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 These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started.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.

Does Culture Determine Psychology?

One of the recent trends in psychology (especially since the 90s) has been to emphasize culture over any kind of universals. As a recent article put it:

The job, experimental psychologists often assumed, was to push past the content of people’s thoughts and see the underlying universal hardware at work. “This is a deeply flawed way of studying human nature,” Norenzayan told me, “because the content of our thoughts and their process are intertwined.” In other words, if human cognition is shaped by cultural ideas and behavior, it can’t be studied without taking into account what those ideas and behaviors are and how they are different from place to place.

The problem is none of the research in this field even comes close to proving that. That cultural differences can effect psychology has been well known for decades but it does not disprove that there are underlying mental structures that virtually every human shares.

To give a good example: the supposedly groundbreaking paper by Markus and Kitayama (PDF)  only showed that perceptions of the self differed, not that people’s literal selves were different across cultures. In this case that individualistic cultures viewed the self as autonomous while collectivistic cultures saw themselves as an extension of a group.

Of course, regardless of their perceptions, someone’s “self” (as defined by the paper) is by definition individual to the person. Barring a mental illness, people don’t experience themselves as multiple people at once, or as someone else. Likewise, if someone from a collectivistic culture were alienated from the group, they might become depressed but they wouldn’t stop existing mentally as a person.

This is like research on facial expressions, while there are some cultural differences in how people view others’ expressions, facial expressions are universal regardless of the culture.

There is even a vast literature on things like autonomy across cultures; studies of of collectivist cultures ranging from Russian and Chinese college students (PDF) all the way to rural Chinese children (PDF) show that, regardless of the culture, people perform better when they can direct their own activities.

Why The Cultural Bandwagon? 

In the tradition of psychology throwing out the baby with the bathwater (remember radical behaviorism was once a reaction against Freudian psychology), this seems to be an extreme reaction to decades of Western assumptions on how other people thought. While there were mistaken assumptions and skewed sample sizes for many psychological tests, it does not negate one of the most basic findings in psychology.

Einstein’s Brain and Schizotypal Personality Disorder

In addition to constantly being cited as an example of someone on the autistic spectrum, it turns out that Einstein definitely had schizotypal traits (confirmed further by his son having full blown schizophrenia, usually found in first relatives with SPD). This is similar to Bertrand Russell, who also had many first relatives with schizophrenia and himself displayed schizotypal traits.

Unlike Russell and others however, we’ve had Einstien’s actual brain preserved for many decades, and we have a vast literature of brain imaging of schizotypal patients. What I thought to do is to compare this group with studies of Einstein’s brain to see if there were any significant connections.

What is SPD?

Unlike Schizrophrenia, Schizotypal Personality Disorder (SPD) tends to be much more manageable. Based on various descriptions, including by DSM-V, it is typically characterized by:

  • Odd beliefs/appearance or magical thinking different from cultural norms
  • An inappropriate belief that situations are strange
  • Paranoia
  • Unusual bodily perceptions such as derealization or depersonalization and
  • Social isolation

Extraordinary parts of Einstein’s and Schizotypals’ brains

This brings us to the brains, both Einstein¹ and Schizotypals² clearly had/have extraordinary brains and unusual shapes to go with them. The parts that were flagged for being different from the norm were:

  • Corpus callosum (both) – Connects left (detail) and right (whole-oriented) brain hemispheres.
  • Prefrontal cortex (both) –  Decision making and impulse control.
  • Parietal lobe (both) – Helps with sense of space and other functions.
  • Temporal lobe (both) – Involved with visual memories, new memories, understanding language, emotion and deriving meaning.
  • Somatosensory cortex (Einstein) – Creates the sense of touch.
  • Primary motor cortex (Einstein) – Helps with movement (probably larger because of Violin playing).
  • Occipital lobe (Einstein) – Sight and visual processing.
  • Amygdala (SPDs) – memory and decision making
  • Thalamus (SPDs) – Relays different parts of brain, regulates sleep and alertness.
  • Parahippocampus gyrus (SPDs) – Recognizing the enviromental and social context.
  • Superior temporal gyrus (SPDs) – Perception of emotion and facial expressions.

How these parts of brain are special in both

Using only the extraordinary brain parts that overlap for both (and which we can get the same measure) we have these three comparisons and one similarity:

Brain Part                                                        Einstein                        SPD

Corpus callosum Larger Larger
Prefrontal cortex Larger Left is Smaller
Parietal lobe Larger Smaller

Something about the corpus callosum? 

The only direct similarity was that schizotypals and Einstein had significantly larger than average corpus callosums(callosie?). This could show that both have especially well connected brain hemispheres, that is, they’re better at connecting abstract and detailed data.

This is also especially interesting since, in general, corpus callosum size has had a negative correlation with IQ (although for males the relation seems become more positive the older they get)³ and Einstien was estimated to have an IQ of 205 which is absurdly large by any measure.

From all this It’s possible that Einstein had the “good” parts of schizotypals (like abstract reasoning) without any of the downsides.


1. For all extraordinary parts of Einstien’s brain see “The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs” (PDF file) For the corpus callosum see “The corpus callosum of Albert Einstein‘s brain: another clue to his high intelligence?

2. For all parts of schizotypals brains see “The brain in schizotypal personality disorder: a review of structural MRI and CT findings.” (PDF).

3. See “Negative Associations between Corpus Callosum Midsagittal Area and IQ in a Representative Sample of Healthy Children and Adolescents

Update on Jesus’s Family Size/Status

Someone pointed out a few good ways to improve my methodology in calculating the likelihood of Jesus’s family (others, not so much but I’ll address those as well).

