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On Irony, David Foster Wallace Wasn’t Wrong — but He Is Obsolete

On Irony, David Foster Wallace Wasn’t Wrong — but He Is Obsolete

At Salon, Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll embarked on a new campaign against irony. David Foster Wallace was right, they say: “Irony is ruining our culture.” And so we’re back on the carousel we last rode when Tom Scocca and Malcolm Gladwell and some others fought about snark and smarm. (Full disclosure: I think Scocca was mostly right.)

Ashby and Carroll, though, are working with a different binary than snark and smarm. Rather than defend smarm, what Scocca calls “the practice of cynicism,” they spend much of their essay building a strawman, identifying as irony stuff that, to them, seems similar to detached forms of hipstery silliness, like the stories of Tao Lin, and pretending that these represent the dominant cultural force of the day.

Lin’s work is at least interesting; he’s distinctive, if nothing else. His aesthetic — his brand, really — is a congealed version of the Williamsburg thing that has colonized a lot of American cities for okay and for worse. He has a website whose URL is a string of hehes and hees and hehs; the only thing at that URL right now is an article about sports betting. The article is meaningless because its language is a parody of SEO.1 This maybe means Lin is deploying the site to ironic effect in an attempt to critique the horribleness of SEO. Or it could be he just forgot to renew his domain.

The essay’s reference to Lin and his “disaffected, hipster malaise” is simultaneously dismissive and aggrandizing. It’s dismissive because it defines Lin only by his online brand and by his first few books, especially “Shoplifting from American Apparel,” (Lin’s Muumuu House aesthetic looks like something from the American Apparel website, but with less gratuitous sexuality and more gratuitous justified text) which it mentions, and Richard Yates, which it doesn’t. It’s aggrandizing because, in order for Ashby and Carroll to be right about the ability of Lin’s irony to harm the culture, they have to exaggerate the cultural importance of Lin’s work. That’s not to say Lin is unimportant; he occupies a certain place, for sure, and he’s still an ascending writer whose most popular work is probably in the future. But Ashby and Carroll are measuring him against the likes of David Foster Wallace, Mary Gaitskill, and Cormac McCarthy, all of whom, they themselves write, have produced art that has occasionally “heralded a turn toward meaning-making, sincerity and redemption.”

On the one side, then, Tao Lin, and on the other a collection of Pulitzer nominations, best-seller listings, and Oprah’s Book Club selections; and we’re supposed to believe it’s Lin who represents the dominant cultural force?

The Tyranny of Good TV

Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll cover more territory than just the fiction of Tao Lin. They also enter space in which I’m unqualified to engage them, most obviously when the painter Carroll surveys “an analogous form to recursive irony” called “non-painting.” I didn’t live long enough in Brooklyn to learn about contemporary non-painters from Germany.

I’m somewhat more qualified to step onto the very platform of Ashby and Carroll’s argument, though: David Foster Wallace’s 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” which, two decades after its publication, seems to have become a critical engine of whatever ride we’re riding. In “Television and U.S. Fiction” Wallace, a wannabe sentimentalist who was too absurdly talented and probably too obsessed with the artificiality of fiction to be the sort of “anti-rebel” that he himself talked about, delivers what has, over the last couple decades, been a mission statement for those who’d like to “eschew self-consciousness and fatigue.”

The inherent contradiction: Wallace, the most brilliant writer of the years around the millennial transition (even if he’s not your favorite one), was addicted to ironic detachment. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is exactly the kind of book that, produced by someone who hadn’t also written a call to sincerity, would be decried by Ashby and Carroll as ugly, brooding, or cynical; in particular, the story “Adult World (I) & (II)” is weird metafiction in which Wallace only creates characters in the story’s first part so he can peel away all their fictional artifice and show their naked whirring gears in its second.

The problem with applying “Television and U.S. Fiction” to the imagined irony-ridden landscape of 2014 is that the world it discusses has changed a lot since 1993. One of the most relevant changes, for the purposes of this debate, is related to TV. After all, everything in the essay is viewed through the filter of a TV pop culture that has by now reversed itself.

“The best TV of the last five years,” Wallace says, twenty-one years ago, “has been about ironic self-reference like no previous species of postmodern art could have dreamed of.” He references MTV three times over the next handful of sentences, which today seems kind of cute. In 1993, for David Foster Wallace, TV owned a U.S. culture that abhorred it, and the only response of TV, and of TV’s audience, was a protective layer of irony. St Elsewhere would have been “just another clever low-concept eighties TV story … were it not for the ironic, involuted TV imagery and data that whirl around this high-concept installment.”

In the premillennial world, Wallace saw this sort of thing seeping out of TV shows and into advertising and across every other interconnected part of the culture (including U.S. fiction, because the whole premise of Wallace’s essay is that fiction writers are addicts about observing human behavior who watch a shit-ton of TV in order to observe humans). But Ashby and Carroll gloss over the fact that Wallace’s insights all start with television as it then existed, and this error is critical because our cultural relationship with television has so drastically changed. “E Unibus Pluram” itself, no matter how keen its observations, no matter how moving its call for sincerity, no matter how brilliant its language, is out-of-date. It’s a relic from another time.

