Irony 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 that the post might be a roast – I suppose turnabout is fair play. Joe K has responded over at The Kugelmass Episodes (here), and I can’t help feeling there’s something funny about his response. Not the second half, mind you. The argument is divided into two parts, and I think the second part, to which I will devote a separate response, still pending, develops the argument in an interesting new direction, despite some problems I will try to identify. The first part, however, places me in the precarious position of defending what looks like a caricature of my original post against what must be a caricature of De Man, leaving me only the option of opting out of this false choice

Now, my original thought was:

  • to begin a long response that explains why Joe was incorrect to accuse me of “assum[ing] that de Man is internally consistent,” that is, treating de Man’s consistency on the particular problem of “the rhetoric of persuasion” as an unfounded assumption rather than a claim to be supported by close reading
  • then, on the other hand, to explain why Joe’s attempt to confront de Man’s explicit intentions with “the totality of what we can say about the way his texts work” (as opposed to the totality of what we can claim and support about the way his texts work) results in an insufficiently critical hermeneutics which is not, as Joe insists, authorized by de Man’s approach

However, while I think these claims identify genuine flaws in some of Joe’s rhetoric, which I would be happy to articulate in greater depth in future posts, if necessary, I don’t think this is where the main argument lies, and I don’t want to frontload this post with what now seems to me like a digression. Instead, I will briefly point out where I think the debate does lie, and confront Joe’s argument there.

1. Where’s the Beef?

Joe states his argument clearly and concisely at the end of the first part of his post:

I find in Paul de Man a barren insistence on undecidability that tries to compensate for its lack of substance with appeals to shame, to fantasies of discursive power, and to a love of truth and rigor

The argument about de Man’s appeal to shame is dependent on a prior argument about the “barrenness” of de Man’s “insistence on undecidability.” If de Man’s argument is truly barren (whatever this might mean) then the argument that it is reducible to a rhetorical appeal becomes quite important. This is the argument that is being carried out in my second post on irony and in the second part of Joe’s response. It is an important and productive argument because it takes seriously the possibility that de Man might have something important to say, whether in the service of rigorously affirming that possibility or rigorously negating it. The argument about “barrenness” seems to have two principle components:

  1. The question of the consequences of de Man’s “concept” of irony/”insistence” on undecidability for the study of literature (Is de Man’s writing actually “barren”?)
  2. The question of whether the consequences of de Man’s writings are the appropriate basis on which to evaluate their validity (Is “barrenness” the appropriate criteria?)

If “The Concept of Irony” turns out productive, or if its claims turn out to be necessitated by something other than shame, then the fact that it also produces shame, that it alludes to shame, that it can be read on another register as an appeal to shame, is tangential. It need not produce shame to be effective, or so my claim goes, and the fact that it might also produce shame is not fatal: while it might be theoretically possible to offer a specific argument according to which the mere presence of this second register undermines the explicit intentions of the text (de Man offers such arguments frequently, but they always remain dependent on the specificity of the argument) Joe has yet to explicitly articulate such an argument, and I would be skeptical as to its efficacy in this case.

However, while I remain convinced that the shame argument is a tangent, it remains a question in its own right, and I want to attempt to wrap it up before proceeding to the larger argument. Because the Joe’s claim about shame hinges, in his latest post, on a reading of a passage in “The Concept of Irony,” critiquing that claim will not require me to articulate the two unwritten arguments I allude to at the beginning of this post (about “assuming that de Man is internally consistent” and about “the totality of what we can say about the way his texts work”). Instead, it is merely a question of what the passage in question authorizes Joe to say about de Man.

2. The Claim to Shame

Joe’s argument reads as follows:

Let me explain why I claimed that, for de Man, irony has “Dionysian energies” that “bear a remarkable resemblance to bliss.” De Man claims that the American critics “would want to put themselves on their guard” against irony. This is an ambiguous statement. We don’t know whether they need to guard their own thinking against the implications of irony, or whether they need to guard their readers against it. We are thus forced to presume both. What kind of thing would tempt an interpreter of literature away from a position that they know is more practical and essential to keeping a job? The answer, of course, is “an inconvenient truth.” Because truth here inspires the interpreters of literature to abandon their livelihood and salty wisdom, it has the quality of seduction. (Thus Socrates was accused of “seducing” the youth of Greece.) One of the startling insights of analysts of jouissance, like Barthes and Lacan, was that bliss implied the rupture of order. The destructive nature of seduction (e.g. the mythical Sirens) was actually one of the reasons for its attractiveness.

