WILEY: In your essay “E Unibus Pluram,” you talk about irony in television and sometimes in fiction as something toxic.
DFW: See, here’s the hard part about talking about something like that – it takes a 60-page essay to develop the question, and so I’m going to be very uncomfortable about anything I’ll just say discursively off the cuff. Now – the point of the essay is that the ironic function like in postmodern fiction started out with a rehabilitative agenda. Largely it was supposed to explode hypocrisy – certain hypocritically smug ways the country saw itself that just weren’t holding true anymore. The problem is that when irony becomes in and of itself just a mode of social discourse, that is it’s not really about causing any sort of change any more, it’s just sort of a hip, cool way to do it – to speak and to act, to sort of make fun of everything and yourself and being really afraid of being made fun of. A certain amount of this comes out of the work of this essayist named Lewis Hyde, who I believe for a while lived in Minneapolis. This was an essay about John Berryman – I think I cite it in (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again). Anyway, Hyde talks about irony after a while becoming the sound of prisoners who enjoy their confinement. The song of a bird who enjoys being in the cage. For instance, if I’m uncomfortable with how commercial the culture is and how everybody seems to be out for a buck, I decide so I’ll do it too, but I’ll kind of make fun of myself and say, ‘I’m a whore, just like you’re a whore,’ and now we all get an uneasy laugh out of it. But we’ve somehow taken a situation that originally I was unhappy about, and it may perhaps put some pressure on me to opt out of, and instead I take the easy decision, but I adopt this patent of irony about it that shields me from criticism for it. That may be the clearest quick way of talking about it. I think the people like my age and younger relate to irony, which is largely unconscious and largely is used as a mechanism for avoiding some really thorny issues – I think that’s toxic. Irony itself is fantastic. It’s one of the primary rhetorical modes. It’s been around forever. It’s intensely powerful. There’s nothing wrong with it.
David Foster Wallace, in an interview with David Wiley, The Minesota Daily, 27.02.1997