They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
Where the Baker had met with the Snark.
In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.
I came of age in the 1990s. The fag-butt end of possibly the most eventful century in human history. Everyone growing in that decade was handed a pair of glasses on entry. Snark glasses let’s call them. One lens of irony and the other of cynicism. Once you put them on it’s hard to take them off. After an earnest howl of punk renewal with grunge at the beginning of the decade irony and cynicism swamped popular culture and we’re still knee deep in it. But why the cynicism? Where’d it come from? Is it so bad? And how do I avoid the alligators?
Irony and its sister cynicism have been useful tools in attacks against the pomposity of authority and the presumptions of power for centuries and in the 20th had started to really take hold in the philosophical hotbed of post-modernism. The early part of the 20th Century had operated with the pistons of often competing Grand Narratives powering the engine – Capitalism, Communism, Fascism, all the isms. We all know what that led to and, perhaps in response, the post-modernist philosophers rationalised away conviction in Grand Narratives. Marx had it that a philosophy emerges from the circumstances of production rather than the other way round. Mass production had well taken over by the early 20th Century, black at first and then in other colours, and mass media was spreading like a virus. The resulting multiplicity of viewpoints and difficulty in experiencing the real or authentic would certainly help fuel the post modern perspective.
There is no truth. All is relative. It stands to reason.
It also takes a while for the tenets of a philosophy to be culturally reflected back into the society from which it emerges and when it does it usually starts at the avant-garde edges. The ironic and cynical world view of post-modernism began to find form in the world of culture and the arts in the 60s and 70s and by the 80s had become de rigeur for a particular class of yuppy twat. It also fitted quite nicely with the mutability and cannibalism of capitalism. Capital doesn’t care about truth, authenticity, passion – they’re dangers to it if anything. They can cause instability and while capitalists will happily make a buck off of instability it’d prefer things to stay nice and settled thank you very much. Capital is fuelled only by profit and the why and how it gets it doesn’t matter. It has its own inexorable logic and in that sense it is none ideological, it is in fact entirely cynical.
In the 90s cynicism swept across everything. Not just the financial boardrooms, but the art schools, the rock concerts, the words on the page and the inside of my noggin. A Tsunami of snark that had more than a few unfortunate side effects.
In 1989 someone misspoke on German television and as a result crowds of people with bad jackets and worse hair leapt onto the Berlin Wall and started hacking chunks out of it.
Within a couple of years the Eastern Bloc Party was coming down, the Soviet Union collapsed and buried under the hurriedly sold off rubble was one of those grand political narratives that had fueled events throughout the century. Francis Fukuyama declared it the end of history. Idiot.
The intellectual (and comic) tools of irony and cynicism, levelled against dominant grand narratives of the century had nowhere else to go in the 90s, they were co-opted by the winning side, becoming standard practices of commercials and hipster consumers or it began to turn in on itself becoming a purely nihilistic snark snarl. Irony without purpose is entirely cynical and, being such an effective tool, one backed by a rational intellectual tradition and with receptive economic conditions one that is almost unassailable. It becomes almost impossible to criticise it and its users, even when, (perhaps especially when), they actually have nothing to say with it. In 1993 David Foster Wallace, bandana bearing author of brick sized books, wrote an essay – E Unibas Pluram – in which he criticised the dominance of irony on US television at the time, the corrosive effect it was having on literature and commented on how difficult it was to address the problem:
“Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It [uses] the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself”
You can’t criticise the ironic cynic without seeming like a spoilsport who takes themselves too seriously.
All this serves the status quo very well. Especially if the status quo is simply accepted as a logical and inevitable social development. There Is No Alternative – so we’re told and any attempt to suggest otherwise is inevitably met, first and foremost, with a cynical sneer.
There’s a tendency today for those who consider themselves to be the most rational and reasonable to politically support the most dominant modern political movement – Liberal
Social Democracy. It seems so reasonable to do so. In celebrity land this includes the likes of Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins, sneerers of the world united, but it probably covers your smart mate too. The one who’s convinced he’s got the number on all the mysteries of the world cause he’s watched a few clips of Christopher Hitchens on Youtube.
And, for me, this is the crux of what this ironicynisism turned into in the 90s. An armour for the social and political status quo, which had ‘won’ after all. It was entirely reasonable to think any alternate view was futile and only worthy of a sneer. What was the point in passion? Emotion? Vision?
Go to moustachioed philosopher of angst ridden teenagers and self justifying Nazis, Friedrich Nietzche, in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, described how tragedy emerged in Greek culture as a synthesis between two artistic, symbolic drives – the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Apollo represented reason, the intellect, form and Dionysus the chaotic, formless and ecstatic. Order and disorder. For great art to be made one needed a balance of both and, for Nietzche, the Greeks had this in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. He saw the end of tragedy as a tragedy which began when these artists became superseded by Euripedes and Socrates – the rationalists. The Apollonian tradition came to dominate the Dionysian. In Ecce Homo when Nietzche discusses his first book (which he came to dislike) he said ‘rationality at any price (was) a dangerous force that undermines life’
It seems we’re in the same place in our culture now. One dominated by Apollo and terrified by the Dionysian and Apollo has recruited the snark against any attack. Political vision is extreme. Emotion and passion reckless. Keep Calm, Carry On.
Nietzche suggested that harmony between these forces could be reborn in his time through great art (especially, for him, Wagner) and today the art world should be the first place that it becomes synthesised again. I in fact think this needs to happen if our culture is to progress to anywhere good.
It’s not a coincidence that Socrates disciple Plato would’ve banned poets in his ideal republic.
In our culture the poets and musicians, the film-makers and visual artists seem to have largely abandoned their shamanic social responsibility. Perhaps in fear of the snark. Few seem willing to embrace the Dionysian chaos for fear of the Apollonian tut. Contemporary art since at least the 80s has cynically focused on the financial imperative of the product. From Jeff Koons through the Young British Artists of the 90s their work is almost entirely cynical.
There’s little attempt, so far as I can see, for spiritual enrichment or to express the ineffable secret truths of the human soul. Tell me you didn’t read the last sentence without thinking ‘what a pretentious load of guff‘. I think that and I wrote it. The cynic dies hard.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t expressions of the chaotic and Dionysian in our culture. But where it manifests is untempered by the Apollonian. It is an over exposed expression of fake authenticity and sentimentality beamed into a million living rooms via bad television. All just as corrosive as its snooty, snarky opposite. Maybe more so. As the American writer James Baldwin said, ‘the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it’s always therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty’
Perhaps this explains some of our recent political developments. It’s the untempered, ignored chorus making a come back. And note your Facebook friends, instead of addressing it, snootily tutting at it.
So where does that leave us? For me it leaves the artists with an enormous responsibility. To turn off their inner cynic, silence their snark and use their skill to do as Nietzche suggested, face the chaotic and ecstatic in life and make a form of it through their art. And that might mean you. You may have just been putting it off because of that self imposed sneer. Nietzche, following Schopenhauer, thought the unity of the Apollonian and Dionysian was best manifest through music so maybe the musicians are, first and foremost, going to have to shoulder the lion’s share of the responsibility.
That’s right, it’s down to Ed Sheeren.
We’re fucking doomed.