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"Sincere Irony" Barbie
Can Eroticized Capitalism Peek Beyond the Metamodern Veil ?
Q: What is “sincere irony” ?
(An audio podcast version of this article, read by the author, is available for paid subscribers.)
I. ARTIFICIAL SUITS THAT LOOK LIKE NAKED BODIES
Sincere irony is a term used in metamodernism. What is metamodernism? Depending on who you ask, it is either:
(a) a general form of emerging, trans-pluralistic, depth-oriented consciousness, or
(b) a specific form of post-postmodern art.
What is post-postmodern art? Think of Bo Burnham, David Lynch, David Foster Wallace, Everything Everywhere All At Once and, maybe, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie.
The ideology of Barbie (2023) has been widely debated. We wonder whether it is empowering girls or marginalizing men. Does it present a decadently disastrous pseudo-feminism or a viable version of female humanism for a new generation?
And perhaps more importantly: What is revealed by the strangely wide-open diversity of ideological interpretations that has been aroused by this charmingly ambiguous international blockbuster?
At the level of ordinary pop culture & intellectual punditry, we tend to like our cultural artifacts to either have a clear definite meaning (modern) or obviously no meaning (postmodern). Sincere OR ironic. And if turns out to have a meaning then we like it to be easily discerned at a glance.
It would be very convenient if this motion picture show was either promoting a “progressive” message about getting free from entrenched gender roles and reversing oppressive power structures, or a “conservative” message about protecting the deep dignity that resides within our inherited traditions and roles.
Yet Barbie seems to be either less or more than this.
The film might just be a positionless, extended advertisement for a commercial product (my mother’s opinion) or it might be something closer to a complex metamodern superposition of coherent pluralistic realities. In the latter case, a generous interpretation, we might claim that this moving picture show exhibits sincere irony. (Don’t worry, we’ll define that in the next section.)
Many loud commentators have made use of the Barbie film to present their diagnoses of how gender discourse is positioned in the contemporary social field. Some of those analyses are stupid & some are brilliant. However, these commentators generally overlook the possibility that the movie is taking no particular position within the field of conventional sexual politics.
And if we are willing to concede the possibility that a metamodern intelligence is at work through this piece of commercial cinema then we may also have to consider the analogous possibility that the structural message of the film is operating from — and critiquing — a more meta-level of social dynamics.
It stood out to me that the film flows fluidly between positions while maintaining its odd coherence. For example, when Barbie’s trivialized male companion “Ken” realizes his need to discover a post-socialized identity independent of the female gaze, he reluctantly embraces the uncertainty on the far side of his emotional-sexual connection to Barbie. Hurray! A moral! Have we thereby discovered the message of the film? No. Because, moments later, another Ken proclaims that his liberated freedom consists of an ongoing emotional allegiance to the Ken-Barbie relationship.
Likewise, when the school girls of the Real World collectively denounce Barbie to her face, one of them then immediately confesses that she still loves Barbie. The filmmakers are not settling on an obvious position. They continue to circulate.
It is difficult for us to take cinematic analysis to a trans-ideological level. We are eager to use cultural artifacts as props to make our own aggrieved commentaries about gender and society. And that is even precisely what the Mattel Corporation wants. Their profits depend on the general public and its prominent cultural analysts taking for granted the fact that Barbie is an important icon of the relationship between female identity, socio-sexual roles & modern power structures.
But perhaps we can understand the film more deeply if we bracket that assumption?
In the opening scene — a delightful homage to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — we are presented with what might be the thesis. The narrator (Helen Mirren) is almost snickering as she mocks Barbie’s phallic feminine intrusion into the historical norms of female toys within traditional and early-modern cultures. Barbie is a looming alien presence who disrupts our basic assumptions about reality while spouting smiling propaganda about how she is here to help fix everything forever.
The postulate of this opening scene is that hypermodernism has disrupted the ancient relationship between the Real & Imaginary. But because the humanoid figures are all female our lazy brains unquestioningly snatch at the idea that this simply must be about the socio-sexual relations between men and women. (I mean it has women in the foreground! So it must be about feminism.)
I would like to go in a different direction, if only to keep our minds open...
This film is not about feminism or masculinity. That is the content — NOT the message. Even very simple organisms in Nature are capable of growing decoy organs and false vulnerabilities. A fake eye. A tail that looks like a head. My own assumption is that ideologies also produce decoy vulnerabilities. They survive by creating conditions in which their critics and attackers always swoop and claw at the irrelevant part.
So we might need to assume that the topic of a film is not the same as its message. Disney’s Lion King is not about lions. The cultural message of Dracula is not about the plight of vampires. Likewise, Barbie is not about social gender relations. That is merely the overt superficial layer of content.
