Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

Irony Is Wonderful, Terrific, Fantastic!

An op-ed appeared in The Times a couple of weeks ago, called "How to Live Without Irony," and it tore around the Internets like a brush fire. In this essay Christy Wampole, an assistant French professor at Princeton, complained and complained about the hipster, or "urban harlequin" as she styles him. He is "our archetype of ironic living," who "harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness."

So what are we supposed to act like, Prof. Wampole, if we do not want to act like an ironical hipster? A four-year-old, it emerges! Or a tree.

Observe a 4-year-old child going through her daily life. You will not find the slightest bit of irony in her behavior. She has not, so to speak, taken on the veil of irony. She likes what she likes and declares it without dissimulation. She is not particularly conscious of the scrutiny of others. She does not hide behind indirect language. The most pure nonironic models in life, however, are to be found in nature: animals and plants are exempt from irony, which exists only where the human dwells.

All I can say is that even the idea of an irony-free culture, with adults skipping around going Hullo Trees, Hullo Sky, can only fill the rational mind with dread.

Earlier efforts to "banish irony" failed, Wampole claims.

The loosely defined New Sincerity movements in the arts that have sprouted since the 1980s positioned themselves as responses to postmodern cynicism, detachment and meta-referentiality. (New Sincerity has recently been associated with the writing of David Foster Wallace, the films of Wes Anderson and the music of Cat Power.) But these attempts failed to stick, as evidenced by the new age of Deep Irony.

Earlier in the piece, Wampole "loosely" defines Deep Irony as follows: "Throughout history, irony has served useful purposes, like providing a rhetorical outlet for unspoken social tensions. But our contemporary ironic mode is somehow deeper; it has leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself." Telling, that "somehow."

One would have thought that David Foster Wallace's whomping 1993 attack on irony ("E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction"), perhaps the first (and best) salvo to be fired in this ludicrous battle, would have been enough to stop people writing about "toxic irony" ever again.

[...] American literary fiction tends to be about U.S. culture and the people who inhabit it. Culture-wise, shall I spend much of your time pointing out the degree to which televisual values influence the contemporary mood of jaded weltschmerz, self-mocking materialism, blank indifference, and the delusion that cynicism and naivete are mutually exclusive? [...] Or, in serious contemporary art, that televisual disdain for "hypocritical" retrovalues like originality, depth, and integrity has no truck with [...] the self-conscious catatonia of a platoon of Raymond Carver wannabes? [...]

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 very banal to ask what I mean." [...] And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony: [...] the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny.

What more needed to be said? Between Wallace's famous piece and Rorty's more rarefied analysis (in Contingency, Irony & Solidarity), nothing at all, with respect to the question. But Wallace's provisional answer, so often quoted, could stand some serious interrogating. Or a sound flogging, even.

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.

To which I would respond: Mr. Wallace, have you ever considered that irony might actually be an aid to the treating of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction? Because you demonstrated that yourself, again and again.

If the beautifully constructed argument of "E Unibus Pluram" "failed" (it didn't, I'm just saying "if"), Christy Wampole can scarcely be said to have achieved "success," whatever that would mean (maybe Todd Solondz would be struck by lightning?). But the truth is that nobody has ever retired from the field a victor; we've been plagued with all this blathering on about irony, and hipsters, and ironic distance, and New Sincerity, pretty much nonstop for the last twenty years.

So what I want to say about all this is: NO. Just no, no, look, no, David Foster Wallace RIP; No, Christy Wampole; No, Jonathan D. Fitzgerald responding in The Atlantic: I do not want to live without irony. I do not want any New Sincerity, I do not wish to emulate a plant, just NO. The world is far too dark and rage-making for me to dispense with irony entirely.

Okay, maybe some of us could ease up on the bile a little bit; that is a fair assessment. In certain cases, and naming no names among the present company here assembled. Too much of anything is liable to be a bad thing. There is a continuum, you might say, with the most biliously effete ironist on one end, and larking about all aglow with innocence and sincerity, or Garden State, on the other, and the operations of intelligence and awareness somewhere in the middle.

