postirony

Dissertation abstract

I’ve been frantically copyediting my dissertation in anticipation of filing this coming Wednesday. One thing I’ve finally settled is the wording of my abstract, which took way longer than it should have. For those who’re interested, here’s the final text I’ve come reluctantly to accept:

“Wipe That Smirk off Your Face” examines a contemporary ethos of literary production I call “postirony” and relates this new artistic sensibility to longstanding critical debates about the value of irony. Starting in the late 1980s, postironic authors began critiquing the postmodernist fiction and poststructuralist theory they were exposed to in the academy while remaining committed to extending these traditions. Positioning themselves as a new type of counterculture or avant-garde, postironists claimed that the dominant culture had co-opted irony, thus robbing it of its critical power. My dissertation investigates the theoretical presuppositions underlying this claim and argues that both postmodern ironists and postironists rely on the same tacit theory of cultural politics, the notion that symbolic action can undermine the foundationally linguistic or symbolic apparatus through which the mainstream culture maintains its power. The authors I study all present literary models of ironic and postironic character as a means of resisting the hegemonic culture. My chapters therefore tell the story of irony’s decline through the analysis of three major countercultural figures who have noteworthy relationships to irony: the hipster, the believer, and the trendspotter.

My first chapter analyzes the ironic figure of the “hipster” in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963) and documents how cold war intellectuals celebrated the hipster for his powers of self-creation and ironic knowingness. In Invisible Man, Ellison joins this cold war consensus by positioning a hipster character (B.P. Rinehart) as the catalyst that awakens his protagonist to the ideological limitations of the Brotherhood, a thinly veiled version of the Communist Party USA. In contrast to social realist and protest fiction, postwar modernism was viewed as a potent anticommunist weapon, simultaneously an emblem of the freedom of the West and a bulwark against middlebrow American culture. A decade later, Pynchon invokes a post-Beat version of the hipster in V. as a means of finding a middle ground between postwar modernism and the emerging counterculture. Pynchon’s desire to court both sources of cultural legitimacy inflects the form of V., which is divided equally between a Beat narrative and a modernist narrative, each of which ironizes the other. Pynchon seeks to construct a higher-order critical irony above both modernism and hipness, and attempts to render this superior stance in the character of the African-American jazz saxophonist, McClintic Sphere.

In my second chapter, I turn to the “believer” in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). Wallace and Eggers regard the higher-order irony Pynchon helped invent as hopelessly corrupted and alienating, and seek to use postmodernist techniques toward sincere ends. Their postironic metafiction constructs a picture of the believer as a secular figure designed to resist the disenchantment many felt at the end of the cold war, when the market came to seem triumphant and invincible. Wallace uses metafictional form to cultivate reader belief and to short-circuit what he sees as the irony characteristic of American consumer culture. For Eggers, the believer finds re-enchantment in an aesthetic practice of “quirky” juxtaposition, the aggregation of unusual consumer products and offbeat experiences, the transformation of lifestyle into a work of art that inextricably links ethics and aesthetics. I conclude that the ethos of the postironic believer fails to neutralize irony and cynicism because these authors propose to solve institutional problems through individual activity. Even Eggers, who has built popular literary and philanthropic organizations that have adopted postirony as something like their house style, links re-enchantment to the atomizing logic of the competitive marketplace.

My third chapter studies the trendspotter, a female figure that combines functions associated with economic production and consumption, in Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl (2001) and William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003). I relate these two novels, examples of a literary genre that Fredric Jameson has called “socioeconomic science fiction,” to an influential body of branding theory that tries to understand and manipulate the symbolic logic underlying consumer motivation. The Savage Girl imagines a satirical version of the present in which all values, including countercultural values, have been commodified. Shakar’s hip trendspotter characters forecast the rise of what they term “postirony,” a collective cultural backlash against postmodern irony, along the lines outlined in my second chapter. Shakar’s characters compete to define the word “postirony,” reproducing at the level of content the formal problems we face as readers of The Savage Girl. In Pattern Recognition, Gibson presents his protagonist, the trendspotter Cayce Pollard, as a model of how one might endure the marketing-saturated world of globalization. Gibson uses a brand-name-laden style as a means of creating for his reader “cognitive maps” of economic globalization. These maps, associated by Gibson with the figure of the trendspotter, are features of a postironic disposition inclined to link the intimidating complexity of real global supply chains to the glossy surface of the brand.

My conclusion analyzes aspects of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which skillfully presented the candidate as a human symbol able to neutralize voter apathy and cynicism and reinvigorate engagement with public life. I link the sophisticated marketing techniques of the campaign to Obama’s Dreams from My Father (1995), which I describe as a postironic Bildungsroman, suggesting that his presidential campaign should be understood as an extended paratext of his memoir. A postironic figure, “Brand Obama” was able to speak to different groups in different linguistic registers while maintaining a highly regimented, technologically savvy, and unified identity. His success may foretell the growing relevance of the postironic project to cultural life.

Well, I’ve settled on this version until I inevitably change my mind about this or that word or phrase five seconds before I submit. Who knew writing the abstract would be so hard? (I’ll semi-surreptitiously change the text of this abstract if and as I make any future changes, just so you’re warned. Down the memory hole!)