Above and beyond irony: Madonna and David Foster Wallace

Madonna on stage

Years ago, around about the time that sub-culture was dominated by an ironic distance, evidenced by grunge and Nirvana and Linklater’s ‘Slacker‘ and Coupland’s ‘Generation X‘, pop-culture’s Madonna said the most remarkable thing. At a concert she called out to the audience of actual and wannabe teens and said something like this: “Don’t let irony get in your way. Irony can mean not trying. You’ve got to try.” As equally as Cobain’s ‘When I was an alien / Cultures weren’t opinion’ from ‘Nevermind’ impressed me, so to has Madonna’s call to action moved me. She’s on to something. I’ve always been saddened by those who adopted the ironic distance that implies: ‘I could, but I’m not going to’; made suspicious by that that coolness which suggests: ‘Now that you and the rest of the world like it, it’s so over’; felt uncomfortable by those who would mock rather than make. It was easier to stand back, shake the head slowly at the naivety and sentimentality, grin that sad, knowing grin – and walk away.

David Foster Wallace speaks so eloquently on the withering effects of irony that it’s a wonder I didn’t just stand back and leave it to him (although without the mocking and knowing grin). In the BBC Radio 4 documentary on Wallace, it’s suggested that his time in self-help centres for depression and addiction contributed to his hostility towards irony as a cultural and especially literary approach that undermines truth and authenticity.

This entire documentary on Wallace is informative and inspiring, but at 18.00 minutes there begins a short discussion of irony, starting with a reading of his in which he describes the ironist as ‘a witch in church’ in the group of recovering alcoholics:

His fiction, and especially ‘Infinite Jest’, is a way of exploring that tension created by the desire to move beyond irony and yet retain a protective layer that shields us from our fears. Wallace says of irony in this clip:

“Irony is this marvellous carapace that I can use to shield myself from seeming to you to be naive or sentimental or to buy the lush banalities that television gives. If I show you that we’re both bastards and there’s no point to anything and I was last naive at about age 6, then I protect myself from your judgement of the worst possible flaws[s] of sentimentality and naivety.” (19:45)

It’s ironic, listening to Wallace who attributes the desire to shield ourself from judgement to popular culture (and television in particular, which he is critical of in ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’d Never do Again’) that Madonna should say what she did in the face of irony as the dominant mode of discourse. But she did. And she was right.

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