A cornerstone from Wallace’s essay: “…it’s safe to conclude that most educated, Times-buying Americans are wearily disgusted by television … TV scholarship sure reflects this mood.”

Oh, David. If only you could see us now.

The New Canon

Here is an incomplete list of things you can safely have not read when having a conversation with a fairly educated American, unless you are currently pursuing an MFA in fiction and are in your fiction professor’s office: the latest Haruki Murakami; anything by Kurt Vonnegut except (maybe) Slaughterhouse-five; anything by Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, or Ernest Hemingway; anything by Joyce; Giovanni’s Room; anything, in fact, by David Foster Wallace; any book on any best of list of any year during which you’ve been alive, and lots you haven’t; and so on.

Here is an incomplete list of stories you can’t have missed if you hope to ensure you won’t be pestered unendingly because you haven’t experienced one or all of them: The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, True Detective, Sherlock, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, House of Cards, The Americans, Homeland, Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead, Hannibal. Others, also, but I should mention Breaking Bad again, because that one is in a class all its own.

The point is very few people will judge you if you haven’t read the latest Margaret Atwood, but mention you haven’t watched Breaking Bad and everyone loses their minds.

And, as it did in 1993, TV scholarship reflects the cultural mood: in 2014, it is active, earnest, and everywhere. Good writers write interesting things about practically every show that fits into the ongoing narrative about the current television golden age and even more that don’t; solid, unironic writing about How I Met Your Mother, which was a silly, inconsequential show, was only recently everywhere. The essays are published in places that range from In These Times to the National Review, and they appear at every Grantland in between. The very New York Times that, in 1993, was Wallace’s example of public contempt for television now publishes essays about how TV shows are the new novels, the heirs to Dickens, the form of U.S. fiction that’s actually bold and relevant. This sort of thing might be a kind of answer to Wallace’s call for writers to “treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction” — no longer derided by those who are addicted to it, TV gets treated with plenty of reverence and conviction.

Basically, the apparatus of literary criticism has decided that what David Foster Wallace once called a “low art” is now just art, even though a lot of pretty normal people still love it. The apparatus of literary criticism means this sincerely.

The Multiple Selves Theory

But clearly essays like the one by Ashby and Carroll at Salon, or the one by Tom Scocca, or the responses to Scocca by a lot of people, are a result of something. Ashby and Carroll wrote a good piece that is worth reading, even if I think they based it on a source that is as obsolete as it is wonderful. What is the irony to which they’re reacting so vehemently, and what is the earnest anti-rebellion they desire?

The issue is there is no easily-identified artistic movement in 2014, certainly not one that can be characterized as either detached irony or earnest sincerity. Cormac McCarthy published The Road mere months before Tao Lin published Eeeee Eee Eeee. Both novels are products of the same time, even if they seem to live at opposite poles. The ongoing irony debate, then, is a reaction not to a dominant cultural sensibility but to the particular structural nature of an era that makes such opposites possible. Seth Abramson, in a piece called “On Literary Metamodernism,” describes this situation better than I can:

The challenge today’s younger artists face is to find wholeness of being and clarity of emotion in the midst of a cacophony of Internet-Age stimuli. These stimuli are forever wrenching them back into our noisy American culture, one that impels them to a multifaceted, Internet-savvy selfhood that never feels entirely true or essential.

So the problem isn’t that there is a dominant cultural sensibility, enforcing its relativistic, ironic detachment onto us at the expense of earnest meaning. Rather the problem is Abramson’s “cacophony.” He goes on to describe the state of literary America as “hundreds of literary micro-communities,” which is a reference to the MFA system but which, at a higher order of magnitude, also works as a description of contemporary cultural discourse, which plays out in public and in real time. (Abramson launches his essay with snippets from “Television and U.S. Fiction,” too, though all the stuff about TV isn’t really relevant to Abramson’s purpose. That a twenty year-old piece is so influential and so thought-provoking despite the obsolescence of its central plank is fascinating. What if Wallace had lived long enough to write a new version of it that took into account the rise of art television and the new primacy of the Internet over all sorts of things related to story consumption, privacy, and individual expression? This stuff was only nascent in 2008. The world changes fast.)

Most of us now live multiple versions of ourselves in various public spheres; your Twitter self is not your Facebook self is not your Instagram self. Even if you don’t dabble in the social networks, you are, in all likelihood, plugged in to Internet media, reading or watching or listening to whatever content flows your way through your chosen connections to the stream. Your Internet selves are in constant dialogue with the selves of a lot of other people, in other words. While writing this essay, I was sent a Gchat that linked me to a Helen Lewis piece about teenagers and social networking.


What unites many of those who are heavily invested in social networks, Marwick argues, is “a sense of life as an ongoing performance”. … Social networks’ constant demands for updates encourage us to become spectators of our own lives. Think of all those people holding up smartphones to get their own blurry photo of the Mona Lisa, say, when there’s a perfectly focused postcard available in the gift shop.

