Harmonic Sentimentality Part 1: Cynicism and Sentimentality in Postmodern Culture
We live in a cynical world. Everyday we are bombarded by it through various mediums and forces of dissemination: advertisements, TV, movies, literature. Any type of creative outlet has been dipped in cynicism’s vat of ironic punchlines and too-cool-for-school attitude. This is the postmodern world. The world that has embraced the tenets of irony in a nature so steeped in cynicism that any form of sentimentality immediately triggers people’s instinct to point a finger and laugh at it. This is the general consensus at least. That we’re still in a postmodern world. Right? Aren’t we?
Our culture has been washed over with cynical irony for years now. It has come so far as to ruling pop-culture and, more specifically, the types of projects that feed the pop-culture machine. In his essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, David Foster Wallace describes irony as a tyrant:
And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All irony is a variation on a sort of existential poker- face. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I say.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How very banal to ask what I mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric of a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.
Cynical irony started out as a way to show the flaws and shortcomings of modernism. It was a way to use what already existed and had been embraced by the mainstream culture and turn around and mock it to its face. It wasn’t pretty, but it stuck around. It evolved from debunking the “establishment” to debunking the “anti-establishment” to debunking the media that debunked the “anti-establishment.” That’s where we stand now. Irony has ruled the evolution of our own culture by way of adding an extra layer of irony every time it becomes dull or boring. Wallace makes the comparison of it being similar to tyrannical regimes. Most tyrannical regimes come into place by overthrowing the previous government who typically were a tyrannical regime themselves. This new regime, having staged their coup out of distaste for the previous tyrants, now find themselves in the position of power that lets them decide how the next government should be operated. What do they do? They make another tyrannical regime that has the ability to plug the holes that led to the fall of the previous regime. Same thing with irony. The new cloak of irony fills the holes the old cloak neglected to acknowledge.
For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to stick to mainstream television culture, especially focusing on the genre of sitcoms. This is the age of self-referential comedy. Embraced by shows that employ the mock-umentary format like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family (to name a few). There are jokes within episodes that make fun of the fact that the characters are being filmed even though the format itself is centered around the idea of filming these characters. They make jokes about the joke that dictates their ability to make jokes. They’re almost jabbing the viewer in ribs saying, “Eh? Right? Get it?” It’s an exponential increase in irony and cynicism. The jabbing of our ribs in order to make sure that we know that they’re so clever, that they’re breaking what is considered to be normal for a sitcom. And the humor is there, no doubt, but that can only go so far. This layered sense of self-awareness has become commonplace, and the format has seen better days (compare the seasons of the U.S. The Office with Steve Carrell against those without). But with the descent of these giants from atop their thrones, who will take their place as the debunkers? Who is next in line to usher in the new realm of what will be relevant in terms of pop-culture? Are we considering this the end of postmodernism? I don’t see why not. Being ironical in terms of the medium of television has become boring. Cynicism is boring. We’ve seen all the tricks. The veil has been lifted. It’s too easy now.
As mentioned before, it’s generally agreed that we’re still contained within the postmodern world. But I will argue that we’re currently in the transitional stage between postmodernism and post-postmodernism (the general consensus on calling this new era “post-postmodernism” is that this is a lame name. Kind of clunky, too. Terms like, “Transmodernism” or “Metamodernism” have been thrown around but none have stuck. For now, I’m going to use “post-postmodernism” for the sake of chronological clarity). We’re in the ephemeral purgatory between the two eras, a realm that invites everyone to throw their hat into the ring in the hopes of being the trailblazer that can accurately come up with what it means to be post-postmodernistic. As far as I can tell, as soon as someone can come up with what defines a specific era, it will be possible to pinpoint more accurately when that era began. So, I opine that we’re hovering in the void between postmodernism and post-postmodernism.
In walks Community, classified by its creator, Dan Harmon, as a sitcom about sitcoms. Well, that seems pretty self-referential, doesn’t it? And Community certainly doesn’t skew away from poking fun at itself. No, it definitely falls in the bounds of ironic cynicism. So, then, what makes it different? What separates it from the rest of the self-referential, cynical sitcoms and makes it worth writing a big ‘ol essay about? Answer: within Community’s cynicism lies an incredibly potent type of sentimentality that not only eclipses Community’s own cynicism and ironies, but also the cynicisms and ironies of other sitcoms as well. I think it’s only appropriate to name it after the man himself, Dan Harmon, and call it “Harmonic Sentimentality” or “H.S.” or in adjective form, being “Harmonic.”
Possessing cynicism as well as this unique type of sentimentality shows that Community is part postmodern and part post-postmodern. It straddles the fence between the two and leans one way or the other when need be. This means that it mirrors the purgatory that we as a culture are in, the space between postmodernism and post-postmodernism. Community acts as part of the bridge between the two eras. It’s showing us the path that takes us away from the cold, bitter grips of postmodernism and into the warm embrace of post-postmodernism.