historical context is ironic because today nothing really means what it says. We live in a world of quotation, pastiche, simulation and cynicism: a general and all-encompassing irony.” We might even say that irony defines the postmodern sensibility and that to be anything but ironic is to be hopelessly old-fashioned, gauche, out of it – in a word, me. Yet irony is sometimes literally killing as in Brian McDonagh’s play. Irony plagues politics and the arts alike, and hence signals their ongoing intimacy with one another. Want to kill citizenship? Undermine what is earnest and engaged in the world of art, as McDonagh does with the subject of child abuse. When McDonagh is done, feeding Viagra to sex offenders seems quite normal, in an ironic kind of way, and children killing children is, well, a clever and costless game. Want to put an end to art’s ‘pretentious’ ambitions? Assail self-serious politics and civic responsibility.

Anyone challenging what would be the appalling (if they were not so mindless) political implications of The Pillowman will be castigated for political tendentiousness and moral Puritanism. Irony is also killing in that British sense of being remarkable, terrific, overwhelming. It is killing metaphorically in that it is killing theater with smart-ass self-conscious alienation and killing literary studies by deflecting attention from the study of literature to the study of the study of literature—meta-theory—and the discussion of meta-theory’s legitimacy (meta-meta-theory). It is doing so with plays enormously pleased with themselves for being able to play at playing with perversity, with morbidity, with death, in a display of wise guy impertinence only those without irony would name as such. It is killing audiences who no longer engage in the theater experience as contributors but sit back, convinced of their own cool, secure in their own superiority, applauding themselves with routinized standing ovations because they have not allowed themselves to be disturbed by an icy ironist’s murderous stage games.

Full article available in Salmagundi No. 148-149.
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