What’s Wrong With Irony? (Or: Why David Foster Wallace Was Wrong)

Since the rise of New Sincerity, people have debated whether it’s irony or sincerity that has defined our recent age (as seen by this exchange between The New York Times and The Atlantic), or maybe the two merged to make something else entirely?

At any rate, much of the resurgence of sincerity is often credited to David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram, (PDF) which, like most of Wallace’s work is well written and decently argued. It also had the famous line predicting (or perhaps helping to cause?) the rise of the rise in sincerity:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval.

So what’s the problem? Ironically, that’s the question I would have wanted to ask Wallace. In his novella-sized essay, he does very little to show why irony was such a bad thing in the first place. And given that the essay is over two decades old, and we’re living in its legacy, it’s strange that few people have directly responded to it.

Weaponized Irony

The essay argues not that irony and cynicism have failed, but that they have been too successful (which, of course, is itself ironic). As Wallace says, “I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair…in U.S. culture…”

The basic premise is that popular commercial culture has weaponized (read: co-opted) irony to sustain itself: people are avid TV watchers because TV mocks itself, making it palatable to watch, and attempts by rebels like David Cronenberg who use irony to fight irony are futile.

There are some worthwhile complaints here: the essay was written in the 90s which were arguably one of the worst times in television history: a time of game shows, late night talk shows, boring sit-coms, after-school specials, soap operas etc. many of which are ignored by the mainstream today.

But is it irony or bad quality that’s the problem here? As Noam Chomsky pointed out with critiques of “science,” it’s not inherently science that’s the problem, it’s power’s misuse of it. By the critiques own logic we would have to eliminate all art and literature because that has been used for terrible purposes as well. The problem isn’t so much the irony itself, it’s bad TV using it to keep its viewers watching.

A few years after the essay, television went through (and still is in) a golden age, something accomplished by increasing the quality, not by jettisoning irony. Shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective etc. are extremely dark and often follow the spirit of (and sometimes outright use) postmodern irony. To try to connect the success of these shows with New Sincerity is a huge leap. If anything, 70s-90s “ironic” television looks extremely tame by comparison (especially with the influence of constant internet parodies).

The closest thing we get to sincerity in television is Parks and Recreation (which even overtly makes DFW references) and don’t get me wrong, Parks and Rec is good, but it pales in comparison to anything mentioned previously, or even the multitude of ironic comedies.

The Failure of New Sincerity

Even if we go with the argument that irony was once a powerful force for good but then “went wrong” in the 80s and 90s, its track record is pretty impeccable. Everything from Vonnegut to Heller to Pynchon to Roth to Palahniuk (yes even to Ellis, who has a notorious feud with Wallace) has been undeniable good. If we retroactively include ironic satires by Voltaire and the masterpiece Don Quixote, voted by literary scholars as the greatest novel in history, then we’re basically arguing against breathing (but in fairness let’s not include them).

When we look at films, things like Network (1976) Brazil (1985) Fight Club (1999) and American Psycho (2000) are all staples of recent cinema. If we include Kubrick films like Dr Strangelove (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) then it becomes even harder to avoid its accomplishments.

So what has New Sincerity produced in response? We get in ascending quality: Wes Anderson, Lars von Trier and Paul Thomas Anderson. Books are harder to find but people who have been listed include the godawful Safran Foer, the well-written but not seemingly purposeless Franzen and perhaps David Foster Wallace himself, who’s Infinite Jest is easily the best out of the bunch.

Cult-like devotion to the sincerity of Wallace and Anderson aside, are we really going to pretend that they outdo Vonnegut and Kubrick?  The fact is, it’s been around 20-30 years and New Sincerity, in terms of quality, has very little to show for it. Especially when compared with what came before.

If anything we can even see a direct degradation: compare Terry Gilliam’s early ironic/cynical films (12 Monkeys, Brazil) with his later “sincere” films like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) and it’s clear which is better.

The Emptiness of Irony?

Perhaps the biggest critique is not so much the quality, but the end goal of irony. Irony is negative, it only mocks itself and does not envision an alternative. Well sure, but in that line of argument what does come with an alternative? Aside from a few utopian and political novels, how often do great works of art actually give a definitive solution to the malaise of the times?

And even the friction with other writers illustrate this point. Sure, American Psycho and Fight Club (or going further back to Pynchon and Vonnegut) don’t offer solutions; but they do, in macabre detail, identify and attack the problems. Even Wallace’s own Infinite Jest‘s gives a vague ending for the reader to interpret, let alone offers a solution.

These critiques are based on the assumption that irony was supposed to solve the malaise that began in the 60s. This is absurd, art and culture are a reaction to the societal conditions, very rarely (if ever) does a cultural movement, be it postmodernism or New Sincerity, actually solve the problems people face; it reflects them.

Irony was/is a reaction to political and economic turmoil, sincerity is a reaction to that irony. Of course neither is going to change the system, it’s up to people to do that.