In his 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram,” American writer David Foster Wallace argued against the overarching tone of his era’s most celebrated literature. Excessive irony and disingenuous provocation had replaced honest exploration of the human condition in art. Sex and drugs made frequent appearances only for the sake of controversy, and readers could rarely discern a core message from the works they read. The literary “brat pack” offered works depicting disillusioned modern nihilism, hedonistic worlds of drug-fueled benders, violence and casual sex. However, Wallace argued that this vulgar irony offered no concrete meaning to readers.
Wallace’s crowning work, “Infinite Jest,” took a different approach. The novel rejected outright irony, subverting the literary norm of the day by illustrating boldly sincere principles about relationships, entertainment and, yes, even the meaning of life. Published in 1996, the novel is sentimental. It deliberately inspires empathy. It is decidedly unsexy, lacking the “shock, disgust, outrage [or] censorship” of the postmodern register. Yet despite its earnestness, the novel achieved a poignant rebelliousness. When being an asshole is the norm, niceness is a contrarian act.
While this resurgence of sincerity rang true at the time, we have taken it to its logical extreme. This sentimentality engenders a false nicety; criticizing art, ideas and people allows us to hold each other to a higher standard and is crucial to maintaining a thriving culture.
In response to this “brat pack,” Wallace ushered in the “New Sincerity,” defined by public radio host Jesse Thorn as “irony and sincerity combined like Voltron, to form a new movement of astonishing power.” (The nauseatingly kitsch superhero reference embodies this new authenticity to a tee.) Subsequently, American culture grew increasingly earnest.
Nirvana’s tongue-in-cheek contrarianism gave way to Backstreet Boy sterility. Feel-good movies like “Forrest Gump” and “Shakespeare in Love” swept the Oscars. Birds were chirping and spring was in the air! Sincerity and earnestness reigned supreme. The New Sincerity carried into the next millennium as post-9/11 America transformed into a feel-good culture in which we all cared about each other and good would always triumph. What began as a movement to limit nihilistic irony became an outright rejection of anything negative.
Now this kind of banal sentimentality has become the norm. The Internet has made it easier to empathize with others and feel a part of a larger community. Meme culture renders “relatability” the highest virtue. Friends are now “bae,” members of a “squad.” And “Stranger Things” is “so good!”
“News” sites have commoditized our positivity by reporting just how great everything is. Instead of hearing about the conflict in Syria or climate change, we’re clicking on campy videos such as Upworthy front-pager: “What one man learned about humanity from becoming a professional people-walker.” Compelling.
If news doesn’t give us warm feelings about humanity, we simply repackage it into a sentimental narrative. When photographs of a bloodied, bruised Syrian boy, Omran Daqneesh, surfaced after a large-scale airstrike carried out by the Assad regime, we responded by circulating a video of a six-year-old from Scarsdale, NY reading a heartwarming letter to President Obama offering to give Daqneesh a home. While truly heartwarming, this might have been the most shared piece of “news” about Syria of the week. It’s not exactly foreign policy analysis. How absolutely inspiring; we can forget now about the hundreds of thousands of Syrians getting battered by bombs every day, because we are nice and we care.
The unmitigated positivity pervasive in our culture forces us to ignore the things that ought to frustrate and confuse us. Irony has a real function: it is one of the principle means by which we deal with our most grotesque, dejecting experiences. It allows us to add nuance to uncomfortable topics. While the kind of irony Wallace sought to avoid, destructive rather than constructive, can admittedly go too far, if we expel negativity entirely from our discourse and popular art, we lose the ability to think deeply about the most important aspects of the human condition. So next time you feel uncomfortable, lean into it. Perhaps what we need is a new irony.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .