Postirony in Theory and Fiction (MLA)

After sorting through about a dozen remarkably smart and on-target abstracts for the MLA, we’ve decided that we couldn’t resist saying yes to more than one. What this means is that “Postirony in Theory and Fiction” will now have a total of four participants (Linda Hutcheon, who initially signed on during the application phase, found that she was overcommitted at this year’s MLA, so she won’t be presiding). Kevin, however, will become a respondent to the panel, so in fact we have a total of three 15 minute papers and a brief coda.

For your reading pleasure I reproduce in full the abstracts for our MLA talks (including my original, full-lengthed abstract). Here we go:

1. “Just Wait: How Irony Becomes Postirony,” Mitchum Huehls, UCLA

In “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U. S. Fiction,” David Foster Wallace notes television’s inescapable influence on late-twentieth-century authors, arguing that such influence bespeaks the pathology of postmodern irony. Specifically, irony is pathological because it expands exponentially, incorporating whatever might try to stand outside it, including itself. Wallace argues that irony’s metastasis spells trouble for contemporary writers, and he sees few good options for those trying to solve the problem. Even Image-Fiction, the subgenre Wallace highlights for its attempt to use irony to respond to irony–to “reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights”–succumbs to television’s appropriative logic.

Such are the dilemmas post-ironic authors must face: they recognize irony’s pathology, and yet they have subscribed to and fully internalized the postmodern critique of sincerity, transparency, and truth. Even Wallace, clearly committed to the post-ironic project, admits that much of this writing is D.O.A.

Irony is so entrapping because of its epistemological structure. To say one thing and mean another requires two levels of knowledge: I must know what I am talking about, and I must know that I know what I am talking about. The first level of knowledge is knowledge of the object of my speech, and the second level is a knowledge that distances itself from the first knowledge. This structure clearly leaves itself open to an endless series of such distancings: irony can itself be ironized, which can in turn be ironized, ad infinitum.

Wallace exemplifies this iterative structure through a reading of a famously parodic scene from White Noise when Jack, the narrator, and his colleague Murray, visit the “most photographed barn in America.” The tourists watch the barn, Murray watches the tourists, the narrator watches Murray watching the watching, we readers watch the narrator watch the watching, etc…. Noting that Jack stays silent while Murray offers his ironic postmodern commentary, Wallace contends that Jack is actually outside the iteration of watching: “With his silence, DeLillo’s alter ego Jack eloquently diagnoses the very disease from which he, Murray, barn-watchers, and readers all suffer.” This “disease,” of course, is irony’s metastasis.

Although it is certainly correct to read this scene as a parodic indictment of postmodern irony, my paper argues that Wallace is wrong to read Jack’s silence as an “elegant diagnosis.” Despite his silence, Jack is as “knowing” as Murray. In other words, because irony is a function of knowledge, not speech, silence also fails as a diagnosis, revealing the very impossibility of attaining the “detached, transcendent” perspective that Wallace ascribes to Jack.

I make this point not simply to quibble with Wallace’s reading. Instead, I focus on this scene because its demonstration of irony’s totalizing grasp—rendering narrator, author, and reader complicit even as they attempt to critique it—also contains the seed whereby irony might transmute itself into post-irony. If we think of White Noise itself as the barn, we could fairly say that there was a moment when we just took pictures of it, but that over time, as it became ironic postmodern fiction par excellence, assigned on syllabi across the nation, we started taking pictures of taking pictures, reinforcing what we already knew.

My paper contends, however, that more than 25 years later, White Noise no longer reaffirms what we already know. Instead, when we read White Noise, it reads as an example of a moment in time when a detached, postmodern irony ventured to critique the overdeterminations of technology, television, and Cold War paranoia. In other words, we know now that these attempts were futile. We do not think this way anymore; or, White Noise now has historicity. And it is precisely this kind of historicized knowledge that I offer as a productive, post-ironic response to postmodern irony’s pathology. Historicized knowledge breaks irony’s chain of iterative, meta-epistemological knowledge, achieving a certain sincerity of thought without succumbing to anti-ironic fundamentalism or naïve transparency

2. “The Co-optation Problem: Postirony in Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl,” Lee Konstantinou, Stanford Univ.

