I trace the evolution of irony in popular culture from 90s television to the internet, by considering David Foster Wallace’s famous essay ‘E Unibus Pluram’. You can read much more about the development of irony and its role in 90s culture in my book Before The Internet, a draft of which is freely available here.
You might remember this Corbyn meme: his face superimposed over that of football manager Kevin Keagan, who, about twenty years ago, was interviewed after a match and who said, of rivals Manchester United, his voice breaking with genuine feeling: ‘I will love it if we beat them. Love it’ (https://twitter.com/tristandross/status/862634998813388800).
Originating with user @tristandross, it did the rounds on twitter last May, in the run up to the election Teresa May had called to consolidate her power against the poorly polling Corbyn. The words ‘I will love it if we beat them’ subsequently came to function as a rallying cry among Corbyn fans: each new poll that brought increasing hope, each new incompetency by May would be greeted with the words. These same fans implored young people to get out to vote, and themselves went out door knocking on the day of the election.
It would be silly to say this had much of an effect on the result — twitter is small and the world is big. But I can say one thing: on me and on people like me it had a very strong impact. As a Northern Irish person, I’m somewhat distanced from UK politics: our votes in general mean little and my vote in particular means nothing.
But seeing that video, and seeing the people I follow repeat the mantra, I realised that I too would love it if we beat them. Before I had waveringly and tepidly supported Corbyn, annoyed about his perceived incompetence. I realised, certainly, that May was very bad, but it was mainly an abstract awareness. I rarely felt good about Corbyn and rarely felt horror about May.
But the video of the Labour leader superimposed on that of the former Newcastle United manager changed that. I started to feel that I would love if it we beat them. The video made me feel things.
That’s a puzzle though. That video is ‘ironic’. It has the all the hallmarks of what we call postmodern irony: the intertextuality, the playfulness, the distance, the blurring of high and low culture. Irony isn’t meant to function like that; it’s meant to deflate hypocrisy rather than inspire sincere feeling, to destroy rather than build. What’s going on?
My aim is to try to answer this question by considering the evolution of irony in popular culture in the last twenty five years. I will look again at David Foster Wallace’s seminal 1993 paper about tv, fiction, and irony, ‘E Unibus Pluram’ in which he argued that television culture is permeated with irony, that this causes disaffection and apathy, and that we should jettison irony in favour of sincerity. I want to see how Wallace’s theses stand up twenty give years on, having moved from a culture in which tv is garbage to a world of ‘prestige tv’, and, more importantly, having moved to a world where the internet takes up spare time of our lives as television formerly did.
The first thing to realise is that ‘E Unibus Pluram’ was published in 1993, and at least some was written as early as 1990. This is important: at that time, the two bona fide great works of 90s American network television, The Simpsons and Seinfeld, hadn’t yet hit their stride. The Sopranos, The Wire, Arrested Development and Madmen were years away. TV hadn’t got good then.
Instead one had boomer-oriented primetime soaps like thirtysomething, bad sitcoms, infomercials for Depends Adult Undergarments and footage of Operation Desert Storm. That is to say, TV was — at best — trash. And yet people spent a lot of time watching tv: the average American (whom Wallace labels Joe Briefcase) watched six hours a day.
Wallace tells an interesting story about what made so many people watch so much bad television. It goes like this. Joe Briefcase knew that these shows were dumb and that watching six hours a day was not a productive way to spend his time. But at the same time, he was more or less bored and lonely: he needed the vicarious satisfaction of having people in his living room doing exciting things as an undemanding way to relax after work. Moreover, television makers had a motive to cause him to spend his time that way: tv programming was essentially a way to sell adverts, and the more a person watched, the more adverts they saw (for more about how early 90s television was shaped by advertising, see, e.g. Robin Andersen Consumer Culture and Tv Programming).
The TV makers had a challenge, then — how do you make somebody do something that they kind of want but also know is at heart a waste of time? Irony, Wallace says.
