The irony of the ironic

The way the media talks about politics is with a sort of open irony. No one consider’s the Minister’s comments in sincere terms, but in how they will likely “play with the electorate”, the very electorate watching the analysis, who are presumably also aware of this layer of irony. Or are they? Is this the real irony, that the curtain is being pulled back but most people still insist on looking at the puppets. Or is it that everyone is in on the joke yet no one tries to stop it like some ongoing shared delusion or comfortable open secret?

It’s redolent in that sense of the way everyone opts-in to management speak. No one endorses it. People complain to one another all the time about weasel words, legalese, bureaucracy-blather. Everyone appears to regard it with irony and yet all it would take is for everyone to simultaneously stop using it and it would disappear.

Commentators routinely talk of what the “political narrative” is this week. That’s an extraordinarily sophisticated level of irony, informed as it is by late 20th century studies in the humanities with their emphasis on discourses, critical readings and media analysis. It’s standard to critically study news and current affairs in school with a cynical eye towards the manipulation of advertisers and shock jocks. But with so much knowing analysis of the game, why is the game still played? And instead of talking about what the narrative is that week, why don’t journalists simply call-out the politicians and ignore the narrative they’re trying to sell? There is a sense of inevitability about the politics–media game such that journalists recognise they are being played, comment on which way they’re being played that week, but stop short of refusing to be played.

How does this relate to the phenomenon of the conspiracy theory? The conspiracy theorist posits too much irony; they assume a level of competence, complicity and self-awareness that leaders could not possibly have — it stems also from an assumption that there is some fundamental difference between them and the people who run the world. And yet world leaders and CEOs are as fallible, incoherent and atomised as us all. They are not praeternaturally gifted, they are humans interacting in a chaotic system which exhibits some emergent properties on a large scale and they probably have weird sexual health issues occasionally.