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August 27, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

Post-Ironic Sentiment

[Update: The Endnotes page links have been corrected. Thanks, Matthew, for tipping me off to the break!]

Comfortably familiar terms: cynicism, pessimism, nihilism, stoicism. These are terms that respond the way the world confronts me. It is unknowable, evasive, and discouraging, but also crummy, vicious, amoral, and often impossible. Annoying terms: sentiment, earnestness, sincerity. These are terms that are cloying, romantically nostagic, psychoanalytically ridiculous, and either intentionally hypocritical or merely stupid. Confusing terms: ironist, post-ironic. The problem: pre- versus post-ironic earnestness.

Kevin Guilfoile has a terrific post up at Infinite Summer on irony. First off, he amusingly regales us with some misuses of the term ‘irony’ in which it means “entirely congruous,” which is sort of circularly ironic, since it means the exact opposite. But since DFW denounced irony – both inside and outside IJ – we are left wondering why he makes use of so many of tools of so-called post-modern, ironic literature. As Kevin points out,

What you have in Wallace and Eggers are writers who have instinctively appropriated this ironic reflex and put it in the service of sincerity – the techniques other writers have used to distance the author from the text they use instead to engage the reader with it.

Now, as far as I understand it, this is a wonderful summation of the idea of post-irony.[30] And though Kevin is disheartened by the introduction of the term, noting that it is hardly better than using ‘post-modern’ to try to say something distinctive over and against the modern, I think he has already made (ok, I’ll say it: ironically) the most important point in its favor! It is the use of the ironic impulse in order to fashion a relationship to deeply and sincerely felt emotions.

Look at a longer description of post-irony, from Lee Konstantinou, author of the recently published Pop Apocalypse:

[Postirony is the attempt] to reformulate the moral logic of earnestness in an ironic world. The artists engaged in this effort appreciate what irony (as a tool of cultural criticism and as a means of resisting the dominant culture) has let us do since the heyday of the counterculture, but they also desperately want to push beyond irony, and the negative critical methods of the counterculture, towards something else. Towards something postive, affirmative, or (at the very least) real. Put differently, all these artists are struggling to find a way, through art, to express deeply felt, often unbearable, emotions without seeming trite, cliched, or mainstream; yet they all seem somehow forced to use highly ironized and self-conscious means of doing so.

As I understand it, Konstantinou gets his initial understanding of post-irony[31] from Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl, which I’ll quote just below. But notice what is not specifically identified here, and that is whether sentiment, or earnestness, on the other side of irony is in fact the same as pre-ironic sentiment. I think it is not, which is where the “post” really carries its weight. But this is in my view one potential danger of reading some of the recent sections of IJ in a fashion that seeks out unadulterated emotion – what Hal calls “goo” (see pp. 694-695 in IJ, as well as my previous post on Nothing Left Inside Hal, as well as Naptime’s Quote of the Day #48) when Hal confesses that perhaps the only way he can imagine a genuine internal life is when it is indeed all bound up with the sentimentally earnest, which is what he cannot quite buy into, even at the cost of remaining primarily ironic or anhedonic – that is, lonely.

Here is how Shakar writes post-irony (in the voice of Chas, in a speech on the new “Dark Age” of marketing):

By “postironic” I don’t mean “earnest.” Innocence lost cannot be reclaimed so simply. This is more than a simple backlash. Our culture has become so saturated with ironic doubt that it’s beginning to doubt its own mode of doubting. If everything is false, then by the same token anything can be taken as true, or at least as true enough. Truths are no longer absolute; they’re shifting, temporary, whatever serves the purpose of the moment. Postironists create their own sets of serviceable realities and live in them independent of any facets of the outside world that they choose to ignore. Ironic advertising is becoming irrelevant because in the new postironic mind-set irony itself is the base condition; it is beside the point. Practitioners of postironic consciousness blur the boundaries between irony and earnestness in ways we traditional ironists can barely understand, creating a state of consciousness wherein critical and uncritical responses are indistinguishable. Postirony seeks not to demystify but to befuddle, not to synthesize opposites but to suspend them, keeping open all possibilities at once…. Postirony is ironic earnestness. (The Savage Girl, p. 140)

And that last bit, I think, is what is importantly specific to post-irony: it is a blurring of the boundaries between cynicism and earnestness, between belief and disbelief, between possibility and impossibility. For me, this is a caution not to take the “humanity” (oh, the humanity) of IJ in an unmediated fashion. And it is also a gesture to the remarkable sophistication and prescience of the novel’s vision, placing us on this blurry boundary without lecturing to us about how we should feel/think about it.


Leave a Comment
  1. naptimewriting / Aug 27 2009 9:55 pm

    Great post, and I now have to go grab The Savage Girl. Because though I agree there may not be essential truths, I disagree about postirony existing outside reality. That said, the Chad speech is spot on that post-irony is not anti-irony. It’s not fighting with the basic premise of cynicism, which stems from a weariness and struggle against being manipulated with schmaltz. Post-irony acknowledges the purpose of irony, and its power, by saying that we can learn something from irony and use it to find truths and feeling and a reality beyond the manipulation. Which is what postmodern fiction feels like, manipulation, especially after reading a book like Infinite Jest.

  2. Lee Konstantinou / Aug 28 2009 1:39 am

    Funny thing is, I decided to use the term postirony first, started doing research, and only then found “The Savage Girl,” which of course fit my emerging argument perfectly.

