I once confessed to having volunteered on a political campaign. My friend reacted with surprise: “But, nobody actually does that, do they?” With that roundabout question, he accused me of two crimes: one political, the other aesthetic. My past commitments made me appear ideologically naïve—did I really believe in electoral politics? But they also exposed me as profoundly uncool. Knocking on doors and pushing pamphlets struck my friend as too nakedly earnest, too embarrassingly sincere. After all, you can’t wink ironically when you’re standing on a stranger’s door, rattling on about your favorite candidate.
This response grated on me. If being cool meant I couldn’t be politically committed, I told myself, then maybe I didn’t want to be cool anyway. In fact, that was a suspicion I’d long harbored. I’ve always been drawn to the outsider crowd, even though I could never pull off the look myself. In high school, I was an honor roll student and cheerleader who bussed downtown on the weekend to pick up silk-screened Sex Pistols t-shirts. I desperately wanted to mold myself to my friends’ aloof posture, but I could never suppress an earnestness that marked me as unavoidably uncool.
Over time, I learned to construe that failure as its own (even better!) form of rebellion. In “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace imagines a “new kind of rebel,” committed to sincerity, rather than cool: “Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval … risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs…” In other words: if my friends were hip and nonchalant, then at least I could be open, committed and honest.
Of course, this self-definition was a terribly convenient one. It cast me as somehow above being cool. But that self-satisfaction also risked obscuring my own political shortcomings. Take, for example, that electoral campaign. When I volunteered for the (formerly-socialist) Canadian NDP back in 2011, I was unquestioningly dedicated to their cause. But as the party moved closer and closer to the center in the more recent election, I wondered if I had been politically naïve all along. Perhaps my desire to believe in something—in political engagement, in the democratic process, in belief itself—had caused me to let down my critical guard. Perhaps a little ironic cool was in order.
Lee Konstantinou’s new book Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction considers the relationship between countercultural aesthetics and political belief. Although the archetypes of twentieth-century cool—from the beatnik, to the punk, to the hipster—are often associated with the left, they are also known for an ironic posture that would seem to challenge their capacity for earnest political commitment. By tracing the role that “cool characters” have played in American literature and culture since World War II, Konstantinou hopes to discover how ironic distance has both helped and hindered leftist political projects.
Moving from the mid-century hipster through David Foster Wallace’s much heralded call for a new form of earnestness to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, Konstantinou’s book persuasively demonstrates the political limitations of both irony and sincerity. He argues that although irony risks provoking cynical disengagement, it also affords a critical perspective that we cannot afford to banish entirely. If the trouble with irony is that we have to believe in something, then its value is to prevent us from naively believing in anything at all.
As Konstantinou explains, this tension has led some contemporary novelists to the figure of the “post-ironist,” a postmodern skeptic who can still muster enough political passion to march in the streets. This certainly sounds like an impressive (if complex) character. Yet Konstantinou’s own debunking of both irony and sincerity suggests that no real solution could be found in their simple balancing or combination. Instead, Cool Characters leaves me wondering what we are really doing when we judge each other’s political beliefs as failures of character. Is politics really a question of attitude?
Cool Characters begins with the beatniks and hipsters of the early Cold War era, who saw the posture of ironic cool as a way to “separate themselves from the stupid, conformist, Stalinoid squares living next door to them in the suburbs.” Yet as Konstantinou makes clear, the hipster who stood out in his suburban neighborhood might fit in quite well with the views of mainstream post-war liberal intellectuals (like Lionel Trilling, Kenneth Burke, or David Riesman). Fearing that the world was becoming increasingly conformist, many mid-century liberals believed that irony could help to loosen the bonds of restrictive ideologies, ranging from Stalinism to McCarthyism. Hipsters and beatniks thus shared something in common with their liberal college professors: both groups used sophisticated taste and skeptical perception to signal their distance from unthinking ideological commitment. But Konstantinou argues that this focus on the critical power of irony often displaced more urgent forms of political expression: anger, outrage, commitment, action. The ironic posture intended to signal the hipster’s countercultural credentials actually helped to assimilate him within a fundamentally quietist postwar liberalism.
This account of the early Cold War period demonstrates some of the limitations of irony as a countercultural form. But Cool Characters posits that irony lost its cultural dominance following the fall of the Berlin wall. For Konstantinou, the 1990s and early 2000s were instead marked by the ascendance of “post-irony.” No longer wedded to irony’s oppositional claims, more recent writers and thinkers sought to retrieve the political power of sincerity, belief and commitment.
The central figure in this transition is David Foster Wallace, who explicitly addressed the overvaluation of irony in postmodern art and culture. In “E Unibus Pluram,” he argues that authors like Bret Easton Ellis—who aimed to expose the corrupt consumerism at the heart of American pop culture—only reproduced its logic. In a world where Pepsi ads can be “meta,” irony poses no real countercultural threat. Rather than expose hypocrisies, Wallace hopes to use his fiction to help his readers develop a new capacity for sincere belief. Of course, this is no small feat in an era when postmodern anti-foundationalism has already disenchanted everything from language to nature to the human subject. As Wallace’s characters wonder in Infinite Jest: “How can you pray to a ‘God’ you believe only morons believe in, still?” As Konstantinou explains, the novel aims to exhaust the reader’s skeptical irony, urging her to embrace a more sincere relationship with the world at a time in history when that might appear impossible.
