In Defense of Irony

There are many ways to wink. But the ironic wink is the one in which one eye sees the everyday world while the other, closed, sees the infinitely seething cosmos.
The word irony has been bandied about for years now to describe this or that generation. But I have to say that I rarely encounter irony, at least not as I understand it. And I'm not saying others' use of the word is wrong; I'm saying that their use of the word is different than my own.

Ok, so I get my concept of irony from Kierkegaard's Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. In this view, irony is not wearing mutton chops. It's a way of living in the finite and infinite at the same time, a way to enjoy the everyday while knowing that all this passes, gives way to new worlds, to forces that far exceed it, cosmic and meta-cosmic forces alike. Irony is a way of living that declares, in the same breath, in every gesture: Everything matters and nothing matters.

What do I mean? (A funny question as an ironist always means at least two things at once.)

Well, the finite world is all this stuff — jobs, rent, girls and boys and such, angst, cell phones, cocktails at the bar, presidents, children, nail fungus.  All these things begin and end. And then there's the infinite — the seething of the cosmos, the expanse of all that I see and all that I don't, the great forces that tear this finitude asunder with merciless indifference. 

I meet people who seem fixated on the finite: a safe job, a house, pilates, a good financial plan, children. These same people may have less seemingly self-indulgent interests — Bhutanese politics, the environment (a word that still confuses me), creating better urban bike paths. And all of these things are fine and good.

But there are other forces at work, all the time, teeming in and through and about us. Just look up. That sky cares nothing for Bhutan or pilates or whether you can afford a down payment on a condo.  And that indifference, while scary, is so beautiful, so reassuring, letting me know in no uncertain terms that the banality of the quotidian, however powerful and hegemonic, is nothing compared to the infinite rumblings of the universe. 

Most anxiety is anxiety over the day to day. My boss yelled at me! My co-worker is a back stabber! What will I eat for dinner? But this anxiety forgets that none of this crap matters, not really.

And yet, at the same time, these things must be tended to. Work takes up so much of our lives. Those politics are real with wide reaching implications. Thinking about them and tending to them is important, necessary, and good. Fixating on them and forgetting that there are other planes of existence is not so good: it leaves you trapped in the mechanics of the everyday. 

Let's say you engineer your everyday life well — you navigate your asinine boss, you buy the house, get the husband, breed the kids.  Suddenly, you're happy! Woohooo! The thing is, all finite things are, well, finite: they pass. If you pin your happiness to everyday things, your happiness will end. 

Of course, to invest solely in the infinite has its own downfalls. It's to be oblivious to the necessities of everyday but also to the beauties and wonders of the everyday. Kierkegaard considers ascetic monks who disdain the things of this world and so take as much leave of it as possible without dying — they eat little, talk less. And while he finds a nobility in these monks, he can't help but feel that they're missing the other half of humanity — the physical body, the social, the ethical, the everyday.

Irony is that way of living that allows us to walk in the finite and the infinite at the same time, to be absolutely interested in the quotidian while being absolutely interested in the great indifferent cosmos. These things don't unite in some mysterious Hegelian dialectic. No, for Kierkegaard, it is our task to hold these two opposing forces — the finite and the infinite — together without uniting them.  This is what he calls irony. (And, for those who care, this is the lesson of Jesus for Kierkegaard: a man who is finite and infinite without uniting the two.)

Irony allows me to care deeply and profoundly about this life while, at the same time, to know that what I believe now, what I think now, what's happening now will give way to Heraclitus' river.  Such is life: it is not geometric. It is a calculus, four dimensional (at least, at least). Time — that is, change — is a condition of the everyday. And it is indifferent to the everyday.

So when I speak to other people, I speak with an ironic assumption. I opine, often emphatically. And, in the same breath, I could care less for my opinions — without diminishing the vehemence of said opinions. And this, in turn, is what I want — what I demand — from others: that whatever they may think or feel or believe, they are not so tethered to the everyday that they don't see the cosmos swirling about them.

This of course makes for some awkward social encounters. People really love their beliefs! And my ironic teasing and poking has a tendency to, uh, irritate. As does my ardent rejection of this or that — goofy cocktails, the will to travel, liberal righteousness — all of which I might reject but I don't insist that you reject them, too. Why? Because I'm not tethered to any of this nonsense.

Irony lets us negotiate an ever diverse social body. Rather than all being tethered to our own private ideologies (which, more often than not, are anything but private), we all affirm that each of us enjoys his beliefs and understands that none of them are relevant.

Except, of course, a belief in irony. 


what the Tee Vee taught said...

I thought this a beautiful disquisition.

To seethe in the cosmos is to acknowledge and welcome a lack of control. When a mantra of control = success develops, irony goes out the window. Perhaps living in what McLuhan characterized as a visual, rather than acoustic space contributes.

An un-all-knowing glance to the stars, particularly after the finite world takes a dump on you, is more soothing than anything Pfizer can pump out.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Yes yes yes. I had a hard time focusing this piece as there's so much more to say — about control and lack thereof (the fears and pleasures of being out of control); the ways we try to harness, limit, and define the infinite; language; the social — why, there's a book or two here.

And: a glance at the stars has saved me more times than I care to express here.

αλήθεια said...

According to Fear and Trembling though, Irony and Humor still circulate within the domain of the infinite resignation; Irony, in other words, fails to reach the paradoxical movement of faith, in which one gains the finite by means of one's faith in the absurd. Kierkegaard says it more eloquently than I do. He says, "Irony and Humor reflect also upon themselves, and therefore belong within the sphere of the infinite resignation, their elasticity is due to the fact that the individual is incommensurable with reality."
It is kind of difficult for me to understand Kierkegaard's explanation of the knight of faith and his internal movements. He gives an example of a young man who, in order to become a knight of faith, must let go his worldly love for the princess and then get her back by means of Eternal love (perhaps the love of God). I'm still not sure what he means by that, and this is precisely why I don't understand Kierkegaard's stance towards the paradoxical and the internal leap of faith.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Yes yes but within infinite resignation, irony plays the same role: a way of negotiating the discrepancy, the distance, between the finite and the infinite.

As for the young man in love, he must move past his worldly love — love that's finite: she's pretty, she's a good wife, she makes me feel good, she fits well with me, etc and discover an infinite love that is not as much beyond the finite as it supersedes it.

Of course, Kierkegaard was a totally wracked with guilt and angst when it cam it love so I'm not sure I'd totally take his word on the subject.

And: I think he readily conflates humor and irony when I believe there is an important distinction between the two. Irony moves between surface and depth; humor folds the surface in surprising ways — it creates and eradicates distance through juxtaposition.