Saturday, June 21, 2003

Everywhere I Look

First off, I wonder why it is I tend to blog more on the weekend, when most people visit during the week -- except for my faithful readers from the land of Google who are looking for things that nearly make me blush each evening when I check out my Sitemeter. It's not like I'm any more busy during the week than I am the weekend; in fact, I find myself to be most productive when everybody else is lounging around, mowing their grass, enjoying Saturday afternoon festivals, etc. Hmm.

Secondly, I just want to say -- I cannot get away from irony. I won't bore you with the specifics about my research into the subject, but I will direct your attention to a current example of the latent power that it wields, when in the grip of those marketing minds that we all insist don't affect our buying decisions. Beer drinkers, take some time to read the longish article in today's Times about Pabst Blue Ribbon. I didn't realise this, but it's become the hipster brew of choice, in hipster cities like Portland and NYC. What makes this ironic isn't the fact that Pabst is a shitty beer -- though it is; no, that's probably to be expected amongst the hipster crowd. Rather, the irony, though it is a really insidious usurping of the term, lay in the fact that the key to its marketing appeal is that it doesn't really have any (that is, marketing appeal, per se). Being uncool is, of course, cool.

Now, I've been calling this ironic, but I should point also point that there is a school of thought, and I happen to be a part of this particular school, that wouldn't regard this as particularly ironic at all. That is, anytime a so-called irony becomes stable, purposive, or intentional, its ironic value becomes a bit less interesting. The best irony, nay, the only irony, is that which remains unsettled and up for grabs. This does not seem the case with Pabst.

What this reminds me of most is the excellent essay 'E Unibus Pluram', in David Foster Wallace's collection of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Here, he talks about how contemporary television (he wrote the essay, I think in the early-'90s) is outside the derisive gaze of the cynical, ironic-minded viewer because it has effectively made irony its most natural discourse. You see this in cheeky meta-references (just last week, I was watching an old Dawson's Creek episode [long story], in which Dawson makes reference to some pretentious art flick he just saw. That flick was Todd Solondze's Storytelling, in which Dawson, er, I mean, James Van Der Beek, had a role but was subsequently edited out of the movie.) and cynical observations about how stupid television is, etc. In essence, Wallace continues, television has become the quintessence of modern stable irony, in that it sneakily, when it is most successful, beckons the savvy viewer to distance herself from the rest of the schmuck-filled television-watching world by patting herself on the back for catching the irony self-referentiality in which she's just participated. The fact that in distancing herself, she also incorporates herself, implicitly if not necessarily explicitly, in a community of like-minded viewers, is what makes television's utilisation of irony all the more effective. I.e., television succeeds by simultaneously making the viewer feel separated and superior, as well as creating (the illusion?) of a community that the isolated viewer wishes to be associated. It's a tenuous balancing act that, when successful, unsettles the viewer just enough to make her want to return again and again. Most 'satisfied' viewers of television these days, at least those younger than, say, 45, don't actually watch that much television; it's the necessary, ironic dissatisfaction that television wants to hone and foster.

That's the basic summary of Wallace's essay, and you really should just buy the book because it is fabulous, but I think the examples have become even more stark in the ten years since it was first published. That, though, is for another post -- and quite likely for when I return to the States, since my television consumption in Europe is pretty minimal.

I'm pretty interested in some of these contemporary manifestations of irony in marketing and media, and I might even try to pepper them throughout my thesis. If you know of any examples off the top of your head, let me know -- I'll include you on the acknowledgements page if it's a good one.