Bars of the Cage I: quote-unquote “Irony”

So hey, I’m back. Long absences are just gonna happen. Sometimes it might be long absences punctuated by flurries of posting, when I think I have something to say.

So, irony. Or “irony.” See what I did there? When you put things in “scare quotes,” you do something to those words. There is some subtle shift in meaning, not so much a shift between entirely different ideas as the same idea seen in two different perspectives.

If I say, I saw Jessica’s new boyfriend, you will understand me to be saying that I saw Jessica’s new boyfriend. His name is Steve. He’s into golf. OK but now with the magical interposition of scare quotes, I can say that I saw Jessica’s new “boyfriend.”


Nudge nudge, wink wink. The matter at hand is unchanged — there is still Jessica, and there is still Steve who likes golf — but I am seeing them at a different angle. “Boyfriend” is what Jessica calls Steve. It’s what she’s telling her friends and probably what she’s telling herself. But is Steve really a boyfriend or just some dude she’s hooking up with? Whatever Jessica might be telling people, I remain agnostic. Steve may or may not be really Jessica’s boyfriend; all I can say is that what she’s calling him. Steve is Jessica’s so-called boyfriend. In German, the word is sogenannte, which (as I heard one German professor remark) is a word loaded with verbal aggression of a peculiarly academic sort.

To view the world as occupied by nothing but things that are only ever so-called  — indeed, perhaps, to view the world itself as merely sogennante, “the world” rather than the world — to see things this way is to see them ironically. I like Kenneth Burke’s definition of irony as a perspective of perspectives. In irony, at least two perspectives are always at play: 1. the ordinary, taken-for-granted perspective of those who are participating in a social situation, where Steve is Jessica’s boyfriend; and 2. another, more abstract, more meta perspective, where Steve is Jessica’s “boyfriend.” Perspective no. 2 brackets perspective no. 1; scare quotes simply act out this bracketing in typography. Perspective 1, seen from Perspective 2, is just something some people think, probably wrongly; Perspective 1 is the contingent and limited perspective of those who have some skin in whatever game they are playing.

Perspective 2 — irony — is the perspective that does not believe, does not take sides, has no skin in the game, and fancies itself distinct from what it beholds. (Or at least it thinks itself merely in but not of the social world it observes.) So when one sees things ironically, one sees Perspective 1 or indeed any number of contending worldviews within the more abstract frame of Perspective 2; one has a high and remote vantage point from which to view various perspectives fighting it out in the world. Thus Burke’s definition of irony as a perspective of perspectives.

In my book, I argue that hipness is a sensibility (or what cultural-studies types most often call, after Raymond Williams, a structure of feeling) marked above all by this ironic, bracketing style of perception. As a scholar, my strategy was to bracket hipness itself, to turn the weapons of irony on the ironists. Early on I write, If hip culture offers us a good deal of delusion and posturing to go with its great works of imagination, my aim has been to understand a little better, without sentimentality or anger, the roots of its destructive illusions and profitable conceits alike. Or as I often say to people who ask me about my book, I’m not in the business of saying what’s hip, just what people at certain places and times thought was hip, and why.

And in this respect I’m not at all unusual. This is what humanities scholars usually do. But in scholarship we tend to think of it as historicism, and humanities scholarship, especially when it deals with ideas that we moderns tend to think are weird, almost always falls back on some kind of historicism. A Medievalist, for example, might want to ask whether people in the middle ages really believed in the miracles that were so much a part of their life and collective imagination. A historicist would say, in effect, that people thought a lot of crazy shit back then. Or, as Steven Justice puts it (a bit more elegantly):

By a simple device, the miracle story, which earlier historians had blushed at … become [for later cultural historians] a nearly bottomless resource of metaphor and metonym, first for discovering demotic consensus and then for unmasking its hidden coercions. All you had to do was shift attention from the truth of a miracle story, or your source’s investment in that truth, to its meaning. [Steven Justice, “Did the Middle Ages Believe in Their Miracles?,” Representations 103, no. 1 (2008), 2.]

This gets at something important: by marking truth as unknowable or at least unknown, the historicist method gives up on truth and settles for meaning. Did the saint really curse the laundry girls so that their immediately hair fell out? I ain’t saying he did and I ain’t saying he didn’t; I’m only interested in what the story meant to Medieval people. In the writings of historicist Medievalists, accounts of miracles became “symptomatic fictions laid out for diagnosis, which required neither belief nor disbelief from their authors and audiences, but served as an entrée into their experience and the structures that organized it.” Or, put another way, the only truth we accept is the truth that there are multiple and irreconcilable perspectives, whether on miracles or hipsters or anything else.

In other words, a historicist is not interested in miracles, only “miracles.”

