Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Enjoy your cage!

[David Foster Wallace argues that while lots of contemporary writing is] smart and inventive, most of the time it “doesn’t satisfy its own agenda. Instead, it most often degenerates into a kind of jeering, surfacey look ‘behind the scenes’ of the very televisual front people already jeer at….” The problem for these writers is that they

render their material with the same tone of irony and self-consciousness that their ancestors, the literary insurgents of Beat and postmodernism, used so effectively to rebel against their own world and context. And the reason why this irreverent postmodern approach fails to help the new Imagists transfigure TV is simply that TV has beaten the new Imagists to the punch. The fact is that for at least ten years now, television has been ingeniously absorbing, homogenizing, and re-presenting the very same cynical postmodern aesthetic that was once the best alternative to the appeal of Low, over-easy, mass-marketed narrative.
. . .

The challenge... was to stop relying on an overfamiliar cynical tone that could now say little more than, Hey, isn’t this absurd? You and I are in on it, but what can we do but go along for the ride? “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.’” Wallace quotes critic Lewis Hyde (writing about John Berryman): “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.”

-- from Elaine Blair, "A New Brilliant Start," NYRB, December 6, 2012

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