Irony, 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 things:

  1. To lay out a series of problems, not only for literary theory but for anyone who thinks, speaks or writes a blog
  2. To reiterate an argument about my “rather poor” sense of humor
  3. To respond to an essay on irony by fellow blogger Joseph Kugelmass

I began that post, as I will begin this one, on a tangent.

Those of you that know me personally know that I’m a bit of a poker player. I did pretty well over at PartyPoker before it pulled out of the U.S. market, though I haven’t taken the game back up since then, in the interest of devoting my time to other pursuits, like blogging and, say, eventually finishing my degree…

By a stroke of chance that is quite fortuitous for my attempt to write a transition here, it turns out that being an academic and being a gambler have something in common: both involve taking calculated risks. In academia: following blind alleys, starting from false premises, asking unanswerable or irrelevant questions.

All academic writing begins with a gambit: an epithet, a play on words, a declaration; a move that has consequences for what follows, constrains future moves, sets up the conditions for success or failure. The opening gambit of this argument was to begin off-track, with the discussion of a formal fallacy unrelated to content, in order to eventually find our way back to the finish line.

Joe’s appeal to consequence is also a sort of gambit. Though it occurs late in the essay, and though, as we will see, certain other important arguments are not reducible to it, Joe stakes quite a bit on his recognition of the consequences of de Man’s argument for literary studies. Joe, after all, is a bit of a poker player too, and not one to back down from a wager.

The appeal to consequence is, after all, a sort of wager. It is not so much unlike another quite well known wager, a sort of Faustian bargain in reverse, proposed by a figure who fortuitously ends up a character, not only in de Man’s account of irony, but also quite substantially in Joe’s:

[Blaise Pascal is a Sexy Bitch]

Looking at the guilty (perhaps ironic?) smirk on that face, you’ll hopefully find it easy to understand why Sarah and I are so fond of saying, in faux French accents, “Blaise Pascal eez a sexy beech.” [This works with other philosophers as well—try it.]

Some kidding aside, let’s take a look at Pascal’s wager, to see how it works, how it relates to Joe’s appeal to consequence, and what it has to tell us about irony (i.e. what it tells us, ironically, without meaning to tell us). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has what appears to be a thorough review of literature on the subject, which may prove of interest. It also tells us that the wager, which appears in §233 of Pensées under the appropriate heading of “Infinite—nothing,” is expressed in three parts, the third of which is the final form in which the wager is commonly recognized:

But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; wherever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all…

The subject of Pascal’s wager is whether, in the absence of definitive evidence of God’s existence or non-existence, one ought or ought not to believe in God. In a certain way, this parallels our own situation with regards to de Man’s claims about infinite irony. Since we’ve put off drawing a conclusion about whether or not to believe de Man (which should not be confused with believing in de Man), we’re left, in the mean time, to think about how we would make the decision in the absence of definitive evidence, which is important since, the way we academics tend to argue, these questions tend to never really get resolved.

How does Pascal respond to this lack of definitive evidence? Those of you that play poker seriously will recognize that Pascal is making a calculation of EV (expected value), which is to say, a calculation of the positive and negative consequences of a particular choice, of choosing a particular belief, weighted for the respective probabilities of each possible consequence. All this talk of “one life” or “three lives” merely represents the units in which his calculation is expressed. The net-benefit of choosing non-belief is finite: if you’re right, you perhaps gain some benefits in this world that you would have squandered praying to a non-existent being had you chosen otherwise. The maximum benefit of choosing belief is infinite: if you’re right, you get infinite happiness (bliss) for eternity. So long as there is a non-zero probability of the existence of God (i.e. so long as we remain unable to resolve the question by other means), Pascal concludes, belief is the clear choice.

Let’s put aside all of the potential arguments (many articulated in the Stanford Encyclopedia article above) about the validity of Pascal’s EV calculations. Because we’re interested in wagers in general, the specifics of this particular wager are, in a sense, secondary. I don’t want this to be a post about the existence of God. I have some thoughts on the subject, but this post, and perhaps not even this forum, are not the place to address them.

But even if we put EV calculations and the truth or untruth of the conclulsion aside, Pascal’s wager remains a terrible argument for believing in God. To say that one can move from the claim that one ought to believe P in order to avoid consequences Q, to actually holding belief P while simultaneously holding in memory that consequences Q are the principle basis of one’s belief P, is not only disingenuous, it is also impossible. That is, Pascal isn’t fooling anyone, much less himself, when he claims to believe in God rather than to believe in a belief in God. And he is fooling God least of all–that is, if God exists, an all-knowing being must surely see through Pascal’s transparent ploy to disguise his own disbelief in order to skirt God’s justice and avoid hellfire.

