“I, Ron [Burgund]y?” OR 10,000 puns

(AKA “PAUL DE MAN’S MISREADINGS”: A CRITIQUE OF AESTHETIC IDEOLOGY: J/K, J.K.; OR, A JOKE ON JOE K)

The content of this post will be “irony.” It will, in fact contain that word at least a dozen times. It may (or may not), at various points, actually achieve irony or even humor, but, as is already quite apparent (from the title of the post), often times things that are called ironic (like rain on your wedding day) or even formally resemble humor, are not really all that funny. If you understand this, you’re already well on your way to getting the quotation marks around the word irony, that is, to getting the “joke” and, as they say, to “getting” me.

In this post, I will attempt to perform, in no particular order, three painfully unfunny, but long overdue, tasks (that is, I will kill three birds with one stone, which will make the bird-lovers among you wince):

  1. I will lay out, if not a “concept” of irony (Paul de Man begins his essay entitled “The Concept of Irony” by stating, ironically, that there is no such thing as a concept of irony), a series of problems centered around the term irony: problems not only for literary theory, but also for anyone who thinks, speaks, writes a blog, etc.
  2. I will reiterate, more seriously, an argument about my “rather poor” “sense of humor” which has been my standard response to the groans often generated by certain “jokes” of mine, an argument which is never really taken seriously by anyone but which I have always meant to be only semi-ironic.
  3. I will respond to an essay on irony by my friend, colleague and fellow blogger Joseph Kugelmass, which in part provided the motivation for me to write this post. I highly recommend you read the original post, and, indeed, add Joe’s sincere and adept reflections on life, literature, and pop culture to your RSS feed or your daily reading. I will, however, attempt to provide enough context for my arguments so that it will be possible to follow this post without having read Joe’s original post.

Keeping in mind that Mr. “Kugelmass” is someone very committed to (indeed, for me even emblematic of) a certain approach to the problem of literary self-fashioning, and keeping in mind that I’m using this as an occasion to comment on my own sense of humor, I hope the payoff of this post will be to show how de Man’s “Concept of Irony” is not only vital to the study of literature, but significant for our very understanding of ourselves. This will be a long post. In a sense, it will be infinitely long, because in addition to the constant asides with which I seem to interrupt myself and constantly defer the conclusion, the constant possibility of irony will again and again turn the post back on itself. If you take the time to read, however, I do sincerely believe that your patience will be rewarded. Some of the relevant backgroud to this discussion that I leave out early on will be filled in when it becomes important, and I hope that some of my non-academic readers will take this as an opportunity to join in on an academic discussion.

1. An Appeal to Consequences

When Joe recently titled a post on Paul de Man’s understanding of irony Paul de Man’s Misreadings: A Critique of “Aesthetic Ideology” he had the quotes (or the italics) in a different place. Whereas Joe meant to accuse Paul de Man’s book, Aesthetic Ideology of misreading irony, my aim (in defense not so much of de Man, who is personally indefensible and, since deceased, no longer in need of defense; but rather in defense of de Man’s critique of aesthetic ideology) is, ironically, to accuse Joe of misreading de Man. But, lest this sound spiteful or mean-spirited, let me emphasize that I think Joe gets quite a bit right in getting de Man so wrong, and that I hope this post will allow me to articulate sincere disagreement alongside genuine respect.

In this spirit, I will begin with what will at first appear to be a tangential argument about the way that Joe argues against de Man. That is, I will accuse Joe of a certain logical fallacy before I even address the content of his argument or the content of de Man’s argument. However, as I will show, the very form that Joe’s logical fallacy takes will turn out to be central to the problem of irony that it happens to be applied to addressing. It will turn out to be, that is to say, quite a smart fallacy, a strategic fallacy, a revealing fallacy, but a fallacy nonetheless.

The fallacy which Joe commits several times in his argument against de Man is a well recognized type of “Informal cause fallacy” known as an argumentum ad consequentiam or appeal to consequence. It’s negative form is as follows:

  • If P, then Q will occur.
  • Q is undesirable.
  • Therefore, P is false.

