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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Commentary: Welcome to the post-ironic age

First as tragedy, then as farce

I wake up as I always do a bit groggy but nonetheless eager to see what the day has in store for me. I walk downstairs, cut up some fruit, pour a cup of tea and if weather permits, go for a short walk, perhaps even dipping my feet into the ocean. I try not to look at my phone other than to queue up tracks on Spotify or check on my grandparents. Every day, once I return home, I am bombarded with a wealth of information — some of it bad, some of it good, some of it true and some of it blatantly false. The world is buzzing. The era of information, defined by spectacled geniuses in laboratories, is over. This period of time has brought great upheaval, and we are now entering the ensuing stage in our shared culture. Welcome to the next phase of politics, economics, art and emotion. Welcome to the Post-Ironic Age. 

To try to define the Post-Ironic Age would be as hilariously absurd as it is to live in it, which many of us already do. To attempt and explain exactly the times we are living in is a great feat for even the most talented of artists, but perhaps laying the groundwork for how it is, and how it feels, would be a decent start. 

To live in the Post-Ironic Age is to utilize the relics of the era that came before it — the Information Age. It’s a time that’s defined by global hyperconnectivity, one that we as a planet have agreed to, for better or worse. A concept like trading privacy for goods or services, usually digital, is a cornerstone of the Post-Ironic Age. As is the general anxiety about the impact of all these things, which most deftly affects younger populations. The Post-Ironic Age is not one that those over 40 truly understand, but one they shape with legislation, economic action and general confusion. 

The atmosphere, or colloquially “the vibe,” of the Post-Ironic Age is characterized by the constant absurdity of the world around us. There is a larger, continued outcry for the death of Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, then for the burning of Notre Dame in Paris. Why? Because there is more power in irony and even more power in the continued existence after the event, which we can call post-irony. To focus on an innocent gorilla getting put down rather than the destruction of a globally recognized historic site is a strange thing indeed.

After a while, the constant absurdity leads to a malaise. Rapidly forming, one begins to detect despair. At its worst, it becomes hopelessness. Thanks to a logical conclusion in hyperconnectivity (how much more virtually connected could we get?), we now begin to notice the ugly stepsister that it came with: hypercompetitiveness

Everything from a Facebook post to an Instagram story has become an arena, a battleground or a stage. And it is exhausting, much like many things have in the Post-Ironic Age. Indeed, to live in this new era means one has to be “on” from the moment they wake up to the moment they fall asleep. It has led to finding beauty in the littlest of things, from weighted blankets to artisanal beverages. A joy to be found in soft goods, however fleeting, rather than grand investment and the support of traditional industries, is a central tenet of this new era, much to the chagrin of Baby Boomers everywhere. 

It is tough, and in some ways nearly impossible, to trace the advent of the Post-Ironic Age. Many, I believe, would point to the 2016 United States Presidential Election, when Donald J. Trump beat out Hillary Rodham Clinton to become the 45th President of the United States. It was, in many liberal circles, nothing short of a D Day scenario. There were protests across America. Early on, a common phrase one could hear in San Francisco, if not every major city was, “Not my president.” But therein lies the tragedy: He was our president, and at the time of writing, still is. The fact that we elected a sexist, senile gameshow host as the leader of the free world should’ve been enough to show us that these times were cursed, but it was in his policies and actions that we truly began to see this. 

The Trump administration has done an incredible job of breaking the American people down, exhausting us week after week with a myriad of plans that are seemingly birthed by Dr. Evil and company. To describe the policies of this administration would be to cite racism, xenophobia and a general desire to go backward both in domestic and international affairs. Many around the world have adopted a regime of modern barbarism, swinging their once temperate countries deep into the far-right, planting the seeds for a new brand of fascism, including Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Recep Erdoğan in Turkey. 

Of course, the biggest player outside the United States in the Post-Ironic Age is China. Through the creation of concentration camps for its Uighur populations, along with the jailing and silencing of coronavirus whistleblowers, China has shown the world it will stop and reassess for no one. In addition,  given China’s mandatory social credit system along with a deep national firewall, not only do you have a state that is deeply rooted in post irony, but one that almost approaches the title of cyberpunk — the most financially disparate and emotionally bankrupt title we can give our hyper-connected future. 

As politics embrace absurdism and post-irony, so must our financial institutions. The concept of money since the abandoning of the gold standard has always been flimsy, but in the Post-Ironic age, it has reached new heights. Crypto-currency, long dormant, has been shocked back to life with the creation of the blockchain, a traceable log of transactions between users. The utility of it, along with its universal nature, has created a renaissance in the way society views currency and how it is earned. Instead of manual or white-collar labor, it is “‘mined” by computers that have to solve complex puzzles that exacerbate processing power. We have traded in physical currency, backed by the Federal Reserve, for electronic currency, backed by a virtual network of people around the world who have agreed it is worth something.

This is, in some ways, quite clever. As political tensions boil over in countries like those mentioned above, it could be smart to invest in alternative currencies. It could be safer, as well. Indeed, for someone like a Syrian refugee, it may prove more favorable to transfer their life savings into Bitcoin, and then redeem it for the currency of whatever country in which they settle. One can recognize that that would be safer, smarter and more lucrative than running around with a bag full of Euros or American dollars that can be seized by the state, or worse, militants. 

On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, the art world has perhaps been engrossed in post irony longer than any other realm. Has there always been something ironic about art? There is a notion that some people really get it, while the majority of us really do not. If there is, then we have reached a point where people can choose which one of those camps to stay in seemingly through a coin flip, deciding the moment they see a work of art. Take “Comedian” by Maurizio Cattelan, a piece unveiled in 2019. 

“Comedian” has been heavily reported on, deeply discussed and thoroughly dissected by a multitude of outlets. But the simple truth is that it is a banana, taped to a wall, with a torn piece of duct tape. The other simple truth? It sold for 120,000 dollars at Art Basel last year. “Comedian” is a piece of conceptual art that doesn’t have any meaning until you ascribe it some. In this sense, it is art in its purest form. Its meaning in the post-ironic age is, of course, one of metaphor, a symbol of farce: winking at our collective consciousness, is at the same time playful and devoid of any logical sense. 

Another piece one could hone in on is “Girl with Balloon,” by Banksy, sold in October of 2018. However, the focus here is not on the actual painting itself but what happened when it was auctioned off. As soon as the gavel hit the surface, the painting began to move downwards, shredding itself slowly. Another classic Banksy stunt for internet hits to be sure, but this one felt more poignant. The shredding of “Girl with Balloon,” after being sold for $1.4 million, was a reminder of the ephemeral nature of art itself and how one often forgets that, especially in an era that is defined by things existing always and forever on a server somewhere. Just as well, it was a middle finger to the ultra wealthy, a nice gesture from an anonymous artist who is probably quite well off themself. 

And being well off is a great fear for many of us who live in this new age. Scraping by is the ultimate fear, and if we are not doing something to contribute to the gross domestic product, we are trained to feel as if we somehow failed. Yet, this new era cannot be defined by that, nor by hopelessness. Indeed, there are rumblings of change coming about. What we must do is be resilient. 

Before I leave Land’s End and decide to come back home, I always watch the ocean for a few minutes. The future is scary and intimidating. But it is also exciting and alluring. I am thrilled to take it on, no matter how deeply steeped in post-irony and absurdity it may be. 

Written by: Ilya Shrayber — arts@theaggie.org


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