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David Foster Wallace was right: Irony is ruining our culture

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  • David Foster Wallace was right: Irony is ruining our culture

    David Foster Wallace was right: Irony is ruining our culture


    Percy Shelley famously wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” For Shelley, great art had the potential to make a new world through the depth of its vision and the properties of its creation. Today, Shelley would be laughed out of the room. Lazy cynicism has replaced thoughtful conviction as the mark of an educated worldview. Indeed, cynicism saturates popular culture, and it has afflicted contemporary art by way of postmodernism and irony. Perhaps no recent figure dealt with this problem more explicitly than David Foster Wallace. One of his central artistic projects remains a vital question for artists today: How does art progress from irony and cynicism to something sincere and redeeming?

    Twenty years ago, Wallace wrote about the impact of television on U.S. fiction. He focused on the effects of irony as it transferred from one medium to the other. In the 1960s, writers like Thomas Pynchon had successfully used irony and pop reference to reveal the dark side of war and American culture. Irony laid waste to corruption and hypocrisy. In the aftermath of the ’60s, as Wallace saw it, television adopted a self-deprecating, ironic attitude to make viewers feel smarter than the naïve public, and to flatter them into continued watching. Fiction responded by simply absorbing pop culture to “help create a mood of irony and irreverence, to make us uneasy and so ‘comment’ on the vapidity of U.S. culture, and most important, these days, to be just plain realistic.” But what if irony leads to a sinkhole of relativism and disavowal? For Wallace, regurgitating ironic pop culture is a dead end:
    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 [uses] the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

    So where have we gone from irony? Irony is now fashionable and a widely embraced default setting for social interaction, writing and the visual arts. Irony fosters an affected nihilistic attitude that is no more edgy than a syndicated episode of “Seinfeld.” Today, pop characters directly address the television-watching audience with a wink and nudge. (Shows like “30 Rock” deliver a kind of meta-television-irony irony; the protagonist is a writer for a show that satirizes television, and the character is played by a woman who actually used to write for a show that satirizes television. Each scene comes with an all-inclusive tongue-in-cheek.) And, of course, reality television as a concept is irony incarnate.

    For the generation that came of age during Vietnam, irony was the response to a growing distrust toward anything and everything. In the 1980s, academics such as Mark Jefferson attacked sentimentality, and Neo-Expressionists gave sincerity a bad name through their sophomoric attempts at heroic paintings. Irony was becoming a protective carapace, as Wallace pointed out, a defense mechanism against the possibility of seeming naïve. By the 1990s, television had co-opted irony, and the networks were inundated with commercials using “rebel” in the tagline. Take Andre Agassi’s Canon camera endorsement from that period. In the commercial, the hard-hitting, wiseass Agassi smashed tennis balls loaded with paint to advertise Canon’s “Rebel” brand camera. The ad wraps with Agassi standing in front of a Pollockesque canvas saying “Image is everything.” For all the world, it seemed rebellion had been usurped by commercialism.

    This environment gave artists few choices: sentimentality, nihilism, or irony. Or, put another way, critical ridicule as experienced by the Neo-Expressionist (see Sandro Chia), critical acceptance through nihilism like Gerhard Richter, or critical abdication through ironic Pop Art such as Jeff Koons. For a while, it seemed no new ideas were possible, progress was an illusion, and success could be measured only by popularity. Hot trends such as painted pornography; fluorescent paint; sculpture with mirrors, spray foam, and yarn were mistaken for art because artists believed blind pleasure-seeking could be made to seem insightful when described ironically.
    Colonel Vogel : What does the diary tell you that it doesn't tell us?

    Professor Henry Jones : It tells me, that goose-stepping morons like yourself should try *reading* books instead of *burning* them!

  • #2
    I still kinda like irony, but I have to agree there is too much of it around and too much of it is poorly done and the recursive aspect is repellent. I don't think it's an intractable problem, though. It'll sort itself out.

    From a wider view, it's just one more example of our society's Borg-like characteristic of assimilating the devices of counter-culture. As soon as anyone who wants to change the system stumbles onto an effective mechanism, the system says "Hey, that's pretty neat" and absorbs it, chews it up, adds some sweetener, and sells it back to you. Before you know it, there's a Cadillac commercial extolling the fact that the Ramones started in a garage in their appeal to upscale consumers.
    Enjoy.