Appeal to consequence works by labeling a certain belief or proposition as dangerous or interruptive to a certain project, and rejecting that belief as a way of parrying those dangers or preserving that project. Appeals to consequence are fallacious, but they are not entirely foolish, as I will show, because it is sometimes necessary to accept as true a questionable premise (for example, that the world I experience is not a dream, a premise which I can never affirm beyond all doubt, but which is true “for all intents and purposes,” i.e. which I must assume in order to be capable of acting in the world). These fallacies play on the already complicated relationship between grounded beliefs and provisional hypotheses that are central to all thought.

In a follow-up to his post on Paul de Man, Joe states that his argument about de Man “crystallized in [his] mind as soon as [he] recognized the consequences, for literary studies, of works like Aesthetic Ideology.” This means, in part, that his arguments are motivated by the consequences of de Man’s arguments, which is not yet the same thing as saying that they are based on those consequences. Concerns about the consequences of a certain belief are always good reasons to try to poke holes in that belief, but concerns are not yet holes themselves. So we can’t yet jump to conclusions. But the fact that Joe says his arguments crystallized as soon as he recognized consequences should at least give us pause—that is, if the crystalline details of his argument arrived to his mind exactly at the same time as his recognition of the consequences, it may be that the consequences are themselves the argument. Or it may just be a coincidence.

Joe’s primary move (in section 3 of his post, which will be my focus), prior to committing any appeal to consequence, is to himself implicitly accuse de Man of an appeal to consequence:

De Man wastes no time in trying to make us ashamed of finite irony: “There would be in irony something very threatening, against which interpreters of literature, who have a stake in the understandability of literature, would want to put themselves on their guard — very legitimate to want, as [Wayne] Booth wants, to stop, to stabilize, to control the trope” (167).

It is easy to discern the battle here between the interpreters of literature, a self-interested police force who love conformity and easy answers, and the Dionysian energies of irony, which may be too much for the faint of heart, which refuse every limit — which, in fact, bear a remarkable resemblance to bliss or the French jouissance, and which thrive on the very impossibility of ever being understood.

In the passage Joe quotes, de Man is making the claim that American literary critics (not exclusively, but more often than the German philosophers he quotes elsewhere) tend to talk about irony as finite rather than infinite mainly for practical reasons. That is, critics like Wayne Booth tend to try to agree on rules for deciding, based on clues in the text, when an author is or is not being ironic or sarcastic, in contrast to saying, as de Man ultimately will, that in some or even all sentences, irony is completely undecidable, that it is always impossible to tell whether or not to take an author for his word.

[Let’s put the conclusion aside for a bit—some of you will inevitably say, of course you can sometimes tell when an author really is being serious, and of course you can sometimes tell whether an author really is being sarcastic or ironic, and such arguments, when accompanied by general rules for making those judgments, are not unreasonable and deserve a response, but it will have to come later in the post, so I ask you to suspend judgment for the time being.]

Anyway, de Man is arguing here that the reason that American critics treat irony as finite is first and foremost practical. Whether irony is or is not finite, such a critic might say, the only way we can ever say anything meaningful about any text is if everyone agrees to some provisional rules about how to decide what is and is not ironic. In a sense, de Man is accusing American critics of an appeal to consequences:

  • If [IRONY IS INFINITE] then it is [NOT POSSIBLE TO SAY ANYTHING MEANINGFUL ABOUT TEXTS].
  • [LIVEHOOD] + [LITERATURE] + [LIBERAL EDUCATION] + [ENTIRE WORLD] can exist only if it is [POSSIBLE TO SAY ANYTHING MEANINGFUL ABOUT TEXTS]
  • Therefore if it were [NOT POSSIBLE TO SAY ANYTHING MEANINGFUL ABOUT TEXTS] that would be undesirable
  • Therefore [IRONY IS NOT INFINITE]

Why does de Man make accuse American criticism of such a fallacy? Well, Joe has some answers to this question. He says that de Man is making a rhetorical appeal, that he is trying to “make us ashamed of finite irony.” He argues that de Man is trying to force a choice between the practical necessities of our profession, and what Joe calls “the Dionysian energies of irony,” a Nietzschean concept which relates to a sort of intoxicating, revelrous, revelatory experience which leads an individual beyond the limits of his or her previous beliefs. This is probably a bad paraphrase on my part—I’m less familiar with Nietzsche than with de Man—but hopefully the point is clear enough or maybe Joe can elaborate if necessary. Joe argues that de Man is making an appeal to consequences, trying to sway the reader to choose the limitless possibilities of infinite irony over the mundane, practical labor which reading requires. Since appeals to consequence are fallacies, calling de Man out on making an appeal to consequence amounts to disproving him.

