[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. 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 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.