The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies--all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.
--George Orwell, 1984 (1)
I will speak to you in plain, simple English. And that brings us to tonight's word: 'truthiness.' Now I'm sure some of the 'word police,' the 'wordinistas' over at Webster's are gonna say, 'hey, that's not really a word.' Well, anyone who knows me knows I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books. I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart. And that's exactly what's pulling our country apart today. 'Cause face it, folks; we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.
--Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report (2)
At first they appeared to be innocent Lite Brite kits assembled by mischievous teens. Placed in various locations across the greater Boston area as a guerrilla marketing campaign for the adult cartoon show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, it's hard to conceive that these simple magnetic devices with batteries, duct tape, and LEDs would launch a hysterical terrorisms scare by city authorities. Summing up the gulf of reaction between the establishment and the pop culture public, on the YouTube page featuring a video of the guerrilla marketers in action, one observer in the comments area stated, "Just to clue you in: Bombs are traditionally not covered in LEDs which trace out the shape of a cartoon moon person giving you the middle finger. Generally, as terrorists don't want their bomb plots foiled, they tend not to decorate their bombs in bright lights advertising their presence and then leave them lying around for weeks." (3)
Yes, in retrospect the overreaction by Boston authorities does seem severe. But they are to be forgiven, somewhat, for being baffled by the cultural lexicon trafficked by marketers. In the ensuing days of the event, even pundits were having a difficult time labeling the action, ranging in superlatives such as "a terrorist hoax" "prank," "viral campaign," "publicity stunt" "marketing stunt," "ad lights" and "'non-terrorist' embarrassment in Boston" (Weaver, 2007, paragraph 11). Not surprisingly, the operation resulted in the Cartoon Network chief's resignation, but despite the fall-out (not the radioactive kind) the show still managed a ratings spike. In the end, it's the parent company, Turner Broadcasting, a subsidiary of Time Warner Inc., who profited the most. It was probably well worth the $2 million they paid to Boston for the trouble. To paraphrase an ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in confusing times."
In an era when fake news is real news and real news is fake, it's getting more difficult to discern what is commentary, propaganda, or a sales pitch. Even our random conversations threaten to be infected with the viral advertising practice of peer-to-peer marketing. This is what happens when a culture smuggles persuasion techniques in "postirony," the simulacra of irony in which phrases are merely signs of sardonic currency, but are vacated of any political or critical content. Postirony is the embrace of contradictory ideologies as normal, acceptable, and desirable. It's kitsch cognitive dissonance. It's a wink to political consciousness while simultaneously discarding it. It's Neil Postman's idea that we are entertaining ourselves to death, but with the clipped smile of a Republican used car salesmen who just completed Newt Gingrich's seminar on How to Become a Bolshevik Operative in the American Political System. It's Gen X cynicism gone horribly astray. It's the droll, expressionless face of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers, and is so deeply imbedded into the vernacular of advanced technological societies, few are conscious of it.
Examples abound, such as war critics viewing a highly disparaging parody like Team America as an indictment of the War on Terror, while wingnut warmongers simultaneously embrace it as a symbol of patriotism. Or Mars, Inc., can launch a Snickers viral Web campaign whose hip hop protagonists battle an evil record company selling out African American youth, but in reality the parent company allegedly engages in exploitative child labor practices in Africa to produce its candy. And then there are the misogynistic BudLight ads that discretely promote alcoholic behavior while telling us to "drink responsibly." None of this is surprising given that marketers and their "marks" inhabit a violent, repressive world empire that is also supposed to be a democracy. Talk about doublethink. In the Age of Postirony, war is peace because who cares about constitutionally challenged militarism or a mediated political system as long as at the end of the day the numbers on the stock exchange board still climb.
All this is exacerbated by the business of doing business. That is, we live in a commodities system with a media traditionally driven by advertising. The problem is that models are changing, and so too are consumers, especially one of the most coveted demographics: teens. Take, for example, the following description for a marketing industry conference attempting to unlock the mysteries of the teen market, called "What Teens Want":
Teens are wired different than any another consumer group. They navigate through media clutter with a heightened "BS" meter to sniff out hidden advertising agendas. In a post-scarcity media world, there is no shortage of brands or media pipeline channels. Attention is the new scarcity. Loyalty, trust and affinity become the new pipeline. When there is so much choice, what is the new role of earned attention? (4) The curious word here is "attention," because as we'll see, it was the problem of attention in the first place that created a cultural climate in which "cool" became the flattened emotion of knowledge work, with "postirony" as its current lexicon. Given that irony has been a potent tool of social criticism, it remains to be seen if such a strategy can still work. By using Sasha Cohen's Borat character as a case study, we'll examine how irony may still be possible in an age of postironic deconstruction.
Doublethink Trouble, Doublemint Gum
It may be useful to think of postirony as the postmodern equivalent of George Orwell's (1990 ) "doublethink." Consider the following passage from 1984,
His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy; to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the art of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved using doublethink. (p. 35) Now compare this passage with the following from Alex Shakar's (2002) novel, The Savage Girl,
...Our culture has become so saturated with ironic doubt that it's beginning to doubt its own mode of doubting. If everything is false, then by the same token anything can be taken as true, or at least as true enough. Truths are no longer absolute; they're shifting, temporary, whatever serves the purpose of the moment. Postironists create their own sets of serviceable realities and live in them independent of any facets of the outside world that they choose to ignore.... Practitioners of postironic consciousness blur the boundaries between irony and earnestness in ways we traditional ironists can barely understand, creating a state of consciousness wherein critical and uncritical responses are indistinguishable. Postirony seeks not to demystify but to befuddle, not to synthesize opposites but to suspend them, keeping open all possibilities at once. And we marketers, in forging a viable mode of postironic consumerism, must seek to foster in the consumer a mystical relationship with consumption. Through consumption consumers will be gods; outside of consumption they will be nothing: a perpetual oscillation between absolute control and absolute vulnerability, between grandeur and persecution. (p. 140) Postirony is a strategy to deal with cognitive dissonance, a condition when one simultaneously possesses contradictory beliefs that result in mental noise. Like doublethink, postirony is a defense and a control strategy, but unlike in 1984, I don't believe postirony was consciously constructed as a master strategy for mind control, but evolved as a result of an emotional tactic for the workplace to become a market language.
Irony can still be one of the primary forms of mental resistance against doublethink because it is through an ironic disposition one can distance herself from the ambient realm of misinformation and marketing. This underlies my weak theory of why dark humor is prevalent in Great Britain. I...