Irony has its uses and is, in moderation, an absolutely necessary tool for maintaining what passes for sanity in the modern world. Furthermore, an ironic cast of mind is no impediment to holding passionate convictions. Or even sincerity and humility, in reasonable amounts. This idea that irony in and of itself is "toxic" has got to go, and pronto.

In fact the habitual degree of irony is barely adequate to comprehend the disappointment, the distance, the pitch-black comedy, the anger, between the disgrace of how the world is, how we ourselves are, and how we might like things to be. Without such tools, without the ability to concentrate and register our disillusionment and pain, how on earth will we separate ourselves from it all enough to envision a better way?

And yet, the world is not only a disgrace.

* * *

I don't know what kind of toddlers they spawn Where The Human Dwells, around Princeton. But really, the very idea of four-year-olds as a model for correct behavior!—those narcisisstic little villains who, yes, are certainly irony-free, and unaffectedly direct, and also entirely convinced that their own unmediated instincts are worthy of total indulgence at all times. My husband once coined a motto for toddlers, expressive of this theme: "Who Could Possibly Object To Me?"

That the average four-year-old has ongoingly funny and beautiful responses to the world around him, I willingly concede (q.v. @PreschoolGems). I'm not here to slag the babies. But what actual four-year-olds (as opposed to essay ones) actually require, adorable though they may be, is practically incessant quieting down, reminding of the valid claims of others, and rescue from the potential consequences of their untrammeled wee Ids. You have to remind them all bleedin' day long, and again the next day, and the next, to share, to apologize, to tie their own shoes, to say please and thank you, to stop and think, for pete's sake. To apply a little self-criticism and self-control.

That's all irony really is, in most cases, is just part of the regular, mature exercise of a person's ordinary critical faculties. Now and then, the extreme case of dyed-in-the-wool irony proceeds from an unnaturally pronounced fear of vulnerability. But in general, irony is only a tacit acknowledgement that our critical faculties are up and running. It's just the lights indicating "ON." We say one thing, we mean its opposite. "Oo I have broken my arm. Oh that's wonderful."

The Duke of Wellington—Arthur Wellesley, the first one, the two-time Prime Minister—can't help but spring to mind.

Uxbridge: By God, sir, I've lost my leg!
Wellington: By God, sir, so you have!

Or, the Letter from the Duke of Wellington dispatched from Spain in August 1812:


Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been complying diligently with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters. We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty's Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion's petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty's Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an Army across these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one to the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London, or, perchance,
2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven from Spain.

Your most obedient servant

Irony can acknowledge our natural, justifiable feelings of insignificance, or show that we understand our subjectivity. With some humor, if we can manage it! Irony demonstrates that we know we are not the center of the universe, that we can hold opposing ideas in our heads. That we can find humor in the contrast between our natural self-centeredness and our likely inconsequentiality, at any given moment. ("Darling, most people are Chinese.") Which doesn't mean that we can't have passionate convictions; it only means that we understand our passionate convictions as existing in a larger world.

So here's the big thing that Wallace (and Wampole, obviously) managed to miss entirely: irony, too, is instinctive, "sincere," a natural function of the well-developed adult mind.

And then, Wallace was very wrong to suppose that you couldn't keep all your irony and add something more to it. For our world, so ravishing, so subtle and so terrible, cries out every day to be simultaneously reviled and adored. However complex our reactions may be, however carefully they may be fashioned, however "natural" and correct we attempt to make them, they will never be adequate to express the powerfully, insanely contradictory impulses occasioned by the human experience on this earth in the waning days of A.D. 2012, this crazy adventure that we are having together.

Nor is it necessary to "eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue" all the time. (As we earlier pointed out, Wallace continually showed this in his own work, even if he never articulated it explicitly—"It's called free will, Sherlock.") Hip fatigue, if we want to call it that, is one valuable weapon in a larger arsenal that will sometimes include a four-year-old's unvarnished wonder, pleasure, fear or disgust, and sometimes a serpentlike, Machiavellian, six-moves-ahead critical distance. As required.

