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The Problem with Ironic Distance

Recently I’ve been hearing a lot of talks about the power that humor and comedy have in relationship to times of political crisis, and how important that form is to utilize in today’s world. I want to just establish up top that my response to that, in short, is yes. I think when you look at the historical precedent set, you would be hard pressed to deny the political power that comedy holds.

However, I think it is important to acknowledge that not all comedy functions the same, or rather that is to say, when we talk about the revolutionary potential of comedy, we have to examine what comedy are we talking about, how is it functioning, and does that function allow for revolutionary potential?

I want to examine a particular form of humor that I feel has been increasingly relevant, and gauge it’s revolutionary potential. I want to discuss the humor of ironic distance.

Ironic distance is a form of humor in which the joke maker will ironically comment on a thing that they are already embedded within, as a means to try and distance themselves from that thing. This type of humor is often seen in the form of self-referential humor, meta-humor, and much of meme culture.

It should be noted, that often with this humor there is sort of a cynical implication embedded within it, in so far as that the joke maker will point out a thing that is wrong or has a negative connection, but will go ahead and indulge in that thing anyway. For example many narratives that utilize this humor may comment on a series of overused,  tropes, giving a wink and a nod to the audience, and then proceed to do them anyway.

It is at this point where we need to examine what this humor is actually doing with it’s form in relationship to its revolutionary potential. I would like to draw a parallel between what the form of this humor is, and a philosophical quandary about the dangers of the capitalist ideology.

Now when I use the word ideology, I use it in a specific way. I am referring to a Marxist definition of the word, that is being altered by Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. When Marx uses the work Ideology, he defines this as things “They do not know what they do, but they do it anyway” The things that we do without questioning, because of the circumstance surrounding the society we live in.

Zizek however argues that this analysis is no longer sufficient. Zizek makes the argument that ideology is now far closer to “they know it, and they are doing it anyway”. That is to say, we often know about how x (which can be any number of things) acts unjustly, but still we act as if we didn’t know that.

Ideology in Zizek’s mind does not require us to be mindless automatons in order for it to control us. Rather, it can actually allow a certain amount of revolutionary thought, as long as it fits within the box of the ideology (for example, think about the mired of commercials that include a sort of “progressive” message at it’s core, like amazon’s knee pad commercial, Coke’s National Anthem commercial, or 84 lumber’s “wall” commercial. All these commercials theoretically have messages that are actually a danger to the current capitalist political ideology, but in actuality they don’t , because the ends of these commercials are not to spread a worthy message, but rather to commodity that message, and make you want to buy their products)

The point being, is that for something to be inherently un-revolutionary, it does not have to look and feel like the ideology that it would be revolting against.

This brings us back to ironic distance. While this sort of meta, self referential humor may feel revolutionary because it is poking fun at old structures, in actuality a great deal of the time all it is doing is acknowledging what those old structures are, and then proceed to abide by them, i.e., “they know it, and they are doing it anyway”.

OK, fine, by why does that matter? How does this practically manifest in a negative way? Well, remember when I brought up cynicism, here is where this comes into play.

I should note at this time that when I use the word cynicism, i’m using it in sort of a convoluted way. (my apologizes) I am not using the word in the colloquial sense of the word, to mean a general sense of negativity, but I’m also not using it in the proper philosophical way, to mean finding purpose in life through the virtues of nature, and simple living. Rather, I am hyper focusing on one aspect of philosophical cynicism, the empathizes of a false regression in order to undermine a point.

This is best understood through the lens of one of philosophies earliest cynics, Diogenes. Diogenes would take great issue with many of Athens policies during his life, and would perform a series of increasingly outrageous actions to undercut them.  For example, when Athens outlawed masturbation, instead of gathering people and making a speech to convince the people that this law was absurd, he rather would go and masturbate in the marketplace, calling for all honest men to join him.

Now this sort of regression rhetoric is not a bad thing per se, in fact in terms of revolutionary potential it often is far more effective then a more traditional debate and engagement based technique.

However, when this cynicism is a byproduct of ironic distance, which has trouble with being revolutionary by it’s very form, we see a growing issue with a refusal to engage with thoughts, and rather an increase of a apathetic version of false regression. And one need not look farther then one of ironic distance greatest homes to see this happen, the internet.

When you look at a comment thread for an article that contains a political issue, what do you expect to find? Sure, there’s a wide variety of things you might find, some might be useful even. But one thing you can bank on being there is a sort of perversion of Diogenes rhetoric, in which somebody will refuse to engage in political ideas, and rather simply make a mockery of the very practice of political engagement itself, and often does that through the humor of ironic distance.

This sort of thing can manifest in many different ways. We could talk about the alt-right and their use of memes, or the sort of political apathy that can come as a result of this ironic distance.  But I want to ask you one thing in particular as I come to a close. How long did we put the idea of a Trump presidency at a cynical, Ironic distance? How long was it a joke? Well, it’s still a joke, but a very different one now, not the haha kind.

And so, when we talk about comedy, we must acknowledge that it while it almost always holds a certain amount of power, that power is not always used for a revolutionary purpose. There are times that this power is used as a means to support the existing ideologies. It is then important for us to really engage with the humor that we use and consume, and conciser, how does it work, what’s its function, and can it be revolutionary?

“In contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, that cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game”

-Slavoj Zizek

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