This arose first, he claims, in advertising. Consumers increasingly became weary of ads, and so ad makers had to change up their ads, and the way they did so was to appeal to post-WW2 postmodern literature, the literature of people like Pynchon and DeLillo which involved a blending of high and low culture, of absurd humour wrapped in literary sensibility, of, again, ‘irony’.
Wallace gives the example of a series of car ads which parodied other car ads. An oily salesman tells a bunch of outrageous lies about the car he was advertising: it runs on tapwater, its seats are made of iguana. He doesn’t say much positive about the car. Such ads work as sort of inside joke, acknowledging that ‘car ads are ridiculous and Audience is dumb enough to believe them.’ But they work because ‘the ads invite the lone viewer to drive a [brand of car] as some sort of anti-advertising statement’.
The logic behind such things is simple and neat: the consumer was anti-advertising, so to get on the consumer’s good side the adverts themselves had to be anti-advertising. This worked, apparently: people responded to such ads.
The transition to tv programming was inevitable. If we agree that Joe Briefcase thinks tv is a waste of time, then tv makers need to get him on their side, and they can do that by themselves just saying on their face that tv is a waste of time. If he doesn’t think that tv should be taken seriously, tv should fall in line and say of itself that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. TV should take an ironic stance towards itself. And that’s what happened, Wallace says.
Let me give just an example of the sort of thing he means. Consider the following bit of televisual irony, an updating of an example Wallace gives. Imagine Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned meth cooker, were to appear as a goofy high school science teacher in a family sitcom with a laugh track. Such a casting has an alienating effect. You couldn’t just see him as the goofy teacher, but you’d bring the associations of him as the evil drug dealer in watching the sitcom. These associations affect the way you perceive him and the character, causing you to cease whatever suspension of disbelief is required to consume fiction. The show undermines its own attempt to present to you the teacher: it knows that you’re going to draw on these associations. Classically, that would be bad artistic manoeuvre: a new action which attempted to undermine itself by having the lead role played by, say, Rowan Atkinson, would be strange. But such things are ubiquitous in postmodern art in general and tv in particular. In effect the show is saying: “look, we don’t care about convincing you that this guy is a goofy chemistry teacher. That’s silly, and we don’t think you care about that. We’re sharing this sophisticated intertextual joke about the silliness of sitcoms instead.”
Such a message flatters us while denigrating television, and makes us feel less stupid for wasting our time on something stupid. Irony, referentiality, playfulness, these all serve, according to Wallace, to sweeten the pill of dumb television, to keep bums on seats, as they keep eyes on advertising.
Recall I said above that irony is advertising took its cue from postmodern ironic literature. Wallace seems to suggest that that literature was itself inspired by the television of an earlier generation. This involves a slight digression, but it will help us get a broader sense of the history of the concept of irony post-WW2, and so will, I hope, be worth it. There are, for Wallace, two important factors here: the hypocrisy of the traditional family values programming of the 60s and 70s, and the televising of the Watergate scandal in the early 70s.
Consider the latter first. It can be hard, living now in the age of 24 hour news, when a literal reality tv star is president, to consider what it must have been like, in the summer of 1973, when the Senate hearings were broadcast on all networks, or when Nixon’s repeated asseverations of his innocence showed up on the same device you used to watch Bewitched or M*A*S*H. That sort of jarringness is old news for us, but you have to believe that it made some dent on the way people brought up then thought of the world (evidence that it did comes from social history presented in the first few chapters of Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge, which I’m leaning on heavily in this paragraph). Again, around the same period, think of the spectacle of soldiers returning from Vietnam, men returning to a changed country having suffered and caused suffering for a war no one believed in. Television was made to expose such hypocrisies: the hypocrisy of the lying present addressing the nation, of parades for ruined young men who fought an unnecessary war.
The second important thing worth noting, and somewhat related to what I just mentioned, is the difference between what the tv of the 60s and 70s produced and what reality was like. Traditional sitcoms featured strong nuclear families upholding traditional values (father knows best and so on). These were passé in the antiwar swinging 60s, and couldn’t be but watched with a sense of supercilious cleverness and detachment.
