One thing someone coming back from North Korea said particularly struck me: “There is no irony there”. Instead, “people are just kind of… sincere; smiling and laughing all the time”.
This sounds very similar to what I experienced of many more traditional and less affected by capitalism African societies, where people often don’t understand irony, why it’s funny, or why anyone would use it, which to them seems to be just a form of slightly cruel dishonesty.
Since the end of WW2, in the second half of the 20th Century, USAmerican and British situation and standup comedy have come to increasingly rely, almost exclusively, on irony and its more caustic cousin, sarcasm. So much so, that I think people largely forget that this is only one of many mechanisms of humour, and even the fact that humour can function perfectly fine, even better in many ways, without it.
Wikipedia defines irony as:
“the juxtaposition of what on the surface appears to be the case and what is actually the case or to be expected”
The ubiquitous and constant use of this rhetorical device to convey the opposite of reality, is ultimately an effect and product of life in a contradictory society, where the reasons given for its material arrangement and social order, the official logic which justifies who produces value and who benefits, the rationalisation of its governance, in other words a society’s ideology, is at direct odds with empirical, palpable, undeniable reality as experienced by its members.
Irony becomes a dominant dynamic of humour which saturates communication in places where the basic contract between state and citizen is in various stages of collapse; where what people are told and have come to believe, to emotionally invest in, to base life’s meaning on, for example: “work hard — get rich”, “buy things — become happy”, or “vote — have one’s voice heard” is contrary to lived experience.
Irony acknowledges the ambient and unconsciously shared feeling of all citizens of late capitalism: that black is white, up is down, peace is war, freedom is tyranny, progress is regress; that everything is a lie, the opposite of what it claims to be, and fundamentally, totally, wrong.
USAmerican and British comedy have come to embrace this feeling of contradiction and in the most inspired moments reveal its acute and bitter absurdity, but of course without ever identifying the actual contradictions themselves — which leads to a second embrace, that of futility, cynicism, bitterness, and nihilist despair.
Constant casual references to alcoholism, to exhaustion, to misery, to being “dead inside” (I don’t watch comedy much, but can not count the times this particular phrase has been used in an aloof and acidic way in sitcoms) — the use of irony and sarcasm is often coupled with bleak, “edgy”, dark humour which makes explicit, in ways only jokes are allowed to, the deep unfulfilment and melancholy at the heart of life in capitalism.
Often or almost always coupled with biting irony and sarcasm (which has come to be a sign of “sophistication” and “intellegence”) is spite. Callous and mean-spiritedness where derogatory laugher is always at someone else’s expense, contemptuous and derisive spite fuels much of contemporary comedy.
It isn’t exactly hatred, for one does not care enough about the object of one’s spite enough to hate them, but a nonchalant sadism, an offhanded will to insult, ridicule, harm — the desire to put down others as the last semblance of jouissance for the terminally miserable.
Spite became so important that a subgenre of comedy dedicated to it was born and gained momentum since the 1980s rise of neo-liberalism: “roasting”, in which the mockery of others, of oneself, is a thinly veiled surrogate for the mockery of the ridiculousness and frustrating meaninglessness of life under an economic/political system which does not make sense.
In psychiatry, sarcasm is mostly considered a passive aggressive expression of anger, used in settings where other forms of its expression is prohibited. When anger, spite, and cruelty becomes casually pervasive in and comes to near totally dominate the humour of an entire culture, it can only be the expression of class discontent which has no other legitimate outlet, from people who have no other way to articulate a sense of having been betrayed, disappointed, lied to: indirect but acute enunciation of the inner and unspeakable conflict, turmoil, and sorrow of bourgeois society.
Perhaps minor, but these cultural characteristics are another unmistakeable set of symptoms of deep social illness arisen from irresolvable economic and political dysfunction.
(It should be added that humour had also become very sarcastic in the last decades of the Soviet Union, when the immense pressures of the cold war, encirclement, isolation, and ceaseless attacks from much more powerful enemies, and other unfavourable objective conditional factors had increasingly bureaucratised the state, which became more and more disconnected from the people, and its communication more and more disjointed from reality.)
But if one thing is certain, the absurd proprietary contradictions of capitalism where extreme material inequality intensifies by the hour is unsustainable. Radical, structural changes will soon occur in the capitalist sphere, one way or another — after which we can once again laugh without torment or malice; laugh candidly, innocently, wholeheartedly; laugh like Africans or North Koreans.