Once I went to a nightclub with some friends. I bought a ticket in advance because I still carry this vague conviction that when I ‘go out’ I won’t be let in, and that someone, at some point, will try to hit me. Having a ticket makes me feel safer: there can only be so much chaos if you have to print out a sheet of paper with a barcode on it beforehand.
There were lots of ironic things in the club we went to. Some of the guys were wearing vests with American basketball teams on, or those short-sleeved shirts that professional baseball players wear. This was ironic because none of them really played for those teams, or wanted them to win, or even knew how the sports worked (probably). A stick-thin, sweating man was wearing a large T-shirt that said Tony’s Gym 1987. The disjunctions were apparent.
This was not dramatic irony. They knew that no one would think, ‘Aha, I know you definitely don’t like/play for/know about these teams, but some other people in here think you do!’ Instead, the idea is one of cultivated carelessness. This is never really radical. This is a ‘cool’ that mixes detachment with the attitude of the malcontent. The original idea is de-purposed, but is never really repurposed. Thus, the victory is one of detaching something that is liked by many, such as baseball or the gym, and then trumping it with how little you care about it.
Apparently irony, or eironeia, meant ‘feigned ignorance’ in Ancient Greece. The people at the club wearing inaccurate T-shirts were pretending that they didn’t realise, or didn’t care about the things their clothes meant, or were meant for. Or maybe they knew people would realise it was deliberate. In that case, they could acknowledge it as novelty, taking the whole operation further, or simplify it by claiming a genuine appreciation for the Indiana Pacers. But I can’t talk: I spent twelve pounds on a sweatshirt that says ‘Idaho’ on it. I have never been to Idaho. I imagine it is dull, but I believe it is of agricultural importance to the country as a whole.
‘Idaho’. Now, I wouldn’t have bought that sweatshirt if it had ‘New York’, ‘California’, or ‘Washington’ on it. That would have made it look like I really liked those places, which I actually do. I also wouldn’t have bought it if it had borne the word ‘Belarus’, a country which is often linked to oppression and violence. I do not like these things, but I also do not like Idaho, and that’s the whole reason I bought the sweatshirt.
This is infectious. I’ve met people who are deliberately rude at parties, not because they dislike the people they are talking to, but because it’s not what you expect at parties. Traditionally, you expect people to be friendly, and ask you what your job is or where you study. The rude people have decided that this is stupid, and that when or if they become your real friend, they’ll start being nice. This is sort of what Fowler is talking about in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage when he says
‘Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more and of the outsider’s incomprehension.’
This confused third party is meant to be imaginary: when the ironic person at the party is rude, you are not meant to think that they are actually rude (even though they are being rude), but laugh at the idea that someone who is bad at irony would think that this person genuinely was rude. The only problem is, sometimes the confused third party isn’t imaginary, and so sometimes people just seem to be insufferable and cruel. The parties have suffered. Now, instead of expecting friendliness and being surprised and amused by affected rudeness, I expect rudeness and am comforted by friendliness, even if it is affected. And so we just go back to the beginning.
If a real Boston Red Sox fan had seen those people wearing their baseball t-shirts, I wonder what they would have thought. They might have been pleased or amused to see something significant to them pop up in an unexpected context. But if the people wearing the t-shirts were being honest, they would have told the baseball fan that they were being ironic. They didn’t like baseball at all. In fact, they were dressing up as baseball fans, and in doing so, were dressing up as something that the Red Sox supporter actually was. That could rankle.
That rankling can sometimes be a very good thing. In the sixties, when hippies took military clothing and cut off the sleeves and drew peace signs on the jackets, they wanted to show that symbolically they could defeat violence by neutralising some of its apparatus. This seems broadly clever and a good thing, and rubbing generals and colonels up the wrong way was an integral part of it.
But say it’s not the military or the Boston Red Sox whose stuff you are taking. What happens if you ironically wear something that someone else doesn’t choose to wear, but has to wear? And what if the people who have to wear these things are actually much less privileged than you? If you wear a Chinese communist work smock then surely, in some way, you are attesting to your own ability to adopt someone else’s economically determined reality as an aesthetic, i.e. a kind of cultural appropriation. The very act of dressing up as something shows that you are privileged enough to choose to do it.
This may seem like an obvious point; some people might think that this kind of irony is mainly the preserve of offensive fancy dress, which announces itself as a spectacle of appropriation. But I don’t think this is the case.
If we really simplify things, then we could say that rich young people a few decades ago would often buy expensive clothes and laugh at people with cheap clothes, whereas nowadays, some wealthy people deliberately buy Slazenger trainers to show that they don’t care about expensive trainers or leather shoes. They know their Slazenger trainers will send a message about their choice not to buy something else that is more expensive. To make these trainers a component of intentional styling, of fashion, they must also communicate the fact that, had they wanted to, they could have bought something expensive. Which is pretty much the same thing as buying something really expensive, in terms of what it signifies about your wealth.
If someone who does wear a dayglo jacket to work, or whose sense of local pride or community is partially built on the football team whose vintage kit you have bought, sees you wearing those things at a club, what are they supposed to think? When it becomes clear that your circumstances are not the same and that you don’t actually work in construction, or that you don’t support Derby, then they will see that the whole point of you wearing those things is that you don’t do these things or care about them.
And if we look at when middle-class millennial club nights are put on in pool bars or working men’s clubs, we get the exact combination of these last two points: the first of a participation in someone else’s culture as a testament to your own indifference to it and distance from it, and the second; that being able to opt-in is predicated on wealth. It’s a gentrification of signifiers.
More and more, I think that daily life can’t contain that much irony. Behind the ironic posture there must be a collateral morality, a knowledge that being rude is in fact not right, and a respect for genuine difference. That or the ‘free play’ of concentric idiocy.
Yet the plague spreads, and you can fall between the two spheres very easily. I know someone who got the Chinese characters spelling ‘Dim Sum’ tattooed upon one of his ankles. It really was his favourite food, apparently. However, the needle they used to punch the ink into the dermal tissue had not been correctly sterilised. He contracted a bacterial infection which led to blood poisoning. The doctors had to amputate his foot.
Blessed are those who do not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers