While it’s a moderate amount of fun to go through and debunk all of David Foster Wallace’s silly arguments, there’s a real mystery here: how he could be so serious and thoughtful and yet so fundamentally clueless. While I very much don’t buy the whole “genius” angle (either in regards to DFW or in general), he does seem to have been smart enough that he shouldn’t have failed this comprehensively without a good reason. In other words, there must have been a fundamental flaw in his general approach – one which would be worth our while to identify and correct. In order to get to the bottom of this, we need to unpack the closest thing he wrote to a mission statement: “E Unibus Pluram.” This essay is where Wallace fully articulates his stance with regard to Our Modern Culture, which stance is, in short, opposed to irony and in favor of a sort of refined banality.
As usual, Wallace is taking a pretty basic idea, padding it with vague intellectualism, and using his substantial writing talent to make it look good. The idea that society nowadays is “too ironic” and “nothing means anything anymore” is common enough to have become its own cliche. As a result, there is a significant anti-DFW contingent that is largely motivated by an instinctive skepticism of anyone making this type of argument, which is a good instinct. Banality actually is a seriously bad thing and anyone who winds up in the vicinity of advocating it really needs to watch their step.
But we can do better than merely rejecting Wallace’s arguments on these grounds. First, this line of argument merits a thorough counterargument precisely because it’s so common. Second, if we accept that Wallace was a reasonably smart person and that he put a lot of work into his arguments, then it will be at least interesting to figure out how his efforts led him here. Finally, figuring out what Wallace’s deal was will help us come to a more complete understanding of what his work was really about.
In order for any of this to make sense, we need to start with a critical correction to Wallace’s framework: we need to define “irony.” I’ve mentioned that Wallace has a bad habit of not interrogating his framework that leads to him drawing overly broad conclusions, but in this case it’s worse. If the claim is that “irony” is destroying our ability to create meaning, then what we mean by “irony” is the entire issue.
Despite all the conniptions that people whip themselves into over the topic, the basic definition of irony is pretty simple: irony is when you use words to express something other than what those words actually say. The simplest example is sarcasm, which is when you use tone to indicate that what you mean is the opposite of what you’re saying. But irony in general does not necessarily convey the opposite of what you’re saying, it merely conveys something different. Note also that this definition does not imply any kind of motivation or ideological stance.
My favorite example for understanding irony is the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Julius Caesar (it’s in Act 3, Scene 2). As you’ll recall, Caesar has just been murdered by Brutus and the other senators, and an angry mob is at the capital demanding some answers. Brutus gives a simple explanation that satisfies the crowd, and then, being one of literature’s great honorable morons, leaves to allow Mark Antony to deliver the eulogy. Antony famously states that “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” but the key to his speech is that he’s actually there to do neither. He’s there to incite a riot. The usual sense of irony is present when he repeatedly says that “Brutus is an honorable man”; certainly, this is the opposite of what Antony believes. But that’s not the point. Antony isn’t trying to convince people that Brutus is dishonorable, he’s trying to enrage them. Furthermore, Antony is being entirely sincere here. He actually loved Caesar and he’s actually pissed about him being murdered. Irony is merely the means by which he is taking this one action to advance his cause. It’s perfectly normal for irony and sincerity to coexist, because irony is not a worldview, it is a rhetorical technique. It can be used for whatever purpose one requires.
Despite this, it’s easy to see why various other concepts such as “detachment” or “cynicism” or “apathy” have glommed onto the concept of irony. Accepting irony as a legitimate method of communication is sort of like opening Pandora’s Box: everything becomes possible. It’s possible, for example, to use irony to avoid actually saying anything, or to use it to denigrate broadly without allowing for the possibility of a better alternative, but these are only possible uses of irony. Irony itself does not imply any particular motivation, which is why it’s so silly to say, as people so often do, that we’re living in an “ironic culture” or that irony is over because of a Broadway musical or whatever.
Okay, so, what’s the big deal if Wallace used a word wrong? He was referring to something with the word “irony,” so we should just be talking about whatever that thing was, right? Perhaps Wallace specifically meant the use of irony to stay cool and detached and avoid committing oneself, and that’s what he was arguing against. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. The problem is that Wallace and the other cultural critics who lament our “ironic” society vastly overestimate the amount of irony that is actually present, because they lump together everything but the most po-faced sincerity under the “irony” label. This is ultimately the same old problem of Wallace using a broad brush to paint over the cracks in his actual analysis. If we go through Wallace’s arguments with a more rigorous understanding of what irony is and what it can do, we can both fix his conclusion and figure out where the flaws crept in.
So let’s talk about TV.
TV is My Friend
Wallace’s basic charge against TV is that it’s created a pervasively ironic culture through its combination of ubiquity and self-reference. Briefly: once TVs wound up in everybody’s homes and became a normal part of human life, TV programs then had to incorporate TV itself into their own content in order to maintain verisimilitude. One generation later, this self-incorporation has itself become part of everyone’s life experience, so now TV has to refer to itself referring to itself. Note that this is as far as it goes; there’s not an infinite number of possible layers of reference because at this point the Ouroboros has caught its own tail. If you try to add another layer you’ll still just have TV referring to itself referring to itself, which is the same as the third layer. Also note that the timeline for this checks out: TV first becomes ubiquitous during the naive 1950s, gains its first level of detachment one generation later, in the cynical 1970s, and achieves its true form of black-hole postmodernism in the nihilistic 1990s.
This is wrong. That is, all of this stuff did sort of happen in a basic sense, but it’s wrong to accept this as a complete explanation of American culture, which is exactly what Wallace is doing in this essay. The simple fact is that it’s a big world out there and there’s tons of other shit going on. Part of the problem with Wallace is that he’ll say one thing that’s correct in a limited way, leading people to accept his argument, but then go on to draw an unacceptably broad conclusion from it.
Wallace evokes the pervasiveness of TV with the statistic that “television is watched over six hours a day in the average American household.” He describes the situation is follows:
“Let’s for a second imagine Joe Briefcase as now just an average U.S. Male, relatively lonely, adjusted, married, blessed with 2.3 apple-cheeked issue, utterly normal, home from hard work at 5:30, starting his average six-hour stint in from of the television.”
Now, this is obviously a rhetorical description. Wallace is aware that an average is not a quota. But these sorts of clever flourishes are dangerous precisely because of their ability to smuggle in unintended assumptions. That’s why it matters that the situation Wallace is describing here is totally impossible.
If we assume that Joe here works for 8 hours a day, sleeps for 8 hours, and spends 2 hours on commuting/eating/errands/etc. (a significant underestimate), the six-hours-a-day statistic then implies that he spends 100% of his free time watching TV. Also, in order for six hours to be the average, some people would have to watch more than that, which is mathematically impossible. So, what does the six-hours-a-day statistic actually mean? For Wallace, its only significance is that it’s a big number. But if we consider the actual circumstances required for it to be true, we come to a very different conclusion: most TV watching occurs in the background.
This is fatal to everything that Wallace goes on to argue. If people are mostly watching TV in the background, then they are precisely not obsessively analyzing it and drawing deep philosophical conclusions in the way that Wallace needs them to be in order for his analysis to be applicable. The person who is doing that is, of course, Wallace himself. This is what I mean about smuggling in assumptions. Wallace is trying to create a “general” description of the TV-watching experience so that his argument can apply to everyone. But of course, there is no “everyone.” Each person has their own circumstances and personality, and as such, will interpret the same content in a different way; this is not the kind of thing that can be generalized. I’m sure that, for Wallace, the experience of watching TV was a deep source of existential anxiety in precisely the way he describes. But Wallace has no justification for projecting his own experiences onto everyone else.
In short, the content of TV or any other medium cannot cause the kind of broad social pandemic Wallace is attempting to diagnose here, because everyone will have their own idiosyncratic reaction to it. There is, of course, something that can cause broad social effects: structural conditions, which do affect everyone in the same way. This is what it means to say of TV that “the medium is the message.”
To understand this, let’s consider the current televisual situation and what it means for Wallace’s arguments. In this regard, “E Unibus Plurum” is seriously dated; it was written in 1990, and time has staggered on quite a bit since then. But this actually useful to our analysis: because both the content and the situation of TV are bit different now than they were in the early 90s, anything that’s the same between then and now cannot be explained by TV in the way that Wallace argues.
The structural change is that the rise of on-demand TV (first via DVDs, now via streaming) means that it is no longer “background viewing.” Quite the contrary, the current M.O. of the TV audience is “binge-watching,” which you can tell is a new thing because we had to make up a term for it. The result is that the TV experience is now more analytical and fannish, rather than merely fodder for small talk. The evidence for this is quite apparent: first, geek culture, using the definition that a “geek” is someone who’s a little too into a niche cultural product, is now mainstream. The current run of superhero movies, for examples, is starting to rely on its audience having the sort of obsessive in-knowledge that used to be the provenance of only the geekiest subcultures. Second, there’s about a billion thinkpieces all over the internet analyzing any new TV show that achieves any kind of popularity.
And third, the content itself has changed to better fit this new reality. Rather than sitcoms with recognizable premises and easy-to-get jokes, long-form dramas with complicated plots are now the order of the day, precisely because viewers can now be counted on not only to be capable of sorting such stories out, but to want to. This also means that TV shows tend to be less “zany” and more substantive; the sort of self-reflexive irony that Wallace opposed is no longer in vogue, precisely because TV shows now need to engage viewers for a long commitment and get them to talk the shows up to others, rather than merely flatter them with a cheap sense of recognition.
Furthermore, TV’s new angle is merely one aspect of a broader cultural shift away from the “ironic” 90s. Fannishness and hyper-engagement are the new normal, not just for TV but in general. The proliferation of spammy listicles and hyperbolic headlines demonstrates that the internet is replete with an aggressively (which is to say intentionally) naive sincerity. Our disdain is now reserved not for earnestness and candor but for hot takes and “negative” criticism. A lot of this is of course due to the structure of the internet itself, which allows people to coalesce around niche interests and choose not to read things that make them feel bad (or challenged, or like they might be wrong about something important). But in a sense it’s also just a mere trend, just like the whole “dark and edgy” thing in the 90s was a mere trend.
But isn’t this exactly what Wallace predicted, that the next trend in media would be one against irony? It would be – if Wallace were talking about trends. But he’s not, he’s attempting to diagnose a pandemic: the modern trap of informed meaninglessness. Thus, the question to ask is: now that the alleged virus is gone, what of the patient? Do we live in a just society that provides everyone with the opportunity to find meaning in their own lives? Are we no longer haunted by a vague sense of anxiety and guilt over our position in the world? Is image now less important than substance?
Indeed, the fact that Wallace’s analysis is still popular and people are still looking to him for guidance answers these questions all by itself. Irony was never the problem, and Wallace’s argument can, fittingly, be reduced to a cliche: he mistook the symptoms for the disease.
It’s TV’s Fault Why I Am This Way
To understand how Wallace got this wrong, let’s take a closer look at some of the examples he uses. By identifying the errors in his specific arguments, we can move toward a correction of his overall approach.
One of the central arguments in the essay is Wallace’s analysis of a Pepsi commercial. This is kind of an own goal all by itself, but I’m going to go ahead and take it seriously. The commercial is your basic “crowd of attractive young people having fun” type of deal, which Wallace analyzes as follows:
“There’s about as much ‘choice’ at work in this commercial as there was in Pavlov’s bell-kennel. The use of the word ‘choice’ here is a dark joke. In fact the whole 30-second spot is tongue-in-cheek, ironic, self-mocking . . . In contrast to a blatant Buy This Thing, the Pepsi commercial pitches parody. The ad is utterly up-front about what TV ads are popularly despised for doing, viz. using primal, flim-flam appeals to sell sugary crud to people whose identity is nothing but mass consumption. This ad manages simultaneously to make fun of itself, Pepsi, advertising, advertisers, and the great U.S. watching consuming crowd.”
The Pavlov reference is apt, if obvious, but how does this make the commercial ironic? If it’s “utterly up-front” about what it’s doing, doesn’t that make it entirely sincere? Given that all advertisements necessarily have the same purpose, isn’t a “parody” of an ad actually just another ad? Certainly, one can discern a contradiction between the preaching of “choice” and the fundamentally coercive nature of advertising, but is the word “choice” doing any actual work here other than supplying a vaguely positive connotation? Is this supposed contradiction actually relevant to what the ad is doing?
In fact, when we’re talking about commercials, we should be looking at the most superficial interpretation, because that’s the one that the vast majority of people are going to pick up on. In this case, there’s a bunch of attractive young people having fun and drinking Pepsi, so the message is pretty obviously that Pepsi equals fun party times. No analysis required.
And this is exactly how commercials actually work. The point of a commercial is very much not to act as some sort of intellectual Rubik’s Cube; the point is to throw a brand name at you along with some positive images to create an association in your mind between the brand and whatever the images connote (fun, adventure, sex, whatever; usually sex), such that the next time you see the brand in a store you’re subconsciously more inclined to buy it. This is why commercials are such a rich source of social stereotypes: they can’t afford to portray anything that isn’t instantly recognizable.
And even if you do accept an ironic reading of a commercial, it’s ultimately beside the point, because the functional purpose of a commercial is to move product. Nobody really cares what you think about it. Companies aren’t spending billions of dollars a year producing these stupid things as some kind of grad school art project. They’re doing it because it works.
Consider what Wallace claims is a typical reaction to this commercial (he does this by once again invoking “Joe Briefcase” from above – keep this guy in mind, because he’s going to turn out to be pretty important):
“The commercial invites Joe to ‘see through’ the manipulation the beach’s horde is rabidly buying. The commercial invites a complicity between its own witty irony and veteran viewer Joe’s cynical, nobody’s-fool appreciation of that irony. It invites Joe into an in-joke the Audience is the butt of. It congratulates Joe Briefcase, in other words, on transcending the very crowd that defines him. And entire crowds of Joe B.’s responded: the ad boosted Pepsi’s market share through three sales quarters.”
But that last line is a non-sequitur: how do we know that this analysis is why the commercial was effective (also, it’s one data point out of about a billion, but let’s stay focused)? If Wallace’s reading is correct, if you actually saw the commercial and then felt this way, why on Earth would this convince you to go out and buy a Pepsi? Wouldn’t you simply pat yourself on the back for getting the joke, and then continue to express your superiority by not buying the product that you’re supposedly laughing at? On the contrary, if the ad was successful, it can only be because it operated in the usual way: by creating a subconscious positive association in the viewer’s mind. This is why it doesn’t matter what your intellectual analysis of a commercial is: because commercials operate below the level of conscious analysis. Watching a commercial automatically creates an association in your mind, and that’s it.
