Opinion | How We Went From ‘Soup Nazis’ to Real Nazis

If you watch “The Handmaid’s Tale” on basic-subscription Hulu, the fraught dystopian narrative is periodically interrupted with advertisements, one of which promotes “Seinfeld” episodes available on the company’s streaming service. The ad is a rapid-fire montage of famous clips from “Seinfeld,” and it marks the show’s 30th anniversary. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer laugh, quip and bounce with manic energy for a dizzying 30 seconds, and we even learn that Hulu has included a “yadda yadda yadda” feature that will play a randomly selected episode. The tonal contrast between the euphoric zaniness of the 1990s sitcom and the stark sincerity of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a striking illustration of either how far we have come in the last 30 years, or how far we have fallen.

I am now at the age at which I have begun to drone on to baffled whippersnappers about how things were back in my day — my day being the 1990s, when I was in my early 20s. And what I have found myself by turns apologizing for and defending has been the ironic worldview that “Seinfeld” managed to preserve in amber.

The characters in “Seinfeld” occupy a sheltered, privileged outpost at the end of history. Jerry’s apartment, and the wider expanse of Manhattan that he and his friends inhabit, is a kind of satellite reality where all of the suffering and pain and tragedy of human history has been definitively put to rest — either by virtue of having been resolved, rendered irrelevant, forgotten, deemed too boring to worry about or, most typically, sublimated into performative anxieties that are essentially comic.

For me and for many of my contemporaries back in the early 1990s, Jerry’s self-consciously televisual apartment-world reflected the semantic landscape in which we were coming-of-age. The end of the 20th century was coinciding with a new era of American consumerist hegemony, where the only Nazis were “soup Nazis,” where the only problems left to agonize over were “first-world problems,” and where any committed political or ideological point of view was correspondingly irrelevant, tone-deaf or simply uncool. What remained was an all-pervasive sense of irony: the sentiment that any point of view was always vulnerable to being undermined by a tragicomic reversal. In such a world, propositions are always provisional, and reality itself consists not of fixed truths, but of free-floating perspectives, modes and poses.

At the time, this tone of irony was expressed influentially in books like Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X,” which provided an entire glossary of terms to categorize ironic stances and situations, and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club,” which portrayed political agency as a psychotic hallucination. Films like “Pulp Fiction” and “The Truman Show” exemplified the ironic sensibility, as did other television shows like “The Simpsons,” publications like The Onion and even the popularity of post-structural semantic theory on college campuses. And, in popular music, who can forget (however much they may want to) Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic,” which inspired thousands of conversations about what does and does not constitute an ironic situation.

All of these texts express in one way or another the ontological situation of existing in what Jean Baudrillard called a “hyperreal” register, a style of being in which the connection to a foundational reality has been definitively severed, or demonstrated never to have existed in the first place, leaving the postmodern subjects adrift in a free-floating cloud of arbitrary, interchangeable symbols. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Flash-forward several eventful decades, to Gilead. We now sing bitter songs of experience. Post-9/11, post-Charlottesville and post-El Paso, comic irony is not only tone-deaf and uncool, but also complicit with the kind of evil that flourishes outside the solipsistic bubble of Jerry’s apartment. Our millennial co-workers are correct to fault Generation X with fetishizing a worldview that is politically impotent, that represents a dead-end philosophically and aesthetically, and that is steeped in white, male, upper-class privilege. Jerry himself was aware, however indifferently, of his own self-satisfied, masturbatory, antisocial value structure, and the series itself ends by convicting the entire cast of being selfish jerks. Jerry’s psychology is far too insubstantial to bear anything as existential as true guilt. In the mode of comic irony, however, you can hold your guilt and your innocence in two hands and regard them as twin facets of a grand cosmic joke.

When Fred and Serena Waterford are arrested for war crimes at the end of the third season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” no one is laughing, and all of the other characters, many of whom have been incarcerated at one point or another, carry their own burdens. The only irony in Gilead (or in Westeros, or in the apocalypse of “The Walking Dead”) is tragic irony, most conspicuously the irony that, in a fallen world, people’s good intentions continually fall into error and violence. Now, the mirror of television reflects back to us the image of a different historical period characterized by stark choices, impossible situations and lethal evil invading from without and within.

It is not just historical events that have caused this shift. Our public discourse, increasingly taking place on the internet, also stifles comic irony. When we speak on the internet, we become existentially wedded to the things we say. In face-to-face conversation, there are many ways that I can indicate that I am only playing a role of a person saying these things, that I am just “trying on” an idea in an ironic mode. I can play the popular Gen-X game, “let’s converse as if I believed something I don’t really believe.” In the digital world, however, when I post something, it becomes a part of my “profile.” The posted content becomes an aspect of how I exist in the world, and there is a self-reinforcing effect: I become invested in the self I express through the content I post. I am incentivized to align myself with those words, to close the gap between what I say and who I am, and this closure is fatal to irony, which depends on the self-conscious presence of such a gap.

Because irony holds opposing views in a relationship of nonjudgmental suspension, it can have a depolarizing effect. The ironic imagination can foster understanding of why different people might gravitate toward different views, but it can also provide a first step toward synthesizing and transcending them. In the current political climate, this might seem like the kind of false parallelism that Donald Trump epitomized when he speculated that there were good people on both sides of the demonstrations in Charlottesville — in fact, a completely ironized worldview. At the same time, I can’t help thinking that there is a place for irony in our cultural discourse, that the ironic worldview is worth listening to and respecting, in the same way that we attempt to learn from the bygone myths and legends of the long-gone cultures of yore.

All this makes me think of Yeats’s line from his poem “The Second Coming,” presaging the end of the world: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The first part of Yeats’s line strikes me as an apt description of my friends and acquaintances back in the ’90s. If we had any conviction, it was the conviction that convictions were bogus. We were good people, but mostly devoid of any sense of social purpose. Fence-sitting, ambiguity, multi-perspectival balance seemed inherently good — empathetic, interpersonal, contextual — while “passionate intensity” always seemed, from the perspective of Jerry’s couch, like a setup for disaster.

From our present point in history, it is apparent that some of America’s best moments in the twenty-first century have been the result of an upsurge of “passionate intensity” — the Parkland students’ campaign for gun law reform provides a vivid example — but it is also possible to identify many examples of instances where “passionate intensity” has been perverted into disturbing manifestations, whether in the form of the Al Qaeda terrorists in 2001 or the chanting Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017.

Maybe we should try to find a way to reintroduce a healthy dose of irony into our political and cultural discourse. Before Gen-Xers go extinct, someone should make a W.P.A.-style effort to send ethnologists out to record their oral histories (most of which will probably be painstakingly recounted plots of syndicated TV shows), so their esoteric wisdom can survive to be puzzled over and periodically rediscovered by future historians, if there are any. Or maybe that’s just the kind of ironic tongue-in-cheek nonsuggestion that you would expect from a doddering Gen-Xer.

Randy Laist is a professor of English at Goodwin College in East Hartford, Conn., and the author of “Cinema of Simulation: Hyperreal Hollywood in the Long 1990s” and “The Twin Towers in Film: A Cinematic History of New York’s World Trade Center.”

Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.

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