Konstantinou finds much to be admired in Wallace’s call to transcend skepticism and irony but he also worries that this call relies on a hollow vision of belief. The AA members in Infinite Jest are told that they must believe in a “Higher Power” but that they can imagine that power however they choose. For Konstantinou, Wallace’s version of belief works much the same way. He advocates commitment as such, but does not advance any particular principle or belief system, whether conventional or countercultural, capitalist or anti-capitalist. Konstantinou thus concludes that, while Wallace’s “new rebel” may be capable of fighting for something, we have no way to know whether it will be something we want.
If the hipster ironist seems closed off to political possibility, then Wallace’s “believer” seems dangerously open-minded. These two extremes necessitate a dialectical (or maybe just Goldilocks) solution: a hero that is both ironic and sincere, neither too cool nor too ardent. Yet even if we could conjure up the perfect semi-sincere “post-ironist” subject we might wonder what would prevent her from being co-opted in precisely the same way as her predecessors. Konstantinou is well aware of this problem and highlights it in his reading of Alex Shakar’s 2001 novel The Savage Girl. Shakar’s protagonist is a professional “cool hunter” who hits on the latest “megatrend.” That megatrend turns out to be Cool Character’s own privileged theoretical term: “post-irony.” By implicitly likening his scholarly work to a kind of trend-spotting, Konstantinou suggests that “post-irony” could be an effective way of theorizing post-post-modern political commitment. Or, it could just be another turn of the hipster screw.
Indeed, it’s easy to see that much contemporary cool culture has already made the irony-sincerity dialectic into its self-conscious subject matter. The fashion style “normcore,” which reached peak media visibility in 2014, claimed to be cool precisely because its practitioners had transcended the effort to look cool. Virtually every friend who heard I was writing this review had multiple other examples ready at hand. One tried to persuade me (with great passion) that “ironically liking,” say, Justin Bieber is not a cynical gesture but a sincere and affirming one; another explained that “fabric art” is “about” the tension between irony and sincerity. You’d be forgiven for finding each of these examples a little obscure, but the point is to underscore how sincerity has already been fully incorporated into the lexicon of a particularly rarefied version of contemporary cool. The conflict between irony and sincerity has become just one more thing to ironize. Here, of course, we meet the inherent challenge of analyzing a concept like “cool,” whose entire purpose is to stay one step ahead of anything a college professor might say about it.
Although Konstantinou acknowledges that post-irony holds no inherent countercultural value, he hopes that politically engaged writers might still use it to compelling effect. His conclusion focuses on two recent novels inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens, both published in 2013. Kushner and Lethem look back on twentieth-century history to construct what Konstantinou calls a “post-ironic Bildungsroman.” Their characters move from credulous sincerity through postmodern irony, before finally embracing a committed but not naïve form of protest politics. They learn the lessons of skeptical critique but do not remain trapped in a posture of ironic detachment. They are like the graduate students you may have met who pass through the radical negativity of high theory, of Adorno or Agamben, before settling on a more pragmatic (some would say compromised) leftist politics.
Konstantinou is obviously sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street. His final paragraph begins by enfolding Cool Characters into the Occupy rallying call: “Those of us committed to convincing the empirical 99% to join” the movement for economic equality, he argues, would do well to consider our relationship to irony and sincerity. It is no surprise then that Kushner’s and Lethem’s Occupy-inspired post-ironists earn his most positive evaluation. But even if we share Konstantinou’s political allegiances, as I do, such an approach raises broader questions about his judgments. He repeatedly critiques both ironic and sincere character-types for their insufficiently anti-capitalist politics. Often, his analysis is focused on whether the writers he examines—not only Wallace, but also William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Dave Eggers and others—share his own opposition to neoliberal capitalism. While purporting to evaluate different relationships to belief (do you sincerely embrace it or ironically refuse it) Konstantinou is actually more invested in the content of belief (do you or don’t you approve of the existing economic system).
This problem is particularly visible in the book’s concluding call to arms. Konstantinou argues that we need “a characterological commitment to transforming the social and political forms—the structures, practices, and institutions—that generate political detachment, cynicism, and blank irony in the first place.” This is a worthy ambition, but it is not clear to me why it needs to be described as “characterological.” Throughout the book, Konstantinou uses that term to designate an approach concerned with “the language of character, attitude, sensibility, disposition, and ethos.” Yet this final passage is precisely the place where he moves beyond character and disposition to advocate for concrete political actions rooted in a specific set of political beliefs. Obviously, Konstantinou does not want to challenge detachment and cynicism in the same way that, say, Donald Trump does; his call for institutional transformation is embedded in the book’s broader commitment to a more democratic, more socioeconomically just society. The solution he generates thus sounds much more like a (loosely defined) socialist program than an attitude or disposition. Although Konstantinou ultimately pins his hopes to a new “characterological commitment,” his definition of this new character-type relies on categories—belief and action—that actually transcend character.