These are the sort of things that could breed disillusionment, distance, paranoia, and Wallace thinks this is exactly what you see in people like Pynchon and Gaddis and DeLillo, who are concerned with appearance and the diverging reality, the signal in the noise, and often explicitly with television or pop culture itself. Importantly, Wallace tells us, television and pop culture function in these authors as a point of reference not only because of a postmodern concern for a bathic merging of high and low culture but simply to be realistic. Even if people weren’t watching 6 hours a day in the 60s and 70s, it was still there, a feature of life that a chronicler of life ought to account for.
In short, Wallace tells a compelling story about the rise and prevalence of irony in American popular culture that can help us understand our current times. To sum up: in the 1960s and 1970s, mass media revealed and promoted hypocrisy: a media that portrayed the happy nuclear family while the 60s were swinging, a media that, when turned to the presidency, revealed vast and bizarre deceit. This inspired postmodern literature and the development of an ironical stance both to tv and in life. TV makers, inspired by advertisers, later co-opted this ironical stance to pre-empt the claim that tv was a dumb waste of time by, in essence, making that part of the content of tv itself, the better to keep people watching and keep ad revenue ticking over.
That’s the cause of televisual irony. What about its effects? What does spending six hours a day watching something you know is dumb and which is at pains to tell you itself is dumb do to a person?
For Wallace, the answer is not positive. Such viewers are characterised by ‘jaded weltschmerz, self-mocking materialism, blank indifference and the delusion that cynicism and naivete are mutually exclusive’. (‘E Unibus Pluram’; all further quotations are to this).
Irony is bad, for Wallace, and for two related reasons. Firstly, irony is essentially destructive. It can rail at hypocrisy, but it can’t suggest new things: ‘irony is singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks’.
Secondly, it is hard to get away from. If one is in an irony culture, to criticise is to ironise. But that means one can’t criticise irony, because that’s to ironise irony, and that’s just irony. It’s self-undermining in a pernicious way. I can do no better than quote Wallace here:
[I]rony tyrannises us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All US irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying’…[if you ask the ironist what they mean they say they answer] ‘how totally banal of you to ask what I really mean’. Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig
You can’t question irony without being ironised. But then what is to be done? Are we then stuck with irony, with destruction? If we can’t question the ironist, what are we to do with them? Rebel, Wallace says, famously, and
dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal”. To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.
In what follows, I want to consider the central claims of Wallace’s essay by considering the evolution of irony in the past twenty five years. Has Wallace’s exhortation to sincerity been taken up? Is TV condemned to irony? If it were, would that be a bad thing? Is irony essentially destructive? If we are living in an irony-filled culture, can we simply switch to being sincere without giving up on realism? (recall the reason why television featured in DeLillo and Pynchon was partly just because television featured in the day to day life which as novelists they wished to capture).
I will answer kind of, no, no, no, yes to the above questions. We are, at least partly, in a sincerity culture. TV is post-ironic. Its post-ironicness is not completely salutary, because irony plays an important role in pointing out hypocrisy. Irony isn’t essentially destructive: there can be constructive irony. This is what we should strive for, an art and a way of relating to the world that admits — as realism demands — that we are living in times to which irony is the only reasonable response but that nevertheless true feeling can emerge from it, the way political feeling emerged for me from Corbyn Keagan.
TV has changed a lot since Wallace wrote; as I’ve said, it’s got good. This started almost as soon as his paper went to print. Both The Simpsons and Seinfeld are, I take it, vastly superior to any television show which preceded them and deserve to stand as highpoints of 90s (US — I’m going to focus only on the US in what follows) art in any medium. And it continued: The Sopranos, Arrested Development, The Wire, The US Office, Breaking Bad, and so on. We’re in a golden era of television, of ‘prestige’, ‘long form’ drama, and sharp, inventive comedies.