So that’s the first half of the problem: any one line of intellectual analysis can only get you so far; sometimes it’s just not applicable. The second half is that, as mentioned, irony is a lot more versatile than Wallace makes it out to be.
Wallace’s claim is that TV’s approach functions as an “ironic permission slip” for harmful behavior. That is, it criticizes from a safe distance, allowing the viewer to accept the criticism of their own behavior without actually feeling the need to change it. Since the issue has been addressed but the viewer hasn’t really been challenged with anything, they’re free to resume their old habits, only now they’re able to pretend that they have a real justification for doing so.
You may recall that this is precisely the accusation I’ve made against Wallace’s work: that an essay such as “Consider the Lobster” gives the impression of having addressed an important issue but ultimately allows the reader to accept the argument and then keep doing whatever they want. Given that Wallace was not being ironic, it’s clear that irony itself is not the relevant distinction; just as easily as one can be glibly ironic, one can be glibly direct. We can complete the argument by noting that the inverse is also true: a truly challenging argument can be made directly, or it can be made by using irony. Wallace’s own examples of “ironic” television prove this point.
Here’s Wallace’s list of examples of TV’s patriarchal authority figures, meant to illustrate a decline into ironic shallowness:
“Compare television’s treatment of earnest authority figures on pre-ironic shows – The FBI‘s Erskine, Star Trek‘s Kirk, Beaver‘s Ward, The Partridge Family‘s Shirley, Hawaii Five-0‘s McGarrett – to TV’s depiction of Al Bundy on Married . . . with Children, Mr. Owens on Mr. Belvedere, Homer on The Simpsons, Daniels and Hunter on Hill Street Blues, Jason Seaver on Growing Pains, Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere.”
Well, that certainly is a lot of names. So Wallace must be right, right? Unless, you know, these examples actually aren’t all the same thing.
Let’s compare two contemporaries: Al Bundy and Homer Simpson. The point of Al’s character is precisely that he’s a terrible person, and we therefore enjoy pointing at him and laughing. We may even feel a smug sense of superiority, knowing that, however much we may suck sometimes, at least we’re better than this asshole.
This is not at all how we feel about Homer. The fundamental difference is that we’re rooting for Homer, even as we recognize that his problems are often his own stupid fault. Indeed, Homer’s foolishness is presented in such a way that we actually identify with it; the fact that Homer’s annoyed grunt has become a universal expression of self-directed frustration demonstrates our collective recognition that there’s a little Homer in all of us.
Furthermore, using Homer as an example of a subverted authority figure is well off the mark, because Homer is rarely presented in this context. We most often see him being kicked around by the uncaring forces of the broader world, in which he is merely one more fork-and-spoon operator in Sector 7-G. In fact, the Simpson family unit is actually the one place where the show’s usually unsparing satire balks. Not only does the family always stick together, but it is specifically as a father that Homer is able to achieve the few victories available to him in life. The ironic angle of The Simpsons does not prevent us from caring, as Wallace would have it. It’s precisely the opposite: by portraying a recognizably broken world and showing us the kind of moral victories that can be realistically achieved in such a world, The Simpsons makes caring a plausible option.
Next, here’s a list of examples of, uh, something related to “postmodern irony,” I guess:
“The commercials for Alf‘s Boston debut in a syndicated package feature the fat, cynical, gloriously decadent puppet (so much like Snoopy, like Garfield, like Bart, like Butt-Head) advising me to ‘Eat a whole lot of food and stare at the TV.’”
Seriously, I have no idea what all these characters are supposed to have in common. It’s times like this that the accusation of “name-dropping” is more than just an easy diss; it’s nice that you can think of a bunch of supposed examples of whatever it is you’re talking about, but guess what, you still need to actually support your argument.
Anyway, this is wrong, again. The counterexample, obviously, is Bart Simpson. Bart’s mischief is not an expression of decadent nihilism, it’s his attempt to be a person in a society that is trying to turn him into a robot. The fact that The Simpsons “ironically” validates Bart’s bad behavior (to an extent, there are also counterexamples such as “Bart vs. Thanksgiving” when the show clearly intends us to understand that he’s gone over the line) isn’t supposed to make us feel comfortable with it; it’s actually an incisive criticism of the society that has produced him. Contra Wallace, the purpose of the parody is not to allow the audience to laugh at the situation from a safe, comfortable distance. The purpose is to make the bizarre world of Springfield seem all too real.
So hey, did you notice that Wallace used The Simpsons as an example in both lists, and that in both cases it was wrong in the same way, and that if we consider this example more comprehensively it completely undoes his argument? You did, right?
Teacher, Mother, Secret Lover
The Simpsons is a fundamentally ironic show. The setup is actually a specific parody of the stereotypical 80s family sitcom, though this is somewhat difficult to understand from a modern standpoint, as said sitcoms have largely ended up in the dustbin of history. The point is, the setting and characters are basically all explicit stereotypes, and, per Wallace’s argument, we as the audience are expected to understand this “ironically,” that is, to recognize the stereotypes and see through them. Wallace’s claim is that the function of this sort of irony is to merely criticize without committing to a real position, such that anything the show actually tries to say can be dismissed as just being “part of the joke.” But this is deeply incorrect in both ways: first, the function of irony on The Simpsons is not merely to criticize; second, and more importantly, the show’s irony does not prevent it from making sincere statements.
