New-Irony and Nick Land
Nick Land, the ‘madman philosopher’, is one of the most controversial thinkers of our time. This was true back in the 1990s, when Land was a leading member of the cult-like experimental collective known as the CCRU (Cybernetic Culture Research Unit), and it is especially true today — given his controversial association with the far-right Neoreactionaries (NRx). The controversy of this later development is not simply Land’s transition from left to right (this is, after all, a common trajectory for young leftists), it is the debate as to whether this transition is genuine or not.
In her extended essay on the NRx, Elizabeth Sandifer writes about the ‘ambiguity’ surrounding Land — ‘something both his old academic audience and his new neoreactionary one debate and speculate upon’. ‘Simply put, nobody’s quite sure if he’s serious’. Apparently, if you ask his peers, larping as an alt-right edgelord is an extremely Landish thing to do. (The anecdotes in Andy Beckett’s Guardian article add to this lore of Land as an elaborate prankster.)
What I find fascinating about this debate is that it highlights the issue of irony and earnestness on the internet. In her book, Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony (1994), Linda Hutcheon outlines the various issues associated with ‘this strange mode of discourse’. But with the advent of the internet, and more specifically meme culture, irony has mutated into something else — prompting the addition of prefixes like pre-, post- and meta-. At its most simplistic, irony on the internet looks something like this:
Layer 0 — Pre-Irony (Sincerity)
Layer 1 — Irony (Sarcasm)
Layer 2 — Post-Irony (Return to Sincerity)
Layer 3 — Meta-Irony (Combining Sincerity and Sarcasm)
These additional layers make it difficult for earnestness to exist. It also provides camouflage for those who wish to promote unpopular opinions (hence its significance in the alt-right playbook).
Returning to Land: it is possible that he is a sincere reactionary, but it is also possible that he is larping as one as part of an elaborate practical joke. This ambiguity is the by-product of new-ironic humour. It scrambles meaning and infects all latter discourses.
According to Sandifer, ‘it’s important to understand not only that this ambiguity hangs over his work, but that Land knows it, and knows that you know it, and knows that you know that he knows it, and so on’.
My question is, is there an escape route? Once new-irony has been introduced, can true earnestness return? My guess is no.