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Irony Survives

November 26, 2001

With a new book out on the portrayal of globalization in four American television programs (see Gilligan Unbound), I have found myself drawn into the debate over how the events of September 11 may change popular culture in the United States.

In the weeks immediately following the World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters, commentators were quick to predict in apocalyptic terms that television and movies would never be the same again. In my view, it is still too early to tell whether there really has been a sea-change in the American psyche. The way military and political events unfold over the next few months and even years will determine whether September 11 truly marked a watershed in our cultural history. I have begun to suspect, however, that the changes may not be as deep or as lasting as many initially predicted.

Naturally, right after the terrorist attacks, television schedules needed to be hastily reshuffled. The Fox Network yanked a showing of the movie Independence Day advertised for Sunday, September 15. That movie's trademark shot of the White House exploding was exactly what Americans did not want to view so soon after witnessing all-too-similar disasters in the real world.

The Family Channel cannot have been happy that it had Earthquake in New York slated for September 18. Television comedians were faced with similar dilemmas. Late-night talk-show hosts like David Letterman and Jay Leno were understandably at first reluctant to go ahead with their normal comedy routines at a time when the nation was more inclined to grieve than to laugh. For awhile, it looked as if television--forced to do without extremes of either tragedy or comedy--might be reduced to an unprecedented level of blandness.

In particular, a number of cultural commentators seized the occasion to proclaim the end of irony. They argued that a whole generation of Americans, who had never felt truly threatened before, would now have to renounce their cynicism and learn how to take life seriously. This argument seemed to be carrying the day at first, but even from the beginning there were signs that irony--which, after all, has a very long history, stretching back at least as far as ancient Greece--might prove more difficult to stamp out than terrorism itself.

The official organs of popular culture--especially television--may have adopted a solemn and somber tone in the aftermath of September 11, but popular culture is not always so neatly contained. The cultural elites had passed a death sentence on irony, but it was by no means clear whether the American public was ready to carry it out.

In fact, popular culture always has a way of colonizing new media, especially when they offer greater freedom of expression, and as a result, in the past decade much of American popular culture has in effect migrated to the Internet. And it was to web sites and e-mail that one had to turn in mid-September to get a fuller picture of how America was reacting to the terrorist attacks and indeed to see that, despite everything else they had lost, Americans had not lost their sense of humor.

One cannot repeat in polite circles the obscene and cruel jokes that almost immediately began to circulate about Osama bin Laden via e-mail, and the computer-generated graphic suggestions about how to deal with him proved that American ingenuity--and irony--were still very much in force.

Irony began to resurface in semi-respectable public venues with surprising speed. The marvelously irreverent and politically incorrect satirical newspaper The Onion decided not to pull its punches. By September 26, it was running a tasteless but hilarious story headlined: "Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves in Hell: `We Expected Eternal Paradise For This,' Say Suicide Bombers." Here was a heavy dose of precisely the kind of irony that September 11 was supposed to have banished from America forever.

By November 14, The Onion was making fun of the whole obsession with how the threat of terrorism will affect popular culture in a story headlined: "Luann Creator Wrestling With How To Address Terrorist Crisis." The newspaper has Gary Evans, creator of the popular comic strip, saying: "I definitely feel an obligation to address this tragedy--through Luann's eyes. It's a real high-wire act: entertaining, informing, and providing emotional support to my readers all at the same time."

In short, the cultural elite may have prematurely proclaimed the death of irony because they were looking in the wrong places in an American popular culture that has found new outlets in recent years and has become increasingly decentered and diversified.

To return, however, to the traditional media of popular culture, I would date the official end of the end of irony to a much-publicized on-the-air exchange between Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of NBC's Saturday Night Live, and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Seeming to reflect the mood of a newly chastened entertainment industry, Michaels apparently was seeking official sanction to return to comedy business as usual from the man who more than anyone had come to personify the agony of New York. He asked the mayor: "Can we be funny?" Giuliani's by-now legendary reply--"Why start now?"--is of course a perfect example of television at its most ironic.

We thought Giuliani was going to answer as the mayor of New York, perhaps saying something statesman-like: "We have been through a lot, Lorne, but we need to maintain our sense of humor." But instead, Giuliani replied as "the mayor of New York," a character in a comedy sketch scripted for him by the SNL writers. This was irony in its postmodern form--Giuliani self-consciously playing himself and playing himself for laughs. And for most New Yorkers, as well as most of the nation, this exchange showed that irony can be cathartic: precisely because it gives us distance on our emotions, it can help us come to terms with them.

Indeed, in their understandable shock at the course of world events and their haste to proclaim the end of irony, cultural commentators had forgotten one of the basic lessons of Media Studies 101. As media guru Marshall McLuhan would have put it, these critics became fixated on the content of television and neglected the nature of the medium itself. Television is an ironic medium.

This does not mean that irony is the only thing television can do; as the reporting of the events of September 11 showed, television can still transmit a serious message when it has to. But irony is one of the things that television does best. There is something about that little box---even in these days of widescreen TV--that does a great job of reducing and deflating people, events, and ideas. Unlike the cinema, television is not an aggrandizing or magnifying medium--that is one reason politicians are wary of it. The television camera is a microscope; it has a way of seeing into things, of undercutting pretensions, exposing foibles, and generally ironizing whatever takes itself too seriously. In giving us some distance on our emotions, irony allows us to think critically.

As political events in our day become more complicated, we should welcome the ability of television--and popular culture in general--to view the world ironically, and especially our politicians. If anyone is tempted to lament the survival of irony in our popular culture, it is worth recalling that its most famous practitioner was a man named Socrates.


Paul A. Cantor, once a participant in Mises's New York seminar, is professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, which the L.A. Times recently named as one of the best nonfiction works of 2001. He was interviewed in the Austrian Economics Newsletter and will deliver the Mises Lecture at the Austrian Scholars Conference, March 15-16, 2002. Send him MAIL, and view Mises.org Articles Archive.


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