- Grant Wood’s Political Gothic
As a rule, American political life does not accommodate irony very well—which is not to say that American politics is devoid of or even lacking in what pundits generally deem to be “ironies,” namely those consequences unintended by some hapless party, those reversals of fortune that undermine initial expectations, those witticisms that wryly mock the arrogance of power. Rather, the above-stated rule—to which there are very few exceptions—should read more to the point: American political life has welcomed few full-time ironists, and no self-respecting ironist I know would make American politics the main subject of his or her attentions, let alone affections. Americans simply don’t elect arch-ironists to office; and if an American Socrates were somehow to gain widespread public celebrity, he or she would likely stay far away from our nation’s capital. Even the judicial branch shows little interest these days in putting ironists on trial for their alleged transgressions to the democratic order. More generally, Jean Baudrillard is probably right to observe about America that “the irony of community is missing here.” 1 To be sure, American intellectuals talk a lot about irony, especially in the last few decades; but there are few public practitioners of the trope, and even fewer who direct their missives toward national political life. 2 Most academic analysts, like Richard Rorty, wish to confine ironology to appropriately private, as opposed to public, venues. 3 Irony, for Rorty, can only be corrosive of public life; and even when he attempts to fashion a pragmatic truce between public liberalism and private ironism, Rorty names no American as an exemplar of irony (he names Baudelaire, Darwin, Derrida, Foucault, Hegel, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Nabokov, Newton, Nietzsche, Proust, and Swift as ranking ironists). For Rorty and most others, irony is a gesture of detachment and subversion; it is largely European and elitist; it is un-American and undemocratic. Irony’s self-referential attractiveness in arcane academic circles thus confirms its elusive distance from American public life.
Given this power vacuum, pop culture frequently steps into the irony breach. Irony is all around us, in music, film, cyberzines. Spy Magazine and The New Republic both named irony as the cultural trope of the nineteen eighties. 4 And, despite some backlash, it continues. In Reality Bites, the 1994 film about Generation X-ers, Winona Rider is asked in a job interview to define irony, and although she was an English major in college, the question stumps her. Alanis Morrisette achieved musical stardom with her hit, “Ironic” (the real irony of which, some critics sneer, is that the lyrics contained very little of the stuff, indeed). Barry Sonnenfeld, director of Men in Black, confides, “I’m going to stick with irony, because that’s where I started.” 5 Multimedial pop irony achieves mainstream box office success by banking on a coy conceit of pretended self-marginalization: the hip jokester, the inside spoofer, the postmodern prankster, the straight cross-dresser, the passive-aggressive cynic. The gesture of knowing detachment, of a smirking distance often ambiguously struck, informs various pop strategies ranging from Andy Warhol to David Letterman. To the extent that such aloof ironists make occasional forays into American political life, their cool commentaries remain marginalized and merely parasitic, but a smug snicker or two from the peanut gallery. “Pop irony” thus signifies but an American deformation of Thomas Mann’s wistful notion of “political irony,” 6 namely that rare irony which, unexpectedly and therefore in nearly perfect keeping with its hidden political character, contributes precariously yet productively to the public good. 7
The hard truth of the matter is that we have an extremely difficult time identifying any outspoken American practitioner of political irony. Have we ever produced such a mutant beast, a political animal sporting a Sphinx-like smile in artful service of low-brow republican ideals? One would never accuse Whitman or Emerson of committing irony: their paeans to our democracy are, after all, too pious; their soaring celebrations reveal few simultaneous moments of parodic self-subversion; their transcendentalisms would hardly qualify for Friedrich Schlegel’s definition of irony as “transcendental buffoonery...