Generational Cycles – Irony
Kobus Cilliers | On 12, May 2019
I’m a sucker for Generation Cycles books. Part attempt to find evidence to (one day!) negate the Strauss & Howe model, part smug self-satisfaction. The most recent venture was Tiffanie Darke’s ‘Now We Are 40’ romp. A great example of extrapolating a theory from half a dozen data-points. Which is to say that as research it makes for a great ashtray. It was, however, a terrifically readable romp, and, if you already knew the Strauss & Howe model, you could see how Ms Darke did an amazing job of confirming everything they said without ever having heard of them. To that extent, it makes for a useful – independent – confirmation of Strauss & Howes archetypal descriptions of Nomad generations. Reflecting on the book afterwards, I might go a tad further and say that Darke’s book brought a shining spotlight on a pair of attributes that are so Generation X that they’ve become kind of invisible: Nomads are driven by cool and irony.
Recently, my sister and I were gently teasing our father about how cool he was looking in his argyle-patterned cardigan. He said to our mother, “I never know with these two if they’re being serious or not.”
And a weird realisation struck me: a lot of the time, neither do I.
This is the curse, gift and defining characteristic of Generation X: irony. My dad’s generation, and those before him, were sincere: they meant what they said and said what they meant.
But by the time Generation X started being born, in the mid 60s and especially into the 1970s, some detached, too-cool Left Bank intellectual had taken a break from his doctorate in semiotics to invent postmodernism, and we were doomed to a world of irony.
Nomads grew up with it and in it. Nomads swam in its invisible currents, like a school of bizarre fish wearing stylishly outmoded spectacles and T-shirts of long-forgotten cartoons. Irony was Nomad amniotic fluid, the mother’s milk, the Knight Rider lunchbox (that many Nomads still keep, tragically, as a totem of nostalgia – another crucial strand of Gen X DNA).
Because of ever-more self-reflexive culture and generational mores, Nomads tend to see everything through the prism of postmodernism. Nomads like – or pretend to like, and to them it’s virtually the same thing – big-hair metal, daytime soaps, playing pop music’s greatest parlour game ‘spot the genuine irony in (fellow-Nomad) Alanis Morissette’s song, ‘Ironic’, Diff’rent Strokes reruns, jokes that are funny because they’re deliberately unfunny, bad acting, bad special effects, bad anything so long as it’s bad enough.
The Generation X uniform is the ironic T-shirt; even better if the slogan across the chest adds an extra layer of self-reference, a sartorial wink and nod to the audience of our peers: “You are not reading this T-shirt.” Arf, arf.
Since before GenX existed, irony has been seeping through the culture, percolating down like the strong coffee we prefer to alcohol because booze is so lame and mainstream – to the extent that, by now, we’re never entirely sure when we mean something or not.
As usual, The Simpsons capture it best. Two slackers at Hullabalooza (a pitch-perfect allusion to Lollapalooza, travelling Mecca of Gen X’s devotion). One says: “Here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.” His friend asks, “Are you being sarcastic, dude?”, and gets the forlorn response: “I don’t even know anymore.”
Did I really think my pop’s cardigan was nice? Dude, I don’t even know anymore.
My parents don’t get this; they literally wouldn’t understand what’s funny about something that you know, absolutely, isn’t funny. Generation gap? It’s more like a whole different species.
But it gets worse: we’re sincere in our insincerity, thus confusing the matter to proportions so Byzantine it couldn’t be teased out by an intellectual tag-team of Steven Hawking and King Solomon.
I’ll enjoy Steven Seagal’s Kill Fist of Death Punch IV as part of some knowing, ironic joke to myself – I realise it’s rubbish, and that’s the point – but at the same time part of me will genuinely enjoy it. We’ll mock someone for trying to save the world but we truly want them to save the world.
Everything is a pseudo-apathetic pose, a wry jibe, for Generation X; everything we say and do is lacquered with the bitter patina of sarcasm. We’re ironic and infantile and don’t take anything seriously, and yet – contradiction of contradictions – we take everything seriously.
We’re as glum, idealistic and sincere as you could get – sometimes to extremes. The Gernation X godhead is Kurt Cobain, who in interviews displayed a sardonic playfulness and mocked his image as a doomy depressive, but ultimately killed himself because the world was inauthentic.
All of which is very disorientating when you’re trying to work out if you really meant that compliment about your father’s cardigan. Like, I did mean it. But I didn’t. But I did and didn’t at the same time.
Not that it matters, anyway. Dude, I’m being sarcastic. I probably don’t mean any of this. Even though I do. Maybe. If you follow me.
Demographics are destiny. Nomads grew up in the world and mind of the baby-boomers simply because there were so many of them. They were the biggest, easiest, most free-spending market the planet had ever known. What they wanted filled the shelves and what fills the shelves is our history. They wanted to dance so we had rock ‘n’ roll. They wanted to open their minds so we had LSD. They did not want to go to war so that was it for the draft. We will grow old in the world and mind of the Millennials because there are even more of them. Because they don’t know what they want, the culture will be scrambled and the screens a never-ending scroll. They are not literally the children of the baby-boomers but might as well be—because here you have two vast generations, linking arms over Nomad heads, akin in the certainty that what they want they will have, and that what they have is right and good
The members of the in-between generation have moved through life squeezed fore and aft, with these tremendous populations pressing on either side, demanding we grow up and move away, or grow old and die—get out, delete your account, kill yourself. But it’s become clear to me that if the West has any chance of survival, of carrying its traditions deep into the 21st century, it will in no small part depend on members of Generation X, the last generation schooled in the old (first principles) manner, the last generation that know how to fold a newspaper, take a joke, and listen to a dirty story without losing their minds.
Though much derided, members of my generation turn out to be something like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca—we’ve seen everything and grown tired of history and all the fighting and so have opened our own little joint at the edge of the desert, the last outpost in a world gone mad, the last light in the last saloon on the darkest night of the year. It’s not those who stormed the beaches and won the war, nor the hula-hooped millions who followed, nor what we have coming out of the colleges now—it’s Generation X that will be called the greatest. Now, the only thing you need to do is work out if I’m saying that ironically. Or not.