The 'Death of Irony,' and Its Many Reincarnations

An investigation into just who declared irony dead in the wake of 9/11/2001.

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The cliché: Each year as we revisit 9/11, commentators and critics recall the "death of irony" that was widely trumpeted in the days after the attack. This year, the mentions, as with the 9/11 coverage itself, grow plentiful. As New York Magazine reminds us, for instance: "On September 18, 2001, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, declared, 'I think it’s the end of the age of irony.'"  Meanwhile, AJ Aronstein at called it "Roger Rosenblatt's famous pronouncement of irony's death in Time Magazine." The contrasting attributions raise an interesting question. While everyone likes to remind us that irony is indeed alive and well, there are conflicting reports about just who made the false death declaration in the first place.

So where's it from? Indeed, in an essay dated Sept. 24, 2001, Roger Rosenblatt wrote, "One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony." Still more people point to Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair. He gave a quote to the now-defunct site early in the week following the attacks (so on or about Sept. 17, 2001) in which he declared "There's going to be a seismic change. I think it's the end of the age of irony." But news reports from the days after the attack show that others beat Carter out as well. See The Baltimore Sun on Sept. 14, 2001: "'None of us are feeling funny,' said an Onion editor, Stephen Thompson. 'I heard a staff member say something chilling, 'The age of irony is dead.'" Interestingly enough, a spokesperson for The Daily Show, also struggling with its place in the world after the tragedy, also used the phrase in the days after the attack, and also put it in someone else's mouth. "When you're talking about a show that is a news parody and the news is so consumed about this tragedy, what's funny about what's unfolding here? Nothing," Comedy Central spokesman Tony Fox told the Associated Press on Sept. 17. "As someone at the show said succinctly, irony is dead for the moment."

Helpfully, in November 2001, linguist Geoffery Nunberg undertook his own investigation into the phrase's origins in the Los Angeles Times, providing a nice timeline:

"The Age of Irony died yesterday," wrote Andrew Coyne in Canada's National Post on Sept. 12, a report confirmed a few days later by no less an authority than Vanity Fair editor and Spy co-founder Graydon Carter: "There's going to be a seismic change. I think it's the end of the age of irony." Roger Rosenblatt came to the same conclusion in a Time essay that decried the intellectuals and "pop-culture makers" whose detachment and unseriousness now seems a dangerously empty pose: "The ironists, seeing through everything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything."

While Coyne's column is difficult to locate online, he graciously provided The Atlantic Wire with the Sept. 12, 2001 clip, and so it seems Coyne does indeed win the award for first to publish the phrase. (Update: Commentor Camille Ryan also helpfully provides a screenshot of the column in the comments section below for those who would like to read it. Many thanks, Camille.) Of course, who knows how many others (particularly those who don't publish their thoughts) uttered it on the day of the attack itself.

Why it's catching on: Revisiting a false claim that irony might die fits well with a narrative that's been repeated often on the 10th anniversary -- the narrative that, culturally, 9/11 did not prove a turning point or dividing line. New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani is the poster girl for such sentiments. "We know now that the New Normal was very much like the Old Normal, at least in terms of the country’s arts and entertainment," she wrote, citing then disagreeing with Rosenblatt's 2001 essay. "Ten years later, it is even clearer that 9/11 has not provoked a seismic change in the arts."

Why else? Wondering whether irony was alive, dead, or several times reincarnated was in fact already something of a cliché by 2001. The mid-1990s brought us a wealth of irony with Alanis Morisette and David Eggers, and so too did it bring us new claims of irony's death. Graydon Carter gave his quote to, a website founded by his Spy Magazine colleague Kurt Anderson. And yet all the way in July 2000, Time's James Poniewozik wrote of, "If irony really is dead, you might mark its toe tag May 10, 2000, launch date of" So, little did Carter know, the magazine he was talking to in September 2001 had already itself killed irony more than a year earlier. Ironic, isn't it?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.