    Comment


    • #3
      Originally posted by Norm dePlume View Post
      I still kinda like irony, but I have to agree there is too much of it around and too much of it is poorly done and the recursive aspect is repellent. I don't think it's an intractable problem, though. It'll sort itself out.

      From a wider view, it's just one more example of our society's Borg-like characteristic of assimilating the devices of counter-culture. As soon as anyone who wants to change the system stumbles onto an effective mechanism, the system says "Hey, that's pretty neat" and absorbs it, chews it up, adds some sweetener, and sells it back to you. Before you know it, there's a Cadillac commercial extolling the fact that the Ramones started in a garage in their appeal to upscale consumers.
      A sad, sad moment in my life when I saw that.
      Colonel Vogel : What does the diary tell you that it doesn't tell us?

      Professor Henry Jones : It tells me, that goose-stepping morons like yourself should try *reading* books instead of *burning* them!

      Comment


      • #4
        When I see a middle aged man sitting in an expensive car listening to Metal, I suspect that he is wearing rubber underwear.
        The year's at the spring
        And day's at the morn;
        Morning's at seven;
        The hill-side's dew-pearled;
        The lark's on the wing;
        The snail's on the thorn:
        God's in his heaven—
        All's right with the world!

        Comment


        • #5
          Originally posted by Billy Jingo View Post
          A sad, sad moment in my life when I saw that.
          I guess you could always listen to Bruce Springsteen (net worth about a quarter billion) rage against evil rich Republicans and his concern for the common man when he comes to Huston in a few weeks.
          At $150 and up a tick.
          Last edited by gary m; Wednesday, April 16, 2014, 1:43 PM.
          We are so fucked.

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by gary m View Post
            I guess you could always listen to Bruce Springsteen (net worth about a quarter billion) rage against evil rich Republicans and his concern for the common man when he comes to Huston in a few weeks.
            At $150 and up a tick.
            Houston, eh? Out by the gas fires of the refinery?
            Colonel Vogel : What does the diary tell you that it doesn't tell us?

            Professor Henry Jones : It tells me, that goose-stepping morons like yourself should try *reading* books instead of *burning* them!

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by Billy Jingo View Post
              Houston, eh? Out by the gas fires of the refinery?
              The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, where ever that may be.

              Wonder if Brucy knows that he is playing a gig at a location funded by the now deceased father of fracking?
              At what he will make of this, wonder if he cares?
              I wonder if all of this fits the definition of irony?
              We are so fucked.

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by gary m View Post
                The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, where ever that may be.

                Wonder if Brucy knows that he is playing a gig at a location funded by the now deceased father of fracking?
                At what he will make of this, wonder if he cares?
                I wonder if all of this fits the definition of irony?
                I think it's just one more example of our society's Borg-like characteristic of assimilating the devices of counter-culture. As soon as anyone who wants to change the system stumbles onto an effective mechanism, the system says "Hey, that's pretty neat" and absorbs it, chews it up, adds some sweetener, and sells it back to you.

                I read that somewhere.
                Colonel Vogel : What does the diary tell you that it doesn't tell us?

                Professor Henry Jones : It tells me, that goose-stepping morons like yourself should try *reading* books instead of *burning* them!

                Comment


                • #9
                  This is an excellent article!

                  The author rightly identifies irony (in this sense) as a form that can only exist by mocking things which have or had some kind of important inherent meaning to the people who encountered the ideas originally. The problem with irony as the lens of art or culture is that it requires a unified, well accepted set of artistic or cultural standards to stand against. Irony works in the shadow of something important. If nothing important still stands, irony disappears or becomes just pointless decadence.

                  Artistically, our culture has mostly lost the sense of art as being important. The most vapid Soviet era propaganda art is more meaningful than most serious Western art produced in the last 45 years. In 500 years, the Soviet art will still convey something of the people and the time; their hopes and fears, their ideals and emotions. I doubt the same will be true of a posterboard smeared with menstrual blood or a perfect white cube with one microscopic speck of the artist's shit on it.

