By BEN LIBMAN
The “First Date” episode of Netflix’s hit series Master of None depicts a uniquely Millennial phenomenon: app-based dating. The episode follows lead character Dev Shah, as he uses “the app”—a fictionalized version of Tinder—to meet and connect with various women. As with Tinder, the user of the app scans through a continuous stream of other users’ profile photos, swiping right or left depending on whether he does or doesn’t want to connect with them. This form of dating has, of course, drawn its fair share of criticism—mostly directed at the seeming shallowness of the user’s basis for judgement of a potential match. (OK, maybe not so seeming). But there is more to it than meets the eye, and Master of None knows it.
Cut to a moment midway through the episode, when Dev has taken one of his dates to a rooftop bar. Dev’s nameless date pulls out her phone mid-conversation, with a look of disquiet. “Is everything okay?” Dev asks. She replies that “it’s kind of an emergency.” Dev reclines for a moment, giving her space, but soon recognizes the sounds emerging from her phone. “Wait, are you on the app?” She replies that she is. Dev, now annoyed, says: “Well that’s just kind of shitty, right? I mean we’re on a date.” After a pause, his date responds: “Kind of. Sorry, it’s just that it’s only 10 o’clock, and I might be able to meet someone later. Plus I really like swiping.”
Clearly this scene ironizes the app and its user. It depicts the lack of sincerity with which the woman approaches her and Dev’s date, and the degree to which dating through the app is more like a game than anything else. But this scene also does something much more important and, frankly, more realistic: beyond ironizing Dev’s date, it also illustrates the sincerity with which Dev (along with many people of my generation) uses the app. He wants to meet someone. He wants to connect with her. And this is how his generation does those things. There’s clearly a date protocol in place. We may be asked to ironize Dev’s date, but we are not invited to do the same with Dev. We are asked, in other words, to approach the subject with an ethos of simultaneous irony and sincerity—an ethos that, as Master of None rightly understands, is entirely true to life as we now live it.
In many ways Master of None participates in a larger debate about the status of irony in contemporary culture. Hundreds, if not thousands, of think-pieces have been written on the subject. Have we become too cynical, too ironically detached from the institutions that govern everyday life to believe in anything anymore? Or are we moving in the opposite direction, toward a new sincerity? Though there seems to be little critical consensus on the issue, there are those, like Lee Konstantinou, who have tried to capture the critical moment in its larger historical context. Konstantinou’s newest book, Cool Characters, traces the evolution of irony through important eras of counterculture from the Cold War to the present. He argues that irony is best understood not as a tool—whether rhetorical or political—but as an ethos, a disposition toward the world, a character type. For this reason Cool Characters takes a characterological approach to studying the evolution of irony, through literature and eras of counterculture. It traces the various historical forms irony has taken by examining their corresponding character types: namely, “the hipster, the punk, the believer, the coolhunter, and the occupier” (xii). Konstantinou aims to demonstrate how irony went from being a way for those on the margins of society to escape “semiotic totalitarianism,” to becoming a powerful postmodern countercultural critique of postwar modernism, to transforming into a punk “way station from mid-century Keynsianism to neoliberalism,” and finally to evolving beyond its own critical usefulness and epitomizing empty, cynical detachment. Laying out this trajectory allows Konstantinou to turn his focus to the recent past and the present, a time when critics and tired cynics have been calling for a new sincerity, a rediscovered sense of purpose and belief in our cultural and political institutions. He calls this the “postironic” era. The task of describing exactly what postirony constitutes is a laborious one for Konstantinou, as for the writers with whom he engages—perhaps it’s not yet a task that can be satisfactorily completed.
What Cool Characters does well, it does really well. In fact it often seems as if the book is giving us a greater bang for our buck than it promises. Konstantinou provides a comprehensive survey not only of irony, but also of counterculture—more specifically of the interplay between countercultural ethos and political belief since the Cold War. What results is an historical narrative that does as much to re-examine the evolution of countercultural aesthetics as it does to trace a convincing history of irony.
The Beatnik hipster of the ‘50s—seemingly the anti-academic—is shown under Konstantinou’s cross-examination to have “signalled his exclusive knowledge through irony” in much the same way as the New Critic, and therefore to have “lived in accord with the dominant spirit of the Age of Criticism” (102). Punk, in turn, is reconceived not as a utopian project (as many have thought William Burroughs intended), but as a “positive dystopian” project, evincing “[an] anti-Utopian genre that imagines human growth as arising not from destruction but precisely in destruction” (144).
Beyond tracing this history of irony and counterculture, Konstantinou’s ambitious attempt at historicizing our present moment, in terms of the recent emergence of postirony, is quite fruitful. It’s difficult to capture the nuances of an ongoing debate, as the many examples of un-nuanced think pieces on the topic have evidenced. But Cool Characters does a convincing job of linking calls for a postironic revival of belief—made by writers like David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers—to more recent literary efforts to conceptualize what form that belief might take. True to the project of the book, Konstantinou does the best he can to survey these efforts and their cultural homologues, and attempts to arrive at a plausible vision for the future of irony.
