Irony and the Meaning of Human Existence: The Problems of Postmodernism
The Postmodern Irony of David Foster Wallace When you meet a new acquaintance at a social gathering, your first instinct is to seek common ground. The more cosmopolitan the gathering, the less likely you are to assume your new acquaintance will share your idiosyncratic tastes and experiences. You may want to talk about your favorite… The post Irony and the Meaning of Human Existence: The Problems of Postmodernism appeared first on VoegelinView.

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The Postmodern Irony of David Foster Wallace

When you meet a new acquaintance at a social gathering, your first instinct is to seek common ground. The more cosmopolitan the gathering, the less likely you are to assume your new acquaintance will share your idiosyncratic tastes and experiences. You may want to talk about your favorite sports or movies, but not if your favorite movie happens to be one no one has ever heard of or if your sport is considered kooky, conventional, highbrow, lowbrow, etc. When in a crowd of strangers, the most expedient way to forge a connection is to appeal to the one thing you can safely assume that everyone has experienced: that is, the “global village” of mass media – a viral video, a trending tweet, the #1 song on Spotify.[1] It matters very little whether it is anyone’s favorite. The point is that we have all experienced it.
Our gravitation towards mass media is the necessary result of living in a highly pluralistic society such as America. How can I ever claim to understand the African-American experience, the Native American experience, the Latino experience, the Asian immigrant experience, the Muslim experience, and so on and so forth? I know no nothing of their experiences, and they know nothing of mine. However, if it so happens that we have both seen the latest Marvel movie, that is inevitably what we will talk about for the next hour, regardless of whether we liked it or not. There are plenty of viable theories for why American society has grown so cynical, but one theory is simply the fact that our most common experience is that of consuming mass media. Regardless of one’s political leaning, most people are not particularly proud of the quality of mass media, nor are they proud of their compulsion to consume it. But to be unaware of mass media is to have no shared experience at all, which is much worse. We consume mass media to save ourselves from social exile.
American author David Foster Wallace made an excellent analysis of the mass media situation in his 1997 essay titled “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.”[2] Wallace gives us a thoughtful critique of the impact of television on the American imagination. However, it is not clear that Wallace himself would actually call what he does a critique. A critique, for the postmodernist, is the obsolete practice of the classical ironist, because the term critique implies the existence of a metanarrative or an objective reality. Wallace’s “critique” (let’s call it an observation) was this: At the time of his writing, the rising trend in modern television scripts was to be self-referential. This trend was not unexpected. The novelty of television technology had worn off, and audiences had grown aware that the stories they were being fed were formulas. This self-awareness in American audiences caused the attention to shift away from the substance of the story and towards the formula itself. The self-referential television script became the foundation for postmodern irony.
According to Wallace, consuming mass media changes the shared experience of all who participate in the medium. In the modern age, the mere act of watching a screen is a shared experience, sometimes our only shared experience. The compulsive and compelling nature of this shared experience can shift the consciousness of an entire population. In the case of America, it can be truthfully said that very often the only certain shared experiences between me and my neighbor is the weather and the audio-visual media in which we both participate. Never mind that the one is real and the other is not. We treat both as equally real, and it is our treatment of the latter which leads to the mental malaise that is so common to the 21st century American.
In a population in which we have few shared experiences save for the collective consumption of mass media, it is not surprising that the kind of stories distributed by 21st century Hollywood have changed. After all, we want to see movies about our life experiences and our communities. But if our life experience is primarily watching movies and our community is the global village, it should not be surprising to find the subject matter of our movies to be increasingly about watching movies. And such a trend is precisely what we see in current popular art. The cutting-edge artists today do not draw their observations from real life but from the tropes of whatever genre they are operating in. Originality is defined not by some fresh observation of human life, but by subverting the expectations of the formula. In other words, mass media has become ironic.
My argument, along with Wallace, is that there is a serious problem with the postmodern use of irony. While the aim of the classical ironist is merely to unearth the truth, the aim of the postmodern ironist is to ironically stand above everything and therefore protect himself from somehow being the butt-end of a joke. No one dares to be really sincere about anything, because to be sincere means that someone can find something ironic about your position and ridicule you. The problem with this ideological position—to borrow the language of the environmentalists—is that is not sustainable.
People struggled with perfecting the art of swordsmanship, but when the gun was invented, the struggle was over, and so was the art of swordsmanship. Postmodern irony places literature in a similar position. It is the final artistic development which brings about the end of literature itself. This is not an overstatement, nor is it merely another doomsday prognosis. I do not believe that postmodern irony truly marks the end of literature. But any literature today which purports to be a spiritual ancestor to postmodern irony—and follows the canons of postmodern art—has no future.

