I Feel Therefore I Am: Wes Anderson, Donald Trump, and New Sincerity

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Let’s talk about Wes Anderson’s H&M Christmas ad and Donald Trump because the two may have more in common than you might think.

The Christmas ad shows a train struck by bad winter weather which means that the passengers will unfortunately not be able to get home for the holidays. As luck would have it, train conductor Ralph (Adrien Brody) has a few tricks up his sleeve and manages to literally scoop up a few Christmas decorations from passing train stations to create a small Christmas brunch. After all the passengers left their coaches for the brunch, a small boy shyly walks to the dining coach to find a small gathering of people and a modestly decorated Christmas tree. As the passengers gather around the tree drinking their hot cocoa, the ad finishes with the text “Come Together”.

The ad is not only warmed by the Christmas spirit. Anyone familiar with Anderson’s movies will recognize his renowned tendency towards quirkiness, humanity, and emotional purity. Like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), the Christmas ad uses 60s-aesthetic, childhood innocence, and charming simplicity to create an idyllic, dreamy atmosphere. Yet, the tone is not mawkish. The characters’ quirkiness and eccentricities tunes the ad to a lighter, less severely sentimental pitch, balancing between irony and sincerity. Even though train conductor Ralph seems emotionally detached and almost robotic at first, he does not revel in cynicism but surprises us with an unexpectedly heartwarming and endearing gesture. In this, his grand Christmas gesture is not embarrassingly corny but pure and heartfelt.

Anderson’s appeal to our sentiment and emotions echoes the New Sincerity cultural movement. Popularized in the 1980s by American author David Foster Wallace, New Sincerity is characterized as a movement away from postmodern irony and cynicism towards sincerity, hope, romanticism, and affect. Today, the sincerity movement is reverberated in indie music from Arcade Fire to Vampire Weekend, and the books from authors like Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Compare these to TV shows such as The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and South Park which defined the postmodern 90s. Homer Simpson, Jerry Seinfeld, and Eric Cartman showcased every faulty nook and cranny of western liberal democracy, albeit with a wink or a tongue-in-cheek comment. Fueled by irony and cynicism, their black humor and absurdism cultivated among its viewers a general distrust of basically everything and everyone; God is dead, morality is just a matter of perspective, and the promised civilization of western liberalism is an illusion. Life is, as Seinfeld nonchalantly proclaimed, about nothing. And so ultimately this nihilist conclusion constructed a wall of eye rolling and annoyed groans through which any form of sincerity and affect was bounced back.

Irony is a necessary tool for social criticism but as David Foster Wallace himself noted, “Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, then what do we do?”[1] Indeed, what do we do with Seinfeld’s nihilistic creed that everything is ultimately about nothing? What do we do with a world deprived of its meaning and its sense?

We return to what is most natural or apparent to us; our feelings, to bring us closer to what Wallace called “what it means to be a fucking human being”[2]. Perhaps this move towards affect and emotions in order to find certainty derives from Cartesian reasoning; if there is no certainty that anything is true, but the only thing which I know to be true is that I feel something, then that emotion must be true; I feel therefore I am. And so to escape from the nihilistic conclusion of postmodernism, people flee to their inner selves longing for certainty and a strong foothold.

A return to affect and humanity is a noble pursuit, but in the light of last year’s events, it has become apparent that emotions can be a dangerous weapon. The populist agenda thrives on sincerity – its soil is fertilized with extremities and the emotions of the masses. Having detected the public’s need for emotional sincerity, populists like Donald Trump pluck their political fruits with fear mongering and finger pointing. In this, Trump has turned his back to postmodernity; his authentic and extremely sincere “speak from the heart” rhetoric and his sneers on the sketches of Saturday Night Live and Meryl Streep’s speech during the Golden Globes reveal a divorce from irony and relativism. When confronted with alternative ideas that might endanger his worldview (and maybe his masculinity), he retreats to the fort of his Twitter account so that any attempt to put him in his place eventually rolls off his Mexican tailored suits like water off a duck’s back, perpetually repeating to himself that it is “not true” like a self-deceptive mantra.

In this context, it didn’t come as a surprise that the Oxford English Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as the Word of the Year 2016. Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”[3], post-truth rhetoric was evidently present in the Brexit Campaign and the US Presidential elections. At the same time, it also characteristic of how today the internet and social media are used for cherry-picking data and facts in order to justify whatever conclusion people desire.

By no means do I want to argue that Wes Anderson and Donald Trump have the same political agenda. Populists’ extreme sincerity leaves no room for relativism and answers every form of criticism with foul-mouthed hate spitting. Anderson on the other hand, with his signature combination of quirkiness and humanity, seems to position his works in the goldilocks zone between irony and sincerity; each time sincerity swings towards fanaticism, gravity pulls it back toward irony and the moment irony sways towards apathy, gravity pulls it back toward enthusiasm[4]. Ushering people towards sincerity is then a worthy ambition, as long as it is not meant for polarization but aims to cultivate a space that urges people to, like Anderson’s concluding imperative, “Come Together.”

[1] David Foster Wallace, in interview with Larry McCaffery, in “A Conversation with David Foster Wallace,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13 (Summer 1993): 147.

[2] Originally cited in Larry McCaffery’s interview with Wallace.

[3] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/post-truth

[4] From Vermeulen, Timotheus, and Robin van den Akker. “Notes on Metamodernism.” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 2 (2012): 1-14.

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