To an extent, things change as soon as we move from belief to practice—whereas adopting a belief because of its consequences is a fallacy, adopting a practice because of its consequences is standard fare. And this complicates the discussion of belief insofar as language itself can always be considered, at one and the same time, as both constative statement and as performative act. To explain briefly, a performative utterance is a piece of speech or writing that works as an action rather than a statement of fact: “I promise to paint your house,” “I claim this island in the name of Spain” or “With this ring, I thee wed.” Performative utterances are not to be evaluated in terms of truth or falsity, but rather in terms of effectiveness; in a sense they are true if they are effective: if the island is already occupied, Columbus cannot legitimately claim it, but if it is unclaimed and uninhabited, all he has to do to claim it is state “I claim.” In a sense, if I merely say “I claim,” it is true that I claim. “I claim” means I claim.

The statement “I believe in God” is thus different from the statement “God exists.” The statement “God exists” is purely constative: it is true or false, though even this statement can be seen as performative if one reads “exists” broadly enough, as “exists as a concept” (Merely saying “God exists” means that the speaker has an understanding of what “God” is which exists as a concept regardless of whether it refers to an actually existent being; this performative possibly makes it impossible, in a sense, to say “God does not exist”—God exists at a minimum as a series of philosophical problems). The meaning of the statement “I believe in God,” by contrast, is less certain. One is never really certain whether the speaker means “God exists” (the “I” being, ultimately, redundant, already implied by the fact that the statement has been uttered by someone) or something like “I promise to believe in God,” a sort of prayer by which one places faith not only in God, but in the power of the speech act to overcome a gap in one’s actual belief. “I believe in God” always potentially means “I have freely chosen to believe in God in the face of my uncertainty”—in short, “I beieve in God” always potentially means “I do not believe in God.”

This is a long way of saying that as soon as one adopts a belief on the basis of an appeal to consequence, one posits, in writing, a self which is bound to say certain things and to explore their consequences, but which is never certain whether it means any of the things that it says. This is not the same thing as lying, since the appeal to consequence prays preys on the undecidedness, even the undecidaility, of the very belief in question—indeed, Pascal begins his pensée on the wager by stating the impossibility of rationally resolving the existence of God (“Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us.”). The wager dictates the performative utterance in the place where the constative utterance is impossible. One faces undecidability in language by positing a “self,” an “I” which is not really a self, because it has nothing to do with the concept of genuine belief. Everything that follows, then, is a hypothetical—given A, if A, then B. An entire logic is posited on the basis of a an ironic self. All statements that follow from the initial belief A are said inauthentically, almost in jest, out of a sense of decorum, the way I make puns (“sorry, couldn’t help it, I had to say that…” which is to say, my sense of self, my identity rests on this fiction of finding such and such a joke funny, even though I’m not sure I find it funny)

So the only possibility of ever saying anything unironically is to abandon, from the start, these utopian projections of belief, these things that we claim to believe in because we must, these hypothetical worlds we posit for very noble reasons, in response to real exigencies (what could be more real than fear of hellfire).

What happens, though, when we do that, is that we see that even though we wish there were a way out of irony, irony is inevitable. That’s the conclusion when we read de Man carefully, that is, without the prejudices that accompany the bind that forces us to struggle against his conclusions, without concluding in advance (as de Man himself says we must do) that a solution to the problem of irony is necessary: that is, a solution is, indeed, necessary (it is necessary for us to say that irony is finite), but we ought not let this distract us from the necessary conclusion that a solution is impossible (that is, that it is necessary for us to say that irony is infinite, that it is not finite). In short, we must say two opposing things that we know to be incompatible, and thus we must not say these two opposing things, and so on, and so forth. So let us start by saying one, and then move to saying the other, and see what happens. Let us say hypothetically (that is, a little bit ironically) that the first thing has already been proven by Joe’s argument (that it is necessary for us to say that irony is finite). This should not prevent us from saying, in the post that follows, the second (that is it necessary for us to say that irony is infinite).


~ by Matt on February 7, 2007.

6 Responses to “Irony, Part 2: Off-track Betting”

  1. I like where you come to at the end of this; I think that holding these two opposed necessities to be true is probably the best solution. I think of it less as a paradox and more as a matter of having different truths for different purposes, parameters of discussion, or orders of meaning.

    This was a particularly interesting knot for me:

    “One faces undecidability in language by positing a ‘self,’ an ‘I’ which is not really a self, because it has nothing to do with the concept of genuine belief.”

    You give a lucid explanation of Pascal’s wager, but I’m not convinced that the parallel between belief in God and belief that one can express oneself authentically in language is quite as straightforward as you make it out to be.

