Welcome to the New Sincerity

For the past few decades, western culture has been marked by a postmodern ironic appreciation of the kitsch and the corny. I’m beginning to wondering what comes next. Bear with me.

In this essay from 2006 the British philosopher Alan Kirby identifies the successor to postmodernism as being pseudo-modernism, which includes “all television or radio programmes or parts of programmes, all ‘texts’, whose content and dynamics are invented or directed by the participating viewer or listener”. Kirby certainly makes some great points in this piece, and it’s well worth a read. He’s noticed that in becoming more digital, the world is increasingly participatory (and he does all of this without saying 2.0 anywhere).

In postmodernism, one read, watched, listened, as before. In pseudo-modernism one phones, clicks, presses, surfs, chooses, moves, downloads.

Despite being a decent summary of a possible view of the world today, the conclusion is hard for me to swallow.

Here, the typical emotional state, radically superseding the hyper-consciousness of irony, is the trance – the state of being swallowed up by your activity. In place of the neurosis of modernism and the narcissism of postmodernism, pseudo-modernism takes the world away, by creating a new weightless nowhere of silent autism. You click, you punch the keys, you are ‘involved’, engulfed, deciding. You are the text, there is no-one else, no ‘author’; there is nowhere else, no other time or place. You are free: you are the text: the text is superseded

While he makes some great points (particularly about an increasingly participatory culture which makes the world which came before it feel, to its members, drab and oppressive) I can’t help think that whatever comes – and has been coming – after postmodernism is going to have to be not just participatory but also a lot more positive than what Kirby is describing. It’s not going to be single-user either; the idea that “there is no-one else” makes a mockery of the social implications which underpin his vision. That there may be not always be a (discernible) author doesn’t mean there won’t also be other people in the experience.

I mentioned last week that I’ve been listening to a lot of Jesse Thorn this year. It turns out that Jesse Thorn is the founding father of a movement called the New Sincerity, which might just hold the answer to my current “what’s next?” question regarding post-postmodernism.

A great starting point for understanding the New Sincerity is this episode of ‘The Sound of Young America’ from 2007, particularly the first 10 minutes or so. The New Sincerity movement was not born with this broadcast (there are references going back a long way earlier) but it’s a rallying cry to live a New Sincerity summer and enjoy life unironically. The New Sincerity is something we already understand, if only we can strip away some negativity and appreciate something for its merits rather than for some sort of ironic kitsch value.

A perfect example of the New Sincerity is Evel Knievel. There’s no way to take Evel Knievel literally. It’s impossible. The man has a leather jumpsuit and he drives a rocket car. The leather jumpsuit has red, white, and blue stars and stripes on it. It’s absolutely preposterous. On the other hand, there’s no way to appreciate Evel Knievel ironically. He’s too awesome, right?. He has – I don’t know if we’ve mentioned this – a leather jumpsuit with the Stars and Stripes on it and a rocket-powered car. That’s why we appreciate Evel Knievel with the New Sincerity

The New Sincerity replaces postmodern irony not with Kirby’s trance but with an almost childlike exuberant appreciation of everything that is awesome. In the earlier Manifesto for The New Sincerity, Jesse concludes with these words:

Our greeting: a double thumbs-up. Our credo: “Be More Awesome.” Our lifestyle: “Maximum Fun.” Throw caution to the wind, friend, and live The New Sincerity.

In absorbing the tenets of the New Sincerity, I naturally think about Ze Frank, a man who exhibits awesomeness in his own right but also has a clear desire for other people to be awesome. Obsessively watching his popular (and highly interactive) video podcast ‘the show’ last year, I was repeatedly stuck by his genuine joy in the strangeness and creativity of the world. If you’ve never watched any and want to get started, these are some of my favourite episodes.

Ze’s term for his own viewers is Sports Racers (and he usually singing a little song when he uses the word: “sports racers, racing sports. What’s your power move?”.) If Ze Frank has been full of old school irony, he might have referred to his viewers using the tired sports cliche of ‘sports fans’ (“Hey, sports fans!”) but he isn’t, and he doesn’t. In the (current) words of the ‘Sports Racer’ Ze Frank wiki entry:

Ze is switching it up, with a nod to the theoretical ‘interactivity’ of our new medium of internet, and so, instead of sports fans, we are sports racers. Participators in the dialogue

Ze Frank may never even have heard the term, but he exudes the New Sincerity like flying a kite with Bruce Lee on a sunny day.

Back to Jesse. In an interview with the Gothamist in November 2006 he shared more insights about the New Sincerity:

At its core, it’s a rejection of what we called The Old Irony, which ruled the cultural roost, or at least the hipster part of the cultural roost, for the past fifteen years or so.

Part of what the New Sincerity is is being larger than life and the acknowledgment that the coolest stuff comes from being completely unafraid of being seen as uncool. It encompasses everything from small things like high-fiving and flying a kite to bigger things like being Evil Knievel.

it’s a willingness to earnestly appreciate something even if it’s bigger than something someone would earnestly feel comfortable earnestly appreciating. Even if it means taking the risk of someone thinking it’s ridiculous because, ultimately, it’s more important to be awesome than to be cool.

