Time to get serious about irony?

Saturday 19 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Frobisher Auditorium 2 Private or public morality?

Over the past decade or so, there has been no shortage of people keenly forecasting the end of irony. And little wonder. ‘Being ironic’, which was modish during the 1980s and 1990s, came to be seen as decadent by beginning of the 21st century, a mark of a culture that didn’t take anything seriously, that valued nothing and everything. After 9/11, many thought things would change. An action that evil brooked no ironic distancing; it demanded immediate moral condemnation. Writing in Time magazine in 2001, Roger Rosenblatt claimed that ‘one good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony.’ And yet, despite many echoing Rosenblatt’s sentiments, the age of irony has not passed. Just last year, one broadsheet commentator declared, once again: ‘I have had enough of the dominant discourse of irony’.

So why, in spite of the repeated demand for seriousness, does irony persist as an all-too-prevalent mode of being? We are all familiar with, and often critical of, its manifestions: a detachment from the world; a refusal to take anything seriously; a tendency permanently to speak in quote marks; and an unwillingness to judge something good or bad. So what is it about irony that persistently resonates, from the posing and posturing of yesterday’s Generation X to the posing and posturing of today’s hipsters? Isn’t it about time we made an effort to return fundamentals, to regain some sense of moral certainty, to speak in truth rather than quote marks?

Yet is there something to be said in defence of irony? After all, perhaps an assertion of moral certainty, of fundamentalism, is more harmful than ironic distance. Many of those criticising irony elevate authenticity, being true to oneself, in irony’s place. But does what one critic dubbed the ‘cult of authenticity’ have its own drawbacks? Is the predominant criticism of irony, of nothing being true to itself, from moral judgements to fashion choices, as problematic as the celebration of irony? Is being ironic a better way of being in morally uncertain times, than being unquestionably, fundamentally right?

Dr Julian Baggini
founding editor, the Philosophers' Magazine; author, Freedom Regained: the possibility of free will and The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World

Edward Docx
novelist; screenwriter; associate editor, Prospect Magazine

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

John Waters
Irish newspaper columnist; author, Jiving at the Crossroads and Was It For This? Why Ireland Lost the Plot

Jacob Reynolds
consultant, SHM Productions

Produced by
Jacob Reynolds consultant, SHM Productions
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