Unreal Nature

May 31, 2009

Institutionalized Irony

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:52 am

… how have irony, irreverence, and rebellion come to be not liberating but enfeebling in the culture today’s avant-garde tries to write about? One clue’s to be found in the fact that irony is still around, bigger than ever after 30 long years as the dominant mode of hip expression. It’s not a rhetorical mode that wears well. As [Lewis] Hyde (whom I pretty obviously like) puts it, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. This is why Hyde seems right about persistent irony being tiresome. It is unmeaty. Even gifted ironists work best in sound bites. I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly fun to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures. And as for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, or sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing but trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow … oppressed.

… Make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

That and what follows are from an essay, E Unibus Pluram: television and U.S. fiction, by David Foster Wallace in his collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (1997)

The following precedes the leading quote:

… TV’s re-use of postmodern cool has actually evolved as an inspired solution to the keep-Joe-at-once-alienated-from-and-part-of-the-million-eyed-crowd problem. The solution entailed a gradual shift from oversincerity to a kind of bad-boy irreverence in the Big Face that TV shows us. This in turn reflected a wider shift in U.S. perceptions of how art was supposed to work, a transition from art’s being a creative instantiation of real values to art’s being a creative rejection of bogus values. And this wider shift, in its turn, paralleled both the development of the postmodern aesthetic and some deep and serious changes in how Americans chose to view concepts like authority, sincerity, and passion in terms of our willingness to be pleased. Not only are sincerity and passion now “out,” TV-wise, but the very idea of pleasure has been undercut.

…  Indifference is actually just the ’90s’ version of frugality for U.S. young people: wooed several gorgeous hours a day for nothing but our attention, we are loath to fritter it. In the same regard, see that in 1990, flatness, numbness, and cynicism in one’s demeanor are clear ways to transmit the televisual attitude of stand-out-transcendence — flatness and numbness transcend sentimentality, and cynicism announces that one knows the score, was last naïve about something at maybe like age four.

And here is most of the ending paragraph:

… It’s entirely possible that my plangent noises about the impossibility of rebelling against an aura that promotes and vitiates all rebellion say more about my residency inside that aura, my own lack of vision, than they do about any exhaustion of the U.S. fiction’s possibilities. 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, naïve, 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. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

2 Comments

  1. “Carried over time, it (irony) is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.”
    The most interesting thing about this observation is that one cannot reply to it. If one says something snarky, one admits to cagehood. Which brings up the question whether snark is irony. It makes one ask oneself can I ever say anything that isn’t ironic?

    “…postmodern fathers…” (just who might these be?)

    “…oppressiveness of institutionalized irony…”

    “…art’s being a creative rejection of bogus values…”
    Careful there, Sylvester. You knowest not wherest you tread.

    “…the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles.”
    How can anyone read this without sensing the underlying irony? The irony of the ironic commenting on itself. I can’t stand it anymore. [<–going to window and shaking fist at world.]

    Comment by Dr. C. — June 5, 2009 @ 8:55 am

  2. *delighted*

    You’re just saying all that to make me happy. You know how much I like it when you get all fist-shaky and can’t-stand-it-ish not to mention snarky-suppressed.

    Comment by unrealnature — June 5, 2009 @ 2:40 pm


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