What we talk about when we talk about the New Sincerity, part 2

Posted by @ 8:01 am on June 11th, 2012

"Hi, How Are You?" cover art by Daniel Johnston (1983); "financially desperate tree doing a 'quadruple kickflip' off a cliff into a 5000+ foot gorge to retain its nike, fritos, and redbull sponsorships " by Tao Lin (2010)

It made me very happy to read the various responses to Part 1, posted last Monday. Today I want to continue this brief digression into asking what, if anything, the New Sincerity was, as well as what, if anything, it currently is. (Next Monday I’ll return to reading Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose and applying it to contemporary writing.)

Last time I talked about 2005–8, but what was the New Sincerity before Massey/Robinson/Mister? (And does that matter?) Others have pointed out that something much like the movement can be traced back to David Foster Wallace’s 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (here’s a PDF copy). I can recall conversations, 2000–3, with classmates at ISU (where DFW taught and a number of us worked for RCF/Dalkey) about “the death of irony” and “the death of Postmodernism” and a possible “return to sincerity.” Today, even the Wikipedia article on the NS also makes that connection:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who 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 These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started.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. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.

The point here, I’d claim, is that even the New Sincerity of Massey/Robinson/Mister (2005->) was part of a broader conversation that’s been increasingly bubbling through the culture. Numerous writers since the 90s have been feeling the “used-upedness” of postmodern irony.

Incidentally, there’s been a Wikipedia entry for “New Sincerity” since 8 August 2006. Here’s the original version of that article, written by one Publicradio. I’ll quote it in full, in all its [sic]-wanting and [citation needed] glory, because it provides a substantially different perspective:

The New Sincerity is the name of several loosely related cultural or philosophical movements following Post-Modernism. The most notable grew out of the intermediary movement of Raoul Eshelman and, most notably, Judith Butler, among others, called “performativism.” The New Sincerity takes the basic tenets of perfomativism (that, even when arising from intentionally constructed situations, happiness is experienced as such, not as a false and misleading outcome) and extends the tenets into a transformative way of experiencing life and understanding culture. Privileging human connection and non-ironic expressions of sentiment and concern, instead of disconnection and lofty cynicism, the New Sincerity increasingly returns academic attention from the increasingly deadening emphasis on social construction and the deconstruction of the soul, in cultural studies, to previously-“suspect” topics, such as beauty and aspects of the emotional life.

Current scholarship includes Wendy Steiner’s The Trouble with Beauty, Denis Donahue’s On Beauty, Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, and Bryn Gribben’s 2005 Bodies that Shatter: Ekphrasis, Beauty, and the Victorian Body as Art, which plays upon Judith Butler’s notion of citationality and the body, in order to consider beauty and intersubjectivity as outcomes of the body’s performance of itself. Gribben is also, some claim, responsible for coining the term the New Sincerity in 2003 (though notable uses of the term predate this), and the term was taken up by avant-garde director and scholar Herbert Blau and designer/film auteur Brady Becker, who implements the tenets laid forth in Eshelmann’s seminal 2001 articles on “performativism” in order to construct spaces in which both design and designer are experienced and felt.


It is generally agreed that the principal impetus towards the creation of these movements was the September 11th attacks, and the ensuing national outpouring of emotion, both of which seemed to run against the generally ironic grain of postmodernism. Rough ideas of New Sincerity began to circulate as early as 2002.

Claim to the name “New Sincerity” is wide ranging, and it may have been coined independently by several parties. “The New Sincerity,” as espoused by Jesse Thorn of the public radio program The Sound of Young America since 2002, is a cultural movement defined by dicta including, “Maximum Fun,” and “Be More Awesome.” This use of the term predates Gribben’s coinage of the term in 2003. It celebrates outsized celebration of joy, and rejects irony, and particularly ironic appreciation of cultural products.

In 2005, poets Joseph Massey, Anthony Robinson and Andrew Mister began using the term to describe trends in contemporary poetry with which they identify. Their aesthetic is characterized largely by the rejection of contemporary post-Language irony.