While I could probably make this argument by just picking random episodes, let’s try to identify some of the more provocative examples. “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” is a good fit, since it’s one of the classic “ironic take on social issues” episodes. Marge fulfills the role of the stereotypical “concerned housewife” when she organizes a boycott of The Itchy & Scratchy Show due to its violent influence on children. This episode lambasts both the priggish moralists of the censorship campaign and the hack corporate cartoonists who just want to be left alone to churn out their mindless program in peace. Wallace’s claim is that this sort of setup allows us to laugh at the issue from a safe distance without actually engaging with it. But this is not so: the purpose of the episode’s ironic tone is precisely to engage with the issue in a deeper way than by merely taking one side of it.
Consider the scene where Roger Meyers, Jr., the cynical, cigar-chomping executive behind Itchy & Scratchy, argues that cartoon violence can’t be a real problem because violence already existed before cartoons were invented. We’re meant to read this argument ironically: to recognize both that it has a basic validity and that it’s fundamentally fallacious, and also to understand why Meyers is making it. This ironic angle actually draws us in to the argument; we think: “well, of course TV didn’t invent violence, but that doesn’t mean it has no effect on anything.” Furthermore, it’s clear that Meyers doesn’t actually care and is just making the easiest, most self-serving argument he can come up with. Meyers is the villain here, and not in an “ironic” way: he’s actually a bad person for not caring about the social effects of his program. This directly challenges the prejudices of the viewers, who are naturally expected to be receptive to the anti-censorship argument.
On the other side, consider how Marge’s protest ultimately fails because she’s unwilling to go along with her histrionic supporters in boycotting Michelangelo’s David. The relationship is supposedly that these are both issues about “freedom of expression,” but we can see that this is absurd. Marge has a specific grievance against Itchy & Scratchy; she started the protest because the show actually caused Maggie to attack Homer with a mallet. That’s the actual issue, and the fact that the episode uses irony to deconstruct the standard protest narrative without ignoring the human aspect at the heart of it shows us that there’s a better way to handle the issue than to engage in tired arguments about “censorship.” The point of the irony is that the framework we use to talk about this issue is flawed. This episode is not mere criticism; it encourages us to look beyond the usual rhetoric and focus on the things that actually matter.
The Simpsons is also full of entirely sincere moments, one of the deeper ones occurring in “Bart Sells His Soul.” The episode begins with a fairly standard ironic take on religion, mocking both Reverend Lovejoy’s cynical approach to pastoring and Milhouse’s naive acceptance of all manner of pseudo-religious nonsense. Bart takes the expected position of the viewer: totally unmoved and entirely willing to give up what little remains of his spirituality for $5. But it’s Bart’s position that the episode goes on to attack; while nothing that happens is dramatic enough to really disprove Bart’s argument, the little details of his situation add up to a deep feeling of wrongness. We come to feel that, while Bart’s position may be a smart one to take, it’s ultimately not a wise one.
By the end of the episode, the ironic angle is totally gone, and the show, through Lisa, ends up making a straightforward philosophical argument:
“But you know, Bart, some philosophers believe that nobody is born with a soul, that you have to earn one, through suffering, and thought, and prayer, like you did last night.”
But this statement is only meaningful in the context of the episode’s previous disdain for religion as it is normally conceived. It is precisely through this criticism that the show is able to suggest to us that there may actually be something there, deeper than where we normally look (certain modern atheists could perhaps learn something here). Furthermore, while Bart appears to ignore Lisa’s philosophizing, he does so while eating the piece of paper symbolizing his soul, implying that, even without accepting the explicit argument, Bart has internalized something significant through his experience.
Finally, let’s consider a counterexample. “The Principal and the Pauper” is precisely the kind of thing Wallace is complaining about: an episode whose self-referential irony prevents it from saying anything about anything other than itself. I actually have more sympathy for this episode than most people; I recognize what it’s trying to do, and I can understand why someone writing for Season 9 of The Simpsons would be interested in making an episode like this. But the fact remains that it’s fundamentally hollow, and compared to the show’s prior greatness, it’s no surprise that this episode came as a bitter disappointment.
And that’s precisely the point: this episode is universally reviled. Not only is meaningless self-referential irony not taken for granted, it isn’t even expected. This episode is an outlier in terms of up-its-own-ass-ness (or at least it was, back when the show was worth talking about). And people responded to it in exactly the opposite way from what Wallace is claiming: they didn’t pat themselves on the back for being in on the joke, they were fucking pissed. The vehemence of the reaction was enough that the writer, future Futurama stalwart Ken Keeler, used the episode’s DVD commentary as an opportunity to try to explain himself.
