For some reason, until the last few months, I went the entirety of my life to date without understanding the true nature of irony. I mean, most of us get the basic gist of the concept from right around whatever age we begin to develop the capacity for non-literal interpretation of the world. And in that initial aha of grasping the significance of the firetruck on fire, I suspect that there’s an equally significant haha moment: we are all somehow hardwired to find humor in irony. (I state that as fact, where I should undoubtedly be offering it up only as speculation. But I figure that as long as I’m commenting on things that I have absolutely zero authority to comment on, I might as well go all in…)
If I’m right, it’s no wonder that irony and humor so often go hand in hand, whether in the way we simply experience the former (and its typical provocation of laughter) or actually employ it for comedic purposes. Some forms of comedic irony have little intent beyond the chuckle they may elicit (we see you, quirky-t-shirt-and-offbeat-haircut guy; congrats on your zany individuality), while other forms may be laced with grander intent: enter the realm of satire. It’s this form of irony in which I’ve recently deepened my understanding of its character as an ostensible tool.
Spoiler alert: it’s toothless.
I was first alerted to this fact by an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent podcast, Revisionist History, which pointed out that the long tradition of social/political commentary pervading mainstream comedy (think SNL, for example) accomplishes pretty much nothing. I’m too lazy to try to paraphrase more properly, or to even link to the episode, but check it out. It’s worth a listen.
Subsequent to that, something in the work of a (deceased) writer I admire – David Foster Wallace – addressed the very same toothlessness. Irony as a device for championing a cause is, in a nutshell, not much good for anything beyond complaining. There’s an unmistakable futility in a never-ending stream of sarcasm on the part of the oppressed…
I bet you can guess why I bring this up (but if you can’t, I’ll spare us both the awkwardness of you nodding along in feigned acknowledgment): the futility of comedic irony/satire is relevant to me because it’s what has informed not just the trajectory of this blog, but to large extent also the turn that my actual career has taken. My foray into writing-as-therapy revealed an uncomfortable truth: no amount of complaining (hilarious thought it may have been…oh stop – you’re too kind) was going to solve my issue. Alas, in a self-issued challenge as old as the art of bellyaching itself, I was forced to either put up or shut up.
But here’s what I’ve recently come to realize: it was a lot simpler to be that bellyacher – to sit in the shadows, griping about the ineptitude of those in the spotlight. (Note that in this hastily crafted analogy, the spotlight does not confer fame or recognition, but rather the ability to materially influence the outcome of the production.) Now that I’ve broken free of the shadows – albeit by casting myself in the headlining role of an entirely new production – I’m finding the stark glare of the spotlight to require some adjustment.
Now, in case what you think you just read was “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side”, I will clarify: I said that lurking in the shadows was simpler, not better. I wouldn’t relinquish this self-bestowed starring role for anything…but it does have its consequences. Setting aside the varying degrees of terror I feel at the sheer possibility of failure (show me someone who doesn’t fear failure and I’ll show you a fool), there’s the matter of self-consciousness – a self-consciousness, I might add, that has little to do with the prospect of an audience. Heck, at the moment, the spotlight’s turned up bright enough that I can’t even tell if anyone’s watching. But the solitude of that blinding light only serves to amplify the volume of my loudest critic (newsflash: that’s me), which can be surprisingly daunting.
Where it was pretty easy, as a cog in the corporate machine, to criticize various elements of my surroundings (criticisms I stand behind, by the way), I now have not only the opportunity but the obligation to do better…For all the times I’ve felt that it shouldn’t be so difficult to root a business in integrity, my professional freedom now depends on it…For every instance of something I’ve felt could be done to improve the average employee’s experience in the workplace, I now have the chance to prove the existence of an alternative… And as empowering and exhilarating as these things are, they’re – frankly – a little humbling. At least until I’ve had a chance to really…put up.
And that’s, I think, why I’ve mostly shut up about what I’m doing – for now, at least. (I’m not writing as much, and I’ve pretty much disembarked from my soapbox around almost everyone I know. Close friends and family would attest to my being all-consumed and evermore enthusiastic about the project, but others will not have heard me talk much about it lately.) The novelty of the initial escape from white-collar purgatory has worn off and while my inspiration to never go back has – contrary to what my silence might imply -intensified, until I have something to show for my efforts it just feels a little…embarrassing…to speak in yeah-sure vows about whatever is to come.
There’s a reason that ‘humility’ is not one of the categories of movie you see in your local
video store Netflix queue: it’s boring as shit to observe. (Imagine the mind-numbing possibilities of a cinematic plot centred around the protagonist’s quiet best effort.) But I’ve come to accept that a fading of my – to quote an earlier version of myself – “joyful cynicism” actually represents a pretty important evolution for me. The time for snickering from the shadows has come and gone. I’ve exhausted all of the little coping power that irony and satire held for me. The curtains are up and the house lights are down.
There’s nothing left to do but do.
PS. The project is going extremely well. 🙂