It’s comedies I’m going to concentrate on here, since I think one can chart most clearly the rise and fall of irony in them. We reached peak irony around 1995, I would suggest, when both the Simpsons and Seinfeld were on their best form. The latter show defines itself against what’s come before: it’s the anti-sitcom which obstinately is situated nowhere, is, famously, about nothing. Moreover, it tonally defines itself, ironically, against comedies which put nice people being nice to each other front and centre. The famous dictum of Seinfeld was ‘no hugging, no learning’. The voice of Seinfeld is the voice of the person watching those 60s sitcoms mentioned above and decrying their hypocrisy.
The Simpsons, in turn, is perhaps the highpoint of postmodernism. It is constantly aware of itself as television and as a product of television culture: the action cuts away to Kent Brockman or MacGyver or Itchy and Scratchy. They joke about how irony has tv has destroyed their attention span and caused them to feel neither highs nor laws (which feels ‘meh’, according to Lisa); a disaffected teen says that something is cool and when asked if he’s being ironic says he doesn’t know. Scene dissolves into unrelated digressive scene in a way suggestive of the mind of one flipping around television late at night. All this leads to what seems like a surreal show but can, in fact, be understood simply as the closest we can get to a realistic portrayal of the surreal life of one who watches six hours of television a day.
From then on, I claim, we gradually move away from irony, and comedy gets more and more straight. Skipping forward a few years, consider Arrested Development. This is still markedly postmodern. The use of a narrator enables the same digressive, pastichey style, mixing voices together — it enables us to go from a scene between Michael and his son to a Spanish ad for George senior’s Cornballer, to a flashback. But there’s already some notable differences between Arrested Development and its 90s ancestors: we’ve gone into the real world, there are fewer eruptions of downright surreality, and there’s a sliver of feeling, as against Seinfeld’s constant apathy and snark.
The next stage, skipping forward another few years, comes with the duo (made by many of the same people) of the US Office and Parks and Recreation. Most of the postmodern ironic playfulness is gone: these are more or less straight, realistic comedies with no digressions and no absurdity. However, and I think this is very important, not all the postmodern playfulness is gone. Crucially, these shows are mockumentaries. What this means is that they can have their postmodern cake while remaining realistic. Jim can look at the camera when Dwight does something ridiculous and we can feel that he’s looking out at us, that it’s an in-joke. This lets the viewer have their postmodern distanced comfort, but it doesn’t serve quite the alienating effect that traditional fourth wall breaks have. Jim breaks the fourth wall without really doing so because the fourth wall is part of the show itself, and this allows the writers to maintain a tone of sincerity. Though primarily a comedy, it has scenes which are genuinely, at least to this watcher, full of pathos. The romance of Jim and Pam is very well done; and Michael’s loneliness, just subtly bobbling up to the surface now and again, is also moving. The same holds of Parks and Recreation; it has the same mockumentary feel, but it nevertheless manages to portray feeling among the characters. The characters all like each other, they’re all ‘nice’, yet it doesn’t feel — again your mileage may vary — cloying or insincere. In the 10 years since Seinfeld stopped airing, the no hugging, no learning dictum has been put to bed, as has the choppy surreal style of The Simpsons.
Things continue: the best currently running mainstream non-animated shows, in my view, are The Last Man On Earth and Brooklyn Nine Nine, and these are completely straight: there is no postmodern tomfoolery at all here, and these are just traditional sitcoms. It’s like the 90s never happened.
There’s a pattern in this data: going as far as it can with The Simpsons and Seinfeld, tv has gradually ceased being ironic. Wallace was just writing too early to be able to tell the whole story about television, and his prediction, at least in some sense, has come true.
Is this a good thing? Wallace, presumably, would say so, but I’m not too sure. There are two reasons for thinking this. First, it’s very notable that the shows I mentioned, after Arrested Development, are devoid of political awareness. Think of the 2008 financial crisis. This is easily the most important political event to happen in the lifetime of young millennials. I can’t think of any discussion of it in contemporary American comedy: nothing in Parks and Rec or The Office, nor in those shows that followed it.
That’s bizarre. Were The Simpsons still in good health it would certainly have things to say; so would Arrested Development (think of its Iraq plots), or the in some respects similar (and from a similar era) 30 Rock.
