New Sincerity and the New Nihilism

One sometimes comes across the term “New Sincerity” in literary theory. When I was trying to find out out what the movement (if it is a movement) is about, I discovered that I had written an essay about it by accident. But because it’s not going to be published in a while, I though I’d write something about it here as well. It’s a recent phenomenon and as far as anyone can tell, it’s a reaction to the endless ironies and cynicism of postmodernism. For what seems like ages, modern literary theory has been a pool of swirling layers of interpretations where the only way to tell shit from shinola is by figuring out how witty the reader is.

The Wikipedia page for New Sincerity has a quote from David Foster Wallace that supposedly sums up what’s going on. In it, Wallace talks about how the new rebellious New Sincerity anti-rebels are ready and willing to seem old-fashioned, risk disapproval and not be taken in by the cool kids who run with postmodernism. He makes it sound like what New Sincerity is doing is just simply bypassing postmodernist ironies and the clever cynicism it embodies. That’s probably true, because people my age grew up with postmodernism.

People of my generation read Derrida before we read Montaigne. We sat in literature classes listening to lecturers and professors talk about a great revolution in thought that set everyone free to do their thing and write the kind of philosophy and theory they wanted, to shrug off the old guard in a brilliant gesture of enfant terribleism. We read and listened and took notes. Nobody ever told us what the old order was about. We only got the rebellion and never got to hear what the rebellion was against. History is written by the winners, as always.

There’s a better characterization of the new ethos by Wallace in an interview recorded in Conversations with David Foster Wallace (2012, 52) than on Wikipedia, I think:

For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you’re in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it’s great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat’s-away-let’s-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes, and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody’s got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there’s a cigarette burn on the couch, and you’re the host and it’s your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get from my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 a.m. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end.

We only saw the party and the people in charge were not the parents who were away, but the guys running around thinking it was all great for some reason. Some of us have gone back to read about the old order and while I don’t think most people are intellectual traditionalists who want to quantum leap back to, I don’t know, New Criticism or Victorian literary history, how about telling us why reading the texts we got for homework really matters?

There is a strand of anti-intellectualism in all this, and it is troubling. But it’s easy enough to turn the accusation back at the pissing contest that is postmodernism. That’s not a jibe against postmodernist literature, which at its best will take you on an amazing ride that teaches you something about the world and your place in it. It’s a jibe against postmodernist literary theory. And I don’t think New Sincerity, whatever it is, is a case of simply insisting on the subjective interpretation of literature come what may. That can be as daunting and oppressive as the endless aporias of meaning and identity politics postmodernism portrays as thinking. If it is old-fashioned, how about a good old Wordsworthian “man speaking to men” type of attitude?

We all know what the Gianni Vattimos of the world have been saying all along: there is no essential meaning, everything is interpretation, you have to deal with relativism and nihilism. Vattimo’s nihilism is the nihilism of our parents and grandparents. We grew up with it. We’ve done all that. And now what? If one asks that, it’s not anti-intellectualism. It’s something more akin to curiosity: we got this far, nothing really matters, and what then? With New Sincerity comes a New Nihilism and we are going to have to build on it.

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