In a recent article entitled “David Foster Wallace Was Right: Irony Is Ruining Our Culture,” written by Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll, the argument is made that the irony and cynicism that so heavily color our culture are really only aimed at nothingness. I argue further that the way cynicism is praised is a product of the severe societal malaise of existential boredom, also called acedia. Ashby and Carroll write, “Lazy cynicism has replaced thoughtful conviction as the mark of an educated worldview.” It is necessary indeed to note the difference between lazy and enlightening cynicism. Enlightening cynicism is the kind that brings to light certain societal pitfalls by use of thoughtful irony, whereas lazy cynicism is used simply to ridicule others in such a way that the self feels a false sense of elevation. We all know this kind of humor—it plagues almost every kind of sitcom out there. It’s the kind that makes you think, “Wow, I’m so glad I’m not that guy.” I wonder what we are supposed to do with this. Ashby and Carroll write, “How does art progress from irony and cynicism to something sincere and redeeming?”
The way I see it, our obsession with cynicism is a refusal to look reality in the face—an obstinate turning away from the very present to which we are called to be attentive. The concerning thing is that cynicism, however, has turned into the way that we pretend to be serious about the reality of which we find ourselves to be a part. And, as such, the cynic has, in truth, become a caricature of herself. Ashby and Carroll write, “Irony and formality have become the same thing. At one time, irony served to reveal hypocrisies, but now it simply acknowledges one’s cultural compliance and familiarity with pop trends. The art of irony has lost its vision and its edge.” The real issue is that we are afraid to say things we believe to be true, so we tend to hide behind our words, laying on the irony as a defense mechanism.
My primary worry is not that we joke too much—that really isn’t the issue at all. The issue is that irony is a practice devoid of substance in itself. It encourages us to laugh, which is actually a very lovely thing, at instances not worthy of our laughter. What if we were more careful about the things we allowed ourselves to laugh at? For to surrender our bodies to laughter is a deep kind of thing. And it is indeed a surrender. We allow ourselves the freedom to open up to reality in moments of laughter, moments in which we are fully convinced that the world is deeply good. If that is the case, cynicism really plays no role in healthy laughter. Healthy laughter is a good deal more akin to looking reality directly in the face, attending to it properly and embracing it for all its worth. Cynicism is the smirk that seeks to disengage the self from what is real. Cynicism is nothing more that dialectical cowardice.
With this lens, our present cultural circumstance appears quite dim. However, Ashby and Carroll do not wish to leave us hopeless. They write, “But we can remake the world. In poetry, in music, in painting, we can reimagine and plot coordinates into the unknown. We can take an honest look, rework and try again. The work will tell us if it has arrived or not. We have to listen closely. What do we see? What do we hear?”
My prayer is that we learn how to attend to the world properly, recognizing what kinds of things are worth our submission.