All of this is odd, though, to a reader of de Man, for two reasons: first, de Man is critical, in other articles, of what he calls a “rhetoric of persuasion.” He doesn’t like people who use rhetorical devices like metaphors to persuade or trick people into changing their beliefs, and even more so, he doesn’t like critics who read texts primarily in terms of their rhetorical appeals. So, if de Man was making a rhetorical appeal to emotion or consequences here, he would in big trouble. He’d be a big hypocrite, which is to say, we could dismiss him easily as someone who does not mean what he says.

Second, de Man is very critical of the Romantic idea of experience, especially the revelatory potential of experience, so it would be odd if his main goal was to produce a way of reading texts capable of producing bliss. For all of his critiques of “logic,” his ties to Derrida’s critique of “logocentrism,” de Man is really much closer, at least in this case, to a logical philosopher than to an emotional poet. He’s particularly concerned, for example, with a certain kind of intellectual rigor which privileges something like thoroughness over, say, creative energy. On the other hand, I’m fairly certain de Man has a reading of Nietzsche’s idea of the “Dionysian” elsewhere (he most definitely has readings of Nietzsche), but it probably isn’t ultimately about a blissful experience.

So, I am suspicious of Joe’s explanation of de Man’s motives. And this suspicion is supported by the fact that when de Man says that American critics like Wayne Booth are motivated by practical considerations, he is actually quoting Booth himself: “…it is not irony but the desire to understand irony that brings such a chain to a stop. And that is why a rhetoric of irony is required if we are not to be caught…in an infinite regress of negations” (qtd. in de Man, 166). Booth himself says a rhetoric of irony is a practical necessity not grounded in irony itself. Perhaps, then, de Man is merely trying to be accurate, to represent Booth as Booth represents himself. This is especially likely since, as we just observed, de Man is actually reluctant to embrace the alleged consequences of his argument, conceived in terms of bliss or experience.

Moreover, and this is crucial, at no point in the essay does de Man ever deny the practical necessity of a concept of finite irony. Indeed, he goes as far as to say, in the passage quoted above, that it is “very legitimate to want, as Booth wants, to stop, to stabilize, to control the trope.” Thus while de Man disagrees with Booth logically (i.e. he disagrees about whether finite irony is possible), the two are actually in full agreement about the consequences. De Man believes it is entirely crucial to the study of literature that we be able to decide when and where an author is being serious or ironic. He just thinks, reluctantly, that this is impossible. He’s actually erring on the side of the humble, practical truth of the evidence with which he’s faced. “Would that it were otherwise, but it isn’t…” etc.

Thus I think the way that Joe continues his argument is quite a big problem:

It is a pleasure to return the favor of shaming by tentatively terming Paul de Man’s infinite irony the irony of the adolescent. The adolescent, at least as a socially important figure, thrives on the feeling of being misunderstood, because he has stumbled onto the existential doctrine that human beings are never merely the sum of their prior actions and present circumstances. They surpass all of these towards freedom.

That is all very well, but it is negativity in the abstract, and as such does not represent a real possibility towards which the individual can direct her energies.

To begin with, Joe’s suggestion that de Man’s discussion of irony, carefully articulated over several decades in response to very careful readings of challenging philosophical texts, can be reduced to an adolescent understanding of the human freedom to transcend “prior actions and present circumstances” is dismissive at best, and at least requires a much more detailed, sustained analysis of de Man’s stated motives prior to resorting to such speculative assertions. More troubling is the fact that Joe then uses the erroneous claim that de Man is appealing to consequences as an excuse to “return the favor,” an excuse for himself to appeal to consequences. He reproaches that de Man’s position “does not represent a real possibility towards which the individual can direct her energies.” He expands on this criticism in the remainder of his essay:

  • With a reading of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, he suggests “that in practical terms, the end of an infinitely negative sensibility, that never discovers a new real possibility for itself, is the collapse into utter conventionality.” In other words, he shows that, at least according to Kierkegaard, the danger of infinite irony is that what is left over, when the text fails to provide a model for how to live, is conventionality, by default.
  • By proposing two alternative concepts of irony (“compassionate irony” and “social irony”), both of them reliant on the possibility of finite irony, he offers a positive version of the appeal to consequences: in addition to the negative consequences of a belief in infinite irony, a belief in finite irony offers us some real ways forward

