The MLA special session that I played a part in organizing was accepted. The panel–which promises to be very exciting and break some new ground–is called “Postirony in Theory and Fiction.” The text of the panel proposal follows:
“The virus of irony is as widespread in California as herpes, and once you’re infected with it, it lives in your brain forever.”
–Neal Stephenson, “Cryptonomicon”
Much of the recent writing on the end of theory does not merely describe the fact that theoretical writing has lost some of its original appeal for humanities scholars but also–sometimes openly, sometimes not–contributes to the political project of proscribing theory as such. At the core of this demolition project is the call to bury what is identified as “postmodern irony” (considered to be the anti-foundational foundation for all such theory). This call has for at least a decade enjoyed a warm welcome both within public discourse and more recently within the academy itself; the September 11 attacks gave critics a new occasion to denounce postmodern irony in all its virulent and protean forms. These proscriptions get justified differently from different political perspectives: for conservatives, irony has actively eroded the mutual trust that supported traditional public life. For countercultural types, irony once had an oppositional force but has now been co-opted by an omnivorous corporate Establishment. For radicals, irony never had much hope of overturning oppressive power relations in the first place. Though their proposed solutions differ, the conclusion reached by each camp is the same: irony–as a trope, a style, an affect, a politics–must be abandoned in favor of something else. Whatever one might think about the seriousness of such denunciations, these arguments deserve serious scrutiny. This panel, which Linda Hutcheon will preside over, proposes to investigate these claims by examining a putative solution to the problem of postmodern irony that has enjoyed a significant measure of popularity among writers since the early 1990s: aesthetic postirony.
Postironic writers, unlike anti-ironists and neorealists, want to move beyond postmodern irony without giving up their credibility as members of an avant-garde. These writers try to imagine what shape a postironic consciousness, rather than an uncritically earnest or naïvely nostalgic consciousness, might take. Thus, the declaration of postirony often announces the use of ironic and self-consciously experimental means towards sincere or sentimental ends. Put differently, the writers that this panel examines describe ironic detachment in pathological terms and identify irony as the primary mode of the avant-garde, counterculture, and mainstream media; however, because they have internalized the oppositional sensibility of the avant-garde and counterculture, and also consider themselves thoroughly enmeshed in mainstream media culture, these postironists cannot overcome postmodern irony. They loudly renounce the avant-gardism of their forefathers but cannot break the logical bind of the avant-garde. Irony has infected their brains.
Kevin J. H. Dettmar begins our discussion by tracing the structural and ethical similarities between deconstruction and postmodern ironic critique. Dettmar’s paper argues that while deconstruction as such has largely disappeared from critical and public discourse the ironic linguistic strategies artists continue to deploy are deconstruction’s most enduring and un(der)acknowledged legacy. Both deconstruction and postmodern irony adopt a skeptical attitude toward the truth claims of official, authoritative languages; both unleash a critique that targets those things that the critic “cannot not want” and threaten to call into question the truth-claims upon which civil society seems to depend. It is precisely the critique of positions closest to one’s heart that ultimately distinguishes postmodern irony from mere satire and deconstruction from that with which it is too often confused, cynicism.
Tore Rye Andersen next reviews the impact of David Foster Wallace’s seminal 1993 essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U. S. Fiction,” which argues that irony, which played an important critical role in early postmodernist fiction’s struggle against the Establishment, has today been co-opted by mainstream television culture. While many authors still articulate their social critiques using ironic strategies that the early postmodernists developed, Wallace claims that the continued use of postmodernist fiction’s ironic negativity constitutes nothing more than an ineffectual reproduction of a previous avant-garde. Because the ironic counter-language of the early postmodernists has become today’s principal language, young authors should look elsewhere in their search for an updated counter-language that isn’t as easily co-optable. Andersen notes that writers who have heeded Wallace’s call for a postironic literature include Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, Dave Eggers, and Jeffrey Eugenides, among others, but his talk will concentrate on Wallace, postirony’s central architect. Examining Wallace’s postironic productions–from the novel “Infinite Jest” (1996) to the stories “Octet” and “Incarnations of Burned Children”–Andersen shows how, in order to justify their practices, postironic rebels, who claim to be writing against the postmodernist rebellion of their progenitors, strategically misread postmodernist fiction in the terms of irony.
Lee Konstantinou ends this panel’s discussion of postironic fiction by examining Alex Shakar’s novel, “The Savage Girl” (2001). Konstantinou uses Shakar’s novel to confront recent accounts of the counterculture, which often uncritically accept that the counterculture staged a hip rebellion against the stultifying mass culture of the 1950s, compelling young Americans to reject gray flannel suits in favor of oppositional Beat, hippie, punk, New Wave, and eventually grunge styles. From within these countercultures, the gravest threat to a particular oppositional style’s authenticity came from the mainstream co-optation of the cultural codes by which the hip distinguish themselves from the masses. This cooptation thesis found its ultimate expression in the declarations of the 1990s that irony itself had become the official style of the Establishment. Shakar presents “The Savage Girl” as a kind of coda to Thomas Frank’s challenge to the co-optation thesis in “The Conquest of Cool” (1996). Shakar’s novel speculates on how the trend of “postirony” might quite easily come to replace hip irony as the official emotional style of capitalism, blurring “the boundaries between irony and earnestness in ways… traditional ironists can barely understand.” Ultimately, this paper offers a modified theory of ironic co-optation that both highlights its limitations as an oppositional politics and affirms its reality as a variable in a subcultural identity politics that takes distinction as its ultimate good.