Ironic Detachment as an Escape from Routine

by Christopher Lasch

We have not yet exhausted, however, what can be learned from role theory alone. In our society, anxious self-scrutiny (not to be confused with critical self-examination) not only serves to regulate information signaled to others and to interpret signals received; it also establishes an ironic distance from the deadly routine of daily life. On the one hand, the degradation of work makes skill and competence increasingly irrelevant to material success and thus encourages the presentation of the self as a commodity; on the other hand, it discourages commitment to the job and drives people, as the only alternative to boredom and despair, to view work with self-critical detachment. When jobs consist of little more than meaningless motions, and when social routines, formerly dignified as ritual, degenerate into role playing, the worker—whether he toils on an assembly line or holds down a high-paying job in a large bureaucracy—seeks to escape from the resulting sense of inauthenticity by creating an ironic distance from his daily routine. He attempts to transform role playing into a symbolic elevation of daily life. He takes refuge in jokes, mockery, and cynicism. If he is asked to perform a disagreeable task, he makes it clear that he doesn't believe in the organization's objectives of increased efficiency and greater output. If he goes to a party, he shows by his actions that it's all a game—false, artificial, insincere; a grotesque travesty of sociability. In this way be attempts to make himself invulnerable to the pressures of the situation. By refusing to take seriously the routines he has to perform, he denies their capacity to injure him. Although he assumes that it is impossible to alter the iron limits imposed on him by society, a detached awareness of those limits seems to make them matter less. By demystifying daily life, he conveys to himself and others the impression that he has risen beyond it, even as he goes through the motions and does what is expected of him.

As more and more people find themselves working at jobs that are in fact beneath their abilities, as leisure and sociability themselves take on the qualities of work, the posture of cynical detachment becomes the dominant style of everyday intercourse. Many forms of popular art appeal to this sense of knowingess and thereby reinforce it. They parody familiar roles and themes, inviting the audience to consider itself superior to its surroundings. Popular forms begin to parody themselves: Westerns take off on Westerns; soap operas like Fernwood, Soap, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, assure the viewer of his own sophistication by mocking the conventions of soap opera. Yet much popular art remains romantic and escapist, eschews this theater of the absurd, and promises escape from routine instead of ironic detachment from it. Advertising and popular romance dazzle their audience with visions of rich experience and adventure. They promise not cynical detachment but a piece of the action, a part in thedrama instead of cynical spectatorship. Emma Bovary, prototypical consumer of mass culture, still dreams; and her dreams, shared by millions, intensify dissatisfaction with jobs and social routine.

Unreflective accommodation to routine becomes progressively more difficult to achieve. While modern industry condemns people to jobs that insult their intelligence, the mass culture of romantic escape fills their heads with visions of experience beyond their means—beyond their emotional and imaginative capacities as well—and thus contributes to a further devaluation of routine. The disparity between romance and reality, the world of the beautiful people and the workaday world, gives rise to an ironic detachment that dulls pain but also that cripples the will to change social conditions, to make even modest improvements in work and play, and to restore meaning and dignity to everyday life.


SOURCE: Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Warner Books, 1979), pp. 171-174.


Christopher Lasch's The Minimal Self: A Portrait of Psychological Terrorism by R. Dumain

Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

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