U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Iconic Irony

We often wonder how best to capture our moment, the temper of the time. In the classroom, we use a document, a novel, a photograph, a person, a film—some kind of iconic representation that can reduce immeasurably complex eras to something more manageable. We assign terms such as the “acids of modernity,” “the age of fracture,” “the era of broken dreams” to these iconic symbols in the hope that the combination will evoke further thought. Recently, I asked students taking my course on movies and American culture to tell me what movie, actor, genre, production trend, etc., best represented our contemporary moment. We had gone through the history of movies and so could speak about Birth of a Nation, The Bicycle Thief, Bonnie and Clyde and other films as iconic and representative of thought that was bubbling up at the time. We read about production trends and the corporate imperatives of the movie industry; the rise of moguls and the creation of stars; the patrol of censorship boards and control exerted by Catholics.

What I wanted for the final assignment was a reflection on something that moved them and I wanted to be moved by the passion of their convictions. What follows was my attempt to illustrate that kind of exercise.

For me, the touchstone for this sort of assignment has been, not surprisingly, Pauline Kael’s emphatic acclaim for Bonnie and Clyde. Kael has long been my uber-critic—the one who gets why movies matter but who was self-aware enough to understand that movies ultimately didn’t matter that much. She famously opened her review with a statement that rang like a gun shot: “How do you make a good movie in this country without getting jumped on?” What made her review of Bonnie and Clyde worthy of landmark status was her ability to understand the scathing critiques of the film and dispatch them with forcefulness required. Movie culture had changed, and she identified that change before it became a cliché.

Her moxie was more than mere bravado, though; it connected to an intellectual tradition that had genuine gravity. She was an ironist—she operated within an American intellectual tradition that has claim to the soul of the nation. The whole American project can be seen as ironic—an almost chosen nation; a place of grace and chance; a nation born of virtue and baptized by blood; a champion of freedom despite its history of slavery, inequality, and imperialism.

I don’t contend that Kael’s movie criticism is in league with the thought of Oliver Wendell Holmes or William James; but she might be in the same ballpark as Randolph Bourne and even Walter Lippmann. She exemplified the ironist of Bourne’s description, one who was “keenly alert, keenly sensitive, reacting promptly with feeling of liking or dislike to each bit of experience, letting none of it pass without interpretation and assimilation, a life full and satisfying—indeed, a rival of the religious life.” Kael was the ironic critic that changed the way I saw movies, she made manifest in popular culture that which the great American thinkers from James to Niebuhr had made essential to political life. She made visceral the cerebral. Kael’s criticism was not systematic, programmatic, or ideological—but it was incisive, historical, and categorical.

My debt to Pauline Kael is threefold: she showed how movies could be both popular and private and how out of that combination they possessed power as an art; she illustrated how to write about popular culture with verve and precision; and she gave all of us license to make declarations about what we as people get from our art, while at the same time reminding us that the point of making such declarations was to have them contested.

Kael is my iconic ironist. But I have two other ironic icons that define my era of popular culture. One appeared in 1991, the other in 2007, the former in music, the latter in film.

In the fall of 1991, I was midway through an MA program in history, the first Gulf War was barely over, and I was reading Reinhold Niebuhr. My thesis topic was the diplomat and historian George F. Kennan and his rather conservative, even tragic, views of life in America. Kennan claimed that he owed an intellectual debt to Niebuhr and the Christian theologian’s views of original sin and irony in politics. Reading Niebuhr and Kennan was a bracing experience for me, especially because I came late to an appreciation of what it meant to wrestle with ideas through writing. And like many students, while I was struggling with ideas that I didn’t completely understand, I was also plugged into a popular culture that was as vacuous as Niebuhr’s thought was rigorous. Nonetheless, it was around this time that I had an experience that in retrospect (and in the context of the other experience) created a signpost for how I viewed my time. In a moment of repose from reading Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, I turned on my pathetically small, utterly un-digital television to one of the many music video programs that littered the airwaves. Then I heard the opening chords of a song that blew me away—I had met Nirvana.

Smells Like Teen Spirit is a great song—we now duly recognize it as such. But at the time those opening chords, the lyrics, and the irony of it all hit my intellectual ground like a lightening bolt. How did a song with a title referring to a teen body spray come to define an age? For me, Nirvana did two things: they were better than anything else that was hard and they were smarter than anything else in rock. I went to high school in Woodstock, New York, a place that trafficked in music and the arts. But like the world of ideas, I came to the world of art and music late—I didn’t learn the lyrics to a Doors album, or see Pink Floyd in concert, or own a Jimi Hendrix import. I saw Kiss in concert; I liked heavy metal and pop music. In short, I just didn’t have IT. But Nirvana made me think that I didn’t need to find IT.

