After the tragic suicide of David Foster Wallace in September, everyone with a basic grasp of the written word took it upon themselves to make me feel like a miserable fraud for never having read him (sadly, I can’t claim this to be a totally novel sensation for me. I’ve always disturbingly empathized with David Rakoff’s statement that “fraudulence is the central drama of my life,” amending “well, that and staying thin.” How excruciatingly true).
A.O. Scott’s Greatest Mind of His Generation, was especially guilt-inducing but I say this only for his linking to Wallace’s piece on Borges, and not that it was what one might imagine to be an atypically grandiose portrait of OUR GREAT LOSS. It was not.
And yet, to even entertain the possibility of tackling the dense “Infinite Jest” in my so-called free time was jest indeed. Being as I was resigned to stew in left-outedness, imagine my excitement when I caught wind of the fact that his collection of essays “The Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, featured an account of his experiences on a Caribbean Cruise (mere weeks before I would find myself back in my new hometown of Barbados, which can be sort of like a big, still, sandy cruise ship—to which I must return. Forever.) I didn’t even wait for Amazon.com to bring it to my doorstep. I actually walked to a bookstore and obtained a copy with the aid of that irrelevant slab of flesh we used to call a “body” before the internet nullified it.
The cruise-ship essay (“Shipping Out”) was delightful. I again found my empathy disturbing– this time with what we now know was a suicidally depressed young man– though admittedly comforted in the knowledge that at least my strong aversion to anything that might be described as an “activity,” yet again appears to be the condition of those whom I consider to be more worthy representatives of the human race.
Actually, I’m truly enthused about Wallace, especially when I got a load of his “E unibus pluram: television and U.S. fiction” essay in the very same anthology. As this is a popular culture blog, I can’t recommend it enough. While amazingly already anachronistic, Wallace’s observations about the impact of television on irony and/in literature were some of the more insightful I’ve ever come across.
If you even kind of respect my opinion, give Wallace’s essay a try. Below is but an (extended) excerpt from the very worth-it piece which can be read in its entirety here.
[H]ow have irony, irreverence, and rebellion come to be not liberating but enfeebling in the culture today’s avant-garde tries to write about? One clue’s to be found in the fact that irony is still around, bigger than ever after thirty long years as the dominant mode of hip expression. It’s not a mode that wears especially well. As Hyde puts it, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. This is why Hyde seems right about persistent irony being tiresome. It is unmeaty. Even gifted ironists work best in sound bites. I find them sort of wickedly fun to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures. And as for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, or sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing but trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow … oppressed.
Think, if you will for a moment, of Third World rebels and coups. Rebels are great at exposing and overthrowing corrupt hypocritical regimes, but seem noticeably less great at the mundane, non-negative tasks of then establishing a superior governing alternative. Victorious rebels, in fact, seem best at using their tough cynical rebel skills to avoid being rebelled against themselves – in other words they just become better tyrants.
And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All irony is a variation on a sort of existential poker-face. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I say.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How very banal to ask what I mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.
This is why our educated teleholic friends’ use of weary cynicism to try to seem superior to TV is so pathetic. And this is why the fiction-writing citizen of our televisual culture is in such deep doo. What do you do when postmodern rebellion becomes a pop-cultural institution? For this of course is the second clue to why avant-garde irony and rebellion have become dilute and malign. They have been absorbed, emptied, and redeployed by the very televisual establishment they had originally set themselves athwart.
For a guide to Wallace’s free work online, visit TNR.