Samuel Loncar on Irony as a Lost Virtue in Need of Recovery
Irony traces the curve of human existence striving to be a straight line. It names the failure of identity’s endeavor elevated to a state of being: self-consciousness. A lost virtue, we need it now more than ever because it helps not only explain the rise of Donald Trump, but how all of us, whatever our politics, can come to a more humane, if not humble, relationship to our contemporary madness.
Like all merely literary concepts, it is nothing of the sort. Genre and style are matters of grave philosophical concern; how we read the world and play it, how we structure it in our drama and art, enacts and shapes our particular vision of the cosmos. Sufficiently banalized to mean the merely sad, the concept of tragedy, for example, may appear universal but it is not. Tragedy lives where gods dwell and curse and confound human life. In the juxtaposition of our sordid affairs with the gods, of heaven and earth joined in a place we used to call home, we find an ancient world on view and in the making, religious ritual and art undivided. That all lies behind us now, after heaven fell to earth and we discovered whole ways of life were in fact literary playthings for modern curiosity. The rise and fall of styles and literary devices conceal an alternate history of the species that lives and hides in language. As tragedy’s descent to an artifact of “literature” spells the end of enchantment, so irony’s rise in the Romantic movement opens on an industrial and commercial world threatening to collapse complexity into an earth flatter than one any mythic medieval might have imagined. Irony clashes with the cult of progress that emerges with industrial capitalism and Enlightenment optimism, falling like a star into the world of nineteenth-century philosophy and literature.
The metaphysics of irony, its committed stance on what reality is like, becomes evident by observing those people for whom irony is a foreign condition, like a certain kind of ideologue (the kind that seems to dominate social media and news). Confident that the world is exactly the shape that they see it as, and that all it needs is themselves and those like them to be put to rights, they experience no tension in whole-hearted commitment to their cause; they take delight in the denunciation of their opponents as the unwashed and unrighteous enemies of the good, i.e., themselves. They live in a world cramped enough to be commensurate to their self-righteous egos. In such a world, irony is a crime against reality.
Irony’s opposite, then, is not sincerity. It is identification without remainder: humans lost in their causes, with no subjectivity left, nothing that cannot be fully commensurate to the world and clearly expressed. Irony is impossible for the fanatic, the anti-ironist who is thus himself an irony, for he fails to see the absurd contradiction between his small ideas and the big world that will surely fail him, contradict him, and refuse him his dreams, all of which he will ignore and deny while preaching his gospel. Comedy is one of the last preserves of irony, a safe space for the sacrilege that is the backward compliment meaning pays to piety after gods have died. This is why the surest measure of the totalitarian attitude is the hatred and suppression of comedy, which takes as its bread the contradictions, the ironies, of our lives.
The metaphysics of the ironist, then, involves a world at least big enough to fail us, and to do so with malice aforethought, to really contradict us, to malign our intentions with its own counter-assertions. The darkness of the ironist’s world is offset by its depth, humanity, and, ironically, commensurateness to reality. Only by seeing in humanity a depth that can never finally be external, understood, and adequately established in the world, can you find in humanity the pathos of eternity, which is nothing other than an individuality in tension with time. The anthropology of the ironist is noble because it lets the most humble human life be a potential tragedy; irony is what connects Oedipus and Willy Loman, but beneath their feet whole worlds have lived and died unmarked and unmourned. For the ironist, people are not reduced to what they can say, or how they appear, or finally even what they are. For what is the being of other persons but a fiction we imagine from their appearance? Either there is within themselves something else, something more, that is truly part of their identity, or there is not. If not, it is all seeming, it is roles and playing all the way down. To the extent we believe in this grimly unironic world, we have sufficiently degraded ourselves to a society in which the differences between us really are what define us. For otherwise, beyond difference of appearance, there is nothing left to make us who we are.
This is the irony of our own subjectivity. Subjectivity is a concept that has been so wasted and commodified that it risks extinction. The paradigm of the “subjective” in our time is the merely personal, the irrational, the preferential: this is capitalist subjectivity, the elevation of choice as the defining trait of humans, and thus the reduction of all truth and value to the status of preferences, a view which destroys philosophy and art alike and serves only one interest: the capitalist class, which is all of us insofar as we recognize that we are all consumers who are passionate about acquisition and ownership. God help us if that’s all we are, but we won’t get anywhere if we deny the palpable truth of the matter. Capitalist subjectivity is not the whole story, however, and insofar as it’s true, it erodes irony as surely as the fanatic.
Subjectivity in the grand old days of nineteenth-century philosophy spoke to the fact that human freedom is bound up with our self-consciousness, our capacity in our very awareness of the world and ourselves to alter both thereby. It’s only a short step to irony from philosophical analysis of self-consciousness, for reflection makes it quite clear that whoever I am, I am not just myself. Into that space between me and myself stepped Freud and psychoanalysis, advertising and public relations, but before them Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Marx, all telling powerful stories about the real me, and how that person up front, who seemed to be driving, was actually a prisoner in the trunk, drugged into a fantasy of control. Who was the real driver? Whatever mask it wore – false consciousness, Will, repressed memory – it was the Unconscious, a concept we have largely forgotten and are now rediscovering in one of those depressing cycles that make one doubt whether we make progress, or just forget things long enough to confuse memory with discovery.
Here we arrive at cultural irony. For the far from simple and certainly not well known fact is that the discovery of subjectivity, of a deep and contradictory vision of selfhood, was exploited by the very ruling elite that has turned subjectivity into a commodity. Treating theories of the unconscious and the irrational dimension of humanity as operation manuals for new technologies of persuasion and mass control, men like Edward Bernays, author of the classic work on propaganda and the founder of public relations, revolutionized politics, advertising, and governance by using the same methods in each area, making the control of public perception and desire the primary business of campaigning, selling, and persuading. The CIA learned these lessons well, and during the cold war invented and made popular the concept of “brainwashing,” a pseudo-scientific idea used in the propaganda wars to terrify Americans and explain the “confessions” of captured prisoners, forced to denounce America.
As the anxiety-ridden but well-fed artist-turned-advertiser class knows only too well, the success of modern marketing relies on the exploitation of high levels of creativity and craftsmanship to conjure and control our primitive desires and fears. The most effective way to do that is to sell us an image of humans that denies the very truth that makes the selling possible. Ask the average economist what humans are like and you’ll get a fairy tale about economic rationality, descended with significant corruption from a very optimistic wing of the Enlightenment. The biggest “revolution” in economics in the past decades has been economists’ discovery of a field, psychology, in which there is no evidence for their view of human behavior but evidence to the contrary: that humans are primarily controlled by prejudice and emotion. In the marvelous “economy” of academic knowledge, this data about humans is put to work to refine advertising’s methods, and a number of best-sellers explain how shelf-placement affects purchasing, and how the same truths might help us improve governance and our personal lives, one “nudge” at a time.
But the irony thickens. For practically none of the popular purveyors of this “new” discovery about humanity (the field is known as “behavioral economics”) seems to understand that it flatly contradicts their political and cultural ideals. Our political system, for example, is supposedly based on the idea that citizens can make prudent and rational assessments of candidates’ merits for office. Yet marketing and political campaigning itself assume the opposite: the citizens need to be studied and manipulated so the campaign “speaks to the people,” meaning: they can manipulate their unconscious biases and appetites. Trump is a great marketer, whatever else one thinks about him, and that’s why he won.
All the shrill claims that Trump is an idiot never explain how he beat 16 experienced Republican politicians and then one of the most seasoned, high cachet Democrats in town. And now we’re back in Edward Bernays’ backyard, for Bernays was explicit in Propaganda that people could not be trusted to make good decisions and that it was the elites’ job to make sure they did the right thing. He begins the book by noting, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.”
This invisible government, the heads of the major ad and PR firms, selects the “best marketer” of the year award for the industry magazine, AdAge. Outsiders to the field may be surprised to learn who won in 2008, beating out Apple among others on the short-list: the winner was Barack Obama. That’s how our democracy works: we select our presidents based on how successfully they and their teams have mastered the manipulation techniques marketers employ to sell us a reality we want, one that does not really exist, and can’t. As Daniel Boorstin argued so presciently in 1962 in The Image: A History of Pseudo-Events in America, marketers are not the enemy, because they are giving us what we ask for. We want more from the outer world than it can give us, and we gladly sacrifice the rigors of developing an inner life for the pleasure of imagining we can have everything we want, including a sense of well-being, identity, and spiritual security, all through how we look, where we live, and what we do publically. Our partisan passions make us childish enough to miss the blindingly obvious: that Donald Trump won the election for the same structural reason Barack Obama and most of our presidents for at least half-a-century have won: because he ran the best marketing campaign. If we don’t like that, we had better take our rage inward, rather than pretending the enemy is only outside us, and that we are mere innocents. Every political animal today is stained in marketer’s blood, and if we want to understand our politics, we need to understand our passions, for they are what empower marketers.