* * *

The self-help guru John Bradshaw did humanity a great service with his Inner Child thing, but he didn't go nearly far enough, in my view. The real reality is that each of us is a cast of thousands, containing not only an Inner Child, but also an Inner Teenager, an Inner Drunken Undergraduate, an Inner Acid-Tongued Cynic, and more, each with his or her own claims on our attention and ultimate behavior. The censor, or "soul," if you like, behind the wheel decides whose directions to follow at any given point. Sometimes the known bad advice of the Inner Foot-Stomping Toddler is just too compelling, alas, to resist.

But the drawling slight is often just as vital, immediate and true as the childlike yodel of wonder and amazement. Why can't we have both? The answer is that we must have both. We'll never really want to give up anything that gives us a chance of telling the truth as we understand it. That's why we never tire of arguing about all this stuff.

Related: Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman. Top photo, from the Paris Métro, by Alex de Carvalho. Self-portrait with David Foster Wallace by Dana Robinson. Thomas Heaphy's portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Portrait Gallery (UK).

22 Comments / Post A Comment

melis (#1,854)

Consider the trees of the field. They do not curate; neither do they blog.

Outoftowner (#235,745)

@melis In my neighbourhood, though, they do get yarn bombed.

russell brandom (#7,699)

@melis Consider the blogs of the field. They do not Drudgebait; neither do they troll.

dado (#102)

Kind of like a black fly on your chardonnay.

Wallace's yearning for the "New Sincerity" was always transparently an expression of his desire to eradicate what he disliked about his own work and (I think) his own character. It's critically overlooked far too often that Wallace, while he wasn't a big fan of the ironic mode, was one of its all-time best practitioners. His ironic detachment, along with his depression, his sense of being fundamentally fraudulent, and the deep solipsism that seems to have always prevented him from really understanding that these things are the human condition, not just his own personal problems, are the basic amino acids that brought all of his work to life. Ironically, his speculation about a "New Sincerity" tends to be taken completely at face value, when I think it is much more interestingly viewed as a self-criticism.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Rusty Foster@facebook Certainly true. The man embodied the internal tension of someone moving from the Midwest to the Coastal Elites. He loved and hated both prongs of his writing – the part of him that didn't really "get" fancy food, and the part of him that fucking loved David Lynch.

hershmire (#233,671)

A "deep" ironic cynicism in modern culture could only grow out of being burned too often; that every sincere American value has either been co-opted, exploited, or destroyed by insincere commercial interests; and that an honest expression of sincerity would be a collective existential crisis that would paralyze the remaining 30% of us who hadn't jumped out the window.

But of course there's no way that's happened so shut up and get back to work (if you have it).

/Also, I want to learn Assistant French at Princeton.

ubu (#232,549)

I think what Wallace objected to wasn't irony per se but the shallow cynicism that's meant to communicate knowing-ness.

Pick any aspect of human culture– those who know it best are usually very well aware of the limitations of their own abilities, the true scope of the problems, the willingness of other people not to give a damn. For these, irony is an important tool: sometimes it's a weapon, sometimes is a way create a little distance from the problem to keep from being overwhelmed. Many more uses besides, ll fine and good.

Now enter a person who doesn't have that same experience but for-damn-sure wants to hang out with the knowing in-crowd. The easiest play is to ape the in-crowd's sense of world-weary cynicism. This kind of irony serves no purpose beyond it's use as an "i'm with the cool kids" marker. Worse, since that sort of play-acting is so much easier than earning your cynicism by having the world break your heart a few (hundred) times then the ability to put on the show easily becomes *the* marker for knowing-ness.

To quote the poet:

"hipsterism turns out to be the most stultifying intellectual position there is; and the most-hip hipsters, like the staff at Gawker, find themselves obliged to forbid themselves to enjoy, appreciate, or believe anything whatsoever."

