From a purely linguistic or grammatical point of view, we are doing two things at once when being sarcastic: we are communicating a message but at the same time we are framing the message with a metamessage that says something like, “I don’t mean this: in fact, I mean the exact opposite.” This metamessage makes sarcasm seem like a very abstract and a quintessentially “linguistic” activity, since when we use it, we are using language to talk not about the world but about itself.
Sarcasm is an ever-incipient (although never realized) grammatical category like the future tense or the subjunctive mood and has specific cues or grammatical markers which broadcast the message, “I mean the opposite of what I’m saying.” Many languages do not have it. Its invocation, however, should not be viewed as a more sophisticated way of speaking, in the sense that it is more intelligent to say the opposite of what one means. Is it then even more intelligent to say the opposite of the opposite of what one means? We can be sarcastic for reasons other than being sophisticated. The mistake of the present age is that one has to be sarcastic in order to be appreciated as “sophisticated.” But just as sarcasm means the opposite of what it says, it often gets the opposite of what it wants. Instead of appreciation, we receive resentment. This is because sarcasm and empathy are incompatible. If someone approaches you seeking empathy and you respond with sarcasm, then you have basically ripped them apart, which is why sarcasm in the original Greek means “torn flesh.”
Some theorists have said that language is what defines humanity. (As opposed to those who say that rationality defines humanity.) Let’s take that seriously for a moment: our language is the only demarcating quality which makes us human. Sophistication in language–linguistic devices such as irony and sarcasm–should then correlate with sophistication in human beings. But not all linguistic communities, not all human beings, have sarcasm.
“Well, we Americans can be sarcastic. So we must be fairly sophisticated.”
What would a sophisticated culture look like without sarcasm, we might ask. Science fiction is an interesting exploration. Hardly any of the fictional sophisticated alien races, with the exception of K-paxians, use sarcasm as a linguistic device. Protoss do not. Bajorans do not. Not even Vulcans. Klingons such as Whorf are sometimes sarcastic. And Spock has at times been sarcastic, admittedly, but only as a result of having come into contact with morally decadent Federation cadets from San Fransisco. Was Gene Roddenbury secretly saying that the allegedly advanced alien races were not as sophisticated enough to have sarcasm? It is more likely that sophisticated alien races have advanced to a supersensibility in a post-postmodern age and have no interest in sarcasm. In fact Spock often comments that “human” sensibilities are strange to him, that he doesn’t quite understand why we find our humor, that is, our sarcasm, so enlightening.
The quintessential contemporary “human” sensibility is flip, uncommitted, a question mark after every other sentence. To get their jokes, all Spock would have to do is exactly what they do–watch a lot of television, notice how sarcasm is portrayed by comedians and used in sitcoms. And notice the alienation and shallowness of affect which are the exclusive moral preserve of the present age. Sarcasm is so pervasive that its absence is misunderstood or judged as unsophisticated or worse, boring. If someone were to speak in the present age like Spock speaks, in a serious and unaffected way, we could not possibly take him seriously.
Seriousness is too original, thus unoriginal, and the cultural-linguistic buildup of ‘serious content’ results in sarcasm eventually. Let me explain how I think this works. Sarcasm cannot exist without prior, original content to reflect upon. If nothing had been said or done before, only original content is possible. The notion that the original linguistic content of some Cro-Magnon is somehow sarcastic, as in the comics of Gary Larson, strike us as humorous precisely because original content is not in fact sarcastic. It is basic content, with little or no humor. After original content has been exhausted, the experiences we reflect upon eventually become trite, and then eventually sarcastic.
The relevant postmodern slogan is “it’s all been done before.” That there is no new thing (including postmodernism itself) under the sun–and that this is somehow regrettable–is older than postmodernism, older even than King Solomon of Ecclesiastes and has been held by all manners of people at various times. The world is now so old, everything has been said already, and our culture is too late for original content. Even the poets are horrified that they can only find new ways of expressing the poetry of older, more defunct poets.
Our postmodern sensibility discovered that originality is only possible in style, not content. If what I say has been very likely said before, then my insincerity is the greatest device for new and creative conversation. It says, “I’m not actually committed to the words I’m saying. I’m only joking when I say them.” Like an actor on a stage, I am painfully conscious of merely repeating someone else’s lines, playing a role. If I live in such a world, then possibly the only means I have available to express my superiority to the cliches which I find myself constantly spouting is to utter them in parody, that is, sarcastically.
It’s been said before–which should come as no surprise–that postmodernism is what happens when modernism, which is a revolt against tradition, recognizes that it itself is a tradition. Modernism is the tradition of anti-tradition. But that’s ridiculously self-defeating, the modernists said. And instantly postmodernism was born. What happens when sarcasm, which is the ultimate postmodern expression of an iconoclastic temperance toward unoriginality, recognizes that it itself is unoriginal? It then must smash all its idols: its intolerance of unoriginal conversation, its perverse metamessages, its self-conscious and anticlimactic commentary.
And a new iconoclast is born: he is an unoriginally stylized man with a heroically new sensibility. He does not speak with sarcasm, but with irony, when appropriate. He says, “The will to overcome style is ultimately the will of one style over another.” This is dawning of the post-sarcastic age.