“Irony is a song of a bird that has come to love its cage.”

Take a look at your man, now back at me, now back at your man, now back at me. Unfortunately, your man is not me. But if he stopped using lady-scented body wash and switched to Old Spice, he could smell like me.” [3] The man in the Old Spice commercial coos these words with a face that is both seductive and smug, which seems to say “yes, we both know what I am doing—isn’t it funny?” The Old Spice slogan “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” is a joke which undermines the whole campaign of product association. We know that associating an image with a smell is fundamentally absurd. It is ironic, so we laugh. This ironic stance makes a joke out of the joke: we are both manipulated by the images and included in the joke of being manipulated by them. The Old Spice idol is an idol which destroys itself by bringing attention to the fact that it is an idol.
Modern media feeds the part of us which is always hungry (our vanity) and our fears, both of which are common to our humanity. To this end it takes no interest in either its own dignity or ours. It presents beautiful bodies and successful people and then tells us that we can be one of them. But sooner or later, the reality of our true situation awakens, and we see that we are neither successful nor pretty. They have tricked us, and now we feel like a fool. But the media writers are quick to pick up the remains of our shattered egos. Lest we surrender entirely our pursuit of their illusions and click the “off” button, they will try to ensnare us again with a snickering critique of their own vapidity.
In reality, the propagandists have merely shortchanged us by substituting the idol of success and beauty for another, far more elusive idol: the idol of cleverness. The idol of sex can be easily deconstructed because any clever person can see through it. But the idol of cleverness can never be seen through with cleverness itself because cleverness is the eye we have always employed to “see through” all other idols. Why should we assume that cleverness is the true pathway to perspicacity? That is the final and most damning deconstructionist question that the deconstructionists have not sufficiently answered. Unanswered, because not asked, this parasitic festering wound is what feeds the infinite jest of postmodern irony. Self-referential irony is even more effective in sealing our loyalty to our living room couches than any promise of social, financial, or sexual fulfillment. “Let’s go,” says Estragon in Waiting for Godot. And Samuel Becket deals the fatal ironic stroke to us in his emphatic closing stage direction:
They do not move.[4]
How clever! How deadly funny! We can now continue our complacent, unfulfilling life, find comfort in it, and even be proud of it, if we can be trained or seduced into nourishing a smug sense of superiority over the “other people” who have been “taken in” by the media’s commercial propaganda machine. We have no idea who these “other” people are when we are watching the commercial that plays on this theme – but the commercial tells us who they are. And if we become self-aware of our self-awareness, it takes no effort on the part of the producers to simply add another layer of irony so that the most self-aware person always wins. If you can find the irony of the other “group,” you transcend the group, until someone finds something more ironic (in other words, something laughable) about you. You can revert backwards to deeper and deeper layers of irony ad infinitum.
Postmodern irony is often a pleasant refresher from the cognitive prisons we have more or less voluntarily encamped ourselves within. As long as we know that we are being manipulated by “greedy capitalists” who seduce us by appealing to our vanity and animal instincts, we imagine that we are no longer imprisoned by them. At least, we believe that we are no longer imprisoned, because irony tells us we are not. It is an ironic movement, and ironic movements always provide relief. But unless we presume that the unveiled reality ultimately conceals some final sincere statement, our relief is only transitory. In order to experience relief again, we must uncover yet another layer of irony. But how fruitful can such ventures really be if we do not eventually reach the mother’s face behind all veils, if indeed we have actually decided in the first iteration that there was no face to be found? As Eliot put it, we have been “distracted from distraction by distraction.”[5] Henceforth, the joke will always be on us.  As Wallace puts it, “Irony [is] the song of a bird that has come to love its cage.”[6]
If the observations of David Foster Wallace and my description of postmodern irony appears convoluted and inconclusive, that is to be expected. Postmodernism is convoluted an inconclusive by definition. The classical ironic joke depends on the presentation of something unreal in deliberate referral to something real. But postmodernism presumes that there is no final layer of sincerity which is ultimately real, so that the ironic referral is itself only referring to something which is an ironic referral to something else. And if I, as a postmodernist, state that there is no final layer of sincerity, am I saying that sincerely? If there is no final layer of sincerity, then everything and nothing is a joke at the same time. Therefore, seeking to draw conclusions about postmodernism and postmodern irony is like trying to find the square root of a prime number: the result will always be irrational.

