Before I get back to where I left off in Part I with Peter Sloterdik’s Critique of Cynical Reason, I want to return briefly to another parallel between David Foster Wallace’s television essay and Kaplan and Stevenson’s Esquire feature on “The New Sincerity.” In the latter, the authors write, “In the Old Sincerity, everybody—from Joe Isuzu to Federal Express—sold everything by mocking windbags. The New Sincerity sells cars by telling us they’ll last forever and save our lives with airbags.” (Recall the “Old Sincerity” is what the authors called the more ironic age that preceded the New Sincerity.) Wallace also cites the Joe Isuzu ads to make his point:
Once again, Wallace’s account is quite compatible with Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason, where the ironical spirit has become the servant of the powers that be. It’s a kind of mockery that fundamentally leaves things as they were: “Sure, you might feel smart for a moment, but you’re still gonna buy the car or whatever other product I’m selling.” As Slavoj Zizek writes in a commentary on Sloterdijk in his 1989 The Sublime Object of Ideology, this move leaves the structuring “ideological fantasy,” in this case the commodity form, in place:
[C]ynical reason, with all its ironic detachment, leaves untouched the fundamental level of ideological fantasy, the level on which ideology structures the social reality itself…The fundamental level of ideology , however, is not that of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself. And at this level, we are of course far from being a post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way - one of many ways - to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.
This is very close to the phenomenon that Zoe Williams identified in her 2003 essay “The Final Irony,” a response to the “Death of Irony” pieces that came out after 9/11:
But other strands of media use irony to assert their right to have no position whatsoever. So, you take a cover of FHM, with tits on the front - and it's ironic because it appears to be saying "women are objects", yet of course it isn't saying that, because we're in a postfeminist age. But nor is it saying "women aren't objects", because that would be dated, over-sincere, mawkish even. So, it's effectively saying "women are neither objects, nor non-objects - and here are some tits!" Scary Movie 2, Dumb And Dumberer, posh women who go to pole-dancing classes, people who set the video for Big Brother Live, people who have Eurovision Song Contest evenings, Charlie's Angels (the film, not the TV series) and about a million other things besides, are all using this ludic trope - "I'm not saying what you think I'm saying, but I'm not saying its opposite, either. In fact, I'm not saying anything at all. But I get to keep the tits."
Williams is describing a more fun and playful —"ludic” — disposition than the bitter, depressed, “unhappy consciousness” that Sloterdijk describes as the product of “Cynical Reason,” but he was talking mostly about Germany during the Cold War after all. What Williams is describing as an “age of irony” some people now recall with nostalgia as a time when things were dealt with a little more lightly and when we supposedly all enjoyed ourselves a bit more. Those suspicious of the ironic disposition often have a kind of partially-articulated critique of this nostalgia: “ironic racism” or “ironic sexism” didn’t actually undermine those things, but rather let people continue to perpetuate them without the censure of society or a bad conscience. It allowed us to leave all the “ideological fantasies” in place, to use Zizek’s formulation.
But Williams, like Sloterdijk, believes there is a true—sincere, if you will— ironic tradition worth preserving and emphasizing, which she calls “Irony as a tool of dissent.” This is “[w]here irony springs up as a response to being lied to (by authority, or prevailing culture, or whatever…. where it states the lie in order to expose the lie, and is therefore a route to truth. It has some moral import. It may say "This belief is wrong", but it doesn't say “All belief is wrong.” In fact, Williams believes irony cannot be dispensed, with, it’s a moral necessity, truth would perish without it:
The end of irony would be a disaster for the world - bad things will always occur, and those at fault will always attempt to cover them up with emotional and overblown language. If their opponents have to emote back at them, you're basically looking at a battle of wills, and the winner will be the person who can beat their breast the hardest without getting embarrassed. Irony allows you to launch a challenge without being dragged into this orbit of self-regarding sentiment that you get from Tony Blair, say, when he talks about "fighting for what's right". Irony can deflate a windbag in the way that very little else can.