More useful than partisan denunciation is an effort to see that our politics is an extension of the logic of our society, a logic governed by the “art of the deal.” The operating assumption in marketing, public relations, and all the other areas which they have colonized, is essentially the same: people will not just do the “right” thing and the solution is not to throw books of philosophy at them but to exploit, with their desire and in a sense permission (children are another matter), their deepest insecurities, particularly the fear that they are not who they should be (a wonderfully useful fear because in some sense it’s always true). Marketing relies far more on images than words, because images immediately and viscerally engage our emotions and desires, whereas words do this with difficulty, and work best for emotional purposes when detached from thought and paired with images that enforce the invisible logic that makes a marketing term or campaign slogan compelling.
Our popular culture is not what it sounds like. What is popular is the product in general of remarkably talented teams of cultural elites working with huge budgets to achieve mass appeal through corporately owned media. The commercial ecosystem in which the product takes its place, in turn, does not mean the average’s person’s idea of culture as an expression of a people—something organic, not manufactured. It means “culture” as a literal commercial confection, a sphere in which the subtraction of market forces would leave nothing but tatters; in others words, popular culture is one way of describing the surface of a late-capitalist society, in which “folk” and “people” have disappeared, in which even the “public” and the derided “mass” may be fading from view, and something new has taken their place. This something obliterates, as canny critics like Leslie Fiedler recognized, the aristocratic distinction between high-and-low culture. “High culture” in America remains fundamentally a class distinction through which the upper-middle class achieves noticeable distance from the rest of society in its consumption habits. To understand popular culture and its marketing logic, then, is – here is our American irony – to grasp the logic of our politics and even our intellectual life as the governing logic of our society. No one is exempt.
When the ideals of a culture contradict its very means of propagating them – and this contradiction is baked into what we call “news” – you have a compelling instance of cultural irony. The psychology underlying the creation of mass culture and capitalist subjectivity props up the most flattened and banal vision of human life in recorded history—buy!—while relying on sophisticated and elaborate conceptions of humanity, step-children of Freud and nineteenth-century philosophy. We call our society liberal yet its economy depends on exploiting and enslaving our desires. The greatest threat to our American way of life would be if the majority decided it did not need to purchase anything else to be happy. That would be the end of our current liberal democracy based on consumer capitalism.
Seeing this may seem like an invitation to despair, but irony saves us precisely by putting our search for salvation into perspective.
Irony does not solve our problems, it simply lets us see them and call them what they are. To see irony is to see humanity at work in its catastrophic attempts at coherence. Naming the failure endemic to the project of being human provides us the consolation of our own imperfection. It can be dramatized, rendered sublime or absurd, but all irony involves a new vision that gathers disparate elements, hiding by themselves in fantasies of independence and consistency, puts them together as the single incoherent thing they are, and in that very act of integrative recognition opens new powers of response. To be ironic and not know it embodies the slavery of ignorance. When we fail to know ourselves we succeed in doubling the irony of our lives: we are ironic yet unaware. To claim the irony of our contradictions as our own, to hold them in self-consciousness, transforms us and them in a movement of self-integration.
Hegel thought something like this process of self-recognition at the cultural level was what moved history; perhaps he was right. Even if he was not, it is what moves us as individuals. The worst failure is the person who thinks he’s a success. Socrates’ revealing to the ancient Athenians their abysmal yet unacknowledged ignorance was not warmly received. For his reward he got a cup of chilling hemlock. Likewise, to tell people who devote 10 hours a day to making money in a way that saps their souls that this is the case, and that being more human requires recognizing the inhumanity of their labor conditions – this is not a way to win friends and influence people.
But the metaphysics of which irony is a postulate, the one that actually makes sense of the depth, complexity, and contradictory nature of the world, may open the path towards something like redemption: the capacity to accept the truth about ourselves, yet still live and laugh, and not despite the truth but because of it. Because the truth of irony is that we are more than our failures, just as we are more than our achievements, for we are always more than ourselves. But we are not less than any of these things, and the sum total of our nastiness and goodness is something bordering on the comic, or tragic, depending on one’s perspective.
Irony is a way of life, the one that sees it for what is, and finds itself free to commit to anything because nothing will ever be enough, and it knows it. Irony is not detachment but its recognized necessity. It is the flirting that only love makes possible, not the subtraction of attachment but the play arising from its excess. It is commitment to the finite with a footnote to the infinite, reminding us that we are not finally commensurate to anything, even ourselves.
Samuel Loncar, Ph.D. (Yale University), is the Publisher and Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books. A philosopher and scholar of religion, he is helping heal the divide between mind and matter that has sundered wisdom and spirituality from science and technology. He has published a number of academic and popular articles and is completing a book, Philosophy As Religion: From Plato to Posthumanism. More about him and his work can be found at his website: www.samuelloncar.com