Irony has been the source of some anxiety lately, from this essay in the New York Times (critiqued here), to R. R. Reno’s post last week on the HBO series Girls. (Or maybe this uncertainty has been with us for a while now.)
Offering a bit of a different take is this article by Charles Petersen, appearing in n+1. Surveying the thought of twentieth century American philosopher Stanley Cavell, he considers the source of irony and why it might be a perennial human sentiment:
First, an ambition he finds fundamental to the human condition: the desire to make the world more present, to experience the world even more directly, to know that another loves you, say, to the same degree that you love him. Second, since making the world more present becomes impossible, and we cannot know the love of another in the same way we know our love for that other, we arrive at the feeling of fraudulence (where others, since we can’t confirm their love, can’t confirm our love, so we doubt that even we do love), and skepticism (where others, since we can’t confirm their existence, can’t confirm our existence, so we doubt that we exist). Ever since Descartes first asked how he could be certain the world was not the work of a demon — the famous line of inquiry that led to modern skepticism — this problem has seemed little more than an intellectual exercise. Cavell makes skepticism fundamental, a relation to the world that comes not from the intellect but from (frustrated) desire. The third stage, then, is the attempt by philosophers (and writers of all kinds) to solve skepticism, to rid themselves of doubt and achieve certainty by abstracting the world, which Cavell interprets as a redoubling of skepticism — an attempt to again make the world more present not by acknowledging that frustrated first attempt but by ignoring it, or avenging it, “a kind of violence the human mind performs in response to its discovery of its limitation.”
We certainly need to take caution not to follow Cavell in making a posture of skepticism “fundamental.” Yet it’s worth noting that the writer sees the “relation to the world that comes not from the intellect but from (frustrated) desire” as legitimating irony. This implies it might exist even in a world unaffected by our contemporary cultural ennui and intellectual confusion.
That some form of irony has not only always existed but been a central feature of high-minded rhetoric and prose would seem to be supported by sources as old as the Bible itself. A few days ago, rereading a section of St. Paul’s epistles, I decided to graze over the exegetical commentary on the lower half of the page. One of the notes to the reader advised that special attention be paid to the “masterful use of irony,” especially in the sections that relied heavily on inverted phrases (the sometimes tongue-twisting about our unbound freedom being a kind of slavery and our hope in becoming a slave to the freedom of Christ), along with the part where the Apostle employs rhetorical questions and patently false statements of in order to show the outworking of a misleading argument.
There’s obviously a “right” kind of irony and a cheap kind, and a world where sincerity was taboo would indeed be suffocating. But just as unfiltered conservative damnations of “postmodernism” have become an elastic shorthand that say little about the architectural, literary, or philosophical reactions against modernism, it seems criticism of irony is now in danger of becoming a similar stock weapon. It’s meant well, and often aimed at the right targets, but is it accurate enough? After all, in a way, isn’t it the unbounded, decidedly unironic celebration of our “authentic selves” that has rendered many traditional positions simply incomprehensible to many?
Is there a way of using irony that is, in fact, serious–more serious, perhaps, than a straightforward denunciation of things we don’t like? I fail to see why it shouldn’t be one tactic (among others), one way of “subverting,” appealing, and indirectly suggesting truth to an age that in some ways has lost its capacity to examine these claims face-to-face.