It is very difficult to disagree with Williams, who is expressing a very sensible and sane view here and an apparently workable distinction. There is something vital and necessary about irony both as a rhetorical mode and an existential stance; a world without irony would be unimaginable, in many ways it would be the end of imagination itself. Williams avers that “[w]hat people usually mean when they yearn for an end to irony is an end to postmodernism” and then rather quickly admits “I’m not sure this will ever happen…”
I’m not going to attempt to define postmodernism here, except to note that its usually a condition we are said to be stuck in: a certain impasse or impossibility to clarify meaning for ourselves. This sense of “stuckness,” of futility, and and limited possibility that is sometimes blamed on capitalism, sometimes on the “death of God,” or some other massive historical abstraction that’s swallowed us up, is perhaps why we keep often running to and from irony, as if it will help liberate us. Maybe it can, maybe it can’t.
(Just a quick sidebar: on the topic of being stuck, it’s worth remembering here the short-lived “Stuckist” movement, a group of British painters, who, rejecting the nihilism and irony of the Youth British Artists like Tracy Emin, attempted to create a new avant-garde around sincerity and “spiritual values.” As noble as that might sound, their paintings were just not very good. I supposed they proved their own point: mere self-consciousness does not great art make.)
I’m very sympathetic to the idea of separating a good anti-establishmentarian irony from a bad paralyzing, dissociating sort of irony, but I wonder if it’s so simple or categorical a process.
Sloterdijk also wants us to recapture to the “tradition of satire in which the freedoms of art, the carnival, and criticism combined into a many-tongued theater of laughter.” (His emphasis.) The key thing about “kynicism” for Sloterdijk is that it’s lively, fun, irrepressible,—“its intelligence is floating, playful, essayistic, not laid out on secure foundations and final principles…How much truth is contained in something can be best determined by making it thoroughly laughable and then watching to see how much joking it cant take. For that truth is a matter that can stand mockery, that is freshened by any ironic gesture directed it. Whatever cannot stand satire is false.” Compared to the liveliness of kynicism, cynicism is sour, downbeat, and burnt-out. The kynical tradition, traced back to its founder Diogenes, is intelligent, witty, urbane—it’s described as an attitude fostered by city life—but also potentially rude, biting, bawdy; it rejects and harasses the pomposity of office and bourgeois or academic respectability. I think this all sounds very appealing so far.
The problem is that the premise of Sloterdijk’s treatise is that at some point “kynicism” did become cynicism, “cheekiness switched sides,” irreverence was captured and turned around. This is recognizable all around us. Just look at the most prominent example, Trump’s public performance, with its apparent lack of respect for authority and the establishment, was misrecognized or mislabeled as a kind of kynical defiance by many. In was in fact a cynical way to keep the whole game of wealth, power, and violence going and to accelerate it. Trump was a triumph of cynical reason and his “ironic” celebrants among a certain self-regarding avant-garde are making a grave aesthetic and ethical error of judgment. Along with Trump, we can see the same sort of thing happen in miniature with radio and TV “shock jocks”: their supposedly “authentic,” rule-breaking, their ironic or satirical jokes about women or minorities often just reinforce conformity and the old order.
Lorentzen and Sloterdijk (at least at that stage in his career) both put a lot of faith in the great names of the tradition, geniuses in other words, that practice irony the right way. Their example is to be studied, commented upon, and emulated. Not worshipfully, but critically. Still, this suggests a somewhat paradoxical (ironic?) reverence for irreverence. For the most part, though, I also share this critical faith or faith in criticism; a now somewhat old-fashioned, humanistic faith that has its own canon and its own iconostasis of individual saints. I say “individual” for a reason. For Sloterdijk, kynicism is above all a phenomenon of individual development, of character in the more than one sense of the word—he defines it as the “power of the underdog that comes into its own individuality [through] cheekiness.” Cynicism is what happens when this individualistic sensibility becomes diffuse through mass culture,—city life now creates alienation and anonymity where it once gave birth to interesting and fresh personalities:
Today the cynic appears as a mass figure: an average social character in the upper echelons of the elevated superstructure. It is a mass figure not only because advanced industrial civilization produces the bitter loner as a mass phenomenon. Rather, the cities themselves have become diffuse clumps whose power to create generally accepted public characters has been lost.
We can easily recognize what Sloterdijk means when we reflect on the essential triteness today of contrarianism and the countless vulgar performances of cynical “intelligence” that are actually little more than repetitions of commonplaces.