Great point. I wonder what she's writing about these day. ;->

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@ubu Exactly. Irony shouldn't be banned, but it should be controlled. Sincerity may be too much to ask of grownups, but seeing a child (including: any young person lucky enough to be able to choose to live in New York City) "being ironic" makes me want to slap him silly. In all sincerity.

Outoftowner (#235,745)

@Niko Bellic I think what you're objecting to may be pretentiousness. How can you control irony? It will always be a step ahead.

PeterKadzis (#8,406)

Speaking as the father of three boys: one in college and two teenagers, I think it's a miracle that four-year-olds live to be five.

MaggieL (#3,424)

In examining the times in my life that I've gotten frustrated with an ironic response and sympathized with Wampole's feeling of "why can't we just appreciate things and not tear them down," I've found that the feeling is prompted by people disagreeing with me — that is, not liking the thing I like. In that mindset, I would rather think that they're dismissing the Thing I Like out of reflexive, unexamined irony than to admit that perhaps not everyone likes the things I do, even when I've done my best to try to explain to them why they should. So this urge stifle irony is (for me) more a desire to see people engage with the world (culture, other people, experiences) more openly.

But then I think about it some more and hate the idea that we're all one identically ironic, miserly group of sycophants more than I hate that people disagree with me, and I give up wishing for less irony.

steve511 (#239,871)

I suspect that Wallace understood the necessity of irony against the onslaught of American culture and its associated avalanche of information. But it also seems that he also understood the price that we pay for the distance that irony affords. We cannot stand apart from and inside our culture simultaneously.

I have always found it interesting the amount of attention that gets paid to the Incandenza half of Infinite Jest and how often the Gately half is ignored. They roughly approximate the difference between the ironic stance and the New Sincerity and they hold each other in balance, the comment indirectly on each other, but they do not synthesize.

I think The Pale King was Wallace’s attempt to find his way through the dichotomy and achieve that synthesis. But I think it ultimately fails because that battle is not so easily won.

What you did here, Ms. Bustillos, is sharp. You remind us that the course currently available to us, and perhaps the only course really available ever to us, is not to forge irony and sincerity into a new ethos or a new artistic form. Nor is it necessary that we choose between irony and sincerity. What me must do is to simply continue to accept the contradictions, uncertainties and vagaries of our existence. Wallace’s body of work seems to suggest that perhaps this is what was most difficult for him. He seemed to hunger for big answers to the big questions.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Let's just keep inflating the word "irony" with more and more meanings until "sincerity" is actually contained within it, along with every other concept ever devised by humans. Then "being ironic" will be synonymous with just "being." Problem solved!

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@stuffisthings (By the way, I didn't actually mean what I wrote in the above comment, but I didn't actually mean it in a very sincere way. If that helps.)

Outoftowner (#235,745)

I may respond to both camps with, "Advanced, Forthright, Signifficant."

Fotherington-Thomas & Molesworth on the foopball pitch said it all. Forever.

LHOOQ (#18,226)

I was sick of irony until I wrote a paper on it last year. Then I was sick of my paper, but irony was ok again. Reated: Kierkegaard on irony beats Rorty any day.

I'm going to double my unironic output and become bironic.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Irony was for Wallace what the poet was for Plato's Republic — a surrogate identity, projected out into the world as an enemy to be reviled. Wampole inverts this move, projecting herself out into the world as an ironic target. It's what they called where I went to elementary school a "smooth move."

philipxanderson (#237,092)

Excuse my prescriptivist leanings here, but what everyone seems to be complaining about or defending here is a mixture satire, cynicism and insincerity–these do not make "irony."

Let's take it back to actual definitions here. Let's get all middle school on this bitch:

Go read O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi" (it's a good season for it, too!), and remember what the fuck irony is supposed to be.

KarlLaFong (#3,568)

There is a sincerity which requires irony in order to be recognized, as when Sir Winston was criticized for the greatest sin of all, the employment, in the heat of the moment, of a dangling participle, to which he famously replied, "This is precisely the sort of nonsense up with which I refuse to put!"

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