Sunday, November 18, 2012

D.F.W. and Irony

Iannis Goerlandt in his essay “Put the Book Down and Slowly Walk Away: Irony and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest” says, “Wallace is constantly concerned with irony” and goes on to say that irony is “a major theme of [Wallace’s] essays and interviews” (309).  This is undoubtedly true. Wallace uses the word “irony” over fifty times throughout “E Unibus Pluram”.  This is important in that Wallace associates irony with postmodernism, and we can see this in the “E Unibus Pluram” as well, he uses the term “postmodern” over fifty times and often in conjunction with the word “irony”[1]. 

For Wallace, these two concepts are inextricably intertwined. He puts forth as the “thesis” for “E Unibus Pluram” that: “irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture” and that “irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of great despair and stasis” (49).  He does say that what he is most concerned with is what he calls a “subgenre” (50) of postmodernism, which he intimates is called a number of things from “post-postmodernism” to “Hyperrealism” to “Image-Fiction”, the latter being the term he seems most comfortable with, or at least settles on.  At any rate, these “sub-genres” are all informed by postmodernism.  He then goes on to talk about “irony’s aura” (54).  It can’t be said for sure whether or not Wallace is directly referencing Walter Benjamin’s idea of “aura” from “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”, but it is highly likely.  Benjamin describes “aura” as being a work’s “uniqueness” (1056), and that this uniqueness is innate.  Wallace’s position on postmodern irony’s aura is that it “has always set the nobility of individualism against the warmth of communal being” (54).  That is to say that most people want to be individuals while at the same time wanting desperately to feel as if they belong.  He uses television advertising as an example of this. 

As a for instance (not from Wallace): Cee Lo Green singing for a 7-Up commercial, “Be free and express yourself, do what comes naturally”, followed by the catch phrase, “Be yourself, be refreshing”.  Irony’s aura at work here being that 7-Up is suggesting that the lone viewer of the commercial can express individuality by purchasing its product while simultaneously it is marketing directly to the masses.  This becomes problematic in that most contemporary art production, from literature to television, adopts the same sort of postmodern irony.

[1] Searching key words in a PDF version of “E Unibus Pluram” provided these counts.

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