U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Against Irony

“irony, language device, either in spoken or written form in which the real meaning is concealed or contradicted by the literal meanings of the words or in a situation in which there is an incongruity between what is expected and what occurs” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

As historians, most of us probably take pleasure in highlighting ironies of the past. On occasion I point out ironies (perhaps as a way of showing how clever I am). For example, in the first chapter of my manuscript-in-progress on the culture wars, I write: “Many radical feminists learned how to think about personal politics as members of various New Left organizations, especially SDS and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This was ironic, of course, since politicizing the personal, taken to its logical conclusion, led many women to believe that the New Left organizations to which they belonged were chauvinistic. Stokely Carmichael’s notoriously misogynistic claim that ‘the position of women in SNCC is prone’ symbolized the need for women to prioritize their own liberation.”
But should irony be an epistemological or political commitment? Several of my fellow USIH bloggers seen to think so. In his excellent book, Freedom to Offend, Ray Haberski positions himself between the two poles of the debates over sex in art: between the censors on the one hand, and the first amendment absolutists on the other. Ray claims such a position is where irony lives. Similarly, L.D. Burnett has written the following at this blog: “Irony. Humility. Detachment. This is what history has to offer.”
In his comments on James Livingston’s recent post about the historian’s obligations, Dan Wickberg concludes with what I take to be a call for epistemological irony (even though he doesn’t use the word): “All we’ve got are the tools we’ve got; critique is a modernist, historicist form. This seems hardly a reason for despair—it just means that the chastened and humble form of modernism is a better one for living than the totalizing and assertive form of endless revolution and dynamic progress. Maybe we need a new Stoicism—stop thinking you’re stuck, and you’re not. But don’t jump off a moving train—the results can’t be pretty.”

Epistemological wariness of “totalizing” forms of thought is one of the calling cards of  the ironic detachment so central to postmodernism. Of course, ironic detachment was also one of the signal sensibilities of Cold War liberalism, a liberal variant obsessed with consensus, pluralism, technical expertise, detachment, and irony, a zeitgeist that found its apotheosis in Daniel Bell’s 1960 book, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. According to the so-called pluralist thinkers who dominated American social thought during the 1950s, the era of encrusted ideologies, whether expressed from the left or from the right, had been rendered outmoded by the age of affluence. Government by scientific experimentation was the new order. President John F. Kennedy certified this technocratic ethos in a 1962 speech in which he declared that the nation’s problems were merely “technical and administrative” and, as such, “do not lend themselves to the great sort of passionate movements which have stirred this country so often in the past.”
The pluralist thinkers were wrong about a lot. The greatest movement in their midst—the civil rights movement—was inspired by an epistemological orientation more attuned to what educational philosopher Theodore Brameld termed an “audacious and cosmic vision.” More damning to the pluralist thinkers, their ironic detachment from the anticolonial movements of the world often served as cover for U.S. aggression. Furthermore, they were not detached in the Cold War. They were more often decidedly in favor of aggressive American policies against the Soviet Union and its sphere, as if the encrusted ideologies operant in Russia were justification for American foreign policies based on equally encrusted ideologies. Ironic indeed.
In his provocative piece in the current edition of The Baffler, Steve Almond criticizes Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for what amounts to their ironic detachment from the horrors of our society. He writes:
“Over the past decade, political humor has proliferated not as a daring form of social commentary, but a reliable profit source. Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.”
Stewart’s shtick, like all among the ironically detached, is to portray himself above the fray. Almond illustrates this by way of a conversation he had with his guest in 2010, Rachel Maddow:
“…during [the interview] Stewart trotted out one of his favorite canards, that ‘both sides have their way of shutting down debate.’ Maddow asked, ‘What’s the lefty way of shutting down debate?’ ‘You’ve said Bush is a war criminal,’ Stewart replied. ‘Now that may be technically true. In my world, a war criminal is Pol Pot or the Nuremberg trials. . . . But I think that’s such an incendiary charge that when you put it into conversation as, well, technically he is, that may be right, but it feels like a conversation stopper, not a conversation starter.’ This is the Stewart credo distilled: civility at any cost, even in the face of moral atrocity.”
Is this the same thing as saying ironic detachment at any cost, even in the face of moral atrocity? I guess what I’m asking for is a defense of irony from those committed to irony. I’m honestly curious. (By the way, is it ironic to be committed to irony?)

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. By definition—i.e. irony as “a situation in which there is an incongruity between what is expected and what occurs”—historians must be aware of and committed to seeing irony *where it is present*. Since we as human beings are a flawed species (e.g. loaded with real and perceived weaknesses), irony will always be present. So, again, we must be committed to looking for it.

    The problem occurs when the commitment to observing irony where it exists becomes, instead, a quest, an ideology, to *make* everything seem ironic. There are deeper purposes, as Andrew notes, that supersede our flaws. It has to do with perspective—an ability to understand the hierarchy or errors and incongruities one sees. – TL

  2. The problem with this post is that it confuses irony with a particular application of irony, namely, the use of irony to cultivate detached “civility” and deflect criticism from power. I agree entirely that we would be better off without that use of irony. I would go further; in my opinion, the very concept of “civility”, which among many other flaws, conflates things that desperately need to be considered separately, is a concept that the world would be better off without.

    But there are well-known uses of irony that do just the opposite. How can an intellectual historian get through a post on irony without mentioning the name of Nietzsche? (That such a thing is possible is an irony in itself.) His trenchant, excoriant, fulgurant, and (as he himself liked to say) world-historic irony was the antithesis of the kind of irony you so rightly denounce. It exposes folly in stark relief. My favorite example is his comment on British utilitarianism (Twilight of the Idols, section “Maxims and Arrows”, aphorism 12):

    “If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.”

    For further ironic delights, try to imagine Jeremy Bentham attempting to formulate an answer to that.

  3. I appreciate Andrew’s post, as I would like to write something on irony or the use of irony or irony in history–but have not chosen which of these three very different dimensions to write about. And that is part of the point: I have used irony in my work (and thanks again to Andrew for calling attention to Freedom to Offend), because I thought I witnessed a certain kind of irony playing out in history. I saw actions–what I would consider both bad and good–leading to terrible consequences AND terrible consequences as a result of what seem to me to be progressive, generous, even hopeful actions. My contention was that as historians we witness people acting within a history that they cannot control but nonetheless acting in ways that are both good and bad, right and wrong.

    The passage in Freedom to Offend that I though captured this was from the film critic Andrew Sarris (who died recently) in the midst of the sexual revolution in cinema. Reflecting on the heroic pronouncements made in defense of filming sex and sexual themes, Sarris observed: “What has happened…is that one set of fantasies has been replaced by another. And the change is less political than commercial. In this context, the increasing frankness of the screen implies a social malaise it is under no obligation to explore. We are back again to [Michelangelo] Antonioni’s commercially convenient diagnosis of eroticism as the disease of our age…Contrary to the optimistic expectation of liberals that the public would soon tire of libidinous license, audiences continue to prefer Antonioni’s explicit disease to his implicit cure.”

    This irony acknowledges the internal paradox that creates a new kind understanding of a situation. It is unlike the irony of John Stewart or his literary counterpart Thomas Frank who use irony as means to mock the stupidity of those who are woefully misguided about their state of mind. Stewart and Frank see honesty as normative and sincerity as self-inflicted wound. Sarris understood he was part of as well as a critic of the ironic situation he had helped create.

  4. Having just taught Schlesinger’s The Vital Center (and reread it for the umpteenth time), I think your characterization of the ironic detachment of the Cold War liberal in contrast to the moral absolutism of the Civil Rights Movement as a way to characterize the politics of irony is inadequate or at least only part of the story. Marxism, after all, is also founded on an ironic vision of history: human beings act as if their intentions matter, apparently inspired by visions of social justice and inequality, but their action is actually produced by the material forces of history in which consciousness is not the source of action at all. Irony doesn’t necessarily line up behind one set of political outcomes and moral certitude behind another, does it? Just because one is an ironist, it doesn’t mean that one lacks conviction, and just because one embraces an unshakable set of moral principles grounded in the metaphysical realm, in which action and certainty are one, one is not led to any particular outcome. How are Martin Luther King and George W. Bush different in their commitments to a vision of moral certitude? I don’t mean this as a specious question, since I clearly recognize their political and ideological differences, I just don’t think those differences can be related in any systematic way to an epistemological stance, or a commitment to a rejection of irony. Who are the great comics of yesteryear that somehow transcended the satirical detachment of Stewart and Colbert? A decade ago, after all the pundits had declared that 9/11 had given a death blow to a culture of irony, Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Rorty got the same treatment ; a hundred years ago, Oscar Wilde and William James, perhaps.

    The idea that irony necessarily results in a detachment that fails to condemn moral atrocity stacks the deck in the wrong way, since one can find plenty of ironists who have very well developed moral vocabularies and are not afraid of using them. If I said moral self-righteousness and metaphysical certitude necessarily justify all kinds of moral atrocities as necessary means and used Bush and the Iraq War (or Stalinism if you prefer!) to illustrate the claim, you would be right to see an unfair cherry picking of examples here. I don’t think John Stewart or Daniel Bell in The End of Ideology gets to stand in for “the ironic vision” in general. Even so, I prefer the vision of Cold War liberals like Schlesinger–not uncritically–to the Cold War hard anticommunist right, or the Wallacite Progressives, not to mention the Stalinist themselves–all three of whom had a less chastened view of the ultimate rightness of their action, and a willingness to justify their actions by standards less open to doubt and revision. I’m not much for Socialist Realism.

  5. I never said I was committed to irony; I am committed to History. In it for life. Irony is simply a sensibility I bring to that, and a sensibility I take from it as well.

    Now I don’t know if we can be “committed” to sensibilities; we share them or we don’t. But we can, I suppose, cultivate habits of thought. So says William James; so I believe.

    Having spent some of my life operating under a habit of thought that divides the world neatly into Good Guys and Bad Guys, Us and Them, Enlightened and Benighted, Sheep and Goats — pick your polarity and step up to the metaphor machine, ladies and gentlemen! — I find it not only salutary but downright liberating to practice and nurture a habit of thought that invites me to be a little less certain of my self-righteous certainties. I highly recommend it.

    There is no shortage of moral outrage in intellectual discourse, no dearth of scholars and pundits and bloggers ready to wade in and weigh in with plaudits for the righteous and woe unto the wicked. Such thinkers are legion. What I would like to bring, if I can — and that remains to be seen — is more light than heat. Any polemicist can turn up the heat; but it takes some caution and maybe even some courage to turn on the lights.

    As I have said many times before, I have not encountered (in print) a better model of this kind of historical humility than Michael Kazin’s brilliant intellectual biography of William Jennings Bryan. Kazin was very honest about the difficulty of writing with real historical empathy for a way of thinking that he certainly does not share. But he did it magnificently, admirably. His astute analysis of the legacy of Populism — asking not “What is wrong with Kansas?” but “What does Kansas seem to want, and how can we answer that need?” — provides a far more useful past than any moralistic or moralizing history could have done.

    Kazin’s moral vision is clear in that book, and it is credible because of how he treats subjects whose sensibility he does not share.

    That’s the kind of historian I’d like to be.

    It may work perfectly well for you to pick a side and take a stand when it comes to the past. But for me, irony is a much better stance to take. The awareness that my own footing might not be quite as sure as I’d assumed, is just what I need in order to remind me to be careful.

    But once in a while you can bet I’ll throw caution to the wind. And I’m sure our readers will all be there to see it when it happens. One of these days I will get on my Garrisonian high horse and gallop off the ranch, right here on this blog. And woe unto the wicked!

  6. Brilliant responses from all three of the scholars I provoked, as I expected. I’m not entirely sold. I guess I am a sucker for Socialist Realism. But I can appreciate your thoughtfulness.

  7. David Foster Wallace in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”:

    And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.”

    …So then how have irony, irreverence, and rebellion come to be not liberating but enfeebling in the culture today’s avant-garde tried to write about? One clue’s to be found in the fact that irony is still around, bigger than ever after 30 long years as the dominant mode of hip expression. It’s not a rhetorical mode that wears well. As [Lewis] Hyde. . .puts it, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage.” This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. This is why Hyde seems right about persistent irony being tiresome. It is unmeaty. Even gifted ironists work best in sound bites. I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly funny to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures. And as for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, or sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing by trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow. . .oppressed.


  8. By the way, that DFW article would have fit very well in the Baffler. I talked to T Frank at a book signing once, and he said Wallace called him a few times about getting a piece in, but it never came together…

  9. Certainly if irony is the only post that supports your foundation it is insufficient but irony as tool, in a historians chestful of tools, is useful. The fact that Jefferson spoke frequently on the rights of man and on the evils of slavery and yet still owned slaves is an irony that is both illuminating about the man and the times. For the historian the use of irony is not for irreverence or entertainment but a supplement to a broader narrative.

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