Irony is destructive, Wallace says, and he’s right — but sometimes we need to destroy. The deironisation of television might not be all good, if it prevents the expression of political truths which ought to be presented. This is the first lesson I want to draw in this paper: even if irony is destructive, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Contemporary TV comedy is the worse for not being ironic in this way.
Here’s the second thing: although these shows manage to avoid postmodern irony, they miss out on a lot. There’s very little tv in these tv programs. Moreover, the other great source of irony in our lives, the internet, features not at all. No comedy has gotten to grips with our social media obsessed lives, with the life of one who lives on the internet. Indeed, this point extends beyond comedy: think of the big shows of 2016: Game Of Thrones, Westworld, Walking Dead, Stranger Things. None of them are set in a world where the internet exists.
I suggest the reason for this is because they’ve flown from irony, and irony is a ubiquitous feature of our lives on the internet. If they were to portray the life of a young person going from twitter to facebook to tinder, to their work email, to facetiming grandparents, it would inevitably come across ironic and postmodern: there’s something inherently ridiculous about flicking between political analysis, memes, dating apps and so on on a tiny black device, despite the fact that that’s what we all constantly do. In eschewing ironic postmodernism, these shows give up on the chance of being able to depict realistically the lives of young people as they are lived today. Instead we get life in Westworld or Winterfell, or the 80s or the zombie apocalypse.
Such shows have, I claim , sacrificed realism to sincerity. But with this mention of the internet and its ironies it’s time to turn to consider internet irony in more depth, because it’s there where the hope lies of a constructive realistic ironic culture.
The big difference between our world and Wallace’s is, of course, the internet. Joe Briefcase’s six hours a day are now spent on the internet rather than watching tv; face to face interactions now, as then, will often be peppered with ‘have you seen x?’ but now the x will be, more often than not, a meme or an article rather than a show.
The internet is full of irony. The most poignant example is probably the alt-right associated with figures like Milo and the pro Trump reddit subs. I don’t propose to consider this in too much detail, simply because I lack the familiarity with that subculture to confidently pronounce about it.
Instead, I want to focus on something else, something closer to home for most readers of this essay, namely the use of memes among highly educated, politically interested people on twitter. Among the people I follow memes form a central part of the way we communicate.
Here’s my claim: the consumption and production of memes, which takes up a lot of a lot of our time, is a fundamentally ironic procedure. It involves the same sort of distancing, the blend of high and low culture, the humour, the self- and other- referencing that we associate with postmodern irony.
Here’s a concrete example from when I first wrote this essay. A clickbaiting libertarian recently decided to play devil’s advocate and argue that even if the Grenfell tragedy, in which hundreds of people in a London towerblock burned to death because of inadequate fireproofing, would have been avoidable by installing sprinklers, it wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do. It’s overly coercive, she claimed, to force people to install such things as they infringe upon one’s liberty to get burned to death and spend money on other things.
How can one respond to such a thing? Well, here’s how people did respond. Among many others, a quick twitter search revealed one person replied with a gif of The Thick Of It’s Malcolm Tucker looking upset, and another with a screengrab from the Simpsons, of Homer, the caption reading ‘Sure, it’ll save a few lives, but millions will be late’. This is highly typical: treating a highly political matter with bathetic humour which references old tv.
Moreover, the attitude of the producer of such a response is fundamentally distanced and ironic. We know we shouldn’t be reading these dumbass libertarians; literally we’re getting mad at someone who set out to get us mad to get advertising clicks. It’s a waste of our time, and so would be penning a serious response pointing out the argumentative flaws. So we ironise, just as Joe Briefcase ironised away his tv habit. We make fun of the libertarian and we make fun of ourselves and our friends like it and we like their tweets and we have a good time. And we do this constantly, because we’re faced with a constant stream of trash like this; examples like this could be multiplied at will.
So then I think there’s some decent grounds for saying that we can accurately update Wallace’s thesis. He thought tv, at least when he was writing, was of necessity an ironic medium; we can say there’s decent grounds for thinking that the internet is the same.
