I’m sorry, Mario, but your cultural critique is in another castle: some thoughts on hipster irony

Last August I attended a live reenactment of Total Recall (the classic 1990 version, natch, not the remake). It was a deliberately shambolic affair, a loosely-focused variety show run by Everything Is Terrible and Odds N’ Ends, involving puppets, videos, intentionally bad acting, and dancing. It was, I suppose, what some would call “hip” or “ironic.”

At one point we watched a reedited version of one Total Recall‘s many chase scenes—the infamous escalator shootout where Arnold uses a bystander as a shield—now set to Drowning Pool’s “Bodies.” (You can watch the video here.) Which is about as cliched as it gets, but it totally works as comedy.

Part of what makes the video funny is that the Everything Is Terrible folks have upped the intensity of the Drowning Pool song: “Let the bodies hit the floor, let the bodies hit the floor … Oh, wait, they’re totally stepping on that dead guy’s squishy body—ick.” Here we must pause responsibly to acknowledge that Drowning Pool frontman David Williams has always stated that the song is not actually about “the violence thing,” but rather the “respect and code” of the mosh pit, or some such other bullshit. That hasn’t stopped Hollywood folk from using the song in numerous action movie trailers. Nor has it deterred legions of Drowning Pool fans from making their own YouTube versions.

In other words, the Everything Is Terrible video’s ironic effect depends on the pairing being a cliché. Like a lot of satirical and ironic art, it proceeds by imitating an otherwise naïve or sincere effect, then subverting it. (This is why “irony vs. sincerity” is often an unhelpful binary when thinking about phenomena like hipster irony or the New Sincerity; those scenes or movements aren’t strict artistic opposites, since they necessarily share a lot of their aesthetic maneuvers. Where they differ usually lies more in their degree of self-effacement, and in their authorial intention.)

Hipster irony is commonly perceived purely as dismissal: “You’re just making fun of Drowning Pool.” And there’s certainly truth in that—fuck Drowning Pool! But is that all there is? Because the EIT video, I think, and the entire Totally Recalled show, could be perceived as something more. Those behind the show, and those in attendance, I’d argue, were actually trying to appreciate “Bodies”—but in the only way they now can. Irony, in other words, allows hipster audiences to make use of material that would otherwise be off-limits to them.

It won’t surprise you that I want to turn here to Viktor Shklovsky, because he identified a concept that I think might help us. It is his concept of deterioration:

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

"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:

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What we talk about when we talk about the New Sincerity, part 1

Miranda July; Steve Roggenbuck (photo dates unknown)

I wasn’t surprised that my Monday post, which was ultimately about reading & applying some ideas from Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, mostly generated conversation about Tao Lin and the New Sincerity. I knew that would happen even as I wrote it. So I thought I should take a post to clarify my thoughts on “the whole NS thing.” What follows will be a mix of fact and personal reflection.

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