What David Foster Wallace got wrong about irony: Our culture doesn't have nearly enough of it

In a classic essay, David Foster Wallace wrote that irony was no longer necessary—but we need it now more than ever

Published April 27, 2014 3:30PM (EDT)

  (flickr/Steve Rhodes)
(flickr/Steve Rhodes)

In 1993, David Foster Wallace published an essay, titled "E Unibus Pluram," in which he attempted to diagnose what he saw as the malaise of modern American culture.

In the essay, Wallace describes watching, over the course of his own life, television assume a centrality to every other mode of American culture, high- and lowbrow alike, and including even the lofty space of literature. Wallace saw in this movement a process of gradual but inexorable isolation, whereby the knowingness and self-referentiality of postmodernism was slowly absorbed into popular culture. Suddenly TV was in on the joke, and then so was everyone watching TV. In Wallace's estimation, the attitude cultivated by these developments was a reflexive ironic detachment -- like the sarcasm of Jerry Seinfeld, but magnified and metastasized with each passing season.

It was in that observation that Wallace found his culprit: "Irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective," he wrote. "At the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis."

In a recent essay for Salon, Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll called on Wallace's insights to revisit the argument that -- while irony once "laid waste to corruption and hypocrisy" -- it has in recent years devolved into a "fashionable and a widely embraced default setting for social interaction," in which "lazy cynicism has replaced thoughtful convictions as the mark of an educated worldview." While the article is thoughtfully articulated, it also left me wondering if something of irony's nature was being missed in the process of its evisceration. Is irony really just the casual self-referentiality we see on TV shows like "Community" or the snarky 140-word volleys of a Twitter flame war? Could it really be that simple?

Jonathan Lear is a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. In 2011, a series of lectures he delivered was published by Harvard University Press under the title "A Case for Irony." In the first of these lectures, Lear declared that irony is "fundamental to the human condition, but poorly understood" -- that it is "revealed neither by a majority vote of those who use the term nor by a glimpse of a transcendent idea, but by a grasp of what should matter when it comes to living a distinctively human life."

Earlier this week, I spoke with Lear about the true meaning of irony, and how it might be developed in order to evaluate and exorcise the problems of America's political culture.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

First things first: There’s a common idea today that irony is simply the process of saying the opposite of what you mean, or being being snarky, or wearing goofy clothes even though you recognize them as goofy; that it’s about affectation and kitsch and detachment more than anything else. We have all these different ideas about irony floating around, but maybe you can walk me through what it actually means to be "ironic."

First I want to say, I think one way to start is just in terms of the article you wanted me to look at, where they quote David Foster Wallace as though he himself is opposed to irony. But when you look at what he actually says, he talks about the "oppressiveness of institutionalized irony." And I think to understand what he was talking about you really have to put a lot of emphasis on the "institutionalized," and that got suppressed in the discussion.

I mean, it’s not like I’m a David Foster Wallace expert, but as far as I understand him, he himself was an ironist, and what he was complaining about wasn’t irony, per se, but a very flat understand and misappropriation, what he called an institutionalization of the idea. And so I think for Wallace, institutionalized irony isn’t a form of irony, it’s a form of not being irony. Of killing it. With that in mind, and again, there’s this other issue of how do we understand the use of various words in the English language. And of course if a billion people use this word “irony” in this kind of institutionalized sense, then that turns out to be one of its meanings, and there’s no going against that.

I think what makes irony an important concept to be thinking about and approaching is precisely because there is a tradition of thinking about it and working with it, a kind of poetic tradition -- you can find it in Socrates and Plato and I think one of the great thinkers about this was Kierkegaard in the 19th century -- where, in a funny way, irony is understood and developed by these various philosophers and poets and religious thinkers as very much an antidote to the kinds of things the authors of your article were complaining about. So what I think they’re getting at -- what irony is, and why it matters ...