    “Postirony” has advantages and disadvantages as a term. The “post-” sounds too much like the “post-” in “postmodernism” for my taste, but the retention of “irony” is a good reminder that we haven’t jettisoned irony and “postirony” doesn’t specify exactly what irony is being opposed to (sincerity? earnestness? mawkish emotion? engagement?). That’s the problem with a term like “neo-sincerity,” for instance; it’s too specific.

    The important thing about postirony — the thing that distinguishes it from mere earnestness/sincerity/whatever — is that it is an attempt to press a certain (ironic) means toward allegedly new (sincere/earnest/engaged/etc.) ends. I say allegedly because I don’t buy that we’re really all so irredeemably ironic as DFW would have it or that irony itself logically forecloses the possibility of saying any of the other stuff we want to say or that the use of irony is very precise in many of these discussions. The most important thing about Wallace and Eggers and other postironists is that they are intervening specifically in *literary* history, inventing new ways of writing, etc.

    On “The Savage Girl” — which is a smart, fun book — I would only add: we have to be careful quoting Chas re: the use of the term postirony. In context, Chas is defining postirony in a way that aggressively “co-opts” other definitions of the term within the world of the novel, specifically Javier’s concept of “The Age of Light” but also Ursula’s emerging association of postirony w/ the “subversive” homeless savage girl of the novel’s title.

    One of the central questions of “The Savage Girl” therefore becomes, “What *is* postirony (within the novel), and in what way is “TSG” an example of postirony (in our world)?”

  3. Jeff / Aug 29 2009 11:40 pm

    I agree with you that DFW is trying to operate after irony—I was at a reading of his where he got into the question of style, and I remember him saying he had a “terror of sounding sentimental,” and he hated that he felt that way, and had to try to find a way to write what was real without sounding so earnest that no one could possibly believe he was both sincere and intelligent.

    (Here comes the “Postscript” to The Name of the Rose again: “The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently. I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, ‘I love you madly,’ because he knows that she knows [and that she knows that he knows] that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.’ At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same. Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent, both will have accepted the challenge of the past, of the already said, which cannot be eliminated; both will consciously and with pleasure play the game of irony. . . . But both will have suceeded, once again, in speaking of love.”)

    What I’m not sure of, though, and would be interested to hear more about, is how he uses the techniques of irony to supersede irony itself. Is it just a matter of juxtaposing ironic material (which proves a competence in irony) with anti-/un-ironic material, and working from the contrast? That doesn’t sound right—it sounds too simple, for one thing, like it would invite a judgment of which of the two materials were offered in good faith—but I’m not sure I’ve come up with anything else yet.

  4. Lee Konstantinou / Aug 30 2009 11:55 am

    “What I’m not sure of, though, and would be interested to hear more about, is how he uses the techniques of irony to supersede irony itself.”

    Well, I wrote a 40 page bit on precisely this question for my dissertation on postirony… and the short answer is… “It’s complicated.”

    The main technique, for his short fiction at least, is related to where Wallace positions the “fourth wall” in his stories, if that makes sense.

    Most metafictional fourth walls open up onto the situation of the reader (“What I am reading is a construction!” you’re supposed to conclude).

    Wallace’s metafictional fourth walls open up onto the situation of the writer (“He really means what he’s writing!” is the lesson).

    The two best short examples of this postironic technique can be found in “Octet” and “Good Old Neon.”

  5. Aaron / Aug 31 2009 7:26 pm

    I knew there was a reason I loved “Octet” and “Good Old Neon” the most.

  6. infinitetasks / Aug 31 2009 10:08 pm

    Thanks for chiming in, Lee! Wish you’d been around for Infinite Summer, but apparently the project will continue in some guise or another.

    I’ll look forward to hearing more about the “fourth wall.” The point you make is interesting – the sincerity question returns back on the author, not the reader, but posed as a kind of shock or surprise. This would mean, I take it, that IDing becomes possible between “author” and “reader”. But is this the same as IDing between the “author” and the author? Sorry to be quote heavy, but I’m gonna need some pushing (through the wall, perhaps, though I don’t know which one) if I’m going to start seeing an actual author behind those texts!

  7. itzadrag / Sep 2 2009 2:38 pm

    “… a state of consciousness wherein critical and uncritical responses are indistinguishable. Postirony seeks not to demystify but to befuddle, not to synthesize opposites but to suspend them, keeping open all possibilities at once…. Postirony is ironic earnestness.” (Chas in The Savage Girl, p. 140)

    Wallace, Eggers, et al may be “intervening specifically in *literary* history, inventing new ways of writing” (Konstantinou). But from where I sit (as all-too earnest reader) this ambiguous state of consciousness in creation, this holding-open of cognitively dissonant possibilities feels like new neural nets forming, a new brain to frame the world out there. I get the strangest sense of freedom while living in this literary work: of remaining both acutely and actively critical, while being deeply engaged beyond an intellectual level. Not “goo” sentiment, but still: sub rational. I haven’t quite experienced this since youthful years studying and producing the works of Brecht. Thank you all for your generous comments and great posts on literature. I’m new to all this, and thrilled at the doors and windows your comments blow wide open. Is that too earnest for words? Or merely the importance of being so (ouch).


  1. The Space Between : Journeyman

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