In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the plausibly post-postmodernist Hegelian-Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that in order to understand the psychological and sociological message of fantastical films, we must bracket the overt surface symbol that identifies the movie. To understand what Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is about, Zizek tells us, first remove the birds. It is not about birds. And Barbie is not about men & women.
Perhaps the true message can only be decoded at a metalevel? If so we might need to pay special attention to the way that Barbie moves across genres and categories and perspectives without sacrificing either seriousness or non-seriousness.
The film definitely sustains both an ongoing affirmation of pluralistic-critical cognition and also a persistent sincerity of human emotion. It is nonchalant about the classical distinctions between heroes and villains. Indifferent to the totalizing constraints of genres. Supportive of the hybridization of positive and negative affects. That could easily be metamodernist.
Does Barbie mean it or not?
II. DEPTH IS BACK
Hold your breath — big words are coming:
“Sincere irony” is an exemplary characteristic (not an exhaustive criterion) of an emerging cultural mood that resonates with communities organized around themes of coherent pluralism and regenerative transdisciplinarity. It is notably associated with Metamodernism although it has many historical precursors among artists, mystics & philosophers who struggled to gracefully embody their own inner plurality and self-reflective performances. While it draws upon inspiration from these sources, its primary significance involves an attempt to regeneratively humanize the post-industrial and postmodern digital environment. Embodying this mood involves both a cluster of cognitive skills broadly associated with ironic distance and (equally) a cluster of affective capacities that might be framed as sincere, aspirational and fully engaged.
This engagement operates as a corrective response to the widespread presence of deficient or cynical irony that has become associated with the critical, contextual and pluralistic patterns of postmodern insight. That association is incidental rather than essential. Under degraded cultural conditions (in which artificial and dehumanizing modes of production operate in tandem with the absence of healthy emotional training) people often trivially conflate depressive hecklers, nihilists and aggrieved cynics with robust skeptics, authentic ironists & multi-perspectivalists. Clarifying that distinction may help to reinforce a constructive cultural orientation that nonetheless retains the intelligent spirit of deconstructionism. This requires us to specify a normative aesthetic and ethical mood in which “sincerity” and “irony” are not perceived as diminishing each other’s intensity and functionality.
Ironic mind, sincere heart.
The promulgation of this potentially-redemptive cultural mood requires:
(a) intellectual collaboration that can relativize relativity, deconstruct deconstruction & generate a new justification for depth that situates it as an intrinsically participatory, perspectival and non-totalizing process
(b) individual efforts to gain increasing skill in a real-time metacognitive self-analysis coupled with relentless skepticism of social and digital communication while also unfolding authentic, virtue-oriented emotional vulnerability, and
(c) intentional communities that gather together in the spirit of sincere irony while experimentally probing their own cultural artifacts and preferences in order to collectively refine a new ethos of renormalized intercontextuality.
Depth opens within any given structure. It is distinct from the mere movement toward another “better” structure. Depth is a function, so to speak, of re-reading rather than finding a new book.
Under the conditions of a still-emerging transcultural, pluralistic and relativistic reality, we collectively rediscover depth by entering more deeply — with greater nuance, acuity & self-regulation — into the intercontextual juxtapositions, revaluations and dynamic reversals that form the living text of our emerging cultural landscape.
Many spiritual developmentalist groups have insufficiently appreciated the unfolding richness of this new reality and have instead tried to leap over it in a hasty bid to dismiss postmodernism in favor of a sexy new merger of science and spirituality whose aesthetics give us a slightly more inclusive version of the ancient Great Chain of Being.
That is not only premature but it misses the actual way forward for our culture. The potential for natural growth into a metamodern or integrative worldview occurs by more deeply inhabiting the structures, sentiments and conclusions that continue to emerge from the postmodern and hypermodern as they recontextualize both modernity and themselves.
We must get better both at preserving our natural heart under conditions of deep skeptical pluralism and at the sam discovering the sincerity which lives within the blurred edges, odd conjunctions and half-committed queries of multivalent consciousness.
Depth is back but it is participatory, co-constructed & non-totalizing. Depth is virtual, enacted and has real effects. It is not virtual as opposed to real but virtual in the same way that reality itself is virtual.
As scholar of metamodernism, Timothy Vermuluen says in The New Depthiness,
When I refer to the “new depthiness,” I am thinking of a snorkeler intuiting depth, imagining it—perceiving it without encountering it. If Jameson’s term “new depthlessness” points to the logical and/or empirical repudiation of ideological, historical, hermeneutic, existentialist, psychoanalytic, affective, and semiotic depth, then the phrase “new depthiness” indicates the performative reappraisal of these depths. I use the term “performative” here above all in Judith Butler’s sense of the word. Just as Butler writes that the soul is not what produces our behavior but is, on the contrary, what is produced by our behavior—in other words, not inside the body but on and around it, a surface effect—depth is not excavated but applied, not discovered but delivered. Indeed, if the “gendered body has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality,” depth, too, exists exclusively in its enactment. Depth, at least post-Jameson, will always be a “depthing”—a making, actual or virtual, of depth. In this sense, depthiness combines the epistemological reality of depthlessness with the performative possibility of depth.