The seductiveness of irony is part of its “very threatening” nature. It is in de Man’s interest to portray infinite irony as something powerful, to counteract the fact that most lay readers and many literary critics do not consider infinite irony to be a property of texts. So, first he separates literary critics from himself and his readers: “interpreters of literature, who have a stake in the understandability of literature” (167). Note that neither writers, nor readers who do not explicitly trouble themselves to produce “readings,” nor any person uninterested in literature, gets a mention here. Thus the reason for the watch on irony turns out to be sordid professional self-interest. That’s why it’s entirely appropriate to make “livelihood” the first entry in an equation representing de Man’s argument.

Having isolated the critics, de Man ventriloquizes them as stutterers: “very legitimate to want, as Booth wants, to stop, to stabilize, to control the trope” (167). The word “legitimate” is an extremely weak endorsement, suggesting the punctiliousness of a businessman. More important, the repetition of “want,” followed by the insecure slippage of “stop….stabilize….control,” implies an impotent desire to keep the dam from breaking. What appears to be humble sympathy constrained by the truth functions rhetorically as a form of mockery.

Joe’s arguments in these paragraphs center around two points, both of which are made in the service of the claim that “for de Man, irony has ‘Dionysian energies’ that ‘bear a remarkable resemblance to bliss'”:

  1. He identifies a potential mockery of professionalism in de Man’s rhetoric which can be opposed to the Dionysian
  2. He offers a series of comparisons between truth itself and bliss or seduction, such that even the truth appeal of de Man’s argument becomes readable as a rhetorical appeal

3. (Il)legitimate and (Un)professional

To begin with, let’s look at the argument about professionalism. As far as I can discern, this argument rests on two pieces of evidence:

  1. De Man’s argument exclusively addresses professional readers of literature, which seems to suggest that “the reason for the watch on irony turns out to be sordid professional self-interest”
  2. While de Man does seem to defend professional readers of literature when he writes that it is “very legitimate to want, as Booth wants, to stop, to stabilize, to control the trope [of irony],” his word choice implies a subtle mockery in the guise of a defense

Joe gets quite a lot right here, but his observations do not justify his conclusions. “The Concept of Irony” does include an attack on a certain kind of professional self-interest among readers of literature. It’s not necessarily a critique of professionalism as such (i.e. it’s not an argument against the professional study of literature, which is de Man’s own profession), so much as a critique of something really unprofessional – namely, ignoring evidence that threatens the institutional demands of the profession. Joe doesn’t seem to disagree with de Man’s criticism here, so much as insist that it doesn’t suffice as an argument against finite irony. I, in turn, agree that a critique of professionalism doesn’t suffice as an argument against finite irony, since there might be other reasons to insist upon finite irony aside from professional self-interest. As I acknowleged in my initial post, Joe himself offers a good reason to insist on finite irony, namely that infinite irony “does not represent a real possibility towards which the individual can direct her energies.” Clearly this argument is not reducible to professional self-interest, even if it is interested in a certain way with problems of “selfhood.” There’s certainly no shame in wanting to find in literature “real possibilit[ies] towards which the individual can direct her energies.”

If de Man’s essay does imply a certain critique of (un)professional self-interest, does it follow that he is mocking professionalism when he calls it “very legitimate to want, as Booth wants, to stop, to stabilize, to control the trope [of irony]”? Well, yes and no. The passage is ambiguous, even to the point of infinite irony, though this by itself again does not suffice to undermine Joe’s claim. On the one hand, as Joe points out, the word “legitimate” is a very weak compliment, insofar as it implies a professionalism tied to the questionable practice of delimiting by the words “stop,” “stabilize,” and “control.” In conjunction with the critique of professionalism offered explicitly elsewhere in this and other essays, it is certainly legitimate to read the word “legitimate” as a form of mockery that really means “illegitimate.” On the other hand, insofar as the sentence itself does not lay the grounds for the critique of “legitimacy” and professionalism, it still retains the traces of a defense. Something is and is not legitimate about Booth’s finite approach to irony. The sentence raises a quesiton about the limits of Booth’s legitimacy which will have to be answered in the rest of the essay.

How are we to understand the conjunction of legitimacy and illegitimacy that characterizes de Man’s assertions about finite irony? There are at least two possibilities to consider, both corresponding to a different way of reading the sentence quoted about. If saying “legitimate to want … to control [irony]” does not work as an authorization to control irony, it may be that it legitimates only the desire, but not the practice, as in “it is to legitimate to want to control irony, but it is not legitimate to actually control it.” Or the word legitimate itself might be the ironic word, so that while it might be “legitimate, i.e. in conformity with the shameful standards of professionalism, to want to control irony,” this would only mean, simultaneously, that it is “illegitimate, i.e. shameful, to want to control irony.”