(Was Publicradio in fact Jesse Thorn? I couldn’t confirm that, though you might forgive me my suspicions. Whoever he was, he wrote at the Wikipedia between 2006 and 2007, contributing to articles on “Andre the Giant Has a Posse,” “Ariel Pink,” and “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”)

We can go even further back. In the 1980s, there existed an Austin, TX music scene called the New Sincerity, consisting of artists like Doctors Mob, Glass Eye—and Daniel Johnston:

It’s not hard, if you want to, to trace out a few connections between the NS of literature and the older NS of alternative rock and indie pop. Miranda July was the nexus!

Massey/Robinson/Mister devised their own iteration of the term “the New Sincerity,” focusing it and making it mean something specific in US poetry c. 2005. But, taking a broader view, we can see how the New Sincerity is at the same time much bigger than just the M/R/M scene—part of a phenomenon far beyond their ability to control it.

What’s more, it’s a term still in the making. The term “New Wave” provides a wonderful analogous example. Originally it meant some young French folks making films in the late 1950s/early 60s (“the Nouvelle Vague”). Then it meant other, similar film movements (“the Czech New Wave”). Then, in the mid-to-late 70s, Malcolm McLaren tried to brand his band the Sex Pistols with the term, because he thought it sounded sexier than “punk” (plus he was being retro/nostalgic). It didn’t stick, but a journalist, Caroline Coon, liked the term and applied it to some UK punk bands who weren’t entirely punk—The Stranglers, the Only Ones, the Boomtown Rats. And then US record executives took it and applied it to the CBGB scene—Talking Heads, Blondie, Television—because “punk” was still a stigmatized term. And then it came to mean “any punk-inspired band that uses alternative instrumentation”—Devo, the B-52s, Gary Numan. And then, in the early 80s, it came to mean “softer, synth-based pop bands” like the Human League and Tears for Fears and Flock of Seagulls, as well as punk-influenced rockers like the Pretenders and Duran Duran. Quite a distance traveled! (Not to mention, google “Nouvelle Vague” now, and the top hits are for the French retro band.)

The New Sincerity has hardly gone that far—yet. Indeed, “Joseph Massey to Steve Roggenbuck” looks like spitting distance, by way of comparison.

So what is the New Sincerity? Is it everyone I’ve mentioned and no one else? … I think that’s all very open to debate—we’re debating it right now!—and, in the end, no single one of us will decide that. Honestly, it depends on whether people find the term useful for collectively referring to some or all or none of these writers. Me, I think there’s something to it, and the term’s worth having around. But maybe there’s some better name or names? Or maybe it doesn’t make sense to lasso such disparate folks together?

Or maybe some major press will, next summer, commandeer the term, and in 5–10 year’s time, “the New Sincerity” will refer to Jonathan Safran Foer and the anthology of his imitators that he edits. (Christ, now that I’ve typed that, I know that’s precisely what’s going to happen.)

Meanwhile, there will be plenty of people who are called it who are going to insist they never were it, and many who won’t be called it but wish that they had been. It’s always been thus; my beloved Degas insisted until his bitter, dying breath that he wasn’t and had never been an Impressionist. (As he’d tell anyone who would listen, he, unlike them, could actually draw. So what was he? He maintained that he was “a realist.”)

In summary and conclusion, here’s what I think is at stake in all of this (besides the cred/embarrassment of belonging to a group):

  1. The NS is one major current literary focal point in the debate over what in writing counts as “ironic,” and what counts as “sincere.” (See this post and this post for more on my thoughts on those dominants.) Mind me well: this is not a debate over what is “genuinely” ironic or sincere (although some will mistake it for that), but rather a debate over how those effects can be generated right now in literature.
  2. The NS also serves as a focal point in another long-running debate, between those who want to find some way to make the writing feel less mediated (“writing about something”), vs. those who would rather foreground their writing’s artificiality (“writing about itself”).
  3. The NS tends to be a formally-derived style, and its effects are achieved by means of devices/rhetoric/style.
  4. That said, one may use the devices and styles of the NS to achieve a wide variety of effects—including irony! (Devices and styles can be used in near-infinite ways.)

OK, once again, I’ll be eager to read your responses. Perhaps later I’ll try responding with a more coherent definition of the movement, and an attempt at cataloging its moves? Also, as promised, next Monday I’ll return to Shklovsky and Theory of Prose; I want to try applying some of his special rules of plot formation to analyzing and producing some actual writing. Until then—

—keep making it new.

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