    It would be interesting to hear from a true believer on the question of belief in God — personally, I can only hypothesize. But when you say that “I believe in God” always potentially means “I have freely chosen to believe in God in the face of my uncertainty,” I’m not sure that this really corresponds to the subjective experience of faith. The lack of scientific evidence to prove or disprove God’s existence does not necessarily constitute a lack of evidence — Weil, for example, is certain that there is a God because of mystical experiences she has had. When she recites the Lord’s Prayer in Greek with carefully concentrated attention, she feels herself in the presence of divine love.

    You point out, correctly, that Pascal’s wager will never produce “true” belief. But it does not follow that all statements of belief therefore include their opposite, because Pascal’s wager does not apply to people who are working in an other-than-logical order. The undecidability that might turn “I believe in God” into a performative is simply not present to somebody who has had a conversion experience like Weil’s. The very excessiveness of her feeling is what convinces her. She feels something totally out of proportion with what reciting ancient Greek ought to bring on in a person, and it moves her out of a world where logical necessity is the principal rule.

    If I understand your point about saying “I” correctly, in light of your anecdote about puns, you are saying that “I” is a unified grammatical label that we have to give to our ever-shifting, irreducible selves as if they were unproblematically unified. Excess seems to operate in a different way here. In the sphere of religious belief, the subjective feeling of excess gives a feeling of truth to the experience of uttering a statement such as “I believe in God.” But what your story seems to suggest about “I” is that the subjective feeling of excess is what makes laying claim to a coherent identity feel disingenuous.

    I think the core of the trouble for me here is that the problem of belief is God is not, fundamentally, a linguistic one. I’m not sure that focusing attention on the phrase “I believe in God” as a performative is ultimately very useful in examining what is at stake in actual belief. I would argue that belief in God is ultimately belief in what cannot be contained by logical systems such as language — it is belief in a particular kind of excess.

    By the same token, although I personally do not believe in God, I do believe in the excessive, uncontainable nature of my irreducible self, and this is exactly why identity always feels a little bit like posturing. Because I do believe in that kind of excess, containing it in a logical linguistic system is always insufficient. So irony may be infinitely undecidable in that it is posited on a self that I am not even quite sure is genuine, but I don’t think this statement needs to be connected to the abandonment of utopian projections of belief. If anything, I think this excess can become a utopian horizon — I can always try a little harder to explicate myself, to come closer and closer to expressing myself genuinely and being genuinely understood.

  2. This response does an excellent job of laying out the limits of my arguments vis-a-vis the belief in God. However, I think to a certain extent that you put me on a position that I don’t commit to in this post. The relevant passage from my original post is as follows:

    Let’s put aside all of the potential arguments (many articulated in the Stanford Encyclopedia article above) about the validity of Pascal’s EV calculations. Because we’re interested in wagers in general, the specifics of this particular wager are, in a sense, secondary. I don’t want this to be a post about the existence of God. I have some thoughts on the subject, but this post, and perhaps not even this forum, are not the place to address them.

    In other words, in analyzing Pascal’s wager, I was in no way attempting to resolve the far more challenging question of the existence of God or even the belief in God. The arguments I offer here are far from adequate to such a task, particularly given that they offer no commentary on the direct, immediate relationship to God implied by the mystical experience such as the one you cite in Weil. The point is to understand the consequences of the wager in general through the examination of a particular wager.

    When I state that “I believe in God” always potentially means “I have freely chosen to believe in God in the face of my uncertainty,” the key word is potentially – belief in God is only subject to irony insofar as it is founded on a wager. An expression of belief founded on something other than a wager would not be a simultaneous expression of disbelief. Therefore, with regards to belief in God in general, the problem produced by the wager is merely a hermeneutic one – if “I believe in God” can be a way of saying “I do not believe in God,” then it becomes harder (possibly impossible) to discern the presence or absence of irony in any particular statement of belief. This does not rule out the possibility of genuine belief, but does jeopardize its expression (thus the 10 commandments must rule out “taking the lord’s name in vain” since the mere possibility of such a false swearing creates a problem of knowledge for the community of the faithful, which can only be resolved by the intercession of an all knowing God).

    …more to come soon (in a second comment) in response to the discussion of the “I” in your final three paragraphs…

  3. by the way, uncomplicatedly, could you pass on the relevant passages from Weil regarding reading the Lord’s Prayer in Greek? I’d be very interested to know why the paradigmatic example for mystical experience in her text (paradigmatic, at least, in your comments) is that of reading a foreign language.

  4. I understand what you’re saying, but I’m not sure that I agree with your assessment that because some instances of “I believe in God” may be based on the kind of wager you describe, all iterations of the phrase are equally undecidable. One of the things you seem to want to accomplish in this post is to provide psychological evidence for the idea of infinite irony, and it is on these grounds that I think the idea of infinite irony is most shaky. I accept it as a formal property of language, and as a necessary theoretical consequence for the relationship between language and consciousness, and even as a psychological experience that is sometimes felt — but what I was after in bringing up the idea of excess is to show that it can work against you as easily as it can work for you. The inchoate is a fickle mistress!