Joe has some very good reasons to be concerned about the consequences of infinite irony, and some very good reasons to be hopeful about possibilities of finite irony. De Man is certainly acknowledging, albeit, again, reluctantly, that his well-reasoned conclusions about irony produce a real, insurmountable, practical problem when it comes to the attempt to reading literature a certain way and with certain results. Whether we like it or not, it gets in the way, for example, of what is called “ethical criticism,” an attempt to see texts as taking positions about how we should act and identify ourselves in the real world. If irony is infinite, and we can’t ever decide what a text is saying, then texts (or writing, or speaking, or possibly even thinking in words) can’t help us understand our world or fashion authentic selves or decide whether to go left or right in search of Hamlet. Possibly the danger is that we end up standing in the same place, and one day we wake up and discover that we’ve become our parents. Meanwhile, the decline of ethical criticism presents a significant institutional challenge for disciplines such as English or Comparative Literature at a moment when the Humanities are struggling to maintain funding and justify their existence.

Of course, the whole thrust of Aesthetic Ideology is to show that there are a deeply important, even immediately practical, political consequences of infinite irony. The burden of even the most skeptical reading of Aesthetic Ideology would be to carefully outline, even if ultimately to critique, the political stakes that de Man attributes to his method of reading. But this is a subject for a different post. The question for now (that I will take up in the next post) is how we should respond to de Man’s claims (which we haven’t really explicated yet) given the suspicion that such claims are the immediate cause of a crisis for individual humans, for the Humanities, and maybe even for humanity as such (or, at least, for a certain humanistic understanding of the human).

To be continued…

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~ by Matt on January 25, 2007.

6 Responses to ““I, Ron [Burgund]y?” OR 10,000 puns”

  1. It’s aggravating, of course, to read a post on irony explicitly called a “joke” in one of its cleverly punning subtitles, and then be put in the position of responding possibly as a person who has not gotten the joke. In the terms you’ve cast it, and I will be interested to see whether Mr. K accepts them, this is the perennial debate between proponents and opponents of deconstruction. Proponents: “you can’t prove it’s not true!” — Opponents: “you can’t prove it’s not useless!”. You’ve given a lucid account of why the “opponents'” argument is in fact a logical fallacy, but that might simply not matter to people like Joe who are interested in practical consequences and need to draw the “for all intents and purposes” lines that you have shown people like Booth drawing. I will be very interested in your next post, where it sounds as though you will address these consequence-driven arguments on their own terms — this is something that I do not often see attempted.

  2. apologies for the delay in responding — my response will be brief because I hope my future posts will speak for themselves:

    1) we are all, myself included, potentially in the position of responding as a person who has not gotten the joke; take this as an invitation to play the eiron (wise guy) to my alazon (fool) before you take it as a trap to trip the alazon

    2) don’t expect, in this particular series of posts, an argument about relative advantages of infinite irony over finite irony, and not because a “politics” of deconstruction is unwritable: a politics of deconstruction, in the sense of a political program for the democracy to come, is, I suspect, unwritable, but this would not in principle stop me from asserting the political implications of Aesthetic Ideology, at some point in time, in a different series of posts

    3) refraining, for the moment, from responding to the charge of uselessness should not be mistaken for simply rehearsing the perennial “debate,” which, as you illustrate, is more like a staged repetition of incompatible truisms

    …the second post is up, so I’ll let you judge

    …so much for brevity, i.e. the soul of wit

  3. I think it’ll be easiest for me to respond in one place, i.e. in the comments section of the second post on de Man’s account of irony. So, curious reader, head on over there if you’d like to see how I respond.

  4. […] Continued: The Joke’s on Me? Since I began the series of posts on irony (here and here) with the subtitle “J/K, J.K.; OR, A JOKE ON JOE K” – that is, joking around […]

  5. […] Part 2: Off-track Betting In my previous post, I laid out the foundations of an essay on irony that I promised would accomplish three […]

  6. […] in (effectively) on de Man’s side, in two posts, both rather brilliant and often very funny:  here’s the first, and here’s the […]

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