And while The Simpsons is unique in many ways, it’s far from the only counterexample to Wallace’s argument. Along the same lines as “The Principal and the Pauper,” Family Guy is widely hated for using shallow irony to avoid being meaningful in any way whatsoever. Shows that used irony constructively include The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which increased political engagement and helped make liberalism cool again (how effective this was at actually changing anything is a separate issue). Consider also the environmental episodes of Futurama, which use satire to make the vital point that there’s no such thing as short-term environmentalism. Shows that are enjoyed specifically for their lack of irony include Last Week Tonight, which is popular due to the fact that it actually explains political issues, and Friends, a still-beloved show which surely ranks among humanity’s most painfully earnest creations.
[update: when I wrote this I actually had no idea how popular Friends still was. Turns out it’s like uber whoa. Where’s all that irony when you need it?]
Furthermore, ironic self-reference is not confined to TV, and it’s hardly a modern invention anyway; stories about stories are as old as, like, stories. Examples can be found even in the work of a writer whom Wallace upholds as a shining example of how to address serious issues in fiction: Fyodor Dostoevsky.
The Brothers Karamazov begins with a “From the Author” note, which is in fact not from the author, but from the narrator of the story. This is interesting because the narrator is not actually a character in the story. He sometimes refers to himself as “I” and references his own location and observations, but we never actually meet the man. At other times, his voice completely dissolves and the book defaults to standard third-person omniscient narration; many sections are about the private thoughts of the characters when they are alone. Yet when the narrator’s voice does emerge, we see that he has his own quirks and is in fact a bit of an overwriter – the reader (that is, the reader of late-1800s Russia) is expected to notice this and to understand it as a deliberate choice on Dostoevsky’s part, rather than as bad writing. Furthermore, the opening note itself actually expresses an opinion on the story and suggests an interpretation, one that the narrator himself admits we might not agree with.
In this way, the line between fiction and reality – between the narrator, the characters, and the actual author of the actual book – becomes blurred. This exactly the kind of thing that people would describe as “postmodern irony” if someone like David Foster Wallace were doing it (Wallace’s use of narrative voice is actually quite straightforward by comparison). So, doesn’t Wallace’s critique also apply to Dostoevsky? Isn’t the function of devices like these to distance us from the story, to let us experience it from a safe remove without actually grappling with its ideas? As another example, Dostoevsky has a habit of mocking his real-life political opponents by placing their arguments in the mouths of his more ridiculous characters; doesn’t this allow us to merely laugh at these ideas rather than engaging them?
This line of thinking is obviously silly, because Dostoevsky is a Serious Writer whom we are required to Take Seriously. And we are correct to do so; when we’re talking about someone like Dostoevsky, we understand quite well that his artifice is a crucial part of how he achieves his intended (or unintended) effects. Yet when we’re talking about TV shows, the name of the game is to find a way to dismiss any possible importance in the actual content as quickly as possible. In this way, we can see that by ascribing an improbable amount of influence to TV, Wallace is in fact not taking it seriously; wrapping up the whole enterprise in a box labelled “irony” is a way to avoid engaging with the many things that are actually going on (The Simpsons being merely one of them, even in the 1990s). Wallace implicitly assumes that, unlike real art, TV is just a thing, and is therefore susceptible to a simple explanation of its one ideology and the one effect that ideology has on society. This becomes even clearer when we realize that Wallace’s argument treats TV shows and advertising in the same way, as though they were the same thing just because they’re located in the same place. This is as foolish as trying to come up with one single thing that all of “Russian literature” means and explaining all of Russian society on that basis.
Finally, Wallace’s argument that we’re all trapped in Ironic Purgatory is actually self-refuting. If we were, how could any of us understand what Wallace was saying? On the contrary, the fact that his charge against irony was met with such a fervently positive reception (viz. that fucking commencement speech) proves precisely that we are not all entangled in a morass of ironic self-reference, we are not content to be merely “in on the joke,” and we can quite easily recognize genuine emotion when we encounter it.
The truth is that there is no irony problem, and the reason I spent forever getting here is that this myth just won’t die. Irony is a tool, it has a variety of uses, and the idea of “ending irony” is as nonsensical as it is undesirable. Wallace paints a provocative picture of “postmodern” paranoia, but the truth is he’s tilting at windmills. He’s Don Quixote in reverse: so entranced by the mythology of “postmodern irony” that he is unable to see the basic nobility of the real world.
Reading is Fundamental
Wallace’s excursion into TV land is actually the lead-in to a point about literature. Specifically, Wallace claims that the self-referential irony of TV has spread out to infect avant-garde literary fiction. As an example, he cites Some Book, by Some Guy, which appears to be one big meaningless ironic pastiche of consumer culture, or something. Here’s the thing. I could obviously check what book Wallace is talking about and try to assess his argument, I’ve got the essay right here, but I have no reason to actually care, because I’ve never heard this book or its author referenced in any other context. I’m not the most clued-in when it comes to cutting-edge literary fiction, but when Wallace talks about people like Pynchon or DeLillo, I know what he’s referring to; indeed, Wallace is able to easily explain the influence of these authors in his essay. On the contrary, when he gets around to talking about Leyner’s book (the guy’s name is Leyner), he analyzes it convincingly enough, but he fails to do the one thing that’s required for his argument to actually matter: demonstrate that Leyner is actually representative of, like, anything at all. As it stands he’s just one guy who wrote a goofy book.
