Irony is one of the core attractions in the explorations of contemporary ruin and abandonment, such as those found in this blog. However, those images and posts (as well as the books and music promoted by Afterdays Media), may be reflections of the irony of another era. I realized this today while reading Christy Wampole’s excellent essay in the New York Times. How to Live Without Irony speaks with remarkable clarity and insight into the sadly shallow, insincere, and rather corrosive stance that irony has taken within Generation Y hipster culture since the 1990s.
Born at the dawn of Generation X, I became culturally conscious during the early 1970s, and I see now that I may have experienced an early form of “proto-irony” during the waning years of the Cold War. It was clearly of a different flavor than that described by Wampole. Our first tastes of irony were wistful, self-reflective ones. Imagining of the end of us, and the nature of our own ruins. And it wasn't hip. We were weird.
I wrote about this in my recent book about the early years of the American zombie phenomena:
“Dawn of the Dead was a peculiar product of a peculiar time and place. In the audience, we recognized something astonishingly relevant about colorful corpses decomposing in J.C. Pennys. These ideas taught me, at an early age, to imagine the sudden decay of my own culture. They introduced the irony present in much of my daily life, when considered in the past tense”.
The late 1970s and early ‘80s may have been the time when Warhol and postmodernism finally trickled down from art and literature. The widespread act of stepping out of one's own pop culture to see it from another perspective. That sense of disassociation is crucial to the kind of irony that is endemic in mainstream culture today. Always self-referential. As Wampole puts it, today’s hipster is a “walking citation”.
But at the time, this dislocated perspective was imposed upon our imaginations by, among other things, the popular depictions of worldwide annihilation of one form or another. Dawn of the Dead was a good ironic laugh, perhaps one of the first of its kind, but that irony was simply a sugarcoating atop a much more contemplative and horrifying product in 1979:
“For decades, the Cold War had warned of the coming apocalypse, and that ours might be the next civilization to fall. The vacant and breached Monroeville Mall, filled with melancholic irony and surrounded by walking sculptures of exotic, post nuclear decay, was a genuinely compelling idea to many of us in 1979. Its timing was perfect.”
It was also sad, and still scary at the time. Zombies weren't yet jokes - they were just extreme examples of a sense of inevitable collapse that we just could not shake. It’s different today. Most cultural memes now come with a smirk, but I don’t remember smirking that much back then. What I do remember is the ocean of self-realization that washed over us as those zombies tumbled down the escalators. And I also remember the strange comfort we later found exploring dead shopping centers and drive-in theaters. It propelled me into the field of archaeology, and I cant help but think it made me a more cautious consumer.
"Prying off plywood sheeting that covered the glass doors, we found that cosmetic suburban architecture, when left unattended for only a short time, becomes ancient. The damaged interior of the concession stand was heavily infested with the contemporary melancholy that attracted us to these places. Our shoes crunched across foil bags that still smiled CHEESEBURGER into the darkened, mildewed space. Our hands sifted through a stainless steel bin filled with unpopped popcorn. We wandered through a projection room littered with bird droppings and hundreds of feet of film, still picturing dancing hot dogs and a hand endlessly reaching for a French fry".
Perhaps irony is like any good drug: the right amount affords mind expansion, and too much overwhelms the system.
Be sure to read the essay.