This historicism is second nature for humanistic scholars. It is perhaps the first and most important cognitive shift we undergo when we go to graduate school. As undergrad piano majors or whatever, we learn that Beethoven is a genius. When we go to graduate school in musicology, we learn that Beethoven was a “genius.” One of the reasons that music performance majors and music scholars don’t quite trust each other is that the bracketing and historicist perspective seems snotty and disrespectful in the same way as saying “Steve is Jessica’s ‘boyfriend’” while rolling your eyes and making little finger-twitching air quote gestures. “Why can’t you believe in anything?”, asks the performer. “Why can’t you be more critical?”, asks the musicologist.

To be critical is to take an ironic view of history. The academic prizes her critical intellect above all; it is what wards off the darkness and superstition of the past and frees her from the social coercion that necessarily follows from superstition. Without our ability to understand the “common sense” of our times us as just another limited point of view, we would be cheerleaders for the status quo. Indeed, we would have no way to form any idea about our situations; we would only have the ideas given us by our situation.

And indeed it’s not just a few humanities scholars who make a habit of irony. In some accounts (like Louis Sass’s impressive Madness and Modernism) the perspectival abstractions of irony constitute the cognitive signature of modernity itself. The characteristic action of the modern thinker is to strip humanity of its illusions. Darwin revokes our unique and privileged place in creation and reveals us to be a kind of bipedal, mostly hairless ape. Marx suggests that our ideas of beauty and morality are mere adornments and alibis for the brute workings of political economy. Freud leaves us without even the dignity of our will and reason: it turns out that we are puppets on strings pulled by our unconscious drives, which we cannot control and indeed can scarcely even perceive. And Nietzsche tells us God is dead. Whatever we hold true is just something we think because of class bias, sexual neurosis, religious bigotry, or whatever.

What then is true? If you are a Marxist, then the only truth is the history given us by class conflict; if you are a Darwinian, you can only put you faith in the material processes of natural selection; if you are a Freudian, unconscious drives constitute the bedrock of reality. But the characteristically modern anxiety is the fear that even these bedrock monisms are just belated attempts to reassert a capital-T Truth in a situation where no such Truth can be believed. The fury with which Marxists, Freudians, and materialist neo-Darwinians insist on the truth of their chosen -isms hints at bad conscience. Deep down, we might suspect that there’s no real reason to privilege these or any other points of view, just a threshold decision born of secret desperation. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett writes that Darwinian materialism is like the “universal acid” of comic-book fantasy:

Universal acid is a liquid so corrosive that it will eat through anything! The problem is: what do you keep it in? It dissolves glass bottles and stainless-steel canisters as readily as paper bags. What would happen if you somehow came upon or created a dollop of universal acid? Would the whole planet eventually be destroyed? What would it leave in its wake? After everything had been transformed by its encounter with universal acid, what would the world look like?

What I am suggesting is that it is not Darwin’s or Marx’s or Freud’s or anyone else’s idea that is the universal acid: it is the ironic perspective within which these ideas, and indeed every possible idea, is just another point of view, and once you start seeing the world this way there is no way to stop. Irony just keeps on dissolving everything it touches. Conservatives like to call this “relativism” and blame postmodernism for it, but the postmodernists are late to the party: vertigo in the face of a meaningless plurality of perspectives is the basic condition of modernity. “Postmodernism,” in this context, is just modernism whistling past the graveyard.

The condition of modernity offers an uncomfortable existential situation. You feel yourself cut loose in a world stripped of illusions. You are gnawed by the pervading awareness, or at least the suspicion, that there is no truth anymore, only an endless series of perspectives. You have no place of certainty to rest and begin to suspect that in this superfluity of meaning, of multiple and divergent perspectives, meaning itself has become debased. Everything has a meaning, but nothing is any longer meaningful.

And if you feel this way, how do you get through your life? It’s a lot easier to go to church, attend junior’s school show, go to work, enjoy the Superbowl, etc., when you just kind of accept these things at face value. But what if you can’t anymore? When you drive your kid to her violin lesson, do you think “here I am, participating in a social ritual aimed at enhancing my child’s social capital and and thus my own standing in my community?” I hope not, because that’s how depressed people think. When you’re the guy who’s got depression, you become suddenly aware that there’s a big difference between what something is in a bare empirical way and what you can take from it. A child laughing and dancing by the sea can represent youth and joyful vitality, the promise of renewal, the eternal dance of life . . . or you might just be looking at a meat robot lumbering about at the beginning of a long wind-down into entropy.

All of which is to say that the ironizing, historicizing point of view is toxic to human life. Does that mean that humanities professors are wandering around clutching their brows in existential despair? Not exactly. But this is getting long, so I will write a second installment soon. Or soon-ish.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to Bars of the Cage I: quote-unquote “Irony”

  1. mek says:

    Oh, Phil – a cliffhanger! The very question I was hoping you would answer is postponed. Alas. However, you also got me thinking about the popularity of the multiple-narrator novel. And reminded me of something Jim Harrison (I think) once wrote about the relationship between poets and literary criticism being akin to that between birds and ornithology.

  2. Pingback: Bars of the Cage II: For Amusement Only | Dial M for Musicology

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