Today I re-read one of my favourite essays: David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television And U.S. Fiction.” Aside from Wallace’s always-delightful blending of the hyperintellectual and the hypercolloquial, what I really enjoy about the paper is Wallace’s exploration of the usage of irony in fiction writing, and to what degree irony is still useful. The question Wallace calls much-needed attention to (perhaps even more so now than in 1990 when he was writing) is: to what degree is irony still “cutting edge” when Burger King sells you onion rings with ‘You Gotta Break The Rules.’ In other words: if mass-culture is already awash in irony, is irony still an effective tool in attempting to undercut or cleverly subvert and comment on mass-culture?
David Foster Wallace’s opinion, supported by his own incredibly unique work in fiction, seems to be: “yes, irony is still an effective tool – if you are a highly self-aware literary genius capable of inventing all kinds of ways to poke fun at the fun you’re having in your ironic criticism and also ‘delivering the goods’ in terms of character and story and world etc.” (although one could certainly argue the “story” point I suppose w/r/t for example Infinite Jest…but who cares about story anyway? It’s everything and nothing…especially in prose, I think. I don’t know. What do I know? I don’t care that much about story when I’m reading a book, that’s what I know.).
My opinion is simply: no, irony it is not an effective tool anymore. Or at least: it’s not a tool I’m interested in using. To me, it’s a coward’s tool. It’s a lazy tool. It’s easy. I’m feeling uncomfortable? Make a joke. I’m afraid? Make a joke. The state of the world disgusts me? Make a joke and move on.
I’ve said this often and I’ll keep saying it: sincerity is the new counter-culture. The most punk-rock thing you can do in the age of laugh-at-everything is cry at a movie. DFW describes a New Rebellion:
“The next real literary “rebels” in [the United States] might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.”
Being sincere is terrifying. My new movie is very sincere and I’m terrified by it. I’m absolutely, one-hundred percent afraid of criticism and marginalization from my peers resulting directly from how sincere my movie is. But I know it’s exactly the movie I want to make. In response to all the noise and all the bad jokes, I want to take an audience to a quiet meadow for ten minutes and spend some time with these people I’ve created, listen to them. If nothing else, making the film has been therapeutic for me in that way, as an excuse to go and live somewhere quiet for ten minutes. I have to believe it’s of value.
In any case, today was an affirmation of my desire to be a New Rebel. Oh how banal.
You can read “E Unibus Pluram” here.
Until next time.
Dylan – Edmonton, AB