According to the standard historical narrative, 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 absorption and reproduction of the cultural codes by which the hip distinguish themselves from the masses. Thus, the historical progression of countercultures explains its stylistic mutations by means of a cooptation thesis: this thesis asserts that crass commercial interests systematically neutralize the revolutionary power of hip countercultural styles by turning them into commodities. The cooptation thesis found its ultimate expression in the early 1990s when some young critics began to claim that even irony, that ultimate weapon of the countercultural sensibility, had lost its oppositional power. Corporations now strategically deployed irony to sell their products. Mainstream culture embraced irony as its official style. Young authors began to advise their peers abandon irony in favor of a rebellious return to sincerity. David Foster Wallace’s renunciation of hip irony (associated for him with his postmodernist forefathers) is perhaps the most famous declarations of this sort.

Inspired by Thomas Frank’s revised look at the counterculture, my talk (i) questions the explanatory power of the cooptation thesis and (ii) challenges those assumptions about irony’s oppositional power that artists offer to justify their postironic practice in the first place. I make my case through a reading of Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl (2001), which presents a coolhunter as its protagonist. For Shakar, the coolhunter—who detects, describes, and translates emerging trends into commodity form—becomes a figure that stands at a critical nodal point in postmodernism’s cultural ecology (what I will call the subculture industry). The Savage Girl explicitly imagines itself as a kind of coda to Frank’s argument in The Conquest of Cool (1996). Shakar’s novel speculates on how the trend of “postirony” might come to replace hipness as the official emotional style of capitalism, blurring “the boundaries between irony and earnestness in ways… traditional ironists can barely understand.” Ultimately, with reference to Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital, my paper offers a modified theory of ironic cooptation 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.

3. “A Political Genealogy of Postirony,” Matthew Stratton, Ohio Univ.

When novelist Jay McInerny recently pined for “a post 9/11, postironic novel” that would “move beyond irony and youthful nihilism,” he attributed his thinking on the matter to David Foster Wallace. If pressed, McInerny might well have acknowledged any number of other writers from the past twenty years–from Richard Rorty to Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter–who have called for an end to the “age of irony” that has supposedly afflicted public discourse since the rise of the New Left in the 1960s. While reminding us that some events are so traumatic that they kill both people and tropes, McInerny might well have reached further back into cultural criticism: to Theodor Adorno, for example, who in 1951 remarked that “the medium of irony has disappeared.” Or to the film reviewer in the New York Times, who after the bombing of Pearl Harbor wrote that “Irony is out for the duration.” Or perhaps Randolph Bourne, who in 1917 asserted that “only in a world where irony was dead could an intellectual class enter war at the head of such illiberal cohorts in the avowed cause of world-liberalism and world democracy.”

Calls for a public “postirony” in the past twenty years, however, have uniformly ignored the fact that such “ends of irony” are not merely logical responses to uniquely pressing social and political conditions, but rather arise from a dynamic constellation of assumptions about the relationships among individuals, collectivities, politics, and aesthetics: that is to say, “the end of irony” has a history and a genealogy. I argue that pronouncements about the “death” or “end” of irony in twentieth-century American literary culture serve as what political theorist Donald Schön calls a “generative metaphor,” which figures a particular nexus of political theory and literary aesthetics. Recent calls for a “postironic” literature obscure both the metaphorical and historical form of “postirony,” and fallaciously frame the problem of political aesthetics in a way that assumes what it should minimally set out to prove: that ethical praxis relies upon sincerely rational individuals who act within liberal institutions to achieve collective solidarity, and that politically effective literature provides sincere, programmatic models for such acts. Assertions about the “politics of irony” reveal more about assumed definitions of politics than about definitions of irony; by delineating the historical form of an ostensibly recent phenomenon, I argue that public irony can play and has played a crucial role in non-liberal forms of radical politics.

Respondent: Kevin J.H. Dettmar, Southern Illinois Univ., Carbondale