The Comfort of Post-Irony

Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa had such a great effect on me that I had to deeply consider what format exactly it is working in. It is a sincerely told story, but not completely, or it wouldn’t cover itself in a veil of mockery. Its premise is an ironic meme, a rpg sequel to a cultish snes basketball game Barkley Shut Up and Jam! containing references to the film Space Jam, yet the game avoids being an incestous pit of self-references and memetic jokes. Though it is surreal and absurd, being stuffed with genre convention while paying homage to various jrpgs, it’s not quite the full surrealism or absurdism found in Hylics or Yume Nikki. It is all of the above and it is none of them fully, or concretely, and so I found current definitions lacking. If it is fully a genre title, even over the top and outlandish, it’s still just a genre title. To explain this, I’m coining post-irony, a style consistent with other media like the humanizing mock-reality show Trailer Park Boys, the existential and blunt One Punch Man, and the two-faced, satirical, but consistently dramatic music of Mr. Bungle.

Irony and sincerity are understood to be active states, they classify that which is done or thought. They are classifications; to act sincerely or ironically is to either internalize those aspects before acting, or to look on current or past actions and retroactively determine if they are sincere or ironic. Being said, my definition is that an ironic act is one that can be seen as inherently ironic, an action that is contradicting to illustrate opposition. Manifestation of ironic action is a distant posturing, where a person (ironically) uses their precious time quantitating an experience explicitly to devalue it, in a way to demonstrate what aspect of their being they are by detailing exactly what they are not.

And, okay, irony is not really that complex, it is understood as comedy that carries the opposite intent what is considered “normal”, per context. To accommodate post-irony, I’m suggesting a spectrum of experience, from irony to sincerity, opposition to harmony, negativity to positivity. This spectrum is unfitting for any actual execution of comedy, however, post-irony contains a metaunderstanding of what an ironic act is, implying the potential of irony is as relevant as irony itself. The reasoning that simple negativity is ironic is that

  1. in some empathetic context it is hypocritical (it would not be appreciated being done to my interests)
  2. time, which is ostensibly limited, is being used considering something that is distasteful to an individual

Negativity is required to perform ironically, to experience something purposefully in order to mock it. Therefore negativity itself can be considered as “ironic potentiality”, dislike being integral to acting ironically. This is a pointless distinction for personal action, because a person is always raw potentiality at some capacity, but is necessary to describe creative expressions as being a certain way. In other words, understanding that something can be interpreted to be ironic, without explicitly acting out in an ironic way, is core to the definition of post-irony.

“Post-” is a prefix that, broadly speaking, refers to a style or way of thinking that is definitely in response to the suffixed noun. Post-hardcore and post-structuralism are wildly different, of course, but both are styles that respond to, recontextualize, and (at least at their roots) critique their parent style. Post-hardcore keeps the guitar tone, tuning, and ethos of hardcore punk, but drops its chains of straightforward aggression and speed in favor for slower, variable, and sometimes experimental compositions. Post-structuralism decenters authority, still believing with structuralism that culture is a complex set of systems, but chooses to illustrate that by suggesting a plurality of experience (or nonexperience) rather than clear and tidy systems of cultural interaction.

The style “irony” refers to is that of critical satire, a performance to demonstrate how wrong, ignorant, dangerous, or disagreeable something is. QWOP went viral for being that kind of ironic statement, a videogame that is “bad” on purpose. Realistic Summer Sports Simulator, Goat Simulator, and Surgeon Simulator 2013 (notice the tired joke) are other games with this immediate humor. Game software has a certain expectation of playability or underlying logic.  These ironic games completely subvert or reject those expectations, the comedy works at the shock of their ludic nonsequitur.

As I stew in these games I start to feel cynical about software. Their indulgence in being frustrating and unworkable feel reflective of an internal nihilism. What are games for? Why do we prostrate ourselves in front of these screens with esoteric inputs? Boring, pointless questions, that are yet fundamental to my existence, and are answered: the player is simply manipulated, easily entertained by unfitting spasms and lurches, and software deserves to be reduced to this state. I hate it, for in the moments I’m involved with these games, these conclusions I oppose are true.

Post-irony is then the language and disaffected stance of irony without its cruelty. It is an absurd response to an idea or a body of work that paradoxically builds up the original idea. Because of preconceived notions of what parody is and what it is supposed to do, the joke of a post-ironic work is there is no joke at all. The work is entirely serious despite the lead up into being a gag or parody. Playing off of a desire to see a thing tarnished, misunderstood, and taken down, each punchline is a reaffirming confidence instead. The object of mockery is not the game or the idea, but the terrible unconscious desire to see those things sullied. Post-irony sheds light on the pure effect and potential of an idea by pushing it to a place of mockery, but refusing to make fun of it. The idea sits at its most vulnerable and remains dignified. Barkley Shut Up and Jam Gaiden: Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa is evidence of pure post-ironic expression.

