On January 4, 2017

The end of sarcasm

Hey guys, do you remember the 90s? I sure do: the Pogs, the Beanie Babies, the Reebok Pumps, that Sears commercial where the deadbeat suburban husband finally submits to his wife’s entreaties to order a new air conditioner for their home, vowing to “call now”—and, most of all, the usage of the word “Not!” as a sarcastic interjection.
There is perhaps no single locution that opitomizes the pop culture mood of the decade of my childhood more perfectly. You may recall how it works: imagine that you’re in middle school, and you have friend named Jared who is for some reason holding a milkshake. At the other end of the room, Jared spies his crush, Ashley. Nervously, he approaches her to chat, but on the way, he trips over an untied shoelace and spills his milkshake all over Ashley’s new dress. He apologizes to her and returns shamefacedly to your company.
“Smooth move, Jared,” you remark. “Not!”
The formula was endlessly repeatable: you said something that was opposite of what you believed, and then you appended a harsh “Not!” that made clear your true feelings, which by the requirements of the template were cruel and derisive. The “Not!” of this construction was the opposite of ironic, functioning as a literalistic clarification of the sneering irony of the previous sentence.
Wouldn’t Jared have known, without the exclamatory addition, that you didn’t really believe that his spilling the milkshake onto Ashley’s lap constituted a “smooth move”? Was your single-syllable contradiction really necessary?
From our modern-day vantage point, it’s hard to say. The mass-market commodified counterculture of the 1990s, which took shape in rebellious cookie-cutter utterances like “Not!” and “Whatever!” and “Yeah right!” and “Talk to the hand!” and various phrases borrowed from Bart Simpson, was a fairly new and primitive invention, and in many parts of the country, kids were trying out sarcasm for the first time. Their friends, some of them reared in a pre-MTV atmosphere of respectful earnestness, might have been confused if the sarcasm had not been announced directly—this, after all, was a time when it didn’t occur to people to check their email unless a digitized voice announcing “You’ve got mail!” told them to.
On the other hand, I may be giving the denizens of the 1990s too little credit—it’s possible that the “Not!” ending was not supposed to be revelatory but existed simply to add a boost of jaunty hostility, budging what might have been received as a moment of sympathetic irony into the realm of jeering sarcasm: the verbal equivalent of a sudden slap to the face, emphasizing the largeness of the gap between the pleasant version of events that one might have imagined and what really happened instead.
I can’t guess where the catchphrase originated, but the movie “Wayne’s World” (1992) comes to mind as a potential source for the larger phenomenon, just as the film “Clueless” (1995) seems responsible for popularizing the haughty feminine analogue to the independent bullying masculinity of “Not!”: I mean the exclamation “As if!” used not to mark the irony-born falsity of one’s own preceding verbal construction but, rather, to respond to an interlocutor with contempt for a statement uttered in earnest yet so clearly counterfactual that one might more reasonably believe that it had been spoken in jest.
I think of all this, of course, because of the Twitter account of Donald Trump. Here is our president-elect on Dec. 28, after Barack Obama speculated that, if he had been eligible to run for a third turn, he would have beaten Trump: “Doing my best to disregard the many inflammatory President O statements and roadblocks.Thought it was going to be a smooth transition – NOT!”
There’s something off here—Trump doesn’t know how to use “Not!” correctly. The trouble is that the statement immediately before the exclamation isn’t sarcastic. On Nov. 10, for example, Trump tweeted about his “fantastic day in D.C. Met with President Obama for first time. Really good meeting, great chemistry. Melania liked Mrs. O a lot!” Trump—or his public persona, anyway, in its aggrieved innocence—really was looking forward to a friendly handoff of the White House keys from the man about whom he spent years peddling a racist conspiracy theory. And now look at what’s happening!
For Trump, the phrase “Not!” doesn’t serve to clarify the ironic intentions of a deliberate falsehood; instead, it indicates a twist in the narrative, a subversion of expectations—things were going one way, and now they’re not. It’s further evidence that Trump—who during the summer insisted that Obama was literally “the founder of ISIS” and then attributed this blatant untruth to “sarcasm” that, to his surprise, the media didn’t “get,” as though his actual intention had been to praise Obama rather than to smear him—is not terribly familiar with the language of sarcasm.
“Obviously I’m being sarcastic,” he said back in August, explaining himself to his supporters, “but not that sarcastic, to be honest with you.” Which was it? On the afternoon of Dec. 28, just hours after tweeting that the presidential transition was “NOT” going smoothly, he told a reporter that the transition was in fact going “very, very smoothly.”
I’m not still trying to convince you at this late date that Trump is a bad, dishonest guy; by now I can only marvel at his weirdness. He’s not only post-truth but post-sarcasm—sarcasm being, after all, a tool of genuine communication, existing to express a dismal reality by presenting instead its poignantly distant opposite. For Trump there can be no sarcasm because his words don’t exist in any relationship to reality; they’re not conscious of their own remove from the truth in the way that sarcasm is, and the remove isn’t so precisely calibrated. He doesn’t wish to describe anything earnestly or ironically; he seeks only to incite a reaction.
Sarcasm is over, people—welcome to the age of trolling.

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