The stream delivers! Here’s Abramson again:

To be sincere, one must, presumably, deny the contemporary poet’s multiple “artificial” selves, and therefore be insincere to the real state of affairs; yet to indulge the contemporary poet’s multiple artificial selves is to sincerely detail the insincerity our culture sometimes forces upon us, and therefore be, however inadvertently, insincere in content if not design.


So here’s what I think: This whole irony kerfuffle is a response to the reality of the Internet Age. This is a reality that cannot be described as ironic or sincere because it is both, often at the same time.

The Hipster Shit

In 2009, Levi’s launched an ad campaign called “Go Forth,” which paired dramatic imagery with Walt Whitman poetry. The ads, and many of Levi’s similar ads in the years since, target millennials, and they are unapologetically sincere. I haven’t bought a pair of non-Levi’s jeans since the first time I saw “Go Forth.”

The negative critical reactions to the earnestness of these ads can be summed up with the phrase “this is hipster shit.” Negative reactions to the work of Tao Lin can also be summed up with the phrase “this is hipster shit.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

In 2010, on a site called Notes on Metamodernism, this appeared:

Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings towards fanaticism, gravity pulls it back towards irony; the moment its irony sways towards apathy, gravity pulls it back towards enthusiasm.

Seems simple, so of course it’s a little more complicated than all that. Irony isn’t just an oscillation away from fanaticism; today, irony is necessary for the pursuit of post-millennial sincerity. We live significant portions of our lives on the Internet, which is controlled by a patchwork of corporate and state frenemies; the Internet offers seemingly endless opportunities for us to create new selves, and then it turns those selves into commodities. The parts of the Internet that do this particularly effectively become wealthy and super powerful and start to shape society. In 2006, I spent hours making lists of my favorite books and movies and posting carefully-selected pictures and writing mostly-public text updates, all while considering my audience, which meant it was all the performance of an Internet character, and now Mark Zuckerberg is worth thirty billion dollars. Isn’t that insane?

Ashby and Carroll, once again, on Tao Lin:

The entire narrative is as disconnected from the larger society as the characters are from each other, and therefore it reads as a mimetic rendering of a soulless world rather than satire. New Tao Lins publish every day, feeding the culture’s desire to watch its own destruction.

But this dramatic statement is invalidated, a handful of paragraphs after it appears, by the writers themselves: “Dishonesty is the biggest obstacle to making original, great art.” If the world being portrayed — a world built on the donation of selfhood and identity to those who exploit them to manufacture wealth and outsized influence — is indeed soulless, then a mimetic rendering of said is about as honest as you can get.

Achieving what Seth Abramson refers to as “wholeness of being and clarity of emotion” — what Ashby and Carroll would call “meaning-making, sincerity and redemption” — requires both irony-driven destruction and earnest attempts at rebuilding. The presence of the former does not preclude the existence of the latter, even within the same artist at the same time. In fact, this is the only option: To unleash the fullness of human artistic expression, even if doing so means remixing and reconstituting romanticism and modernism and postmodernism, even if it means deploying pointed snark one moment and real sadness the next. The point is to express humanity.

If there’s a dominant cultural force, it’s the Internet-driven commoditization and dehumanization that just about literally exchanges souls for profit, defended by a thick shield of what Tom Scocca calls smarm. By focusing so intently on a small part of a bigger scene, Ashby and Carroll have committed an act of friendly fire caused by an outdated map of the battlefield. In the ‘10s, irony and sincerity are allies. If we finally stop misidentifying as the entrenched power a given set of writers or small literary communities or handful of books or whatever school of art — all of them just bubbles in an ocean bigger and more varied than it’s ever been — then we might, finally, identify the enemy.

Featured image via Ryan Healy


Bradley Warshauer
As a kid: Once read a newspaper so intently over a candle that I did not notice its ignition.
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  • Jonah Stutz


    I came across your essay via the Open Culture blog. I’m glad I did–it’s a superb, well-reasoned analysis. Allow me to attempt to restate its theme: It’s not one or the other, silly; it’s both–always has been (see Buddhism 101) but particularly today w/ the astonishing breadth of content and opinion that is so widely disseminated and available. You okay with that summary?

    Your thesis pulled me in right away b/c, as a huge DFW admirer, I’ve often had very similar thoughts w/r/t to another of his essays–the one dealing with language (I think it’s called Tense Present). I love that piece for its nuanced unpacking of the then (and seemingly still, albeit often misguided) raging debate b/w the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. But, just like this irony vs. sincerity topic, in so many ways the discussion has matured and progressed since then, with the labels being less helpful and even less applicable to the various people to whom they were once attached. I often find myself pining for DFW’s take today!

    Anyway, nice job.

    Jonah Stutz

    • Jonah, thank you so much for the kind words. And yes, I think that’s a great summary. It’s that oscillation between irony and sincerity, or even the one in the service of the other, that I think Wallace himself employed so well.

  • Trent Parker

    Bad writing.

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