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Barkley Gaiden is at first glance a meme game. Charles is wanted by authorities for being the last baller alive when basketball is illegal. A roleplaying game with the protagonist being literally Charles Barkley fighting a fascist government with basketball maneuvers. It sounds like a silly idea that would devolve into nonsense – and of course for some it does. Barkley treats its premise with utmost and overflowing respect. It’s dripping with melodrama, every nonsensical revelation is treated as being natural and sensible by its talkative characters, and so it is a fully functional genre game (in some respects a parody of one, with plot beats especially resembling Xenogears and Chrono Cross). Many roleplaying game plots are incredible nonsense when divorced from their context. That’s just it though, they aren’t meant to be divorced from context.

In context, in confidence of its world, Barkley Gaiden is completely sensible, serious, and effective, which is the source of how maddeningly funny it is. I felt like there was no way it could finish cleanly despite all of its posturing, but it never falters. Arbitrary lore comes and goes, but is never contradicting, and remains consistent with the game’s overarching themes of martyrdom and the consequence of power. Each of the main characters show genuine care for eachother and share their burden together. Cutscenes are conversations between the party and not dominating soliloquies (which is often an oversight in “proper” rpgs). Plot beats are absurdist, like walking through an abandoned spalding factory to fight Albert Spalding for a city destroying basketball, or dealing with the politics of a diabetes cult to cure young Hoopz Barkley’s deadly diabetes. They also contain groundswells of melodrama, with villains acting as consistent and clear foils to Charles’ anxious existence.

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What I’ve written about Barkley Gaiden so far can be reduced to “it works” but I cannot overstate how much of a mindfuck that is to experience. Barkley Gaiden is more fleshed out and solidly realized than darlings like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI. There are plain jokes here and there, but that’s an amount as any serious rpg, so it’s difficult to call it just a comedy and be done with it. The bulk of the game is concerned with a typical jrpg plot, just rendered in a surreal, absurd, and impossible way. A videogame about exposing government conspiracies to use world destroying basketball slams and jams actually works. Barkley deals with the guilt of being the catalyst for the purging of ballers and the banning of basketball, of having powers beyond a normal human. He faces people with similar power over others reveling in their privilege. Denying their selfish viewpoints on principle, he reaffirms his existence as someone who must live for others, even when it hurts, even when few can accept him. In the end he sacrifices himself in atonement, to protect who he loves, and to live his last moments without guilt. Staying true his principles in a world that doesn’t want him to exist is direct and not especially complex, but in its framing it’s simply inspiring. No matter how slighted or unwanted, Barkley remained strong and unwavering for his son and for his pride.

Post-irony is a joke with the punchline being how things are. The humor comes from the shock of nonsequitur at the denial of being predictively funny. All of the lead up for an ironic joke at the expense of some idea is flipped for the conclusion being logical and true to the circumstance. I think post-irony meets some otherwise overlooked aspects of life, aspects that traditional, canned jokes can never quite breach. Because sometimes things that happen to me are funny; sometimes things that are done unintentionally or unconsciously are hilarious. Sometimes I need to look at all that is happening, the gamut of existence, and laugh that it is. A laughter not because anything is particularly funny, but to cope with things being impossible to grasp, a complete understanding that will never come to me. Stewing in those thoughts, they do become funny, just naturally funny, not in any cruel way. I have a desire, a lead up even, that will be met with nothing more than what is. Barkley Gaiden posits, in an exaggerated way, that existence itself can be true, intense, and meaningful, while also being incredibly absurd, and letting those aspects coexist naturally. Post-irony has both a genuine love for the topics it is satirizing while reflecting on the inherent, overwhelming feelings of absurdity that are essential to life.

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Disclaimer: Barkley Gaiden is horribly ableist and contains various slurs and microagressions. No matter what I say whilst ignoring that, it might not be worth your time.

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One thought on “The Comfort of Post-Irony

  1. My favorite band is Electric Six which I think fits neatly into this definition of post-irony, or what I’ve always called a loving parody. Their style of making fun of tired rock-star tropes (“I wish this song was louder”) and silly sounding but dead serious lyrics (“Kids today they never say please/But today’s angry youth ain’t angry enough for me”) are totally at odds with their true love of the very music they lampoon. It’s stupidly hard to explain, but I think post-irony is a pretty good phrase.

    Although it sort of implies an attitude of “We moved past irony and now everything is totally sincere” that people were talking about right after 9/11, so uh, it might confuse some people.

    Like

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