And My Ever Rising Blood Pressure
Make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit "I don’t really mean what I’m saying." So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: "How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean."
- David Foster Wallace
"E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction"
I work at a library, a customer service industry, in which I'm peppered with hundreds of questions, ranging from the mundane ("Where's the bathroom?") to the complex ("Do you have videos with public performance rights on peer pressure for at-risk minority children of alternative sexuality grades K to 12?") on a weekly basis. Because of the volume and diversity of the questions, which come from people representing a widely divergent range of education and socio-economic background, a librarian has to develop a frame of reference for the questions in order to comprehend what is being asked; often a question isn't even a question until you help the patron articulate just exactly what he or she wants. It's kind of like Jeopardy!; my ability to do my job - and help you, the public - depends on the ability to have queries put in the form of a question (hopefully one with an answerable frame of reference). In other words, I get best results, and waste the least time, when patrons tell me exactly what they want and don't beat around the bush. The Straight Talk Express, library reference style.
That's why I was so peeved on a recent Manic Monday when a young guy who looked like your basic twentysomething Indie Rocker approached me and said, "I'm looking for really pretentious art films."
I know all about art films, but there was a subjective value system buried in the question. I mean, one's man's sirloin is another man's Hamburger Helper as far as what's considered arty and what's considered crap. A naked picture of Jenna Jameson is considered porn while a museum painting of a naked Venus is considered art, in other words. And pretentious? Did he mean, bad films, boring films, laugh-out-loud exercises in artiness?
So I asked him, "You mean bad films?"
"No," Young Guy replied, "Why would you say that?"
"Because," I said, "You said pretentious, which is typically a negative term."
"No it's not," he scoffed.
"It's not?" I countered, suddenly lost. (I had a momentary chill, the kind you get when you think you've gotten something terribly wrong all your life, like when my grandmother corrected my pronunciation of the word poignant, which I had mispronounced as "poik-nant" for 28 years thanks to Curly Howard of the Three Stooges.) "You consider pretentious a positive, complimentary term?"
"Yeah," he said with confidence and without blinking twice.
I was amazed.
1. making (unjustified) claims to special merit or importance: many critics thought her work and ideas pretentious and empty
2. vulgarly showy; ostentatious: a family restaurant with no pretentious furnishing (www.thefreedictionary.com)
"So, if you were in a bar chatting up a girl and she said she found you pretentious, you would take it as a compliment?" I asked, incredulous.
"Yeah," he replied, "Of course."
In other words, he was playing a game of wordplay, of hipper-than-thou irony. Not a librarian's best friend. We're here to answer questions, not to fall captive to verbal B.S. That's the domain of politicians...and ironic hipsters. Shades of gray in a black-and-white world.
Luckily, my co-worker, who knew the guy slightly from his soccer league, intervened and, being a Twentysomething himself, understood the kid's wavelength enough to decode "pretentious art films". Apparently, the hipster kid wanted to put on a film series based around this narrowly-defined self-understood genre, and my co-worker pulled some titles for him.
This whole interaction made me think of that Onion article "Aging Gen-Xer Doesn't Find Bad Movies Funny Anymore."
Later, I thanked my co-worker and said, "Strange guy, huh?"
My co-worker replied, "Yeah, I didn't understand at first he was being ironic, but once I could understand that he really meant good films in his ironic way, I could help him."
Of course, the kid could have just asked for what he wanted directly.
But I guess that wouldn't have been cool. Some people talk to be overheard and not to be actually listened to.
I call them assholes. Which is a still negative term in almost all circles (barring porn films). But direct and to the point.
Pretentious - For the Sake of It (Gentle Giant CD compilation, 1977)