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Post-Ironic Purgatory

by Connor York

There exists a spectrum between confidence and arrogance. It has generally been established that people like those who are confident, and for good reason. Confidence, especially in a leadership setting allows for groups to have a sense of assurance in a seemingly insurmountable scenario. The fundamental difference between confidence and arrogance exists in the plane of self-awareness. How self-aware is the person making the statement? When most begin to turn on the confident figure is when the figure loses a sense of self-awareness. An assertion of confidence may be something like claiming that they will receive high marks on a research paper. This is in contrast to a statement of arrogance in which someone assert that their paper is a marvel in the field of anthropology and will fundamentally shift academic understanding of the field.

Social reactions to the aforementioned statements will be drastically different. The arrogant claim would be widely condemned as an outward expression of the fantastical rantings of an egoist. However, there exists multiple deviations on what I’ll call the spectrum of self-assuredness. The first is being arrogant while maintaining self-awareness. This introduces the first layer of irony, when one becomes ironically confident. Ironic arrogance exists where an individual actor clearly has some sense of arrogance but will overtly exaggerate that attitude for the purpose of humor. If I’m presenting myself as ironically arrogant, then I might be a naturally cocky person with at least some conception of how people perceive me. That gives me leverage to say some absurdly egotistical declaration like claiming to have cured polio but being such a person of high character that I refused to take credit. Obviously, a ridiculous statement on the surface, but maintaining a certain tone and saying it with a smile lets the audience in on the ironic element.

There is another tick on the spectrum, the arrogant individual who borders on delusion but has the self-awareness in their own high abilities to at least be begrudgingly respected by the public. Then there’s the most extreme end of the self-assuredness spectrum, the arrogant delusionist, with the highest sense of arrogance and no self-awareness to be found. The arrogant delusionist, because of both their lack of ability and self-awareness, encourages the most vitriolic condemnations from most people. When the delusionist attains even partial affirmations of their farcical claims, they resort to a series of taunts and even more grandiose statements, much to the chagrin of a general audience. The perception of frontrunning leads to a deep seeded audience hatred and a cathartic sense of satisfaction in the failures of the delusionist. It would be fair to say that being on the far side of the self-assuredness spectrum would be the least socially desirable.

So, what does a convoluted, pretentiously named, categorical spectrum have to do with post-irony? Well first we need to play a definition game. We’ll start with two layers of irony. The first part of a dual layered ironic statement is the sincere premise. What am I trying to say behind all the layers irony? Next is the first layer of irony, which can be saying the opposite of the sincere statement with tonal implications indicating that the sincere statement is the true intention all along. The second layer can be constituted as post-irony, in which one says a sincere statement while tonally suggesting that they do not believe it.

That was likely pretty confusing so let me do something that I have previously expressed grievances against: giving a sincere, personal example. For contextual information, I would not consider myself a naturally arrogant person. This is a sincere statement of truth, the ground zero of irony. However, in the past I frequently enjoyed ironically making egotistical statements that were, in my eyes, obviously ridiculous for comedic effect. Now it did have its downsides with some not picking up on the boasts dripping with sarcasm, but eventually by bragging with a smile, most caught onto the act. The primary ironic stage only satisfied me temporarily. I became fascinated with the idea of multi layered ironic statements, where everything became so muddied that my true beliefs were always subject to speculation. Here I’ve entered post-irony by saying something like I’m not egotistical at all, what ever do you mean? The statement is sincere, but it remains totally ironic for the purpose of adding to the ambiguity of the intent.

The approach brought about a strange dichotomy to my conversational habits. Those familiar with my M.O. never quite knew when to take anything I said seriously. On one hand it remained incredibly difficult to express any sincere thought to those I knew, with several reassurances about my intent being needed to get my point across. On the other hand, the strategy introduced a conversational cat and mouse game, allowing for added bits of sincerity without fear of social reproach (more on that later). The larger issue remained in the long-term danger of applying a post-ironic framework to all facets of social interaction.

When one applies post-irony, it is a declaration of anti-sincerity. The sincere statement is now said in an ironic vein and in doing so runs the risk of entering Post-Ironic Purgatory. Post-Ironic Purgatory occurs when the original intention behind a statement is lost entirely and not even the person speaking knows the true intention. Some also classify this phenomenon as meta irony, with proponents claiming the device functions as a system of rebellion against the expectation of meaning in conversation or art. However, with the complete loss of meaning and intentionality there exists a high probability of an identity crisis. When even the person saying something is unaware of their intentionality, then what’s the point of anything? Critics will note that the meaninglessness is the point, but it raises further questions about the nature of belief. Meta-Ironic art is part of the grander post-Truth landscape wherein objective truth has died and been fully replaced by truth as defined by individual beliefs.

