Thursday, March 5, 2015

Is Irony Good for American Culture?

As Polonius unintentionally let us know, irony - not brevity - is the soul of wit. And there is perhaps no culture or time period the embraces and evokes more irony than contemporary America. And no group of writers has explored that more fully and insightfully than our newest post-modernists - people like David Foster Wallace.

Recently, with the publication of an essay by writers/artists Matt Ashby and Brandon Carroll, Wallace's work and criticism of irony in American culture has touched off a discussion about the value of that irony. Is it saving us, or will it be our demise? Ashby and Carroll assert that the irony used by Pynchon and others to criticize war is no longer as effective when it simply become entertainment. When the satirized laugh so naively at themselves that they fail to see the change an artist is hoping to effect, then irony has lost its value. In fact, it becomes an instrument of self destruction.

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.

In Ashby and Wallace's view, Americans no longer have the ability to learn from irony when culture is saturated in it.  However, it may not be as fatalistic as all that. In Peter Finocchiaro's response to Ashby, Carroll, and, in effect, Foster Wallace, irony is defended as not useless and ineffective, but more relevant and necessary than ever. With an interview with UChicago philosophy professor, Jonathan Lear, irony is given a defense that incorporates the brilliance of Wallace and the American irony he wrote about.
First I want to say, I think one way to start is just in terms of the article you wanted me to look at, where they quote David Foster Wallace as though he himself is opposed to irony. But when you look at what he actually says, he talks about the “oppressiveness of institutionalized irony.” And I think to understand what he was talking about you really have to put a lot of emphasis on the “institutionalized,” and that got suppressed in the discussion.
I mean, it’s not like I’m a David Foster Wallace expert, but as far as I understand him, he himself was an ironist, and what he was complaining about wasn’t irony, per se, but a very flat understand and misappropriation, what he called an institutionalization of the idea. And so I think for Wallace, institutionalized irony isn’t a form of irony, it’s a form of not being irony. Of killing it. With that in mind, and again, there’s this other issue of how do we understand the use of various words in the English language. And of course if a billion people use this word “irony” in this kind of institutionalized sense, then that turns out to be one of its meanings, and there’s no going against that.
I think what makes irony an important concept to be thinking about and approaching is precisely because there is a tradition of thinking about it and working with it, a kind of poetic tradition — you can find it in Socrates and Plato and I think one of the great thinkers about this was Kierkegaard in the 19th century — where, in a funny way, irony is understood and developed by these various philosophers and poets and religious thinkers as very much an antidote to the kinds of things the authors of your article were complaining about. So what I think they’re getting at — what irony is, and why it matters …
Of course, speaking for a man of Wallace's brilliance is tough, especially when he left us too soon. And that can lead to complications. For example, the Wallace estate is challenging a recent attempt at a film adaptation of his magnum opus, Infinite Jest. And disagreements like that can complicate the matter in a way that would probably frustrate Wallace … and baffle Polonius [sic]. But as Charlie Alderman reminds us in a piece for the, we can all learn a lot from Wallace and his portrayals of an ironic culture.

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