March 2021

Irony and sincerity are ideological lenses we use to relate to our political and cultural situation. Each opposing outlook has been morphed and developed by social media and the proliferation of online political discourse. Contemporary culture cannot be understood without an acknowledgement of memes, online content and trends, and social networking as a whole — they are parts of the apparatus that helps reproduce capitalist class relations. Gen Z, the first generation born into this online world, is presented with an apparent choice between irony and sincerity — our political task should be to portray this dichotomy as a contradiction that must be recognized and reconciled rather than overcome or resolved. Instead of uncritically adopting one of the two attitudes, we must reclaim sincerity from the liberals and combine it with a materialist perspective, and we must use irony for its critical potential rather than using it to justify an embrace of nihilism.

1. Where We Find Ourselves

A quick look at the dominant advertising themes from the past few years shows us that companies have begun to understand the current dynamic between irony and sincerity. During the most recent Super Bowl, every commercial was either a tear-jerker or a cultural reference that acknowledged its own silliness; there was no in-between. In moments when it feels like society’s fault lines are cracking, power structures look for ways to maintain themselves (one of the best ways to do this is to earnestly support calls for institutional reform). Corporations and political institutions need to present themselves as trustworthy during hard times — either through sentimental sincerity or self-aware irony — in order to maintain their legitimacy in a society whose contradictions have become increasingly apparent, where most of us are burnt out or concerned about a decent future.

The irony and sincerity of contemporary political economy have been formed by the internet — the positive flow of knowledge is always-already undercut by a negativity that defines our subjective situation. With the influx of readily-available information comes a simultaneous influx of misinformation and distortion. It’s not that we’re living in an era of “post-truth” or “fake news,” but that social alienation is inseparable from new forms of communication (which are dictated by capital, as Silicon Valley monopolies have made clear). Because of this, ideology is realized online as a multitude of particulars (everyone having their own particular views and opinions based on the media they consume) rather than a contradictory universal whole (global capitalism contains and determines each of these viewpoints even when they present themselves as radical). This is the position of the Zoomers who align themselves with radical politics, emphasize “self-care,” and use self-deprecating or absurdist humor to cope with growing up in a time defined by economic crisis, natural disaster, mass shootings, pandemic — you name it. Those persuaded by outsider political tendencies (on the far-left or far-right or somewhere else altogether) can approach them either ironically or sincerely, depending on their socialization. But this trend is a symptom of greater problems rather than a problem in itself. The same can be said for new approaches to self-care (like meditation apps you have to pay for); a call often connected to corporate-sanctioned “wellness.” On top of all of these alienated forms of politics, a layer of meta-irony is added by federal surveillance of and infiltration into these deliberately anonymous online communities. 

2. Generations and Attitudes

Every so often, generational discourse enters the mainstream public fray. One example from about a year and a half ago was the “OK Boomer” Tik Tok phenomenon and subsequent New York Times article warning us about the potential for “generational warfare.” The sharp divide between generations that was first created by historians is not entirely useful for this analysis — while the 20th century categorization beginning with the Silent Generation accurately describes which groups witnessed which historical events, it is obvious that every generation will rebel against the culture of their parents. But if each of these made-up categories reflects history in some sense, then there is a worthwhile kernel of truth to be discussed. To the extent that “OK Boomer” revealed a legitimate division, it stems from Zoomer resentment that we’ve had to come of age during two recessions while Boomers benefited from the golden age of American capitalism.

Although the alleged divide between Gens Y and Z is blurry, there are distinct cultural differences between the two generations. The spirit of Gen Z is not only shaped by marketing campaigns and by having borne witness to whatever formative events occurred from 1995-2010; to a greater extent than the Millennials, we are completely informed through digital socialization in a new simulatory sphere designed for the purposes of such socialization. But with these increased levels of socialization comes a new form of alienation at the same time. The most obvious example of alienated socialization is people spending hours of their day online. According to the American Psychological Association, Gen Z is the least likely of all generations today to report that their mental health is “excellent or very good”. Of course, there are also more objective factors exacerbating our generational alienation, most notably economic insecurity and accelerating climate change. 

In recent years, one cultural response to these alienating experiences is the ideological temptation offered by becoming “blackpilled”  — the enjoyment one gets from nihilistic hedonism amidst the knowledge of imminent world catastrophe. The popularity of that coping mechanism helps demonstrate why one should not put naive political faith in the youth generation — TikTok “activism” will not save us. Gen Z’s anger represents a growing understanding of our situation, but it is more of a psychological reaction than a plan to resolve its contradictions; a symptom rather than a solution. While it may seem promising that more of the teens (or anyone, really) are genuinely anti-capitalist — even if “radical” posters articulate sufficient critiques of political economy that set them apart from mainstream political discourse — this amounts to little more than a meme in comparison to actual class experience. Because of the alienation inherent in the aforementioned progress in communication and technology, Gen Z should recognize this radicalism for what it is at the dawn of the Biden era: a tool of capital that offers us a false sense of comfort.

