Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Concept of Irony

Colbert's irony is making me re-read Kierkegaard:

Political Washington is accustomed to more direct attacks that follow the rules. We tend to like the bland buffoonery of Jay Leno or insider jokes that drop lots of names and enforce everyone's clubby self-satisfaction. (Did you hear the one about John Boehner at the tanning salon or Duke Cunningham playing poker at the Watergate?) Similarly, White House spinmeisters are used to frontal assaults on their policies, which can be rebutted with a similar set of talking points. But there is no easy answer for the ironist. "Irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function," wrote David Foster Wallace, in his seminal 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram." "It's critical and destructive, a ground clearing." So it's no wonder that those journalists at the dinner seemed so uneasy in their seats. They had put on their tuxes to rub shoulders with the president. They were looking forward to spotting Valerie Plame and "American Idol's" Ace Young at the Bloomberg party. They invited Colbert to speak for levity, not because they wanted to be criticized. As a tribe, we journalists are all, at heart, creatures of this silly conversation. We trade in talking points and consultant speak. We too often depend on empty language for our daily bread, and -- worse -- we sometimes mistake it for reality. Colbert was attacking us as well.
Kierkegaard on Socrates:

He belonged to that species of human beings with whom one is not content to reamin with the external as such. The external always suggested an 'other', an opposite. He was not like a philosopher lecturing upon his views, wherein the very lecture itself constitutes the presence of the Idea; on the contrary, what Socrates said meant something 'other'. The outer and inner did not form a harmonious unity, for the outer was in opposition to the inner, and only through this refracted angle is he to be apprehended. Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, tr. Lee M. Capel (Bloomington, Indiana; Indiana University Press 1968, 50).
The Concept of Irony was Kierkegaard's dissertation (or the equivalent thereof in the American system; the degree was granted by a Lutheran seminary). It's an interesting text because in the pseudonymous authorship S.K.'s personae praise Socrates as the most important thinker in human history. His analysis of Socrates in Irony, however, reveals just how much irony there is in that praise. For S.K. (not the pseudonyms), Socrates is not the greatest thinker, but rather the most dangerous, in human history. It is through Socrates, S.K. writes, that irony entered the world.

Here is an instructive comparison made early in the argument, a comparison of the Gospel of John and Plato's writings:

On the other hand, the observation concerning the relationship of Plaot to John is also correct if one maintains that John found and immediately saw in Christ all that he, by imposing silence upon himself, has depicted with complete objectivity, for his eyes were open to the immediate divinity in Christ; whereas Plato creates his Socrates through a poetic activity, since Socrates in his immediate existence was wholly negative. (52-53)
This is the key to irony in S.K.'s conception: it is wholly negative, and as such, wholly destructive of everything, including itself. But before we get there, consider the aptness of this observation. S.K. proceeds by considering Socrates from the point of view of three contemporaries other than Plato. One of them is the playwright Aristophanes (who mocked Socrates in his comedy Clouds). S.K. notes:

Indeed it would be a great loss if we lacked the Aristophanic evaluation of Socrates. As every development usually ends by parodying itself, and such a parody is a guarantee that this development has outlived itself, so the comic conception is also a moment when, in many ways an infinitely correcting moment, in the total illustration of a personality or tendency. (158)
Unfortunately for the world (or left blogistan), such a moment is precisely "an infinitely correcting moment," which means it never ends, never comes to a conclustion: the emperor is never revealed as stark naked and the scales never fall from the eyes of the deluded or the ignorant or the willfully blind or the just plain apathetic. We are in that moment of parody now. Stephen Colbert has portrayed it for us all, in the "real world," not safely inside a TV studio in front of a TV lens, with all the distancing that setting implies and applies. He has carried it out into the arena of the "grown ups," and shown them what they really are.

But no one recognized themselves in the mirror. No one accepted the parody as the final representation of reality, as the guarantee that this development has outlived itself," because it is an "infinitely correcting moment," and that means it never has to come to a conclusion. Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends/We're so glad you could attend, step inside, step inside.... But it is also in that infinitely correcting moment that irony strikes, and becayuse it is negative, irony is infinitely dangerous:

As irony conquers everything by seeing its disproportion to the Idea, so it also succumbs to itself, since it consistently goes beyond itself while remaining in itself.
Think of the worm Ouroboros, eating its tail. But in this conception, the worm manages to take the last swallow, and the world disappears.

Irony is always negative, and can sound no positive. Consider Swift. In all of Gullivers' Travels, the most rational and peaceful creatures he meets, are the Hounhyms, the intelligent horses, and Gulliver's despair is absolute when they reject him from their society. In "A Modest Proposal," Swift is clearly as disdainful of the Irish who suffer under the British system of absentee landlords, as he is of the British who literally feed on the flesh of the Irish. One has to remind oneself Swift was the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Still, here is S.K.'s description of what Swift may well have intended:

Irony may exhibit itself through a relation of opposition in a still more indirect fashion when it chooses the simplest and most limited human beings, not in order to mock them, but in order to mock the wise.

In all these instances irony exhibits itself most nearly as conceiving the world, as attempting to mystify the surrounding world not so much in order to conceal itself as to induce others to reveal themselves. But irony may also manifest itself when the ironist seeks to lead the outside world astray respecting himself. (268)
Swift in "A Modest Proposal." Colbert, at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. And here is the problem:

Irony...has no purpose, it's purpose is immanent in itself, a metaphysical purpose. The purpose is none other than irony itself. When an ironist exhibits himself as other than he actually is, it might seem that his purpose were to induce others to believe this. His actual purpose, however, is merely to feel free, and he is through irony.(273)
But is irony then, merely doubt? If I doubt, am I not free? No:

With doubt the subject constantly seeks to penetrate the object, and his misfortune consists in the fact that the object constantly eludes him. With irony, on the other hand, the subject is always seeking to get outside the object and this he attains by becoming conscious at every moment that the object has no reality. With doubt the subject is witness to a war of conquest in which every phenomenon is destroyed, because the essence always resides behind the phenomenon. But with irony the subject constantly retires from the field and proceeds to talk every phenomenon out of its reality in order to save himself, that is, in order to preserve himself in his negative independence of everything.
For irony everything becomes nothingness, but nothingness may be taken in several ways. The speculative nothingness is that which at every moment is vanishing for concretion, since it is itself the demand for the concrete...The mystical nothingness is a nothingness for representation, a nothingness which yet is as full of content as the silence of the night is eloquent for one who has ears to hear. Finally, the ironic nothingness is that deathly stillness in which irony returns to 'haunt and jest' (this last word taken wholly ambiguously.)(274-75)
This is not what the reporters object to, but it is what they should object to. Colbert was attacking "official Washington," which has come to include the White Houst Correspondents as much as it does the employees of the Federal Government. But was the attack fair? Or was it ultimately dangerous? No doubt it was necesary. But David Foster Wallace is wrong: Irony is not a "ground clearing." It is a clearing of the ground. It is a clearing of everything.

Although perhaps that is what our political discourse, at this point, needs.

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