“I found it hard, it’s hard to find. Oh well, whatever, nevermind…” Damn right. I didn’t want rehashed ideas from the 1960s. I was unimpressed with what passed for grand ideas after the end of the cold war. But I wasn’t cynical nor optimistic about idealism. What I wanted was a little irony. Pop music was beside the point—it really was the noise of the “whatever.” Politics offered something, but not “it,” because “it” is hard to find—as it should be. Three guys from Seattle—rather than LA or New York or London— offered what seemed like a genuine alternative, looking like they didn’t care, when, in fact, it was clear they did. “The ironist,” Randolph Bourne wrote, “is ironical not because he does not care, but because he cares too much. He is feeling the profoundest depths of the world’s great beating, laboring heart, and his playful attitude towards the grim and sordid is a necessary relief from the tension of too much caring.”[1]

And then things fell apart. The Bosnian war reminded us how close we still were to the tragic nature of man and how ill-prepared we were to deal with it; Bill Clinton denigrated politics (for me, at least) by channeling the “whatever” of our Pop! lives through his political compromises and comprising situations; and September 11, 2001 became our new historical landmark. George W. Bush thought he rose to the occasion by telling us that “our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” The president counseled us to accept the fact that God’s “purposes are not always our own.” And that the “world He created is of moral design.” And such rhetoric left us where, ruminating about the nature of evil, the will of God, the course of a nation? Not really. Susan Sontag put it best a few days after the attacks in a brief essay in the New Yorker that made her perhaps the most hated American of the moment: “The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.” Indeed, I read Sontag and mourned the loss of hope that was not destroyed by the events of 9/11 but by the response to it. Irony wouldn’t serve as a counterweight to a collective passion for worn-out dogmas of righteous indignation. We had been wronged, no doubt, but as Sontag seemed to sigh: “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.” Oh, well, whatever, nevermind.

Rather unremarkably, we drifted from these tragic, frantic days into two wars that defied logical explanations. And an era that began with Nirvana’s ironic riffs about a world that needed more authenticity had grown increasingly abstract and existential. Niebuhr appeared again, this time as the prophet of our ironic disposition. My interest in Niebuhr had shifted from his relationship to Kennan’s conservatism, to his abiding admiration for Abraham Lincoln. While Niebuhr was being used by both sides of the war on Iraq, I sat with Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will.” In this short reflection, Lincoln illustrated his acceptance that the Civil War was neither a mistake nor a noble cause but an act of God’s will that was wholly unintelligible to men carrying it out in His name. What was George W. Bush fighting? Who was he fighting for? A movie provided solace for such depressing questions.

In 2007, my favorite team of filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen offered their masterpiece, No Country for Old Men. It’s a contemporary western based on a book from Cormac McCarthy, our latter-day Melville. The film is quiet and violent—and that combination alone would make it a worthy representative of the age of irony. But of course, there’s more. It has the character of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a narrator for our time. He comes from a long line of lawmen who patrolled the violent border region of west Texas. He confronts far too often scenes that don’t make sense, or, in his vernacular, “I don’t know what to make of that,” Bells says of one story. “I sure don’t.” Bell wants guidance in the world he patrols. He looks to the past, to his father and grandfather as lawmen that he thinks had to be exemplary—at least more so than he is. They don’t help, though, the world’s changed. He hopes that perhaps God will enter his dreams—He doesn’t. Bell laments his pathos to his grandfather’s former deputy, and old man named Ellis. Ellis offers the guidance required—for his moment and ours. As political scientist Mary Nichols notes: “Ellis offers support not by pointing to any unnoticed achievements, but by offering the opinion that we do not know what God thinks. God is as unintelligible as Chigurh [the villain of the story]. This film is not about the world’s injustice, but its unintelligibility.” Ellis provides the wisdom echoed by the story’s title: “This country is hard on people,” he says to Bell. “You can’t stop what’s coming…It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”

That’s about right. And by 2007 I was ready to consider the inability of the United States to discern the patterns of history so that it could better meet the responsibilities as the world’s sole superpower. That’s vanity, and hubris. Yet, that doesn’t mean the world is determined by chance, by Chigurh’s flip of a coin. Nor does it mean that we are at fatalists like Llewelyn Moss, knowing we’re going to die. The Coens gave us what all great movies provide, the ability to experience something vicariously that is indelibly of the moment. Kael knew Bonnie and Clyde had to use violence to make its point, not because violence was essential to contemporary society, but so that we in the audience might wonder why that was the case. The Coens didn’t have to say the world is brutal and given up to chance—rather they let us wonder why that seemed to describe our world. I don’t know quite what to make of that, I sure don’t.



