To get a better idea of David Foster Wallace’s concerns in “E Unibus Pluram”, I took the text of the piece and input it into a word cloud. It is really telling:
|Created by Leon Erickson with Wordle|
We can see that he was concerned with television (obviously), fiction, images, watching, irony, and people – this last being maybe Wallace’s most popular topic; Wallace, in my opinion, was always most concerned with people and the human condition, which is why I think he was so interested in television’s sway on society, he was worried about what it was doing to us all, which is why it might be worth taking a look at Wallace in conjunction with Dick Hebdige’s ideas in “Subculture: The Meaning of Style” concerning hegemony in that there seems to be a direct link between Wallace’s concerns about television and hegemonic control.
Dick Hebdige says, “Subcultures represent ‘noise’: interference in the orderly sequence which leads from real events and phenomena to their representation in the media” (2481). For Wallace, this “noise” could be said to be postmodern irony, and what he is worried about is how it has made the transition from a “real event and phenomena” to its sublimation and representation in the media. That is to say that postmodern irony operated originally as a subculture, and “interfered” with the “orderly sequence”, and that at one point it was “real”. The problem now, for Wallace, is its “representation”. Maybe “representation” isn’t the right way to think of Wallace’s gripe though, because he seems to be more upset by the fact that it (“it” being postmodern irony of course) has been bodily lifted and set in place as the new norm. Subcultures create what Hebdige describes as “temporary blockage in the system” (2481), but it seems that postmodern irony as a subculture is no longer a blockage, but an integral part of the mediated system and if “E Unibus Pluram” is a manifesto, and manifestos work against previous or old ways of thinking, it is this that Wallace’s manifesto is working against. He sees postmodernism, and its direct connection to irony, as having been not only corrupted, but co-opted and no longer a subculture at all.
The reason subcultures are thought to be disturbing is that they contest the way people ascribe identity to themselves. Hebdige describes the disturbance in people’s perceived versions of themselves as “profoundly disorienting” (2481). That is why subcultures, such as the punk movement, disconcert so many people – they call into question the consensus or media-controlled representational view of the human experience. Irony is a potent weapon in the fight against these sorts of dominant discourses as, according to Wallace, it has a negative and deconstructive element, what he calls a “deadpan sneer” (49), and also irony is deeply involved with language and discourse in that irony deals with speech directly. Irony is the act of using words in a way to convey a meaning that is opposite to that which the words mean in a literal sense.
This is important – that irony is the use of words – because as Hebdige says, “Notions concerning the sanctity of language are intimately bound up with ideas of social order” (2481). He seems to be saying that a challenge to language, or communication, is an attack on social order. Postmodern irony has a special ability to attack communication directly, which, at first was, if not a good thing, then at least an effective thing. Wallace says as much, “Irony in postwar art and culture started out the same way youthful rebellion did. It was difficult and painful, and productive” (66). But Wallace goes on to complicate this notion, saying that postmodern irony’s initial institution was, “frankly idealistic”. He also says that postmodern irony served as a “grim diagnosis of a long-denied disease” (66) – the Wallacian idea of “disease” seeming to be a representation of America through pop-culture and media as equitable and balanced and without a fringe element. Wallace finishes up this thought by intimating that early postmodern irony “assumed that etiology and diagnosis pointed toward a cure, that a revelation of imprisonment led to freedom” (67). Wallace acknowledges that irony was a capable tool in the early combat of American hegemony, but that it served its purpose and, more than that, it has been co-opted by the very hegemony it once worked against.
This is the crux of the “E Unibus Pluram” manifesto: postmodern irony has not only run its course, it is now working against subculture, or at least has been adopted by mass media – television in particular – in order to “fool” or lull people into a submissive and ever-watchful populace.
Another Hebdigian connection to Wallace’s manifesto suggests that there is a certain irony at work in the sublimation of subcultures. Hebdige says, “Style in particular provokes a double response”, much like irony’s double meaning – (and by that I mean its literal meaning and its intended meaning, which is the opposite of its literal meaning) – the double response Hebdige mentions is this: “it is alternately celebrated (in fashion pages) and ridiculed or reviled (in those articles which define subcultures as social problems)” (2483). So what happens is that subcultures are simultaneously revered and reviled. They are celebrated for their fashion while at the same time heaped with derision for their apparent lack of intellectual value. Maybe this is why postmodern irony has been absorbed. It has the ability to do just what Hebdige locates as hegemony’s goal, to absorb, deconstruct, and re-represent that which its lens is focused on. Hebdige describes this hegemonic move as “the simultaneous diffusion and defusion of the subcultural style” (2483), going on to say, “those young people who choose to inhabit a spectacular youth culture are simultaneously returned…to the place where common sense would have them fit” (2484). They are “returned” in that they are labeled in a way that situates them once again in society. Instead of a teen “punk-rocker” there is the “kid just playing dress up”. This is what Hebdige refers to as “recuperation” (2484).
Hebdige gives two rules for the process of “recuperation”:
(1) The conversion of subcultural signs (dress, music, etc.) into mass produced objects (i.e. the commodity form);
(2) The ‘labeling’ and re-definition of deviant behavior by dominant groups – the police, the media, the judiciary, (i.e. the ideological form) (2484).
It is of note that Hebdige talks about the “ideological form” since it is this that the “E Unibus Pluram” (as manifesto) is dealing with in a way. Wallace talks about postmodern irony as having not only been converted, but as having become the new order of ideological form. Wallace deals with television in particular in “E Unibus”, but he uses television as a representative example of society at large. He does this by labeling American society as a “culture-of-watch[ers]”, and then goes on to draw connections to television and various forms of artistic expression that influence culture, saying, “the most interesting intercourse is between television and American literature” (41). So, in a culture-of-watchers, television is king and that this king rules artistic expression, even literature. Television (the king) informs us (Americans) of who we are – one of television’s goals, according to Wallace, being to act as a “mirror” (53) – and therefore it becomes the driver for how we, as humans, make sense of the world. Wallace mentions television as being an “institutionalizing of irony” (much like what Hebdige says happens of all subcultures) which then leads to “narcissism, nihilism, stasis, loneliness” (73). This is what “E Unibus Pluram” is railing against, an end to the double meaning and passive aggressive nature of irony. It is a manifesto for honesty and sincerity.
 Here I wrote down from my own head a definition of irony then checked the O.E.D. then changed a couple of things to make sure that I was in alignment. I don’t really think that I am paraphrasing or anything, so I didn’t cite this, but I figured I would add this footnote to cover my bases.