“Is he not rightly named Jacob?”

But perhaps Wallace’s observations about the current state of U.S. fiction is not as new as he makes it to seem. It was the biblical Jacob who first employed irony as a weapon for personal gain by anchoring the reality he did not see in a reality that did not exist. What Solomon used to exact justice, Jacob used for the exact opposite purpose.
Esau was the hairy outdoor man of the sword, a favorite of his father Isaac and the rightful heir to the family inheritance. Jacob, a smooth skinned man, was the younger and the favorite of his mother Rebekah. According to the Genesis account, Jacob wore goat-skins on his arms so as to pose as Esau and consequently receive the blessing from Isaac, who had grown blind in his old age. In doing so, Jacob employed an even more subtle game of peekaboo. Understanding that there is a schism between the seen and unseen, why not simply fabricate the unseen by exploiting the blunted senses of his father? It would be a clever trick…and very funny too. But the recipient of this mode of irony is not laughter, but rage. “Is he not rightly named Jacob?” cries Esau.[7] The name Jacob, which literally means “trickster” or “supplanter” showcases the Biblical account of the potential evils which can emerge from the use of irony.
Imagine if the infant’s mother in our first peek-a-boo example was a trickster like Jacob. She plays peek-a-boo with her infant, teaching him classical irony. But then, like Sir Gawain’s green knight, the mother plays a sly and nasty trick. While hiding behind her hands, she pops her head off and runs away with it. The infant waits, and waits, and waits, for a thousand years and a day, but the mother never pulls away her hands. Finally, old, wrinkled, and reduced to a shapeless grey mass, the ancient infant tears away the hands, and finds nothing there. Such is the cruel punchline for the postmodern ironist. Henceforth, there will be no emotion for him but rage. The duped postmodernist tears his hair and cries, “is he not rightly named Jacob?”
I am employing a form of classical irony by telling a parable, but the postmodern irony latent in modern commercials indicate that we are acutely aware of this very manner of trickery. We look at the images in a commercial, and then our own lives. Then back at the commercial. Then back at our lives. They are not close, not even remotely close. Nor are they intended to be.  Their goal, after all, is to tell us the story of the mother’s face behind the hands while meanwhile sneaking away to work some other mischief. They condition us through false images to desire things that do not exist. The trickery of irony in this case is being used against us to create a tension for which we will seek resolution by purchasing the hyperbolic image of the product the tricksters want us to buy by exploiting the reality we see (the commercial images) and the reality we do not see (the painful absence of those images in our actual life).
But unlike the game of peek-a-boo with the toddler, we discover that the reality we do not see is not real either. When the postmodern mother pulls away her hands, the child does not see the mother’s face, but no face at all. There is no mother behind the hands. The ending of the story is neither a comedy nor a tragedy, but mere stupidity, brutish and banal stupidity intensifying the futility of any and all action in the world. Our situation becomes not unlike Jacob’s, who found out, all too late, that deception begets deception. When he pulled away the veil of his wife’s face, he found no Rachel behind it.[8]

Concluding un-ironic Postscript

There may be problems with the overly simplified exercise of dividing up all of intellectual history into the abridged categories of classical and postmodern, but I believe the exercise is a valid one for the purposes of diagnosing certain symptoms of our modern malaise. The modern technological and digitized world, with its infinite superfluity of images which can be created and traded at nearly no cost and without limits, is radically different than the one experienced even fifty years ago, and we need language to articulate this difference. The main distinction I draw between the two is that postmodern irony does not predicate itself on the assumption of objective truth.  If in a postmodern world, objective reality has not only been abandoned but even the search for it is considered a waste of time, there can be no game of peek-a-boo.
To make the distinction more palpable, let us recast the Solomonic story as a postmodern tale. Let us suppose that neither woman was the true mother and that the two of them conspired to steal some other woman’s child who was not even present in the courtroom for the mere sake of causing trouble. Solomon then executes an innocent child for nothing. Or better yet: Solomon cuts the baby in half and it really does slice like a block of cheese, because why shouldn’t it? What makes a human being different from a block of cheese anyway? It would not be difficult to see how such a situation could be highly amusing, in its own dark way. But it would not be a joyful laughter. Would it not be more akin to the old man in Eliot’s “Little Gidding”?