Konstantinou might respond to this charge in a couple of ways. First, he is clear throughout the book that he does not think that either irony or sincerity, taken on their own, provide a sufficient politics. Irony, he argues, is neither “threat nor palliative”—it is an ambiguous style of critique that always needs to be thought in relationship to the “larger sense of political mission” it informs. But he also argues that politics can never be separated from the tangled web of culture and character from which it emerges. He criticizes current literary scholars like Walter Benn Michaels, Sean McCann, and Michael Szalay for believing that they could ever clearly distinguish “real” concrete political action from the purportedly “superficial” aspects of representation and disposition that often underpin our commitments. In other words, Konstantinou insists that your character type does not entirely determine your politics—but it isn’t irrelevant either.
That is persuasive enough, but it opens up a set of questions that Cool Characters does not adequately address. What is the relationship between character, belief and action? Where is character a useful mode of analysis and where does it meet its limit? It might be easier, in our own ideologically skeptical era, to focus on differing dispositions; it is probably harder to state that some beliefs are just better than others, that some actions are the right ones. Yet it seems that there must be a time and a place to insist on those non-relativistic, unironic claims. Where and when is it? And how would we go about doing it, especially given irony’s continued cultural pervasiveness?
Hannah Arendt once wrote that “conscience is unpolitical.” Crucially, she did not mean that it was unimportant. In essays like “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship,” Arendt worried at great length about how our individual moral characters might help or hinder us in resisting political injustice. But she also insisted that having a pure conscience was not itself a political accomplishment. Any politics deserving of the name could not be satisfied with its own ethical perfection, but must aim to produce real effects in the name of a broader collective. Her essay on “Civil Disobedience,” for instance, criticizes Henry David Thoreau for focusing on his own non-complicity in the system of slavery rather than the fact that slavery continued to exist even without his personal involvement. Thoreau, she argues, was interested in protecting his own moral purity and not in addressing “the world where the wrong is committed or … the consequences of the wrong for the future course of the world.”
Since I first read it several years ago, I have often found Arendt’s critique helpful for considering movements focused on reducing the complicity of our own consumption patterns (choosing, for example, sweatshop-free, or vegetarian, or low carbon-footprint options). While certainly better than nothing, these can sometimes do more to assuage our own consciences than to effect real political change. At the risk of following Arendt into polemic or hyperbole, I wonder if we could say that character, like conscience, is unpolitical. It may inform our choices in crucial ways, but we must be cautious that our efforts to attain a perfectly balanced post-ironic disposition do not eclipse our attention to the political struggles that exists beyond us.
When my friend and I argued about my time as a political volunteer we staged our debate as a characterological one. I set my sincerity against his irony, my willingness to commit against his more skeptical gaze. Whatever substantive political disagreements underlay our rather different view of electoral politics, they were overshadowed by the feeling that our very way of being in the world was under attack—your cool is cynical and quietist; your enthusiasm is naïve and quietist. Of course, what never came up for discussion—on either side—was the party’s program: was it an ideology worth believing in and working for?
Like my decision to volunteer in the Canadian election, the current Democratic primary has placed the tension between pragmatism and idealism at the forefront of much current political discussion on the left. Should you support Clinton’s ostensibly more achievable and more electable legislative agenda, or Sanders’s more radical, ambitious one? Going one step further, should you invest your political hopes in any kind of presidential politics or should you seek to apply pressure and advance ideals outside official governmental structures? Perceiving yourself as a skeptic or a believer might influence your decision here. More likely, casting yourself as a skeptic or a believer might help justify your decision to your friends. It might help you to reimagine your own trade-offs and compromises as evidence of your more thoughtful, or committed, or open-minded character. Of course, our political decisions do reflect our characters in some way. But we risk falling into a kind of narcissism when we let that self-reflection block out the real-world consequences of our actions. Your vote, or your signature, or your picket sign doesn’t matter because it says something about you; it matters because it might help to change something beyond you.
As I have said, Konstantinou’s conclusion remains within the discourse of character. Nevertheless, his book—taken as a whole—persuasively demonstrates the limitations of that framework. Understanding how previous generations have deployed irony and sincerity to legitimate their often not-very-different political positions shows how self-congratulatory their emphasis on character often was. When I began reading Konstantinou’s book, I was prepared to cast myself within that same drama. I looked forward to condemning my cooler, more ironic friends for their failures of political commitment, but steadily came to recognize my own position as similarly smug and self-serving. All of which leads me to question once again whether the irony/sincerity dialectic is a useful way to think about contemporary politics. When both positions appear so politically malleable—indeed, when they have become virtually indistinguishable—it is perhaps time that we turn to a different kind of question.
Photo credit: Darwin Yamamoto