The entire question of whether de Man appeals to shame hinges on which of these two possibilities is correct, and whether it is possible to decide. If, on the one hand, the desire to control irony is genuinely legitimate – if, for example, it is the product of something other than professional self-interest – then it is not grounds for shame, but rather the source of an error to be avoided (unless we’re going to equate error with shame, which verges on transforming all intellectual discussion into a vast battle of egos in which it would be impossible to respectfully disagree, a conclusion which is contra-indicated by the large degree of respectful disagreement which characterizes the back-and-forth between Joe and myself). If, on the other hand, the very desire is illegitimate – if, for example, the desire is reducible to professional self-interest – then we’re dealing with a question of shame.

In short, the entire question comes down to whether or not the appeal of finite irony is reducible to professional self-interest, or, more specifically, comes down to whether de Man constructs it as such. If de Man’s only legitimate argument is to accuse Joe and other proponents of finite irony of deliberately distorting the facts in order to further their careers, then Joe is living proof of his error: Joe’s convictions run deeper than his professional self-interest, and yet he maintains a belief in finite irony. QED: de Man’s concept of irony is a “barren insistence on undecidability that tries to compensate for its lack of substance with appeals to shame, to fantasies of discursive power, and to a love of truth and rigor.”

De Man undermines this logic, however, insofar as his writings throughout his career repeatedly locate the source of erroneous interpretations not in the desires of a self-motivated subject, but rather to properties inherent in language itself. For example, in the essay “Rhetoric of Persuasion (Nietzsche)” in Allegories of Reading, de Man lays out Nietzsche’s critique of “the epistemological authority of perception and of eudaemonic patterns of experience,” as well as of similar aberrations “linked to the positional power of language in general.” The nature of Nietzsche’s specific critique here is not the point. The point is that he says of these aberrations that they are “not necessarily intentional, but grounded in the structure of rhetorical tropes, [and they] cannot be equated with a consciousness…” (123). Similarly, in the essay “Metaphor (Second Discourse),” he writes of a certain erroneous reading of Rousseau, “the literal reading that fails to take into account the figural dimensions of language … is not to be rejected as simply erroneous or malevolent, all the more since, in the Second Discourse, the political terminology and the political themes postulate the existence of an extra-textual referent and raise the question of the text’s relationship to this referent” (136). The inadequacy of the literal reading is the direct result of the linguistic structure of the text itself, which postulates the existence of an extra-textual referent. If I remember correctly (I’m not going to go back through it) The Resistance to Theory contains an extended argument as to why the kinds of “theory” that de Man critiques emerge inevitably and repeatedly as a product of the nature of language itself, independent of historically specific institutional forces. If, therefore, erroneous interpretations, like those that produce the illusion of finite irony, are the product of language itself and not of any human consciousness, it is difficult to see how they could be worthy of shame. In short, J.K., if it’s not you’re fault that you’re wrong, you have nothing to be ashamed of. And regardless of whether you disagree with de Man’s claims in this particular instance, you have to at least acknowledge that, if he goes out of his way to undermine the very basis of the appeal to shame, and if there is another way to read the lines which you call an appeal to shame, he’s probably not making an appeal to shame.

Thus, while de Man does have to conjure a critique of professional self-interest in order to ensure that his argument can be evaluated independently of its consequences for the profession, his critique runs much deeper than this, incorporating even appeals such as Joe’s which found genuine humanistic hopes on the possibility of controlling tropes like irony. In fact, looking at de Man’s work on Romanticism and aesthetic ideology throughout his career, it would seem like the general linguistic consequences of his critique of finite irony are much more in the forefront of his oeuvre than the instituional consequences through which they are manifested.

4. Dismissing bliss

If de Man’s argument owes very little of its appeal, if any, to the shame of finite irony, does it, by contrast, owe any of its appeal to the Dionysian bliss associated with infinte irony?