That is not an alternative to depth. It is a specification of where depth is now located and how we are learning to speak about it. This is analogous to the way that quantum uncertainty specifies physical reality with more certainty than ever before. And perhaps it is the tone of analysis that Nietzsche prophesied as la gaya scienza. The non-serious seriousness of a joyful critique that demolishes belief structures while regenerating the best of the human heart.
Just ask Donovan:
III. THE MIRROR IS NOT A MIRROR
Back to Barbie.
When the Mattel executives in the film contemplate the effect of the portal that has ripped open between the Real & Imaginary (and this portal is the actual, explicitly stated plot, theme and quest of the film — despite our own desire to fixate on “people’s ideas about gender”) the CEO suggests that the portal’s effects will be weirder than our collective imagination can process.
Not even, they tell us, “a podcast hosted by two wise trees” comes close to approximating the uncanny effects. The patterns of these effects are therefore not to be located within our collective sensemaking discourse. They operate outside the known social issues in the space of Lovecraft’s unthinkable cosmic-archaic monsters.
Socialized humans tend to treat the obvious as pertinent. Racism develops based on skin color (easy to see) not on spleen width (hard to see). We want it easy. We want that junk food effect of being able to rapidly skim the first sentence of a social media post, immediately identify a charged topic, and then give our quick “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” response. I love that band. I hate that politician. We’ve gone too far Left. We’ve gone too far Right. Why are half of our people so gross and dumb?
But the problem with quick glances is that they only get their hands on the most superficial and commonly discussed categories of thought and feeling.
Thus we begin to assume, out of lazy cognitive convenience, that the deeper messages built into our cultural artifacts are indistinguishable from the most overt layers of surface content. When we treat the obvious objects of presentation (e.g. gender attitudes in society) as though they were the real subject of the film then we performatively engage in the flattening process that excludes depth.
Van Gogh’s paintings of dirt and grass are not about dirt and grass. They are about the Divine. Observing the interplay of dirt and grass in the painting and then comparing that to your feelings about how dirt and grass are represented in contemporary society will NOT reveal the depth or communication of his artwork.
Early in Barbie, lead actress Margot Robbie is brushing her hair in the mirror. She is mocked by the soundtrack song which points out that there is no reflective surface. She is pretending to observe a reflection but cannot because there is no mirror — just an oval plastic pink hole.
We are pretending that this movie is a mirror held up to contemporary gender ideas but there is no mirror. The structure of the communication is not being accomplished by representation. As Barbie’s creator Ruth informs her, “nobody looks like Barbie except for Barbie.” She is not representational.
It is not reflecting.
My proposal, therefore, is to keep Ken’s double sunglasses in mind. When you take off one pair there is still a layer of shade to remove. And when you think you have peeked below the hood, and glimpsed the ideological message of the film relative to its overt content, there may still be another important layer to remove before you encounter the true face of things.
This is a movie about how traditional, modern & postmodern systems hijack the human imagination. Our actual development is inhibited by the diversion of our attention into the superficial, easily-identified, and perfunctory layer of social identities, issues and ideals.
In this type of perception and interpretation, we find ourselves, as Barbie does, in a world where cannot drink the water, where relationships go nowhere and nothing actually nourishes the people who take seriously the dramas of social critique and social enforcement. There is no contact with reality. The soles of their feet do not even touch the ground.
Barbie starts to grow toward real humanity as she confronts the uncertainty of death. Ken similarly faces socio-emotional contradictions and the negation of his social embedding as the preconditions for his nascent authenticity. These hint at the metamodern moral of the film. It tells us — in the language of the phallic feminine of commercial hypermodernity — about how to make contact with reality.
What is it that awakens both Ken and Barbie in the film? It is giving voice to the cognitive dissonance that exists between different sets of social meanings and implied ideals. Given your particular form (Ken as a neutered male toy; Barbie as a neutered female toy), you have to confront, feel, embody and articulate the mutually-thwarting and humanly-overwhelming set of embedded prescriptions that connect your particular role or type to the general social field in which you exist.
Here (with a little help from a “weird” character at the edge of the village) we problematize the normal feeling of the social trance and reawaken, often painfully, to that archaic part of ourselves that has been slumbering underneath the assumed set of interpretations and instructions.
The part that can actually begin to grow…