In the spirit of the aforementioned critical faith, it’s worth questioning the premise of this salvation through exceptional individual power, as well. Even great works of art risk being turned by the public back into exercises in mere cynicism. Consider for example, Hannah Arendt’s account in The Origins of Totalitarianism of the Weimar audience’s reception of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, which must be an authentically kynical work if there ever was one:
The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressert, dann kommt die Moral,” was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior and wonderful fun. The effect of the work was exactly the opposite of what Brecht had sought by it. The bourgeoisie could no longer be shocked; it welcomed the exposure of its hidden philosophy, whose popularity proved they had been right all along, so that the only political result of Brecht’s “revolution” was to encourage everyone to discard the uncomfortable mask of hypocrisy and to accept openly the standards of the mob.
To be as charitable as possible, I think this sort of the phenomenon that those who fret about “irony poisoning” or “irony brain” are talking about: a delirious, self-deluded celebration of the destruction of the last vestige of moral standards by an aesthetic avant-garde. Rather than see an ironic comment meant to shame or expose, people might just say, “that’s right.” As hypocritical as those old standards might be, they are at least something. Of course, it’s not fair to blame Brecht for his play being misunderstood any more than to blame Lolita for being taken as a recommendation of pedophilia. But as critical readers it’s worth thinking about why and when irony can fail of its effect and, indeed, produce the opposite effect—when reality performs its own irony on us. Of course, works of art, like individuals, always both accept and reject the values of the cultures they appear in, and tracing the weave of that acceptance and rejection is part of criticism.
So far I’ve focused mostly on the ironic in so far as its directed outwards, to its public and political uses, the way it serves as satire or critique of the world and its follies, but I want to turn now to a more recent essay that proposes other possibilities of irony that are more about personal authenticity, intellectual and contemplative freedom, about the way it can make possible a liberation from society more than a liberation of society, that perhaps can help us fight off the mass-ification that turns the kynicism into cynicism.
Writing in the Outline in 2018, Leah Finnegan calls for a return to irony to oppose a certain type of mind-numbing sensibility or manner that should be immediately recognizable to anyone who spends time on the Internet. She calls it “Urn,” a shorthand for “Urgent Earnestness” that has the virtue of suggesting the fundamental inarticulateness of the phenomenon and its closeness to pure noise:
It is a state of psychosis dictated, and facilitated, by the internet. Urn mostly happens on Twitter, but sometimes in newspapers and other times on Instagram. Urn is saying the most obvious thing (“Donald Trump is a big whiny crybaby!”) really self-righteously (“Donald Trump is a big whiny crybaby and if you don’t think so you need to reexamine your life!”) and receiving acclaim for doing so (“Donald Trump is a big whiny crybaby and if you don’t think so you need to reexamine your life!” 3.1k likes 4.5k retweets). Urn is raging about whatever garbage David Brooks has written.
We have perhaps all urned from time to time. It’s almost like Heidegger’s “Das Man” and “Chatter:” an inauthentic existential state one can fall into—although perhaps some more so than others. It's also a kind of fundamental dishonesty about its own real purpose and function: “I do believe that people are using Urn in order to achieve the basest of accomplishments: fame. If there is a class of thinkers that is doing very well under Urn it is the hack class, or those who take obvious and even rote concepts and thread them together in a slightly clever way to near-unanimous praise.”
Finnegan’s remedy to this unthinking reflex is irony, but not the stereotype of Gen X disaffection, but rather “philosophical irony” which “functioned as a tool of detachment in order to provide space in which to reflect, explore subjectivity, and, ultimately, find truth.” Finnegan provides Søren Kierkegaard as the prime theorist of this form of irony:
Kierkegaard anticipated a lot of our current troubles with irony, like the argument that it doesn’t accomplish anything; that it makes fun of what is happening instead of engaging seriously with it. “Irony is the infinite absolute negativity,” he wrote in his 1841 treatise On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. “It is negativity, because it only negates; it is infinite, because it does not negate this or that phenomenon; it is absolute, because that by virtue of which it negates is a higher something that still is not. The irony establishes nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it.” Irony might not provide new ideas, but that’s not its job. Its job is to kick up shit in ideas with which we’ve grown comfortable.
Elsewhere, however, Kierkegaard nods to the intellectual value of irony. “[The ironist] knows only that the present does not match the idea… That which is coming is hidden from him.” This is why irony is the perfect remedy to Urn, not because it negates it from a static place of smug authority but because it reopens the certainties that Urn has closed off.
But I think we’ve gone on long enough for this installment, so I will have to make a Part III, which will deal more fully with what irony as “infinite absolute negativity,” psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear, Hegel and the early Romantics.