These two appeals are not, I should note, equivalent (as Joe seems to suggest), since it’s possible to appeal to shame in rejecting professionalism without proposing the bliss of limitlessness as the alternative. Another alternative to truth based on professional self-interest might be an appeal to impersonal truth , and even if one rejects the possibility of impersonal truth, it still seems to be that case that this is what de Man is appealing to. Nowhere in his problematic reading of de Man’s comments on professionalism does Joe provide evidence for anything more than a rejection of professionalism, i.e. nowhere does he provide evidence that rejecting professional “legitimacy” means, for de Man, luxuriating in the limitless possibilities of reading. Clearly de Man’s rejection of finite irony is in the service of infinite, which is to say limitless, irony, but nowhere does he turn this limitlessness into a source of pleasure or an inherent value. Again, since elsewhere, in “Genesis and Genealogy (Nietzsche)” in Allegories of Reading, he rejects the aestheticization of the Dionysian, one would at least want some evidence to suggest he is aestheticizing it here. Merely pointing out that de Man rejects professionalism in favor of something that has “infinite” in the name does not suffice to show that infinite irony becomes a source of bliss. [Indeed, perhaps Joe is reading his own aestheticization of the infinite and corresponding shame about professionalism (see here), into de Man’s argument, commiting, therefore, the affective fallacy]

The appeal to bliss doesn’t follow, therefore, from the critique of professionalism, at least not without further evidence from de Man’s writing. Joe nonetheless takes a second route towards his association of de Man’s concept of irony with “Dionysian energies” that “bear a remarkable resemblance to bliss” – namely, as I put it above, “a series of comparisons between truth itself and bliss or seduction.” Let’s take another look at the relevant passage from his latest post, quoted above:

Because truth here inspires the interpreters of literature to abandon their livelihood and salty wisdom, it has the quality of seduction. (Thus Socrates was accused of “seducing” the youth of Greece.) One of the startling insights of analysts of jouissance, like Barthes and Lacan, was that bliss implied the rupture of order. The destructive nature of seduction (e.g. the mythical Sirens) was actually one of the reasons for its attractiveness.

Now, if Joe wants to say that what makes de Man seductive or appealing is that his argument is true, I’m not sure I have a problem with this. I can’t see any other way to read the first sentence here: “truth … has the quality of seduction,” as in truth is seductive; in the story where truth “inspires the interpreters of literature to abandon their livelihood,” it seduces because it’s true.

In the rest of the quoted passage, the relationship between truth and seduction is framed differently: not “if true, therefore seductive,” but rather “if seductive, therefore, potentially, true.” I won’t take issue here with the idea that bliss might “imply the rupture of order,” i.e. that bliss might be the form in which a particular truth is manifest. But this does not imply the converse, that all truth must be manifest as bliss, or that any argument that appeals to truth must necessary base its appeal on the possibility of bliss.

In both the first sentence of the quoted passage and the following sentences, truth is granted the potential to seduce and to produce bliss. Seduction and bliss are both characterized as ways in which truth is potentially revealed. Neither of these arguments imply, however, that de Man’s argument, by appealing to truth, even to a truth which might be seductive, even to a truth which might or might not overturn institutional or professional structures, bases it’s appeal on its seductiveness, on bliss, or on its rejection of professionalism.

Ultimately, then, we are hopefully, finally, in a position to evaluate de Man’s argument independently of its consequences, and move on to the more substantive debate implied by the second half of Joe’s response. I will, however, await the resolution of this discussion, on the first half of his response, before moving on, waiting in turn for the resolution of the second half before finally returning to the trajectory of my first two posts. I did promise, after all, that my defense of infinite irony would potentially be infinitely long.

However, I’d like to conclude by saying to all involved (mostly Joe and uncomplicatedly, who have posted responses, but also to anyone who’s been following along) how much I’m enjoying this discussion, and in particular the possibilities offered by blogging for really getting to the bottom of a debate. I partially regret that this results in longer and thus less readable posts, but I hope that you’ll bear with me until I can produce some more user-friendly content. In the mean time, I welcome your questions, comments, or other derogatory remarks.


~ by Matt on February 24, 2007.

2 Responses to “Irony Continued: The Joke’s on Me?”

  1. surlacarte,

    First of all, a quick note: a response (it need not be final) to your comment to my original Kugelmass Episodes post is ready. Thanks again for your role in the construction of that thread!

    I can be clearer about the origins of the shamefulness of the critic’s error: it has to do with the unwillingness to confront something as threatening as irony, and the corresponding immaturity of preferring a wish (finite irony) to the truth (infinite irony). This does not necessarily imply a strong feeling of contempt on de Man’s part, any more than a teacher or parent must feel strong contempt when imparting a lesson. We do not feel contemptuous of a child who wants a dead parent to still be alive; all the same, it is important that the child eventually accept the truth. It might be shameful for an adult to realize that she is acting like a child in this respect, by succumbing to magical thinking.