“The conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse”[9]

The ironic stance, in the classical sense, gives the ironist the power to “zoom out” and view the true reality of the situation. The ironist can then laugh, because he can see the disjunction between the reality and what only appears to be the reality. But the post-modern ironist can only zoom in and out again. And again. And again. No matter what new reality appears, there is always another reality which invalidates it. Notice I say “another” reality, not a “truer” reality – because there can be no “truer” reality in the postmodern vision.  The classical ironist laughs at absurdity, because he believes the universe is ultimately meaningful. The postmodern ironist laughs at laughter, because he believes the universe is absurd. The classical ironist may imitate and make mockery of the ridiculous and thus provoke laughter.  The postmodern ironist laughs, but he is not really laughing: his laughter is merely an imitation of laughter. He understands no more about it than a parrot understands speech. In order to have a sense of humor you must also have a sense of un-humor—if this is not a sense of the sacred, it must at least be a sense of the not ridiculous.
This is perhaps why our culture is so attracted to the Joker from Batman. The Joker sees a joke in everything, including joking itself. The whole joke of joking, for the Joker, is that there is really nothing to joke about. As C.S. Lewis said in The Abolition of Man, “To see through all things is the same as not to see.”[10] If everything is funny, then nothing is sacred. If nothing is sacred, nothing is really funny.
In the faux, debt-based economic prosperity of the roaring 20s, something like “common sense” may have once served as a sufficient totem of sanity to unite us with a sense of the “not ridiculous.” But such a totem was not strong enough to withstand the postmodernist onslaught where every statement of historical or philosophical fact can be mocked, deconstructed, or otherwise revealed to be driven by some ulterior motive. As intellectual descendants of Foucault, Derrida, and Sartre, the imaginative substance of the future calls for something better than mere conservatism or common sense. Wallace called his solution “the New Sincerity” and wrote a book which he hoped would help realize it: a 1000-page novel called Infinite Jest. But the title itself should tell you a little about the ending, or lack thereof. It seems that both his work and his eventual suicide is a sad testimony that Wallace never reached the final layer of sincerity which was not laughable.
Granting Wallace the credence he deserves to the very real problems he uncovers, the solution is perhaps more complex than what can be said it a postscript. When faced with such problems, the Apostle Paul’s rhetorical riposte seems appropriate: “what then shall we say to these things?”
It would be easy to despair over the state of irony in modern American society and what it has done to the sacred, just as Nietzsche despaired over the death of God in an earlier dispensation of history. But as long as we are still capable of laughing in the face of pain, insufficiency, and absurdity in ourselves and the world, we can still infer (indeed we must infer) that there is pleasure, wholeness, beauty, and order on the other side of chaos, even if we cannot always see it—even if we never see it. What we need is not new sincerity, or an ubermensch. Like Jacob, when the false images we consume become the graven images that we presume to be behind the reality that we do not see, our only salvation is to wrestle with God until He blesses us. Is it possible to devise a style of irony in which the telos is not intended for destruction? Is there a kind of irony in which the final layer of sincerity is joy?
Such is the question I hope to address in the concluding essay of this expose on irony.

NOTES:

[1] Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Message, 1964
[2] David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do again, 1997
[3] “Old Spice | The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” YouTube, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owGykVbfgUE>
[4] Samuel Beckett, Act II, Scene 3, “Boy,” Waiting For Godot.
[5] T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets, 3:101.
[6] David Foster Wallace, “David Foster Wallace unedited interview (2003)” Youtube, 3:02, <https://youtu.be/iGLzWdT7vGc?t=182>
[7] Gen. 27:36
[8] Gen. 29:23-25.
[9] T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets, 2:135-37.
[10] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 1944, p. 81

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