If we think about why Wallace chose this example, the mists begin to clear: Wallace is talking about literary fiction because it’s his genre, and he’s worried about the use of irony because that’s the problem that Wallace himself was trying to deal with when it came to his own work. The rationale Wallace gives for talking about Leyner’s book is that it was apparently “the biggest thing for campus hipsters since The Fountainhead” (I don’t understand this joke); all this means is that it was popular in Wallace’s milieu. But the fact that this is a particular concern of Wallace’s is precisely why he does not have license to portray it as evidence of a broad cultural malaise.
So, why is this a problem? Wallace is just talking about an area of his own personal experience, right? He isn’t making a broad argument about American culture, he’s just talking about one particular use of irony and one particular response to it, so I’m totally missing the point here, right? Except not even, because Wallace totally is claiming to make a comprehensive argument that applies to all of TV, all of literature, and therefore all of America. Remember good old Joe Briefcase, and how Wallace presents him as a generic American in order to make a completely general argument, and how this is a huge problem because it allows Wallace to project his own assumptions onto everyone else without justification? Observe how he initially sets the stage:
“Every lonely human I know watches way more than the average U.S. six hours a day. The lonely, like the fictive, love one-way watching. For lonely people are usually lonely not because of hideous deformity or odor or obnoxiousness – in fact there exist today support- and social groups for persons with precisely these attributes. Lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly. Let’s call the average U.S. lonely person Joe Briefcase.”
First of all, Wallace’s argument here is self-contradictory. If “lonely people” are well above the average in terms of TV watching, then the broader population of non-lonely people must be well below the average. But if this is the case, TV should be catering to this broader group of people, on account of there’s way more of them and TV is not a niche interest, meaning all of the conclusions Wallace draws about TV on the basis of what “lonely people” are like are wrong.
But the real significance of this quote is that people who “decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other humans” are not necessarily “lonely” – they are specifically introverts, and, as painful as it is for me to admit this, most people actually do have the particular mental disorder that allows them to be at ease around other humans. The reason Wallace focuses on introverts here is, of course, that he himself is an introvert. But given that he fails to explain this, he seems not to understand that this is something that makes him different from most people. That is, I’m sure Wallace started from the point of wondering why he felt differently than everyone else seemed to, but he then went on to, through projection and overgeneralization, explain his own problems as problems of the world.
With this in mind, we can see what Wallace is doing as he continues his setup:
“Joe Briefcase fears and loathes the strain of the special self-consciousness which seems to afflict him only when other real human beings are around, staring, their human sense-antennae abristle. Joe B. fears how he might appear, come across, to watchers. He chooses to sit out the enormously stressful game of U.S. appearance poker.”
Note not only the way Wallace is attributing specific characteristics to what is supposed to be a generic example character, but the evocativeness of this description of “Joe’s” feelings. Isn’t it terribly obvious that Wallace can only be describing the way that he himself feels? (I’ll vouch that this is a pretty decent expression of what moderate to severe introversion feels like). But why doesn’t he just say so? Why, indeed, does his example person appear to be designed precisely to be as unlike Wallace himself as possible? Consider that Wallace was certainly not the briefcase-carrying, 9-to-5 sort, and consider the earlier description of Joe of the head of a stereotypical nuclear family – also very much unlike Wallace.
The move that Wallace makes here is crucially important: he starts by describing his own feelings, invents an example character to embody those feelings, and then goes on to use this character as a fully generic example of whatever he feels like talking about at the moment. In this way, Wallace fools himself into thinking that his own feelings apply to everyone else, allowing him to draw broad conclusions through mere introspection. And this is not a con job: Wallace is not conscious of the fact that he’s doing this. Examples:
“We are the Audience, megametrically many, though most often we watch alone”
“One reason fiction writers seem creepy in person is that by vocation they really are voyeurs”
“by 1830, de Tocqueville had already diagnosed American culture as peculiarly devoted to easy sensation and mass-marketed entertainment”
“We,” “They,” “American culture.” So yes, Wallace does think that when he talks about TV he is talking about the TV audience in general, when he talks about “Image-Fiction” he is talking about literature in general, and when he talks about culture he is talking about America in general.
And he is, of course, wrong to be doing this. Being stuck in a rut of over-self-conciousness is Wallace’s problem, not TV’s. Being unable to work through modern meta-irony in order to say something meaningful is Wallace’s problem, not fiction’s. And the dearth of meaning in our semantically overcrowded society is . . . everyone’s problem, obviously, but Wallace’s entire explanation of how and why we got here is completely wrong, because the whole time he was only talking about himself.
