Certainly Chaucer and Shakespeare have their moments of irony. Its commonest definition is saying something but meaning its opposite, like mild sarcasm: "Oh, sure". Of course, literary and dramatic irony goes back forever: some people even think that certain gospels in the Bible are ironic. But still the scavenging continues, as the desperate revival industry snarfs up style-bites with rapacity.Along the way, irony may have changed its meaning. "In the mass-kitsch, low-camp attitude people feel safe with something old, silly or dead, as their taste cannot be called into question," says York. "Often the kinds of people who now like, say, Abba and the Bee Gees wouldn't have liked it the time It's a category into which you can dip without stigma. It's harmless fun, often for kiddies who weren't even born at the time."This has arisen, he says due to the incredible stock of stylistic imagery available for today's young bricoleurs.
But it is unavoidable in our time because we live in a wraparound past." A net result of irony overload is that sincerity sometimes seems in short supply, and York will admit that the ironic attitude is "now a bit enervated". "The amount of material is phenomenal because of the technology of retrieval It has become so undiscriminating. It was probably the Seventies that saw the ascendancy of the ironic pose and gave all the best source material for today's stylistic irony. It was during this decade that late Andy Warhol perfected his blank persona - "oh, great" - and his Brit doppelganger David Bowie was lionised in a book called The Man In The Irony Mask: very useful when he had to wriggle out of his notorious fascist salute. Yet it's taken until now for irony to truly join the mass market.
"People who watched Carry On films 20 years ago would watch them in a completely different way now," says John Lynch, media and popular culture professor at Leeds Metropolitan University. Ten years ago, a Fleet Street editor was defining a brief for writers, and one of her noblest strictures was "no spotty- faced irony". Alas, she was swimming against the tide for since then we have been engulfed by a wave of the kind of smartass irony that was once the niche province of our more irritating undergraduates. Stuff that Britain's massed ironists describe - in that mixture of affection and hip derision - as "cheesy".But has the ironic attitude gone too far, become too mass-market? Since everybody gets the gag, the result is that irony is now the lingua franca of the zapping classes.