Firstly, you have to think of a paradigm case of irony and then sort of work out from there. And I think all paradigms of irony are going to have to be personal, they are going to have to strike oneself in the first person and thereby, by striking oneself, one gets thrown by the irony. And I think the idea would be — so I’m talking to you and you’re a journalist, and I’m going to start with something that matters to you, which would be the category of "being a journalist." One the one hand, the first-personal aspect of it starts with: This is part of who you are, and not just part of who you are but who you think of yourself as being. Not only do you have an employment, but the employment expresses certain commitments of yours -- to being a journalist.

And then the question arises: Well, what would it be to be that? And what these various ironists saw is that there can be a gap between, you might say, the social understanding of the term, and, on the other hand, something internal to the concept, or identity, of being a journalist which isn't content with just that social understanding. There’s some discontent there, which is bound up with a sense of what the value actually is of being a journalist. So, in this case, in being a journalist one hopes part of what it is to take on a calling to be a journalist -- and every now and then you see somebody who does that -- it’s a commitment to try and communicate to other human beings what is of significance in the unfolding world, today, in the pressure of the moment. That the person feels that there’s something worthwhile, there’s something good about trying to extract the meanings and ultimate significance of the unfolding moment, in the moment, and share it with one’s leaders and citizens, in an ongoing conversation about how to be and how to understand the world you live in.

Now, as soon as you get some resonance of this value, there’s room for a question that is essentially of the ironic form, which would be:

“Well, among all our journalists, do we have a journalist?”

And the two features of this that are important. One is that our ear can immediately hear a question. It’s like saying, "among all ducks, is there a duck?" When you hear the question -- "Is there really a journalist among all those who are journalists?" -- you hear that there’s a certain tension there.

Secondly, it’s got this power to disrupt you because it gets you at the place where things really matter to you. You’re dedicating your life to a certain kind of commitment, so now the question for you is, well, where are you really with respect to that? And in doing so, it’s calling on some relationship you have to a certain sense of goodness, or what’s worthwhile about this, and how you might be failing.

And then the third point about it, which is crucial in terms of the contemporary discussion is, in that question, although there’s irony there, it can be completely earnest.

The issue isn’t about staying detached from things or never committing. Irony can be a form of earnest commitment. What it can detach you from are certain clichés of what it would mean to be a journalist, or certain run-down understandings of what it would mean. It can detach you from the everyday. But it’s meant to be, or what makes it available, is an occasion for a much richer and deeper form of commitment. And that’s why it matters. So the contemporary debate that you see -- irony is good, irony is bad -- they’re missing the point because they’re assuming everybody already knows what irony is, and the only thing to say is "yay" or "boo." But I would say both sides of the debate, as it’s occurring in the newspapers, tend to be missing out on this very valuable understanding of what irony is or could be.

I just want to circle back for a second on something that you said that I thought was interesting, which was that irony and sincerity aren’t necessarily at opposite ends of the spectrum.

That’s right. There’s a very famous quote from Kierkegaard -- or, I don’t know how famous it is, but it’s one of my favorites -- where he said, it’s "only assistant professors" who think irony can’t be a form of earnestness. Basically his claim is that irony when properly understood is a very high form of sincerity and earnestness, not its opposite. As he put it, it’s a real misunderstanding of what irony is to think it’s the opposite of earnestness toward commitment.

What I’m wondering then is, how did we get to a point where, even though irony is compatible with sincerity, there is still this "institutionalized" idea of irony, as David Foster Wallace put it, where people assume it has to be couched in this very specific and cynical attitude. How'd that happen?

There is something very deep about the human condition which is -- and this is something which was as alive in Plato’s day as it is now -- there’s a limit to how much we can know. People rely on a lot of things by hearsay, gossip, word-of-mouth, common knowledge, things going into and out of fashion. Which, on the one hand saves a lot of time, if what you want to do is get on with daily work. We rely on fashion, we rely on hearsay and gossip. That will always mean -- and this is a point that repeatedly comes up in Plato -- that we’re often saying things to each other that we don’t understand very well, and that we don’t even understand that we don’t understand very well. We’re passing along cliché.