And yet, despite its impressive and monumental endeavor, Cool Characters leaves something to be desired. It would be most accurate to say that the book bites off more than it can chew. Its project relies in large part on two somewhat problematic premises: it assumes a mutually exclusive relationship between irony and sincerity; and it conceives of the “counterculture” as a well-defined dialectical unit, whose evolution is teleological and can be measured as a function of the ways in which it engages with irony and sincerity over time.
It’s certainly true that these assumptions are necessary drivers of Konstaninou’s work, and that any book this comprehensive needs to draw the line somewhere in order to move forward. But in this case, the argumentative engines that propel Cool Characters along its neat historical arc leave a plume of exhaust that pollutes the surrounding space.
To believe that irony and sincerity have a mutually exclusive, dichotomous relationship is to fall into a trap laid out by quack-critics and New Yorker-ite logic. It can’t be a good idea to interrogate a longstanding debate about whether and how we can move away from irony and toward sincerity without also interrogating the premise that a move toward one is necessarily a move away from the other.
Konstantinou claims that irony “is an ethos that consumes the whole person, a whole life,” and argues the same for sincerity, especially with respect to forms of “naïve belief” (17). That is, if a person embodies, say, the ethos of beatnik ‘cool’, then one is cool as a Beat through-and-through. In this vein, Cool Characters conceives of both people and entire instances of the counter- or dominant culture as being either too cynically ironic, too naïvely sincere, or as attempting in vain to reconcile the two. This model is surely too exclusive. It doesn’t account for the self-contradictory multitudes inherent to any fully developed “character” (remember Walt Whitman? He’s a sap, but still.) and therefore glosses over the true complexity of human behavior. This attitude also affects Konstantinou’s reading of texts essential to his argument.
Take, for instance, Thomas Pynchon’s V. Konstantinou is eager to laud Pynchon’s characterological interpretations of the (too cynical) Beats and the (too serious) postwar modernists; and yet he strangely insists that Pynchon “invents” a characterological type in the character named McClintic Sphere, whose ethos defies a mutually exclusive account of irony and sincerity (90). Why must this be an invention, and not a reflection of a characterological reality? Couldn’t it be that Pynchon wasn’t inventing a literary character with the hope that reality would imitate him? A less presumptive reading of Pynchon might propose instead that he wasn’t inventing “a formal solution” to the irony-sincerity dichotomy, but rather that he found the dichotomy to be unrealistic in the first place, and that in real people, like Sphere, that polarity is in fact dissolved.
Along the same lines, Cool Characters frames DFW’s attempts at locating a postironic reality as a futile effort to merge the oppositional ironic and sincere character types. Interestingly, though Konstantinou locates the passage in Infinite Jest that perhaps most convincingly argues the opposite (i.e. one that dissolves the irony-sincerity dichotomy), he interprets it in a different way and for a different purpose.
The passage in question comes near the very end of the novel, when the wraith of James O. Incandenza is explaining to Don Gately why he created “Infinite Jest,” the lethal entertainment cartridge. He alleges that he wanted to “make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life. A magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy, to make his eyes light and toothless mouth open … to laugh. To bring him ‘out of himself’” (Wallace 838-839).
Konstantinou rightly points out that “James does not make his lethally addictive film in order to shock or destroy his viewing audience; his aim … is to connect with his troubled son Hal” (191). But he then claims that the point of structuring the entertainment from the point-of-view of an infant was that Wallace was “simultaneously criticizing the hyper self-involution supposedly characteristic of the avant-garde as well as the infantilizing tendencies of the mass media” (192).
This argument is convincing, but Konstantinou seems too blinded by his belief in the irony-sincerity dichotomy to notice that, more importantly, Wallace is telling us that inside the solipsistic, anhedonic cynic is a childlike capacity for sincere wonder—an innate capacity, not an adoptable ethos. There is an implication, in other words, that irony and sincerity don’t need to compete, because one is an ethos, an attitudinal choice, whereas the other is not. Granted, the ‘child in all of us’ epiphany is probably a little too naïve and on-the-nose to be the message here. Nevertheless, like Pynchon Wallace might not be imagining or inventing something unrealistic—a “new type”—at all.
