By Matthew Boman
Who cares about ongoing violence in Syria? Apparently, The Onion, for one. Recently they ran a piece titled “The 6 Best Dresses At The Golden Globes” where, under pictures of the civil war going on in Syria, are captions mimicking the banal commentary of fashion magazines and celebrity news. While some have criticized The Onion for having gone too far or for making jokes with a political agenda, the piece at least causes us to question our society’s values.
What does it say about us when irony and sarcasm are the only ways to make a point, when the only media capable of providing honest cultural commentary are comedic magazines and faux-news television shows?
Is it that other news doesn’t cover important events or that we, as consumers, demand such insipid drivel? To the first half of the question the answer is both yes and no. While such events are covered, it is often difficult to find clear and reliable coverage of things happening outside of the US—especially for those who have not been taught where to look. The answer to the second half is, at best, cyclical: we demand what we are fed, which creates a market and higher demand. Often, catering to the lowest common denominator is cheapest and easiest—and who wants to think about serious issues after an 8+ hour day?
Still, there is the question of why it is so often easier to get a point across with ironic humor than by stating it directly. One argument is that, culturally, we have been educated against taking anything seriously because in doing so we risk exposing ourselves to criticism. This argument originates from the shift that some refer to as New Sincerity—a reaction in literature, film, and music against the irony and cynicism that we tend to associate with postmodernism.
However, while offering something other than ironic detachment, writers such as David Foster Wallace don’t offer adequate answers about why and how our culture produces such subjectivities or how the dominant modes of production might be responsible for our detached perspectives. The best we get is a suggestion that cynicism and apathy might be intentionally manufactured, what a They wants us to feel, so that even though we might say or feel “Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit,” we say “…So Fuck It” instead of taking it to the logical conclusion of “…So Let’s Fuck Shit Up.”
I looked up Fox’s The ½ Hour News Hour on YouTube to remind myself why the show was such a failure. Was it the predictable jokes based on stereotypes and low blows, or was it that the jokes so blatantly followed a political agenda that they seemed forced? I think it is more than that; the show flopped even with its intended audience. But why? One reason—but not the only—might be that the Left is lacking in the sincerity that the Right has, that we revert to, or hide behind, humor as means of coping instead of allowing the problems we see to affect and mobilize us.
A friend of mine asked whether The Onion was tending towards Situationalism with this article. Détournement is an anti-advertisement technique used by people associated with the movement that turns “expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself” in hopes of making apparent the disparity between what is said and what is. Problematically, even this practice has been appropriated by the capitalist system (I can’t help but remember this commercial).
The article may be poignant, but just pointing out the absurdities of our culture isn’t enough—society’s contradictions won’t resolve themselves. That some thought the piece went too far or was inappropriate demonstrates that détournement is still capable of getting attention; it’s more important, however, to decide our next step.
[Matthew Boman is a Masters student in the UWM English Department, and a project assistant here at C21. Look for him behind the video camera at C21 events – he’s the one who makes live-streaming possible!]