Cynicism in Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace thinks irony and cynicism, once useful critiques of society, are played out.

Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists. The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates . . . The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, "then" what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone . . . Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.

So if irony and cynicism are not useful and redemption is sentimental and naive, what’s left? I’m not sure if DWF answers this question in Infinite Jest, but I think he at least provides some insight.


I wouldn’t call Infinite Jest sentimental by a long shot. I don’t think sentimentality is something Wallace exhibits much in his writing. The book does have irony and cynicism in spades, however. (and this is not surprising, given its subject matter.) Wallace seems to enjoy using irony and cynicism, but, as far as I’ve seen, he usually qualifies it. He either does so explicitly by saying "this is too easy of an answer," or implicitly by taking his writing beyond a simple cynical sideswipe.

From what I understand of Infinite Jest, Wallace tries to get beyond cynicism and irony in two ways. In one of them, he uses something along the lines of farce. Earlier, I posted about Wallace’s send-up of the future video-phone industry. In about 10 pages, he chronicled the rise and fall of video-phones, portraying both consumers and corporations as somewhat helpless players swept along by their own vanity, and out-of-control market forces.

I’m currently at a part of Jest where Wallace is doing a similar thing with TV advertising. In an ironic twist, the big four networks (facing dissolving ratings because of competition from cable and the rise of VCRs, etc) become victims of their own successful advertising: The ads are so disgustingly fear-inducing that they sell tons of product (by creating consumer anxiety) but also kill the networks because people immediately change the channel when the disgusting ad appears. This, of course, causes ratings to fall further and creates financial disarray, which forces the networks to sell even more ad time. A vicious spiral ensues.

The narrative voice that explains this episode is simply relating recent historical events, albeit in a slightly awestruck way. Like the video-phone story, it’s a farcical, but not entirely unrealistic projection of certain current trends.

In another instance, Wallace’s book explains how the U.S. turns a good part of New York, New Hampshire, and Maine into a toxic waste dump, and then "gifts" the land to Canada with the understanding that in return the U.S. will retain the right to still dump on the land (land which Canada isn’t exactly thrilled to accept).

This land grant is told through a video-taped puppet show that is shown as a sort of joke every year when Wallace’s tennis academy celebrates "Interdependence" (the union of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico).

I don’t think these count as cynicism because Wallace’s portrayal of events is more empathetic, or even fascinated, than angry. It’s not that certain people or corporations are out to get the rest of us: if anything they are as helpless and anyone. Also, the narrative voice doesn’t take pleasure or recrimination in the humorous misfortunes that inevitably ensue. These narratives are a sober sort of look at things and are rendered empathetic by the fact that they aren’t told out of anger.

I don’t know if this sort of technique gets us all the way past cynicism and irony, but I think it is a start. It’s an astute diagnosis of societal problems, and, importantly, it doesn’t point fingers or assign blame. Rather, through not-unrealistic farce it conveys the idea that we’re all in this together and we had better do something before things get worse. Yet it certainly isn’t a sentimental, or laughably naive way of doing so.

And the other way? I’ll have to get to that another time, as this post is long enough as it is.

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I have real problems with the assertion that “Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong.” It’s not the artist’s job to redeem what’s wrong. And, to the extent that sometimes Wallace seems to be after something like this in his fiction, I think he actually does risk sentimentality. (Although I like Infinite Jest.)


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