He thought that irony was inherently destructive. This, too, seems at first glance right. A quick glance at leftist twitter would confirm this: It’s quite savage, and involves a lot of attacking, a lot of mocking, a lot of extreme and graphic satire ((alt-)rightist twitter is, of course, orders of magnitude worse).
Similarly, Wallace’s claim about the tyranny of irony seems borne out. He complained 25 years ago that irony was still going, a couple of decades after its introduction to postmodern American literature. It’s not, he says, ‘a rhetorical mode that wears well’. It seems that it’s still still going, only it’s now migrated from tv to the internet. And it has spawned the alt-right. If anything, irony has gotten to be much more of a problem as time goes on.
So ought we to despair, as Wallace despaired of his culture? I don’t think so, at least not completely. Sincerity exists. The internet is not completely irony infested. And even if it is, irony isn’t inherently destructive. Wallace looked on his culture with despair; I think ours has much to be hopeful about.
As to the first point, if I look to my twitter feed I see a lot of sincerity. People as educated and as politically involved as the meme slingers talk seriously about politics, mental health, disability, poverty. And that is completely fine, tonally. In fact, often the very same people who participate most in sharing the memes, the Simpsons shitposters, the professional wrestling referencers — these very same people are often the most sincere and informed. The Keagan Corbyn sharers, as I said at the top, were also the doorknockers rustling up the vote.
Although irony remains the dominant mode of communication, it is not the sole one for such people. Irony can and does live, on the internet, side by side with a heart on the sleeve sincerity. Indeed, I’m somewhat tempted to suggest that we’re viewing played out on the internet what we saw when investigating television: a gradual deironising. A gentle transition. We feel it’s ok to say the earnest things we mean about Corbyn provided we back it up, later on, with a cosmic brain gag.
And that’s really good. Because if irony is destructive, destruction is, as we’ve seen, necessary. Irony is necessary when faced with the grotesqueries of the political situation; bemused disgust is an appropriate reaction to Trump and to Farage. A culture, like contemporary mainstream sitcoms, that has no room for this, is missing out.
This, I think, then, provides one way forward: irony is indeed not beatable on its own terms, as Wallace noted, and we just have to be sincere. We needn’t thereby give up irony, we just shouldn’t and needn’t traffic in it exclusively.
On this story, we have divided selves. We have our serious, earnest voices, and we have our savage ironic meme voices, and never the twain shall meet. I think that makes sense of a lot of our behaviour, is something to be optimistic about, and makes sense of the history we’ve seen here.
But. Remember the beginning of this essay, the Corbyn meme which made me feel things. That doesn’t seem so well explained on the story I’m telling right now. The Corbyn meme seems like it’s not destructive. It seems to combine irony and sincerity together.
I think that’s right. There can be, pace Wallace, constructive, sincere irony, material that uses playfulness and self-referentially for good purposes. Keagan Corbyn is precisely such a case, I suggest. Another example could be furnished by Bernie memes (For example: http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1076338-bae-come-over).
What this suggests is that Wallace was wrong to think that a mass media ironic culture need necessarily be insincere. But why was he so almost right? Why is it almost always destructive?
I think because that’s just how reality was and is: there are more things to complain about than to be hopeful enough. I want to end by suggesting that constructive memes are just reflective of newly discovered possibilities, to which they give voice. This could be naivety that will come false, but perhaps the reason that tv-based irony culture and much of internet-based irony culture was and is destructive was because the culture itself was destructive. Uninspiring politicians whom we had no control over, going all the way back from the third way democrats to, on Wallace’s story, to Watergate and Vietnam, the big crises and disillusionments. Maybe now our culture is becoming less negative: in Bernie and in Corbyn, in the populist left, we see hope, and this hope is reflected in our ironical meme based communications. Irony, on this view, has no valence in itself, but reflects, for good or ill, the political reality around at the time. We can have sincerity without giving up on ironic self-referentiality, and this is a good thing because to give up on that would be to give up on how we live our lives, would give up on a realistic vision of life and in art. Given we can’t just go back to the time before irony, we should strive for sincerity in our irony; for ironic sincerity. That might sound ironic, but, of course, I mean it sincerely.