3. Liberalism and Sincerity

Liberalism has sold itself through its utilization of sincerity (the sincere concern for marginalized groups of people and tolerance of their differences), and sincerity has proven its cultural worth through liberalism (sincere elements in art, culture and advertisements promoting ideas of freedom and individualism because of their attractiveness). As an ideology, liberalism has reinforced itself through advocacy for abstractions such as idealized rights and positive freedoms, but has consolidated itself with capital by rooting its sincerity in identity, wellness, mindfulness, etc. — concepts which reduce struggle to the individual level and forgive the structural injustices of the ruling class. 

Can irony be used to chip at the stranglehold of liberalism, or has its power as resistance already been co-opted? For the contemporary liberal, the outsider (or political Other) is necessarily the anti-liberal; the only group not included in the sincerity of tolerance. Anti-liberals are skeptical of establishment politics, and liberals condemn them for this without seeing the irony of supporting politicians who are in no way sincere, whose false sincerity is a way to manufacture consent for the brutal material conditions they have fostered. This irony is thus what dissidents or populists on both the right and left emphasize in their rhetoric. While some use irony as a tactic to combat liberalism by adopting a cynical attitude, it is much more effective to point out the irony that is present in establishment politics, not in spite of but because doing so necessarily involves a materialist sincerity. 

4. A History of Irony and Sincerity

While the dynamic of irony and sincerity is closely tied to the internet age, it has existed for millennia. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle described sincerity as a virtue that acts as a “desirable mean state between the deficiency of irony or self-deprecation and the excesses of boastfulness.” As opposed to a virtue, irony developed as a literary technique, a way to understand the world, both in terms of comedy and tragedy — verbal irony (like sarcasm or hyperbole) and dramatic irony (the audience knowing facts that the characters do not until it is too late) can be traced back to the writings of Ancient Greece. In the 20th century, the irony-sincerity dynamic underwent a number of developments — in literature, most notably through the increased popularity of metafiction, intertextuality, and general experimentation, the word “postmodernism” emerged. One way to understand this controversial term is culture in the sense of its ironic distance from itself — literary critic Linda Hutcheon claimed that this type of fiction as a whole could be characterized through ironic quotation marks and a general sense of dark humor. In postmodernism, everything is a bad copy of what it once was — a parody of itself come to life, a cynical simulation replacing the old notions of objectivity that preceded it. 

Like the divides between generations, the concept of postmodernism is largely imprecise but describes broader trends — the irony inherent in the “post-” was a reaction to modernism’s optimism. Modernism used sincerity to define itself. It was a historical discourse characterized by the notion that science and the arts were something to believe in. The modernists sought to produce the new, to come to terms with modern technology and cultural diffusion for better or for worse. After modernism’s supposed failure, many literary figures and academics campaigned for an “incredulity towards metanarratives” in favor of a subjectivity which depended on abstract structures like power, culture, and constructed norms. Some examples of this attitude of incredulity were the satire of Kurt Vonnegut, the detached commentary of Joan Didion, the esoteric humor of a songwriter like Bob Dylan, and the critical apathy of Steely Dan. As the hippies started to fall back into getting regular jobs and the radicalism of the New Left fizzled out, the cultural irony deepened. Just look at the individual lineages of cynical anti-establishment attitudes of jokesters like the Yippies, punk rock, new wave, and avant-garde performance art. 

But in the wake of the information age, there came a reaction to this irony — one which emphasized the emotional sincerity of what it means to be human in a world where we find ourselves alienated by the promises of globalism and technology. This attitude was best characterized by the New Sincerity of writers like David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, who rejected cynicism as an insufficiently rebellious project. Musically, New Sincerity really started with the twee minimalism of Modern Lovers or Daniel Johnston, then bled out into everything “emo” and what we generally understand as “indie” today. This bleeding-out continued throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s through media like Pixar movies and wholesome family sitcoms. The irony that made Seinfeld (“a show about nothing”) important in its inspiration of countless other realist sitcoms was now transposed against elements of sincerity, characterized by something like Jim and Pam’s romance in The Office

But because of the ironic culture that has come to light in recent years after fermenting in the cultural underside of the internet (on 4chan, SomethingAwful, etc), it seems we are back in the struggle between these two sides. While previous generations experienced culture and events by means of radio and TV, Gen Z experiences ideology online; we cannot avoid bouncing between irony and sincerity while in the comfort of refreshing our feeds. Compulsive endless scrolling is the character of the deferrals that fuel Gen Z consciousness; each event on our timeline is another piece of the spectacle.  