    I was speaking of Weil off the top of my head, and now that I have returned to her texts I find that her initial conversion experience took place in a church and was unconnected to a text: “In 1937 I had two marvelous days at Assisi. There, alone in the little twelfth-century Romanesque chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, an incomparable marvel of purity where Saint Francis often used to pray, something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.”

    Subsequent mystical experiences of hers, though, are almost all about how closely concentrating on texts makes her feel. The above and below are both from one of Weil’s letters, titled “Spiritual Autobiography” in the collection Waiting for God. The Lord’s Prayer passage follows:

    “Last summer, doing Greek with T____, I went through the Our Father word for word in Greek. We promised each other to learn it by heart. I do not think he ever did so, but some weeks later, as I was turning over the pages of the Gospel, I said to myself that since I had promised to do this thing and it was good, I ought to do it. I did it. The infinite sweetness of this Greek text so took hold of me that for several days I could not stop myself from saying it over all the time. A week afterward I began the vine harvest. I recited the Our Father in Greek every day after work, and I repeated it very often in the vineyard.

    Since that time I have made a practice of saying it through once each morning with absolute attention. If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep, in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention. Sometimes it comes about that I say it again out of sheer pleasure, but I only do it if I really feel the impulse.

    The effect of this practice is extraordinary and surprises me every time, for, although I experience it each day, it exceeds my expectation at each repetition.

    At times the very words tear my thoughts from my body and transport it to a place outside space where there is neither perspective nor point of view. The infinity of the ordinary expanses of perception is replaced by an infinity to the second or sometimes third degree. At the same time, filling every part of this infinity of infinity, there is silence, a silence which is not the absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound. Noises, if there are any, only reach me after crossing this silence.

    Sometimes, also, during this recitation or at other moments, Christ is present with me in person, but his presence is infinitely more real, more moving, more clear than on that first occasion when he took possession of me.”

    There’s a lot that could be said here, but to answer your question it seems that the primary reason why Greek is important is because reciting a foreign language is a difficult task that requires the kind of attention that Weil feels is necessary to her spiritual practice (cf. my post on the subject).

  5. Ah, I begin to see the issue. The question is whether something like psychological experience or consciousness can provide the “genuine” register, the transcendental signifier, against which sincerity or finite irony can be measured. If it can, the problem becomes a merely epistemological/hermeneutic one (a problem, as you put it, of the capacity of language to represent consciousness) rather than an ontological one (a problem of whether there is something there to represent, whether something like a genuine belief even makes sense, even corresponds to something in principle), thus opening the possibility for the sort of assymptotic recovery you imagine in your previous commentary (“I can always try a little harder to explicate myself, to come closer and closer to expressing myself genuinely and being genuinely understood”).

    In your version of the problem, the self is an unstable entity in excess of language, which language can always come more or less close to naming. In Pascal’s wager, the self is merely the wager, the linguistic, pseudo-ironic response to an irresolvable aporia. There’s no genuine belief there to uncover or approach, no genuine belief even possible, insofar as we accept the genuine irresolution posited by Pascal as the condition of the wager.

    The figure of the “ever-shifting” self that you mention above, which belongs to a certain moment of literary criticism, starts to look, under a de Manian analysis, more like an allegory of temporality: rather than corresponding mimetically to the actual self, which first believes one thing and then believes its opposite, the narrative of the changing self merely serves as a representation of the aporia, which makes it impossible to genuinely assert either belief at any given moment. Rather than multiple, irreducible selves, it is a problem of the non-self signified but not embodied by this multiplicity.

    Your arguments about other versions of belief in God raise the question of whether this non-self of the wager is the general condition, or merely the contingent product of certain approaches to belief. It is this question which I hope to address in part 3.

    Regarding the Weil, as you say, a lot could be said, and for time being I won’t offer anything more than preliminary thoughts. I like the way you frame the problem in terms of the kind of attention that reading Greek produces (certainly this is part of what’s going on), but it would be a mistake not to attend to the fact that this attention is directed specifically towards the word of God. In particular, I’m curious about the problem of signification implied by the “infinity to the second or sometimes third degree,” as well as the discussion of “a silence which is not the absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation.” In both cases, my first thought would be to try to think through these moments through Derrida’s comments on the onto-theological and the transcendental signifier in Of Grammatology. But at best that will have to wait for another post.

  6. […] Here’s the first, a complex and stimulating analysis of Paul de Man, and de Man’s ‘Allegory versus Irony’ in particular.  Go read it.  What happened next is that another North American blogger, ‘oublié sur la carte’, responded to Joe’s original post, weighing 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 second. […]

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