Posted on August 14, 2009


Awhile ago, in an attempt to start doing some writing outside the newspaper format, I wrote a short piece about Stuff White People Like, and the reasons why I find that kind of humor lazy and destructive and pointless (and more importantly, not often funny). But, when someone uses self-deprecating irony to shield their own opinions (“self mocking irony is always ‘Sincerity, with a motive,’ ” to quote DFW quoting Lewis Hyde), it becomes basically impossible to interact with them. They have no opinion fixed enough to fight with logic and as a white person who dislikes SWPL, you wind up as either the ever-outraged, humorless stuffed-shirt (Thing White People Like #101, Being Offended), or the wildly defensive archetypal White Person who attempts to uncooly prove their un-whiteness with whiny anecdotal evidence (“but I’ve never even heard of Ed Hardy!”). The solution, of course, is who cares? The greasy irony of SWPL is easy to ignore.

And anyway, the kind of essay I wanted to write about it, has, it turns out, already been written by David Foster Wallace, almost 20 years ago, on the topic of TV and American Fiction. The essay tackles a number of paradoxical themes, like the way in which TV teases us with a hyperreal world in which no one spends all day in front of the TV, the way in which constantly watching trains us to notice that we are feeling feelings rather than just feeling them, the way in which irony is used to make the viewer, who is literally one of a nameless, invisible multitude, feel unique and superior to the whole medium while still never turning it off,. It’s really fascinating.

It also makes the excellent point that irony is primarly useful as a destructive tool, to tear down obsolete values, and when it has been the dominant mode of new culture for 30 years, we wind up with a vacuum. It’s not that there’s something wrong with irony, it’s that there’s something wrong with only irony. It’s the cultural equivalent of eating a diet of laxatives.

ok, wait, here’s exactly what I was trying to say.
“And 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.”

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