5. Irony and Sincerity Online

It is not simply that the internet determines our social life through its direct influence, but that it creates idealized standards that people are pressured into meeting — the activist tries to be as sincerely helpful as possible; the “online-brained” irony-poster wants to seem as detached and removed as they can because caring is lame; influencers and comedians want to seem as attractive or funny or cool as they can for their audience. In short, it is impossible for someone to just “be themselves” online because there is always an Other being performed for, no matter how small of a following that is. We strive towards this image once we come to terms with the idea of being perceived by everyone else; a very middle-school dynamic is at play. We feed into this ideal poster (or non-poster, if you are a more normal person) at different rates depending on who we are. Everyone wants to provide the best image of themselves online, even if they are posting anonymously, in order to seem cool to their perceived in-group. As a social structure, this desire builds a world between us that we can only conceive as immaterial. It does not just determine consciousness, but limits it based on the image we want to build of ourselves for others. 

The image we cultivate through social media platforms is only one microcosm of the way the ideology of the internet functions. For a successful critique of liberal democracy, a cynical or ironic attitude towards its failed institutions is necessary to match a sincere or even hopeless political rage. If liberalism defends itself as the only political option by means of its sincere individualism, one would expect the flag of the cynic to be raised in response. But this cynicism should be underscored by a sincere care for people and the dignity they deserve; we might understand this as the actualization of “post-irony.” 

The internet’s social sphere does not simply act as a mirror dependent on us and independent of us — it can be understood as a heightened or doubled negation of the contradiction already existing in ourselves. In other words, we turn towards the internet as an equalizer because we are uncomfortable with ourselves as social beings, and then our online selves are revealed to have a contradiction in themselves as well. We must thus remain in the throes of this contradiction to gain knowledge of the line of demarcation drawn by the online realm. 

Where to start with cultural sincerity today? One event I found significant in the latter half of the 2010s was the collaboration between Lin-Manuel Miranda and writer-illustrator Jonny (“jomny”) Sun on a children’s book (Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me & You), where cute illustrations accompanied Miranda’s cartoonishly heartfelt motivational tweets. Miranda, the brain behind Hamilton, is perhaps the archetypal example of the pre-Trump liberal optimism present in American culture: he affirms that the idealism of the Founding Fathers can be reclaimed in a liberal post-politics through diverse casting and hip-hop, catered to an elite bubble that could not fathom a Trump victory and celebrated the “return to normal” upon the end of his term. Jonny Sun’s ethos represents a unique and unsettling trend in online discourse, considering that the childlike character he has crafted for himself through intentional misspellings and emphasis on self-care was primarily catered to adult Millennials. Combine these two figures at the top of the social media food chain with a variety of “wholesome” content elsewhere (which range from Tweets acknowledging the importance of friendship and emotional communication to simple pictures of dogs) and you have a clear coalition of sincerity — people affirming blind optimism and positivity in the wake of the 2016 election and the numerous social struggles that came about throughout the Trump administration. 

Sincerity online has manifested in a way that reflects modern liberalism’s reduction of struggle to the individual level. Take, for example, Jonny Sun’s alternate Twitter account “tiny care bot,” which automatically produces simple reminders for its followers in a cute and wholesome voice on a regular basis, such as “remember to drink water,” “remember to eat something please” and so on.

This account, along with the numerous trends in self-care that companies have entirely capitalized upon — such as meditation apps that give advice and play calming music for a small monthly fee — demonstrate that some of the most benign and mundane activities have been outsourced away from one’s own discretion completely. Anxiety is now both a brand and a marketing demographic; the sincerity of openly talking about anxiety has given way to further symptoms, because there is no longer an assumed sense of self-responsibility for these kinds of banal tasks.

Another important moment in Twitter history regards the proliferation of discourse around a revealingly vague catch-all concept known as “emotional labor.” The phrase was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild to describe the emotional performance required for certain service jobs such as waiting tables, but has more recently come to refer to social tasks of any kind that may be emotionally demanding, such as helping a friend get through a breakup. Liberal sincerity thus erased any materialist notions of emotional labor, and this revision was made possible by online discourse. At some point in late 2019, someone on the more sincere side of Twitter (with supposed caring intentions) posted screenshots of a few text messages that were meant to be used as advice for people to follow in times of stress between them and their friends. In making these advice templates, however, they actually reflected the bleakness of handling emotions in the internet age. The first of these texts that received widespread backlash read: “Hey! I'm so glad you reached out. I'm actually at capacity / helping someone else who's in crisis / dealing with some personal stuff right now, and I don't think I can hold appropriate space for you. Could we connect [later date or time] instead / Do you have someone else you could reach out to?” The second recommended text was: “Are you in the right headspace to receive information that could possibly hurt you?” 

