Our age has not so much redefined irony, as focused on just one of its aspects. Irony has been manipulated to echo postmodernism. The postmodern, in art, architecture, literature, film, all that, is exclusively self-referential – its core implication is that art is used up, so it constantly recycles and quotes itself. Its entirely self-conscious stance precludes sincerity, sentiment, emoting of any kind, and thus has to rule out the existence of ultimate truth or moral certainty. Irony, in this context, is not there to lance a boil of duplicity, but rather to undermine sincerity altogether, to beggar the mere possibility of a meaningful moral position. In this sense it is, indeed, indivisible from cynicism. This isn’t to say that “truth-seeking” irony has evaporated – many creative forms still use irony to highlight the sheer, grinding horror of pursuits or points of view that are considered “normal” (like The Office, for instance; and much of American literature is masterfully good at employing irony with a purpose – to choose at random, Pastoralia, by George Saunders, Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, anything by Philip Roth, The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen).
But other strands of media use irony to assert their right to have no position whatsoever. So, you take a cover of FHM, with tits on the front – and it’s ironic because it appears to be saying “women are objects”, yet of course it isn’t saying that, because we’re in a postfeminist age. But nor is it saying “women aren’t objects”, because that would be dated, over-sincere, mawkish even. So, it’s effectively saying “women are neither objects, nor non-objects – and here are some tits!” Scary Movie 2, Dumb And Dumberer, posh women who go to pole-dancing classes, people who set the video for Big Brother Live, people who have Eurovision Song Contest evenings, Char lie’s Angels (the film, not the TV series) and about a million other things besides, are all using this ludic trope – “I’m not saying what you think I’m saying, but I’m not saying its opposite, either. In fact, I’m not saying anything at all. But I get to keep the tits.
To know inauthenticity isn’t the same as being authentic. Or even, just because you ironically know you’re wrong doesn’t make you right