Twenty years ago, Wallace wrote about the impact of television on U.S. fiction. He focused on the effects of irony as it transferred from one medium to the other. In the 1960s, writers like Thomas Pynchon had successfully used irony and pop reference to reveal the dark side of war and American culture. Irony laid waste to corruption and hypocrisy. In the aftermath of the ’60s, as Wallace saw it, television adopted a self-deprecating, ironic attitude to make viewers feel smarter than the naïve public, and to flatter them into continued watching. Fiction responded by simply absorbing pop culture to “help create a mood of irony and irreverence, to make us uneasy and so ‘comment’ on the vapidity of U.S. culture, and most important, these days, to be just plain realistic.” But what if irony leads to a sinkhole of relativism and disavowal?
The art of irony has lost its vision and its edge. The rebellious posture of the past has been annexed by the very commercialism it sought to defy.
Shortly after “The Real World” spawned dozens of other reality shows, the format reminded me of the coliseum in Rome. American Idol was the worst of the lot, where the first episode is a blooper reel of the worst auditions. Mass media encourages us to feed on each other, savoring the humiliation of others who could have just as easily been us. Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll’s article is an excellent analysis of the intersection between irony and sincerity in art at the nexus of fiction, television, rebellion, and commercial interests.