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Beyond the New Sincerity: What is a Post-Post-Ironic Sensibility?

6809639345_2066dace4d_zIf you’ve seen The Lego Movie, you know that its tone is playful, self-deprecating, and whimsical. It has themes, but refuses to be ponderous about them. When the Master Builder Vitruvius states the moral message of the film in so many words (something along the lines of “You are special if you believe you are”), he follows up right away with a disclaimer: “I know it sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true.”

Of course, this disclaimer draws a laugh if you happen to be thinking exactly that before he says it. But the joke is also supposed to be cathartic. If you’re given permission to laugh at the silliness of the theme, maybe you can move past derision and also accept the message.

What is it about a platitude that makes us gag? Do we just think it’s wrong? Then all we need is to be reminded that truisms are true, and the nausea will subside. But that isn’t enough, is it? We also need to be able to laugh it off. Because a platitude is worse than false–it’s ridiculous. Innocent of all worldly wisdom, radiating naïveté, it is a sitting duck for mockery.  If you are ever on the internet (apparently, you are), you’ve probably digested enough mockery that when you hear something high and empty sounding, you can already hear its ironic echoes resounding through the feeds and streams. It’s as inevitable as the closing bars of a song, that smug moral pronouncements will soon be reduced to sneering travesties.

Call it bathetic cadence.

Now if you want to repeat a platitude in an atmosphere like this, what do you do? You inoculate it, by mocking it yourself. There’s no satisfaction for mockers in taking you down if you’ve done it yourself in advance. Where I come from, we call that an “apotropaism.”


This is exactly what Vitruvius does when he delivers the message of the movie. (Frozen makes a similar move by having its moral not intoned by a weathered sage but casually dropped by a confirmed idiot.) Children don’t need such apologies, but their parents do, because we’ve grown up in an age of irony. If we want to share an earnest moment with our children, it has to be post-ironic. It has to give us permission to laugh it to scorn even as we take it in.

What do these post-ironic apotropaisms (consider this your take-away phrase to sound impressive when you are describing this article to your friends) mean? Calling them “post-“ironic implies that we’ve made some progress. Irony must have been a step in the right direction or we’d be trying to get back to the “pre-” ironic. Getting past irony must be even better.

But where have we gotten? A platitude in brackets is still a platitude. If receiving it from a self-deprecating source keeps us from rejecting it, maybe we were rejecting it for the wrong reasons. We should reject platitudes not because they are ridiculous or even because they are false, but because the problems they solve are always inconsequential. Wanting to feel special, for instance, is a distraction from actually doing something that matters, whether it gives you a sense of fulfillment or not. If we simply override our disgust at platitudes, then we are losing the benefit of an ironic sensibility that protects us from such self-satisfied affirmations.

What we need is a post-post-ironic sensibility that is not just a return to irony but an improvement on the whole fruitless back-and-forth between irony and sincerity. Irony can and should be charitable and edifying instead of cynical and destructive. Sincerity does not have to be naive and trite. It can be literate and profound.

Let me put it to you this way…/FEED ME” by  flickr user quinnanya, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 // text added

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3 Responses to “Beyond the New Sincerity: What is a Post-Post-Ironic Sensibility?”

  1. As I read this, I began thinking my way to the problem rather differently–but we come to something similar in the end.

    Platitude is weak, not because false or ridiculous–but because it indicates a lazy, unconvicted, unconvincing relation of the mind that harbors it to the truth it’s supposed to be communicating. The things worth saying are the kind of things that don’t stay put in the mind–they tend to escape us, or when we hold them meditatively, they move and live a life of their own.

    For a long time I had exactly the problem your post makes me feel again. If you begin with something flimsy and trite (though perhaps true), ironizing it doesn’t win you much. It does I suppose register a salutary dissatisfaction, restlessness. But because this kind of irony has no positive content, the restlessness moves on, and the empty form of it remains as a habitual sneer at the flimsy and trite, a sneer long ago itself become flimsy and trite. What do we do now? Ironize the irony?

    Irony ought not to “sit in the seat of the scornful.” It ought to be a way to get oneself (or another) on the way, on the move, to unsettle, discomfit us, make us look twice at everything, and think thrice. Only when we ourselves are on the move somehow, can we actually encounter the companions, visitants, and guides who will make our journey meaningful.

    Posted by Adam Cooper | April 18, 2014, 3:18 pm
  2. I assume you saw this article last year: http://gawker.com/on-smarm-1476594977

    Posted by William Joshua Lucas | June 26, 2014, 2:16 pm
    • I did not. Thanks for pointing it out.

      The smarm/snark cycle seems to revolve around criticism and argument. If I understand correctly, smarm is an attempt to escape dispute, sparing its proponents the trouble of making an argument; snark calls smarm out on this rhetorical strategy. I would add that this treatment of smarm only makes it more self-assured, so it may not be a very good rhetorical strategy. Unless it is meant to influence third parties, rather than its pretended addressee, in which case snark is its own species of bullshit.)

      The cycle I’ve thought more about is almost the exact opposite, and tends to occupy the narrative dimension of discourse, rather than the critical. Where smarm fights against negativity, the habit of irony fights affirmation; the post-ironic (the new sincerity) reacts by affirming without discernment, almost at random.

      But these two cycles are probably related! I’ll have to think more about it.

      As a side note, I found the Gawker article challenging on a personal level. I’ve not been innocent of smarm in my own online conversations. So thanks again for sharing it.

      Posted by grubby | June 27, 2014, 2:05 pm

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