    De Man’s critique of Booth is excessive, and that’s the key here. He doesn’t merely say that Booth is wrong; he tells us that Booth wants to be right and that Booth has a stake in being right. The rhetoric implicitly excludes de Man, because de Man would not be able to see the matter so clearly if he was a stakeholder possessed by the same desires.

    If the reason that de Man is not being patronizing is that language itself produces and encourages these kinds of errors, then we have to wonder why de Man was able to both see through this automatically generated error, and why he would think that an essay of his making could successfully communicate an argument about the undecidability of language. The argument about undecidability (for example, the difficulty of deciding the meaning of the word “legitimate”) is backed up with the claim that de Man “goes out of his way to undermine the very basis of the appeal to shame.” I agree with you about de Man’s intentions here, but the only reason I’m able to accept the claim as true is my non-infinite method.


    Let’s assume, for the moment, that the reason de Man is able to correct Booth and Rousseau has to do with giving up his stake in the finitude of irony; that is, his preference for a disinterested account of the real truth over an interested distortion.

    What can we say about this sacrifice? Obviously, we cannot justify de Man on the grounds that in the long run, texts will prove too unstable for the uses to which we want to put them. That would be the worst kind of speculative appeal to consequences wedded to generalization, and would furthermore immediately posit an “outside” to the text that would act upon us to make us sorry for our limited readings.

    The alternative is an appeal to “truth for truth’s sake,” without concern for consequences, and curiously enough without even the possibility of consequences, a lack that separates this kind of philosophical drive from the unknowable consequentiality of non-applied science.

    “Truth for truth’s sake” in this sense is the oldest appeal to philosophical integrity in the Western tradition: it is a direct reference to the character of Socrates, as he appears in the dialogues of Plato. Socrates equates the good with the true, and asserts that all people are compelled by the truth insofar as they understand it. Socrates defends this proposition against the charge that goodness and truth lead to unhappiness, and thus ultimately links goodness, to truth, to pleasure.


    One could certainly uncouple de Man from Socrates, though this strikes me as historically irresponsible, just as one could take apart his argument in modular fashion. De Man can still be making a truth-claim, regardless of whether he’s making an appeal to shame, as you suggest. The same is basically true of art, particularly written work. One can imagine a Fitzgerald novel in which Nick Carraway’s disillusion takes place without the accompaniment of Gatsby’s death.

    In my view, taking de Man’s argument apart in this fashion is actually highly reductive of de Man, because it means condensing his essay down to aphoristic articulations of critical difficulties (such as “undecidability”). Presumably, if such a dismantlement and condensation were desirable, de Man himself would have taken the lead.

    In addition, the point of rhetoricizing de Man’s appeal to the truth is actually to legitimate de Man rhetorically; otherwise, de Man is in the position of arguing for our responsibility to truth, without explaining where that responsibility comes from. You may reject my idea that he is proposing a responsibility to true Pleasure (simultaneous in Plato with the responsibility to the Good), but unless he can come up with new, non-Socratic grounds, he is simply leaning on a tradition (i.e. the Western philosophical tradition) that has always cast itself as a protector of man’s best interests, both psychologically (happiness or pleasure) and physically (the well-ordered society, the prospect of living in harmony with metaphysical laws).


    As for the affective fallacy, don’t confuse my descriptive accounts of nihilistic irony with a personal psychological complex. I have a lot of sympathy for the desire to be radical, even when it doesn’t come accompanied by a workable alternative, if it is contextualized as a specific moment of joy or misery. When the desire for the “break” appears in a work of art, it is a moment rather than an abstract truth (of fragmentation, of unresolvable antagonism).

    Furthermore, infinite irony is entirely achievable as a hysterical stance: hence Stephen Dedalus and the young man in Kierkegaard. My newest post on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as earlier posts on other pieces of pop culture, are based on reading irony as a continual and continually unsuccessful flight from a suffocating mass of dangerous or dispiriting fictions. It’s my position that the failure of these rebellions (also part of the works in question, where the ironists are prodigal daughters and sons) has something to do with how irony is being applied. The makeup of modern irony is described very well, and valorized, by de Man, which may explain his continual usefulness to literary critics.

  2. […] ongoing discussion of Paul de Man’s “The Concept of Irony” continues with a long comment by Joe, and my response here. Newcomers to the discussion should start at the beginning here and here. […]

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