In Defense Of Irony
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 other 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 but is 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 for an ironist always means 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, is the lesson of Jesus for Kierkegaard.)
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: 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 my opinions and beliefs. 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, well, 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.
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