Among the things I’m very interested in are the humanities, philosophy, psychoanalysis. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ll go along just in my daily life and meeting people, I don’t mean at the university, but just in life in general. And people will say, "Aren’t the humanities on the way out?" Or, "Hasn’t psychoanalysis been disproved?" And you talk to the people and they themselves have never read a word of Freud, but they know that it’s dead. Or they’ve never really studied the humanities, never really studied Shakespeare carefully, but they know that it’s over. There’s just a lot in the human condition that, no matter what age we live in, is going to mean that we often live by clichés and fashions.

And yet we are committed, and thus we’re always going to be in conditions where irony is possible. Now it’s also true, and I think this is Kierkegaard who’s very aware of this in the 19th century, that there were emerging conditions of modernity that accentuate this problem. And one of them, I think the one he was very interested in, was the newspaper. Suddenly large numbers of people could read opinions, and meet up in cities like Copenhagen, and they’d all read the same review, the same editorial, and they’d start saying things equivalent of what we would now say. "Did you see that article in Salon?" Or, "Did you see what so and so said in The New York Times." And that would become an occasion for chatter on the subject, without anybody particularly knowing what was being talked about.

And in the contemporary culture that’s been accentuated, first by television, but then even more by the Internet. And something that I have found over and over again that one will see on the Internet: Something can become common knowledge -- that so and so said something -- without it being tied down to the source ever having said it. And I think you can see this, speaking of your interest in irony and the contempt against irony in contemporary culture.

In the Salon article you had me read, the authors said that “lazy cynicism has replaced thoughtful convictions as the mark of an educated worldview.” Well, that seems like the sort of cliché that can be traded around without anybody really knowing what they’re talking about. That’s sort of an image that’s convenient, but it’s not really right. There’s a complaint being made here about a certain decadence in the culture, and it’s right. There is a certain decadence in the culture and it needs to be named and understood. But complaining about the decadence can also be a feature of the decadence. Saying things like “lazy cynicism has replaced thoughtful conviction as the mark of an educated worldview” -- that just sounds way too easy to capture what’s going on.

That’s what I worry about. Both the proponents of what Wallace calls "institutionalized irony" and its critics share something that needs to be understood. And whatever’s going wrong here, it’s not irony.

You could say that irony is actually what’s necessary to unpack these assumptions and clichés.

Yes! That is exactly what I think. And the problem is that both sides think they know what irony is, and one says "yay," and the other one says "boo." Well, they can be very busy with each other, but this is the kind of thing that Kierkegaard called “busyness.” They cover over and ignore. It looks like superficially nothing is missing. Here’s this thing, irony, which, everybody knows what it is, some are in favor, some are against, they can debate 'til the cows come home. But in doing that, they keep themselves from recognizing that there’s something they don’t understand which is the very thing that would get them beyond either of those fixed positions.

One other thing that I think is really interesting is that David Foster Wallace wrote that essay, "E Unibus Pluram," in 1993. And he seems to have prefigured a lot of the current complaints people have about irony — that we've somehow taken it too far. He writes that, and I'll quote him here: “Irony is useful for debunking illusions. But the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone.” As in: We’re finding more points of contention, and finding all these occasions for being ironically detached from one another, but what good is it actually doing any more? We don't need that any more.

I'm 26 years old, and I see a lot of this sentiment, especially among people my own age, who grew up with the Internet and watched the proliferation of what might be described as hyper-partisanship in media and in politics. People think, "What we need now is to find commonality, things that bring us together rather than push us farther apart." There's hunger for a sincerity that they believe is missing in public discourse. But it seems to me that it’s not actually that we’re needlessly torn, or that the knee-jerk snark is itself the poison. The problem is that we are all operating -- whether we're "being ironic" or railing against it -- based on a certain set of assumptions about where we are as a country, and what would make it better, that misses something fundamental about the American problem.