Not even science itself has the cultural wherewithal to define truth. There has been a growing movement against science as a process, with some determining their own truths and using selected aspects of science as a support mechanism. What people search for is an objective arbiter of truth, which a post truth landscape fails to provide. For millennia religion became the gatekeeper of truth but over time science took on religion’s mantle as the arbiter of truth.

However, the flaws in the scientific process have come to the forefront with some questioning the legitimacy of science as an objective truth. This is of course not trying to dismiss science as a useful tool, but to point out that it does not provide an objective truth. There remains a common misconception of science as an absolute truth instead of an ongoing process trying to discover the truth. The point remains that in the face of a likely nonexistent objective truth, what most have done is create their own realities because nothing can be objectively true. In this interpretation, every statement, belief, or action becomes both meaningless and subject to debate around intended meaning. Nothing is concrete, there are no facts, and sincerity has died and been replaced with labyrinthine layers of irony to eschew clear intentionality.

The flaw found in the post truth landscape is the intentionality of belief. For if there is no unerring institution to decree what is true and what is not, then the basis of truth comes in belief. Belief in the post truth world is the sole identifier of truth. Without an understanding of the “true” nature of a person’s belief, there is nothing to form a conception of reality. Reality becomes what you make of it. Well, you could try judging based on an individual’s actions or past statements, but it raises the question of how many ironic layers those actions were shrouded in. Life itself becomes an opaque omni reality paradox wherein everyone’s beliefs are simultaneously both true and false at the same time.

But what if the usage of meta irony becomes unintentional? Many individuals apply meta irony as a shielding technique to intentionally muddy meaning as a concept (more on that later), but what if the person using meta irony loses the plot? Here is where one reaches Post-Ironic Purgatory, wherein the application of so many layers of irony has not only confused other people’s interpretations but also confused the person saying the statements in the first place.

One of the flaws with multi-layered ironic statements comes in the form of repetition. Task repetition is the fundamental aspect in reinforcing a belief. A child stops blindly running into the road, only after years of hearing messaging from parental figures to look both ways. The only way to both adopt and break a habit is to create repeatable actions to apply again and again, until the actual action itself doesn’t take any kind of mental faculty to process. How much thought is put into brushing your teeth? Most of the time, thoughts wander elsewhere because it is such an ingrained action built on decades of repetition. The most pressing concern present with repetition is the complete absence of thought put into a task. Why would I question doing something when it’s second nature to me?

To clear thing up, let me provide yet another personal example. Take the aforementioned instance of arrogance. When I apply the post-ironic statement of claiming not to be arrogant in an ironic tone, I still maintain at least a semblance of sincerity. However, the sincerity I maintain becomes less and less clear as I fall into the habitual application of post-irony. The ironic tone said in a statement like “I’m not a narcissist, whatever do you mean?” becomes vague. The joke of not being an arrogant bloviator but acting like one becomes the only association people retain.

By repeating this conversational motif for years, arrogance became subconsciously implanted into my identity. I constantly had moments where I said something in a conversation that was outright conceited. There was no deadpan, ironic veneer to what I just said or thought, it was instead just pompous. I noticed the warning signs immediately and began to question the reason behind my statements. I started to wonder, am I a self-important windbag? I can claim that saying “I am a god” is ironic, but is it still ironic when I begin to mutter the phrase “I am a god” repeatedly to myself every day while admiring my own reflection? Repetition built the foundations of an identity crisis. It felt at times as though I was playing a character in some bizarre art piece. I always had the backdrop of the deluded notion that everything was ironic, and the repetition cult had not yet fully indoctrinated me.

I went through passages where I began to wonder if I had permanently damaged some sincerity cortex in my brain. It almost became impossible to fathom saying a statement without added layers of irony. In my head there was a vision of my identity: personality traits, a general set of social guidelines to follow, and an actual set of beliefs held sincerely. However, because I had conditioned myself away from sincere expression, all the factors that made up my identity were rarely expressed. The ironic arrogance became part of my identity, despite fully contrasting the sincere view of myself. It was like some extreme form of cognitive dissonance where an internal monologue screamed in anguish at the clashing statements of arrogance presented publicly.

