So my dissertation keeps changing shape and size. Based on the various critiques that I received at my colloquium, I have been thinking about whether or not the concept of “postirony” has enough in it to carry a whole dissertation. I mean, it seemed that I could do a very detail-level sort of analysis of the fiction of the late 1990s, but now I am beginning to wonder if my project would be better served by expanding the focus. One of the major observations that came out of my coll. was that the authors that were my focus were almost exclusively white, male, and heterosexual. This is absolutely true (although I had included Zadie Smith’s White Teeth in my final chapter) but it remained unclear how to resolve this problem, which is only ambiguously a problem when one realizes that the community of authors that I had been focusing on was largely self-constituted and this community of hip, postironic folk is indeed largely white, male, and heterosexual–and very very self-consciously so, almost to the point of paralysis.
I thought for a while that I could look at the often stiff relationship these mostly very liberal or left-leaning authors have towards non-white cultural artifacts and people: think of the number of postironic films today whose only non-white character is an adopted Sudanese war orphan or other Sally Struthers victim (I am quite serious: think of About Schmidt, Garden State, I [heart] Huckabees, etc. Think also of the mannered attempts at rendering African-American dialects in Infinite Jest.) Now, I am not sure if there is enough in this observation to carry a whole chapter–perhaps a part of a chapter.
The other approach, which I am seriously considering adopting, is to broaden the focus of my dissertation to examine hip irony as such. Doing so would allow me to move further back in time and do readings of books like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Thomas Pynchon’s V. The point would be to document the ways in which African-American culture of the ’40s and ’50s became the model of the hip. This is, after all, what Norman Mailer is after in “The White Negro”: the experience of blacks in America is no longer marginal–but, in an age of concentration camps and atom bombs–absolutely the norm. This approach seems more promising, because it would not involve bringing race, gender, sexuality into my project in a way not justified by the material itself.
Furthermore, I think I am going to bring in the term multiculturalism as a contested term in the ’80s. I realized today (while at the gym) that hyphenated culture-terms really have quite a lot to do with each other. So I think I am going to do a chapter on the relationships between the terms countercultural, multiculturalism, and subculture. I think these concepts are pretty intimately related and have everything to do with new conceptions of identity politics paradigmatic of the ’70s and ’80s. Having a chapter on these paracultures (my lumping term, for now) would set up nicely the intellectual and cultural landscape which the postironists found themselves in–and found themselves rejecting.
So these are some thoughts towards where my project is going. As always, I reserve the right to absolutely change my mind and scrap the whole thing. But the project seems to be on firmer historical legging now. It’s gone from a very narrow late ’90s project to something about the post-WWII period as such, with a special focus on the ’90s.