It’s hard to agree with Konstantinou that irony and sincerity have always been like oil and water. Yes, cynical irony is a problem, a widespread and maybe even an intractable one. And yes, writers and cultural critics have tried to fight through it to something like sincere belief. But Master of None suggests that things are more complicated. It mixes sincere belief into its irony. Non-Millennials will perhaps assume that digitized “hook-up culture” demands irony, more irony, and nothing but irony. To Millennials, however, it is no different from the conventions of past times: worth being ironic about, of course, but also a functioning way of finding the right companion, maybe even a soulmate, in unpropitious times. When Master of None sets out to show us the Millennial condition, therefore, it can ironize the commodification without losing sight of the possibility that through such commodities its characters might be able to forge real romantic ties and other meaningful forms of connection. Those who use dating apps like Tinder are not naïvely blind to the impersonal and even inhuman circumstances of its production, but neither do they use or consume it merely ironically. Instead, much like those who experience the “sweatshop sublime” when contemplating their Nikes, people like Dev experience a kind of “Silicon Valley sublime” or an “animalistic-desire sublime” when interacting with dating apps. And this has allowed them to demand more from the product and those who share it—to establish protocols against using it while on a date, for example.
Konstantinou seems reluctant to allow such a colloidal portrait of irony and sincerity. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the book runs into a similar kind of trouble with its other major premise.
The metanarrative tracing the dialectical history of irony and counterculture since the Cold War regrettably—but necessarily—excludes an account of irony as dispersive, rather than linearly contained (through time and within a culture). It also precludes a more realistic view of the counterculture as a fragmented, inconsistent, and loosely constituted group.
This most clearly plays out as Konstantinou’s analysis moves toward the present. Whereas he can point to worldly manifestations of the hipster and punk character types (the Beat generation and the punk movement, respectively), Konstantinou shies away from doing the same with the believer and the coolhunter, and only later does he revisit the idea of a literary-real character homologue with the occupier.
This may be due to the fact that, outside of literature and literary institutions, the believer and coolhunter don’t neatly correspond to an iteration of the counterculture. It’s hard to deny that irony, as Cool Characters explains, was an essential ethos of the beatnik. But it is equally hard to accept that there is some fixed countercultural inheritance of that irony that has been transformed and transposed into ‘the counterculture’ decades later. More likely, irony’s inheritance, whatever it may be exactly, has been dispersed to all corners of society, and not simply because it has been co-opted by consumer culture. In a fragmented world where irony is an ethos not just of enclosed cultural groups but also of less easily classifiable individuals, the single-inheritance model seems hard to justify.
The extent to which the Beat or punk movements were internally fractured over issues of sincerity, irony, and other forms of ethos and expression, and became more so over time, could be the subject of a book or two on its own. But a lack of writing space—inevitable in a book as expansive in its reach as Cool Characters—does not justify presuming, say, the internal ironic purity of the Beat movement. Nor is it justification for stamping entire eras of counterculture with a more-or-less stable classification along the irony-sincerity divide. Is it really fair to assume that the misogynistic Beats and the nascent second-wave feminists of the late ‘50s shared the same relationship to irony? Or that those same feminists, whose momentous movement was largely created by and for white women, adopted the identical degree and kind of irony as the Civil Rights activists?
Such questions are not considered in Cool Characters, perhaps because the book’s dialectical model of irony and counterculture has no room for them. The model requires that the term “counterculture” signify a more or less stable entity, aware of and engaging with its characterological inheritance in an attempt to synthesize its future iterations. Cool Characters ultimately implies, in Hegelian or Fukuyaman terms, the coming End of History of countercultural irony. And though he reasonably avoids defining it outright, Konstantinou argues that the end of this arc lands in a postironic reality.
The book folds into an optimistic account of the occupier. Konstantinou admires the postirony of the Occupy Wall Street activists, who believe sincerely that they “can construct in the present a model of the postcapitalist future they hope to bring about” (276). He ends the book with a call to postironic action, putting irony and sincerity in their finally synthesized place:
We must, therefore, cultivate within ourselves an ironic understanding of our own countercultural inheritance while simultaneously developing a nonironic commitment to learning how to build enduring institutions that have the capacity not only to rouse spirits but also to dismantle the power of those whose strength partly depends on our cynicism (288).
To what extent is the occupier a model of postironic belief? It would seem that a lot of naïve (i.e. retrograde, in Konstantinou’s model) belief went into the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, who was the political inheritor of the Occupy movement.
Cultivating an ironic understanding of our inheritance and a sincere attitude toward the future is arguably inadequate as a solution to the problem Konstantinou lays out. The past had its sincerity, and the future will not stop needing irony. And it’s hard to imagine either of them being successfully prescribed in careful doses for a healthier politics.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with claiming that the counterculture embodies the story of the “postironic Bildungsroman,” moving dialectically from naïve sincerity to cynical irony to postironic belief. But, considering how complex the irony-sincerity relationship is, and how loosely constituted the counterculture, the least one can say is that this is not an empirically verifiable claim.
Cool Characters is much more intrepid than most literary-critical efforts, and it will almost certainly be required reading for scholars of postmodern and contemporary literature. The fact that the book raises almost as many questions as it answers will guarantee that, having read it, these scholars will still have much to discuss.
Ben Libman studies Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He was managing editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator.