Emilio Horner is a political science senior and Mustang News columnist. These views do not necessarily reflect the editorial coverage of Mustang News.
“Bernie Sanders for Prez” laptop sticker? Check. Thrift store button up? Check. Dissatisfied sneer at the corporate muzak (Hozier) bleeding out of the Linnaea’s Coffee shop speakers? Check. Was this the ultimate performance of my commodified center-left middle class cookie-cutter yuppie identity, or was there still a shred of authentic human expression to be found somewhere in between downloading Father John Misty’s LP edition of I Love You, Honeybear onto my Christmas gift iPhone and watching my friends Lee and Carlo play backgammon and shoot off 9/11 conspiracy jokes? Unclear. But it was a nice moment regardless.
A little too hyper on coffee, I weakly muttered something about my love and happiness with my friends before feeling awkward and quickly putting forward a rude joke. Being insecure at emotional expression is not new, and people have long been scared to express how they truly feel for fear of others not reciprocating similar emotions. Additionally, it obviously can be uncomfortable to express conflicting beliefs, attitudes and values with people with whom one wishes to share a strong connection. Naturally, it can be easier to keep conversation light or disguise opinions in jokes and irony.
However, it has no longer become a question of simple parody, imitation or duplication. Instead we have entered, as French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard argued, a culture context in which it has become a question “of substituting the signs of the real for the real.”
Modern cultural and emotional displays no longer have the ability of being too artificial, because for something to be artificial it still requires a connection to reality; instead we have lost the capability to make the distinction between nature and artifice. Or joke and seriousness. The fact that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were two of the most popular “news anchors” of the last 10 years proves this. The question becomes, can we at all control the frame of irony, or has the frame completely dissolved?
Even I, a good atheist, overly privileged nihilist and believer in the subversive power of a well-placed inappropriate joke, believes that the inability of individuals to distinguish between authentic emotion or connection and merely the traditional signifiers devoid of the actual emotion is a problem. This inability to distinguish can cost us the ability to fully empathize and love others. One of the best parts of being human, we’ve turned into an ironic joke.
I recently saw an example of the problem of where the joke ends and the ideology begins with regard to the political right on Facebook with a picture of a group of armed service members wrapped somewhat ironically in an American flag with the caption “’Merica!” Surely the excessive jingoism is ironic, but still something the individuals in the picture largely believe. We too commonly mock our own ideology while continuing to perform and embody it. The nationalistic and hypermasculine media representations of war oddly enough become more real than actual battlefield experience.
It turns out that the true nature of love and war are what we’ve lost through the prevalence of irony in modern society, despite our constant desire to have it all. We want the emotional connection of love without the heartbreak. We want the power, glory and safety of war without the pain and suffering.
Unfortunately, it’s inherently impossible to separate the two, and our attempts to have the good without the bad lead to meaninglessness and harm. Hookup culture is to love what shock and awe campaigns and drone strikes are to war. Love without love. War without war.
The left devolves to hedonism in response to modernity. The right devolves to fundamentalism, constructing an existential threat that needs to be destroyed (all too commonly minorities, women and the lower class). But it’s not as simple as choosing to be a nihilist or a liar, because all too often the multicultural tolerant left (of which I consider myself a member) preaches diversity without conflict. Or difference without difference. The dream of a cosmopolitan future is largely utopian.
It was believed that 9/11 or the threat (or perceived threat) of global terrorism could shock us out of our break from history and back into the real world. But as I listened to my friends smile rattling off jokes about it, (the best being 9/11 was an inside job and 7/11 was a part-time job) it appeared that was not the case.
Depressed, I put in my headphones and listened to Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear, attempting to drown out the postmodern malaise. The album, a love story about Misty’s courtship and marriage, captures love past most cultural notions of romance. What makes the album so good is Misty’s total acceptance that his persona, a folk singing shamanic drifter, is largely an ironic spectacle. However, by refusing to accept mass media representations of the sentiments of love minus the painful intimacy, he truly transcends the simulacra. I think he honestly captures love including its distrusts, helplessness and loss of self in a way that is meaningful, pain and all. Of course my attempts to vocalize this were met with even more irony and jokes.
Carlo, recognizing that this conversation was likely me procrastinating on my Mustang News article, asked me what I had actually planned to write about. I told him I wanted to write about love and irony and why it is that we cannot be serious about serious issues. I motioned to Lee and said, “Hey maybe, I’ll write about you, you’re the ultimate postmodern spectacle.” He asked for further explanation and I, way ruder than intended, stated, “You know, your life is a huge joke.” Letting out a too loud for the Northface-wearing Linnaea’s liberals crowd groan, Lee grabbed a sharpie that was sitting on the table and wrote in big block letters on his sweatshirt “I DO CARE.” It was the ultimate nihilist paradox. Hedonistically destroying something to show how much he cared. And an example of Hegel’s concept of an abstract negativity. We may not have the language necessary to know our own unfreedom, but never doubt that at some level we do care. Good luck this quarter escaping the desert of the real.