[1] My Bourne quotes come courtesy of Kevin Mattson, “Irony’s Irony,” Social Policy, 31 (Summer 2001), 56-60.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray, thanks for this. It hits me in a couple of ways. First, I am working on a course for next semester called The Cold War on Film, so I have been searching for the right iconic films and film clips to use in the class. Over the next month I will be compiling clips and readings and what you’ve written here adds to the conversation that has been swirling in my head.

    The second conversation that you’ve entered is one I was having yesterday about music. I just got an email announcing Liz Phair is coming to a night club near me. Looking back at my college experience I hear Nirvana as very much the voice of so many of the young men I was in school with while Liz Phair spoke for the women. In some ways the early 90s were a different place for men and women and in some ways we were side by side. For me Exile in Guyville takes the very best of the dark, low-fi, personal Velvet Underground stuff and mixes it with a dose of “what does it mean to be a young woman right now” that made Fast Times at Ridgemont High so interesting. I did not fully appreciate Nirvana until I heard their Unplugged set and really listened to their songs and was very impressed. Liz Phair’s CD showed up in my apartment just days after its release thanks to a roommate whose sister was living in NYC and had access to all that was culturally relevant – I loved it from the first time I heard it. My roommates pretty much just like hearing a pretty girl sing dirty lyrics but as a guitar player I was very into the music and total composition of the album. Over time as I matured Phair’s lyrics began to make more sense to me.

    Both Nirvana and Phair demonstrate some level of immaturity on their first albums but also the passion, pain, and intelligence that make iconic irony possible.

    So thanks for adding to the conversations going on in my head.

  2. The cultural historian in me ~very much~ appreciate the discussion of iconic irony (e.g. where else would Niebuhr and Nirvana make it into proximate sentences!). But the “intellectual historian of ideas” in me thinks that iconic irony has more to do with national mood and hope. With that, perhaps irony has a lot to do with the latent historian of emotions in me. I digress.

    I think it’s no accident, Ray, that you’ve posted on “iconic irony” during a week in which the latest left icon of the decade (i.e. Obama) has exposed himself as a neoliberal moderate in the tradition of Richard M. Daley rather than the liberal pragmatist/arm-twisting tradition of LBJ. The fondest hopes, circa 2008, of the left—no matter the tenuousness of that dream—have been dashed on the reefs of tax-break-for-the-rich compromises.

    So is an astute critic of today’s progressive politics about to become a new “ironic icon”? Is Jon Stewart about to become a Pauline Kael or Coen Brothers analogue for political criticism?

    – TL

  3. Tim,

    Just an aside, but Obama might have been considered, campaign rhetoric nothwithstanding, a neoliberal moderate well before the recent Democratic Party legislative debacle if one takes into consideration the foreign policy of this Administration which is, in most respects, in perfect continuity with its predecessor, that is, it demonstrates absolute fealty to the alleged imperatives and telling (and ironic) insecurities of the National Security State. I posted some comments (@ 4, 5, and 7), quoting Garry Wills on an explanation for this at a thread on PrawfsBlawg: http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2010/12/obamas-harriet-miers-moment.html#comments

  4. I am especially curious what grad students might be listening to and watching right now. While they read Livingston and Naomi Klein, what bands are they seeing and which films do they argue over? Is Jon Stewart channeling something for them or, better, is it Stephen Colbert? How consequential is Obama’s compromise on taxes when compared to the implications of inaction on the DREAM Act?

    These days my consciousness finds ironic comparison between the ineffectiveness and apparent insincerity of the US senate and the hard work, intelligence, and sincerity (in the face of popular skepticism), of public school teachers working to adopt a new science curriculum. I’m a parent rep on a committee of teachers–they are my new rock stars.

    Thanks for the comments.

  5. Patrick: You’ll get no argument from me about Obama being a neoliberal moderate well before this year. I wasn’t sure during the campaign stage, however. My point above is just that he has revealed it to more people recently—and to the skeptics with more clarity. But thanks for the link; I’ll check it out.

    Ray: I’ll take the honesty and sincerity of most public school teachers over most senators any day. And I think you’re right that Colbert might represent what I was going for over Stewart.

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