What comes after postmodernism? Late postmodernism? Alter-, meta-, cosmo-modernism? Back to (plain ol’) modernism? Or (blame me, not the poor sub-editors!) post-postmodernism? When are we? No one knows and everyone has an opinion. The American novelist David Foster Wallace – who after his suicide in 2008 has moved from “cult” to “culture hero” – famously wrote that the next “real literary ‘rebels’ might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels...who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles”.
With Wallace as his presiding spirit, Lee Konstantinou’s excellent, well-read and well-written Cool Characters offers the term “postirony” to describe our moment. First, he points out that while irony has always been with us, its use and meaning change in different historical moments, and the ironic tone of the postmodern has passed. Second, he argues that irony is best understood not as a way of talking (meaning the opposite of what you say, for an “in” audience) or thinking (not fully endorsing what one says as, say, a foundational truth) but as a disposition or form of character. An ironist is a sort of person.
This means that Konstantinou can trace the rise and fall of irony in America, and its complications and delusions, through the characters that embody it. The ironic age: the hipster in the 1950s and 1960s, ironically viewing the paranoid underside of the mainstream; the punk in the 1970s and 1980s, whose “refusal-through-self-abnegation” is a rejection that seeks the real. Then the “postironic” period: the Wallace-inspired “believer” of the 1990s and 2000s, a “newly earnest counterculture figure” of the “New Sincerity” in American letters; the “coolhunter” of the twenty-teens who cognitively maps the world using consumer brands and then markets themselves in the same way (the sort of person who uses – or makes a fuss of their refusal to use – PowerPoint, for example). The book ends with a tentative but thoughtful account of the ambiguities of the Occupy movement. All of these analyses are complex and detailed, led by a deep engagement with literary texts, their cultural surroundings, and are astutely theoretically informed.
Please, you must forgive me for admiring the extensive footnotes: if you wanted to know what was going on at the contemporary end of the US literary academy, the back pages of this book would be a superb place to start. (I know admiring footnotes is neither ironic nor cool, and the pedant is nowhere in Konstantinou’s book, but maybe it’s “postironic”?)
It is foolish to criticise a book about US culture because it does not deal with what is outside, and things move so quickly that, as Konstantinou says, “the political meaning of irony has sometimes seemed to shift even as I have been writing”, but issues such as immigration and Islamic State have created, perhaps, a new form of Trumpian post-irony that would also benefit from this sort of close, well-reasoned analysis. Just as there was a link between postmodernism and cosmopolitanism, is there a link between the “new postirony” and the bellicose return of chthonic nativism?
This is another insightful, provocative and necessary book in literary studies from Harvard University Press, which seems to be on rather a roll at the moment: C. Namwali Serpell’s fascinating Seven Modes of Uncertainty and Mark McGurl’s already influential The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing are from the same stable.
Robert Eaglestone is professor of contemporary literature and thought, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction
By Lee Konstantinou
Harvard University Press, 384pp, £29.95
Published 31 March 2016