                  As we lose the ability to hold convictions or principles of any kind, we are losing the ability to make artistic statements about ourselves and our world. If nothing has any inherent meaning for human beings, then human art is equally meaningless. It's just a subjective personal expression that is irrelevant to other viewers. Now that a really Borg-like attitude.

                  People who aren't too contaminated by the post-modern, relativistic currents in our culture still make art that can be detected as art by an objective viewer. They share their viewpoint online now - far away from the galleries and readings and academic environment. People are writing sagas and poetry that evokes strong emotion (and that uses rhythm and rhyme), they are painting and sculpting works that can be appreciated by anyone. They are writing lyrical and evocative prose.

                  They just aren't doing it where the ironically-inclined critics can catch them.
                  "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Counter-culture is good when the prevailing culture is bad. Otherwise it's just stupid and people chasing counter-culture expose themselves to be idiots. March to the beat of your own drum, don't just react and march against the beat of every drum you might hear.
                    "Faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind : which, if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason, and so cannot be opposite to it."
                    -John Locke

                    "It's all been melded together into one giant, authoritarian, leftist scream."
                    -Newman

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Norm dePlume View Post
                      I still kinda like irony, but I have to agree there is too much of it around and too much of it is poorly done and the recursive aspect is repellent. I don't think it's an intractable problem, though. It'll sort itself out.

                      From a wider view, it's just one more example of our society's Borg-like characteristic of assimilating the devices of counter-culture. As soon as anyone who wants to change the system stumbles onto an effective mechanism, the system says "Hey, that's pretty neat" and absorbs it, chews it up, adds some sweetener, and sells it back to you. Before you know it, there's a Cadillac commercial extolling the fact that the Ramones started in a garage in their appeal to upscale consumers.
                      I am not doing a resurrection of the thread but I thought of this concept with regards to the most recent Super Bowl Halftime Show imbroglio.

                      There was a time when three athletes' lives were altered in a profound way because of the black power fist being raised. It was a dangerous counter-culture act with real consequences.

                      Now, it was used as a part of a song and dance number during the most mainstream of mainstream sporting events in this nation: the Super Bowl. I can think of few things that illustrate your point any better.
                      Colonel Vogel : What does the diary tell you that it doesn't tell us?

                      Professor Henry Jones : It tells me, that goose-stepping morons like yourself should try *reading* books instead of *burning* them!

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        I think that normal people have largely abdicated criticism of art. It's essentially either a shocking entertainment or a boring fringe activity.

                        By abdicating, we have left appreciation in the hands of critics and academics which means that we are not only cut-out but subject to the politicization of views.

                        We not only can't object on very basic terms (ugly, pointless, narcissistic), we run the risk of being negatively labeled in social/political ways for objecting. We just aren't smart enough or worldly enough or thoughtful enough to have a seat at the critical table.

                        Previously, this performance would have been analyzed in a different way but because the artist is mixed race and identifies as black her choices are in a different realm. Like it and your response says one thing, dislike it and your choice isn't merely taste or education, it's social/political.
                        "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Billy Jingo View Post
                          I am not doing a resurrection of the thread but I thought of this concept with regards to the most recent Super Bowl Halftime Show imbroglio.

                          There was a time when three athletes' lives were altered in a profound way because of the black power fist being raised. It was a dangerous counter-culture act with real consequences.

                          Now, it was used as a part of a song and dance number during the most mainstream of mainstream sporting events in this nation: the Super Bowl. I can think of few things that illustrate your point any better.
                          That is a good example. I should give proper credit to where I got the idea.
                          Enjoy.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by scott View Post
                            Counter-culture is good when the prevailing culture is bad. Otherwise it's just stupid and people chasing counter-culture expose themselves to be idiots. March to the beat of your own drum, don't just react and march against the beat of every drum you might hear.
                            Ah, but the days of the late '60's were some kinda counter-culture to revel in.
                            not so much the Occupiers.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by gary m View Post
                              The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, where ever that may be.

                              Wonder if Brucy knows that he is playing a gig at a location funded by the now deceased father of fracking?
                              At what he will make of this, wonder if he cares?
                              I wonder if all of this fits the definition of irony?
                              The Woodlands, a northwest suburb, up I-45. Community of upper middle-class and upper-class folk.

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