There was no off switch to irony, even when I so desperately wanted to turn it off. This in turn led to some extreme instances of code-switching, where the behavioral contrast was so dramatic, it was almost like speaking to entirely different people. I had close friends confide in me during intimate conversations that they noted some extreme disparity between my private and public personas. The private form was one that still held on to sincere reflections, in contrast to the enigmatic public figure exuding an arrogant demeanor. The irony had become so far entrenched into my psyche that there began to be a period of disassociation. There was no real person found in the fleshy sack, but merely an amalgamation of intentionally opaque viewpoints.

Personal descriptions became almost too torturous to endure. “How would you describe yourself Mr. York?” That question was like a knife being slowly dragged across the fiber of my being. How would I describe myself? Who am I? I’m whoever you want me to be. I can be anyone to everyone. I’m like a social octopus, constantly shifting my shape and changing my colors to accommodate whoever I needed to. Irony became my ultimate tool for adaptation, allowing myself to adopt any characteristic to be the ultimate crowd pleaser.

It became increasingly difficult to break out of a rehearsed persona. Soon, there were only flashes of sincerity being shown in an all-encompassing sea of irony. The intentionality behind my statements and beliefs had become lost even to myself. This in turn prompted a great internal reflection into why irony was needed to conceal belief in the first place. The answer I came to was the notion of irony as a shield. When you shroud yourself in so much irony that all intentionality becomes lost and you’re playing mind games with yourself, then you don’t have to answer for your true beliefs. Raw personal expression is hard. It takes a certain sense of self-worth to bare your ideas to an uncaring world. Being truly sincere in one’s identity is an act of bravery. To say to the world that there is no cryptic pseudo meaning is to fully expose your identity in spite of potential consequences. The apex level of personal expression is to be sincere in one’s own beliefs while remaining uncaring of other’s reactions.

A problem with irony as a shield is that by hiding intentionality in complex ironic layers, you remain untrue to yourself. Often there are slight glimpses of sincerity to maintain some form of connection, but the true meaning is deep in the weeds. It comes from a fear of potential repercussions, or as mechanism to deal with a seemingly broken environment.

The other problem with using irony as a shield is more sinister. Bad actors can apply irony to encode harmful messages, while still having plausible deniability. When challenged as to the true nature of their beliefs, these actors will claim that the message itself doesn’t exist because they have deep ironic constructs to shield themselves from accountability.

So far, the article has been rather critical of irony as a concept. This isn’t to say that there is no benefit to irony. On the contrary, irony can be a critical tool in artistic expression. Often, people adopt a certain set of beliefs about a concept and have a specific set of associations with said concept. Irony can puncture through entrenched notions about subjects by presenting them in a different light. By ironically describing something, it can reveal the absurdity of a concept, allowing people to have a new perspective. Irony can present a realization of how strange something is by taking a concept and dialing certain aspects of it to the extreme. In these extremes, an audience can now form new sets of associations and be challenged by a radically different viewpoint. Irony, if employed correctly, can be a representation of art at its best: constantly critiquing norms and pushing society forward.

But what about the problems with irony detailed in this article? What is the solution to post-ironic purgatory? To release the souls from post-ironic purgatory, the high priest of irony suggests a prayer of sincerity. Sincerity remains controversial in the meta ironic landscape. Young people today have adopted meta irony as a tool and have turned to expressing themselves online only through multi-layered ironic statements. In this ethos, sincerity has become looked at as overbearing and unable to address existential problems. However, in the face of a desolate world, one rife with widespread injustices and systemic failures, the bleak meaninglessness of meta irony doesn’t suffice. Being completely lost without truth and identity is not the answer to the seemingly unbearable state of the world. I get that sincerity is sometimes overly optimistic and can be seen as ignorant of the nightmarish hellscape we live in, but it provides at least a semblance of direction and hope for something better. Sincerity allows us to gaze into the abyss and push forward, choosing to make our own meaning in spite of meaninglessness.

Post-Ironic Purgatory was first published on Connor York's own blog:


About the author:

Connor York is a writer from Portland, Oregon. When he's not writing for Yorkonyork, you can find him enjoying the naturalistic escapism of local botanical gardens.

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