But my question is: How do we get to a place where that deep, probing irony you've been talking about is actually happening, where we're actually putting our assumptions and convictions under the microscope? 

I think you’re raising some really great questions. Two things come to mind: One is, I really wish I had the opportunity to talk to David Foster Wallace because I really think he made a serious mistake. And this is heartfelt. I wish we had a chance to really talk because he does seem like such a serious, moral personality. But I think he’s made a mistake -- both about irony, and the place of irony in contemporary culture.

And that relates to the second thought, in relationship to your question, which would be: In terms of commitment, it does seem to me, one place that politically the issue of irony comes up is around the issue of what "American" is or is to be. And America is a country that was originally founded on a certain set of ideals. However flawed, these ideals were lived and practiced. This is a country that was not founded on an ideal of emerging from the earth, or of having some divine providence. ("Our king slept with a God and now the children have divine origin and now it’s running in the blood.") It was a nation founded on certain ideals of equality and the pursuit of happiness. We’re created equal and are able to pursue happiness, freedom of speech, freedom of religious conviction. That, each of these categories, what would it be to be created equal, what would it be to have the capacity for free speech? What would it be to pursue happiness?

Each of these is ripe for an ironic interrogation, the outcome of which would be a much richer sense of what it would be to be an American. And here I think the irony is utterly earnest. "Among all of our Americans, are there any Americans?" And that is not a form of remaining detached from the problem; it’s a form of getting engaged with it — or it can be.

And the question is, well, how would that be possible? And I think that’s another really excellent question, and I think probably we would need some fundamental political changes to make it possible or to enhance its possibility. I think certain features of the contemporary political — and by contemporary I mean since the Vietnam War — certain features of the American political life that have enhanced the possibility of the kind of decadence that your authors were talking about — which is the institutionalized version of irony — is the outcome of certain political events.

One of them I think was basically ending the draft. Military service to which everybody was subject, not just having a very small economic, social group that are hired to be in the army. That allowed the wealthier, middle class to just opt out. They didn’t have to face the personal threat to them and their loved ones of going to war. That allowed them to become much more detached politically about what matters. I think that’s a very big game changer in terms of how that kind of decadence, why that decadent form institutionalized irony became possible. Secondly, there was widespread gerrymandering in Congress, so that each of the congressmen, once they become elected it’s very very hard to un-elect them, because the districts have been so gerrymandered so that Democrats are elected in Democratic districts, Republicans are elected in Republican districts, and so there’s much less of a sense among young people that they can't make much of a political difference. And third, and I think related to that, is that the laws of campaign contributions are such that the wealthy have an inordinate say in who gets elected, and I think the vast majority feel disaffected.

Those seem to me the kind of contemporary conditions that seem to facilitate that kind of cynicism, falsely understood as irony. But what do we do to change that? I don’t know. I think Obama has been in many ways a very disappointing figure, but if you go back to the initial enthusiasm of his original campaign in 2008, and you look at it, what was that hopefulness that was getting tapped? It seemed to me that that hopefulness was that dawning sense on the younger generation that there was something good here, something possibly good, about being a citizen, about contributing to society, about being an American. That was shaking them up. And when you think about, well, what was getting to them? What was striking them in that moment?

It turned out to be a very ephemeral moment and that’s too bad. But that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to focus in on: the first stirrings of irony where you realize, I’m living by concepts that are shaking me up because I could have been living by the concepts a lot better than I’ve been assuming; I’ve taken them to be too flat and too clichéd, but something more is possible here, and I’m shaken up by that. That’s the phenomenon I’m interested in.

By Peter Finocchiaro

MORE FROM Peter Finocchiaro

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

David Foster Wallace Editor's Picks Irony Jonathan Lear Popular Culture Television