David Foster Wallace Was Wrong About Everything
This realization recontextualizes the essay quite a bit. In order to correct Wallace’s fundamental error, we must not only avoid his generalizations, we must comprehensively edit his “we” to an “I,” his “U.S. Culture” to “my subculture,” and his “Joe Briefcase” to “David Foster Wallace.” We must understand Wallace’s work not as analytical or investigational or even observational, but as confessional.
The key, finally, is that is applies to everything Wallace wrote. Sometimes this is unproblematic, for example, when Wallace gives his thoughts on Kafka or David Lynch, he’s performing straightforward criticism; we understand that these are his arguments. But Wallace evidences this kind of restraint only rarely. When Wallace celebrates a new usage guide that supposedly resolves the deep political problems of language, it’s because said guide resolves the problem of Wallace’s own relationship with language; he assumes everyone else feels the same way; he’s wrong. When Wallace gets excited about McCain’s candidacy, it’s because McCain is providing what Wallace wants out of politics; he assumes everyone else wants the same thing; he’s wrong.
But it’s not enough to just reinterpret Wallace as a personal writer, because it is the specific move he makes of starting from a disguised version of his own prejudices and sublimating them into an intellectual argument that makes him actually wrong. Because he starts on unsteady footing, he stumbles with each step. The best place to see how this works is in “Authority and American Usage,” as this is both Wallace’s most comprehensive and most personal argument.
When Wallace finally gets around to addressing the actual “Descriptivist” linguistic argument – that languages have a set of real rules about how they actually function and several sets of fake rules that people make up for various reasons – this is how he begins his counterargument:
“A listener can usually figure out what I mean when I misuse infer for imply or say indicate for say, too. But many of these solecisms – or even just clunky redundancies like “The door was rectangular in shape” – require at least a couple extra nanoseconds of cognitive effort, a kind of rapid sift-and-discard process, before the recipient gets it.”
This is literally an unbelievably weak argument. Wallace actually has to say “nanoseconds,” because if he had phrased this in the usual way and said “seconds,” he would be making a stronger claim – one that is obviously wrong. But by softening his claim, he makes the argument worthless, because a) we can’t possibly determine the average cognitive “work” of an utterance down to the nanosecond and b) if it actually is just a nanosecond, then it’s not worth the effort to correct it. Ergo, since this argument is not plausible, it must not be Wallace’s actual argument.
But of course, Wallace is not making a linguistic argument at all; he is merely expressing himself, which is to say venting his own prejudices. The feeling that Wallace identifies as “extra work” is in fact nothing but his own feeling of irritation. This insight explains everything that is so odd about that essay. It explains why Wallace doesn’t properly engage with the work of professional linguists, the people who actually study the things he’s talking about. It explains why he meanders so broadly through so many different perspectives and ideas without properly connecting them to his main point. It explains why he chides others for making shallow, self-serving arguments and then makes even shallower, more self-serving arguments himself. And it explains why he gets an issue that he’s so passionate about so fundamentally wrong.
And so, when Wallace laments the “dead end” of irony, he’s merely addressing his own limits as a thinker. Consider his conclusion:
“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. . . . 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‘”
Think about what Wallace is actually saying here. He’s seriously claiming that anyone making a sincere argument is necessarily subject to ridicule and eyerolling. He has to be, because otherwise he has no argument. If this is just something that happens sometimes, then the “problem” is just that some people are jerks. But the idea that there are literally no sincere statements anymore, that ironic parody is just so devastating that no one’s willing to “risk” making them, is ridiculous. Again, what’s happening here is that Wallace is making a broad cultural pattern out of his own anxieties. It is Wallace who is constantly afraid that someone will laugh at him if he comes across as too sincere. Most people do not have this problem.
Indeed, the idea that irony has a vastly increased prevalence in modern times is itself highly debatable; given that the concept dates back to at least Socrates, I’m pretty sure people have had a handle on it for a while now. Frankly, the whole thing about Vietnam/Watergate/whatever being some kind of crucial turning point for cultural values is basically one big Kids These Days rant. Which, temporally speaking, you’d think would be over by now, but it seems to have stuck for some reason. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of Americans are still conventionally patriotic, even those who are “cynical” about politics, and the number of us who actually want to fundamentally change the structure of society, as opposed to “reforming” it to curb its “excesses,” is statistically insignificant.
Second, even if we assume that we are “more ironic” now, this really means that we’re better at communicating. We can understand complex arguments at various levels of remove. We are less easily fooled by the stated beliefs and motivations of deceivers. And, of course, we can use irony ourselves in order to say things in more effective ways than merely blurting them out and hoping for the best. By realizing that irony is a tool rather than an ideology, we can actually use it to express our sincere feelings more effectively.
Thus, Wallace’s core point, that we’re all lost in the labyrinth of irony and we need to find our way back into the daylight of sincerity, is ultimately an expression of his own discomfort with the conclusions we’ve drawn from the events of the 20th century – and with the realization of where we need to head next.