Personally, I think I’ve had enough of irony and I don’t think I’m alone. I’m sick of feeling that I have to be sarcastic in order to be funny, or admire things because they are so-bad-they’re-good. My wife and I already hi-five each other unironically, so although it’s going to be hard to break my long-ingrained habits of ironic appreciation, it shouldn’t be a massive lifestyle change to earnestly embrace everything that’s genuinely good. New Sincerity? Count me in.

9 Comments

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  1. I did some wondering about this kind of thing a while ago – when an ironic appreciation of something (let’s say 40s big band music) comes full circle on itself, and suddenly you find that you really like it *in and of itself*, and not for the more performative layered posture of your original ‘ironic’ stance. I always thought of it as ‘hardcore irony’, but i think i prefer the ‘returning to grassroots’ feel of new sincerity.

    I think it may be a function of getting ‘tired’ of reprocessing stuff, of the work needed to parse the layers in to that seen-it-all mode – tiresome cognitive work. It links in to that funny thing of giving only positive comments in places like flickr too – so much easier just to go ‘this is awesome’ than actually form an opinion.

    Incidentally – New Sincerity is everywhere in adverts at the moment – look at the orange ads for gigs etc, and pretty much anything Fallon does. The Dairy Milk gorilla is another good one.

    I wonder how much of it will be subsumed again by advertising, necessitating another adoption of a contrary position? And what might be the shape of the anti-new-sincerity?

    Look to the teens, I guess. It’ll appear there first.

    Comment by kim — May 28, 2008 #

  2. Wise and perceptive as always, Kim.

    Random example of current culture plucked from the air: I thought Eagle vs Shark was quite New Sincerity in it’s uncomplicated exuberance. Much more so than Napoleon Dynamite perhaps, which seems to have some of the same qualities but was originally spoiled for me by being massively marketed by MTV. I suppose that shouldn’t matter, but regardless of promotion or artistic intent there’s still some soul in Eagle vs Shark that’s lacking in Napoleon Dynamite.

    I’m struggling to know at what level I’m appreciating most things, and I’m sure I will continue to. My plan is not to overanalze anything though, and just enjoy things for what they are. If the New Sincerity cuts through the old irony, it can’t be a bad thing.

    Comment by Roo — May 28, 2008 #

  3. Where abouts in irony do you think retro fits in, if at all? I’m in too minds as to whether to classify retro items as ironic. Things influenced by the past don’t seem like they are, but modern copies of old artifacts feel like they might be.

    I was wondering if that might cause a problem for you?

    Comment by Darren — May 28, 2008 #

  4. Where do Jamaica jokes fit into this?

    Comment by Alice — May 28, 2008 #

  5. @Darren: can’t old stuff can be appreciated ironically or sincerely, just like new stuff? It’s down to your interpretation rather than the intent, I think.

    @Alice: Jamaica jokes are a subject for a whole other blog post, but if you don’t believe that they’re awesome then you’ve not heard a good one yet. New site to prove that particular point coming very soon. [Update: shewentofherownaccord.com]

    Comment by roo — May 28, 2008 #

  6. Isn’t this what geeks in all times have done? Focus on what you love, not caring what others think. Isn’t the irony of the ironic generation based in a fear of showing what you really like – “what would people think?” – better pretend I’m not interested, really…

    New Sincerity may be a fancy name for: it is now (more) OK (than ever) to be a geek, to be special, to be interested in something odd, niche, long tail. Mass culture has less of a grip, but I bet there are still kids and grown ups getting bullied for not being average and bland.

    Great blog Roo. Will steal from and quote you when I blog – in Swedish so you can’t see how much :-D

    Comment by Mikael Haglund — May 29, 2008 #

  7. Having watched the young woman and her dancing dog on Britain’s Got Talent via the YouTubes, I can get past irony very easily.

    I understand Kirby’s point: irony is angular, it needs clear demarcations and pivots and distance, and saturation or swaddling in cultural ‘stuff’ fills up the space that would normally exist to let one step back, demarcate, and adopt an ironic posture.

    (I’m reminded of Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads, and the whole lyrical turn of the late 1700s that followed an era of cool couplet satire. It’s online and worth reading.)

    But there’s a slender line between looking at the world with child-eyed wonder and coming across as puerile. To me, Ze Frank crossed that line.

    Comment by nick s — May 30, 2008 #

  8. New Sincerity has been preemptively re-ironized by hyper-capitalism. Google search “New Sincerity” and look to the right. You’ll get this:

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    [link deleted]

    How do you out-sincerity the irony of instantaneous commercialization?

    Comment by James — December 3, 2009 #

  9. How do you out-sincerity the irony of instantaneous commercialization? By not caring about it. That’s what the New Sincerity is about: Throwing off the oppressive influence of constantly having to live our lives in self conscious reaction to how we are perceived by others, including industry and the media.

    Comment by Max — June 16, 2011 #

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