The Importance of Being Earnest

We see things not as they are, but as we are.

Anais Nin, Seduction of the Minotaur, 1961

In every morning’s e-mail, I receive a briefing digest from the New York Times (sick tigers at the Bronx Zoo, Anthony Fauci blocked from taking a reporter’s question about hydroxychloroquine) and another from the Chronicle of Higher Education (will colleges reopen this fall? will this mark the end of tenure?). I read some of the highlights (well, maybe the wrong word) from each location this morning, and then got drawn into an article from the Chronicle’s archives, called “The Birth, Death, and Rebirth of Postmodernism.” And from there, hyperlinked quickly to an adjacent article, “What’s Wrong with Library Studies?” which was a 2016 pushback against “the paranoid project” of literary studies configured as exclusively political critique. And that hyperlinked me back one more year, to December 2015, and Lisa Ruddick’s essay “When Nothing Is Cool.”

Ruddick is doing some interesting things here, about the ways in which cultural criticism can be alienating for even those who practice it, that it promotes a form of “intellectual sadism… norms that make ruthlessness look like sophistication.” I think that our relentless pursuit of irony has been a force for cultural diminishment. When we begin every analysis with the presumption of others’ ill-will, the presumption of hidden agendas, the presumption of threat, we diminish ourselves in a pre-emptive act, lest others diminish us instead. As John Cougar* set forth in 1980, “Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did.”

Irony is a cynical response to cynicism. We saw the growth of the ironic form in the 1950s as a rebellion against consumerism, its maturation in the 1960s as a rebellion against Vietnam, and its full blossoming in the 1970s against the betrayals of Watergate, the full collapse of whatever faith in common purpose we might have once ever had. It’s no coincidence that Saturday Night Live, a television show created specifically to show us how stupid other people are, was launched in October 1975, only a year after Nixon was forced from office and we really started to learn just how extensive his criminal enterprise had been, only six months after we fully gave up on twenty years of baseless involvement in Vietnam. We’d been lied to, we were angry about it, and that anger became rootless, free-spraying across the landscape, taking down everything around us.

I’ve never been able to sit through even a single full episode of Seinfeld, a show based on the premise that every single person is debased and motivated only by vanity. I cannot watch a Will Ferrell movie, all of which are motivated by the cheap shot of setting up and then mocking a lead character who is both inept and narcissistic. If even our entertainments are populated by people with no redeeming characteristics, we are culturally lost, engaged in a “ruthlessness that looks like sophistication.”

Tell me what you want. Tell me what you believe. Tell me what you think is noble and good. Even if I disagree, I won’t mock you for your dreams. We owe it to ourselves to create some hesitant islands of fully stated aspiration, in the midst of a culture that can only honestly express its mistrust.

*In 1980, he’d moved on from Johnny Cougar, but hadn’t yet become John Cougar Mellencamp, nor his current plain ol’ John Mellencamp. He was still caught up in his own (externally driven) self-negation, wearing a name chosen by his record label.