Both texts/phrases, especially the second one, were instantly transposed into the world of memes, where their original intent was completely destroyed, the phrases themselves reduced to punchlines. This represented a breaking point in internet sincerity: the main backlash to these posts and the attitudes conveyed by them was not that demonstrating care for others in such a way was necessarily wrong, but that doing so by following a robotic template posted online takes out of the equation the material humanness that is essential for emotional connection. In each of these examples, sincerity has been taken to its weirdly childish liberal extreme in a way that cannot properly address the material world; it is an ideology that says “just relax, follow these guidelines and everything will be okay…” 

While the culture of online sincerity has provoked irritation, the ironic culture of the internet today has had a more controversial development. It really began in the mid-2000s, when barely-moderated message boards were the norm and Youtube was just getting started. This was before networks like Twitter and Facebook became the primary sites for discussion. Slowly but surely, a crass humor and generally antisocial subculture was developing directly from (importantly) anonymous forums like 4chan and SomethingAwful that spread to more commonplace (not anonymous) areas. Their influence can be traced by the staying power of numerous memes, like Wojack or “feels guy,” who acts as a common symbol of alienation. These sites have since come to represent the obscene underside of internet culture: they became communities for alienated individuals to come together and express a vehement disdain for political correctness and mainstream politics. This disdain often contains attitudes of racism, misogyny, and homophobia, and these forums are directly correlated with the rise of the alt-right, “incels,” and “toxic” gaming culture. But the vulgarity of these fringe communities served as an incubator for mainstream internet humor, and their influence on internet culture can be seen as a recognition of the traumatic kernel of social alienation. 

The ironic humor that emerged from these circles has come about in response to hegemonic liberalism. This response can be either genuinely transgressive or superficially reactive. Consider, for example, the reappropriation and reclamation of slurs among certain oppressed communities that professed their complete censorship of said slurs in the past, and the acknowledgment that there is humor-value in such transgression. Or the belief that Trump himself was always funnier than those who parody him. When the revelations regarding Jeffrey Epstein came about in 2019, the sincerity of online rage was completely undercut by irony: the theories about Epstein’s death quickly became a meme in such a way that any momentum built in the skepticism was stifled by the entire story being a punchline (in an act that could not have better served the elites in question and showed a disgraceful insensitivity to Epstein’s victims).

6. Reject Discourse, Embrace Contradiction

The prevalence of ironic ideology has led many to believe that all critique is corny or cliché or “cringe” — look at a show like Black Mirror and how easily its analysis of technology and the future can be mocked. The common memetic phrase cynics use to laugh at works of art which make unsubtle social criticism is “we live in a society” (here lies the short circuit between George Costanza and Todd Phillips’ Joker)  — the joke is that social critiques have become so common that they are inherently boring. But good critiques need both irony and sincerity to function properly. Ursula K. LeGuin wrote that science fiction must be descriptive rather than prescriptive or extrapolative — it should not try to predict the future or follow a hypothetical to its logical endpoint but say something metaphorically about the conditions we already find ourselves in. In the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin claims that “almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic” — in discourse, everything is always-already taken to its logical extreme; every idea is leeching off the wounds of the one before it. As long as discourse precedes the essence of a work (Joker is one of the prime examples of this), something will be obscured that will only make it more difficult for us to come to terms with the interplay of irony and sincerity. 

Both irony and sincerity have proven themselves limited when taken in isolation: irony has demonstrated the limits of its power as critique, sincerity in terms of its power as advice. These limits have caused online humor to take on a uniquely nonfunctional character that reflects Gen Z and our position through both depression and desperation. Post-irony, aware of its own existence, has potential as a radical position because of its opposition to liberal sincerity, but at the same time, it is self-aware enough to know it will never amount to anything worth hoping for. In politics, to be completely cynical is to resort to inactivity, but to be completely sincere is to fall into another trap set by liberalism. Gramsci’s formula of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” laid the groundwork for this thinking, but more is needed if irony and sincerity are two sides of the same object, discourse, that we find ourselves in contact with. Only with this contradiction in mind can we truly see how the cut between the online world and reality (with the former imposing itself on the latter) perpetuates the alienating economic system that we must destroy.