First, in Zorn’s study, the standard deviation was actually 2.5 necessitating a re-working of the model. Also if we assume that the Gospels were describing Jesus’s siblings symbolically as followers, then it meant he was thought to be an only child and the probability of that (a family of three or less) is what needs to be tested, not necessarily the probability of not being a family of 9+.

Taking all this into account, I came up with this:

The probability of having 6+ siblings is 3.6% while being a single child was slightly over 27%.

Image and video hosting by TinyPicIn other words, it’s about 8 times more likely that, given the conditions of the time, Jesus was portrayed as a single child with figurative siblings. As Zorn himself points out, houses were only designed for 2-7 people, but, in his estimation, more people lived there then was possible to hold.

Limit on Family Size

As mentioned previously, it’s also possible that no one out of the average family compounds could have had more than seven children, as Meyer’s estimates:

For the nuclear families…that were present in family compounds, a maximum of seven persons can be estimated, although that supposes a reproductive rate higher than what might in fact have existed, given the high number of infant mortalities…and the risk of maternal death at childbirth.

 That means our lowest estimate is a zero chance of such a family being possible. 

The More Things Change

Someone else challenged the notion that the ancient economy stayed the same on the basis of regional differences. This is a mistake: regional differences and the growth of the economy are two different things. While regions can vary because of their different capacities, their growth rates remained flat until the advent of industrialization

For instance, when the economic historian Gregory Clarke said:

the average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC. 

He’s talking about it in terms of growth, not that the entire world was equal and that everyone on the planet had the same amount of children. This stagnant economy (and thus identical capacity to have children) would have applied to Israel as well.

Rich People Complaining About Debt

I recently read an article on the struggles of being a start-up entrepreneur, and was surprised to find that these alleged struggles for entrepreneurs almost hitting economic “ruin”.

He had cashed in his 401(k) and maxed out a $60,000 line of credit. He had sold the Rolex he bought with his first-ever paycheck during an earlier career as a stockbroker. And he had humbled himself before his father–the man who raised him on maxims such as “money doesn’t grow on trees” and “never do business with family”–by asking for $10,000, which he received at 5 percent interest after signing a promissory note.

Smith projected optimism to his co-founders and 10 employees, but his nerves were shot. “My wife and I would share a bottle of $5 wine for dinner and just kind of look at each other,” Smith says. “We knew we were close to the edge.”

The horror: “I had to beg my rich dad for money and could only afford the CHEAP wine!” This kind of reminds me of the “struggles” Mitt Romney went through growing up:

They were not easy years. […] We were happy, studying hard. Neither one of us had a job, because Mitt had enough of an investment from stock that we could sell off a little at a time.

For reference, Mitt and Ann Romeny were living off of today’s equivalent of $377,000 in assets (not to mention Mitt’s father was the CEO of a major company).

The fact is, if you’re upper class, with college educated parents, then you’re never really “on the brink.” During the Victorian Era, most of the debt actually came from the upper class, and often ended up in debt forgiveness or easy to manage deals to avoid ruin. Given that we’re living in the equivalent of a new Gilded Age, this is not too far off the mark the “struggling” rich.

The Statistics of Damon Lindelof Being A Shitty Writer

After watching the premier of The Leftovers, I was somewhat surprised to find that it was actually somewhat decent, and surprised because one of the co-writers is none other than Damon Lindelof. Lindelof, whose (in)famous for writing the ending to Lost, (and pretty much being the main writer of the show) as well as the convoluted plots of Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkeness. 

But looking at his credits, Lindelof almost always co-writes  the scripts (in fact, I couldn’t find a single script he wrote by himself) which leads us to wonder, is he a shitty writer or does he just get paired with bad writers?  

To find out I looked at his co-writers and, tested whether their four best known films (if they did less than I only coded those) where convoluted. Using the scientific standard of “does this make any fucking sense?” I coded whether it was or wasn’t convoluted. Although as a sidenote, just because it wasn’t convoluted doesn’t mean it wasn’t just badly written (ie Transformers).

The Results:

  • Lindelof – 75% of his best known scripts are convoluted
  • Jon Spaihts – 50% of his best known scripts are convoluted
  • Roberto Orci – 50% of his best known scripts are convoluted
  • Alex Kurtzman – 25% of his best known scripts are convoluted
  • Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby- 0% of their best known scripts are convoluted

As we can see Lindelof is the most convoluted of any of the writers mentioned and statistically, is definitely a shitty writer.

The Breakdown of Who Wrote Which Convoluted Script


  • Lost (finale) – Convoluted
  • Prometheus – Convoluted
  • ST: Into Darkness – Convoluted
  • Cowboys and Aliens – Not Convoluted

Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Co-wrote Cowboys and Aliens)

  • Children of Men – Not Convoluted
  • Iron Man – Not Convoluted
  • Cowboys and Aliens – Not Convoluted

Jon Spaihts (co-wrote Prometheus)

  • Prometheus – Convoluted
  • The Darkest Hour – Not Convoluted

Roberto Orci (co-wrote ST: Into Darkness and Cowboys and Aliens) 

  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – Convoluted
  • Cowboys and Aliens – Not Convoluted
  • Transformers – Not Convoluted 
  • Mission: Impossible III – Convoluted

Alex Kurtzman (Co-wrote Cowboys and Aliens)

  • The Island – Not Convoluted
  • Mission: Impossible III – Convoluted
  • Transformers – Not Convoluted
  • Watchmen – Not Convoluted