The End of Irony?

I don’t know why some observers now speak of a “post-ironic” phase. I see ironies everywhere. Neo-liberalism now on the defensive, even according to the IMF — withering from with, as Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty describes it, (citing an internal IMF research paper “Neo-liberalism: Oversold?”). Meanwhile The Brain of our time, the inheritor of Sir Isaac Newton’s chair at Cambridge University, Stephen Hawking, who announces the death of philosophy but expresses bafflement and perplexity at the popularity of Brand Trump in America with average Joe and average Josephine of The Adverse, while North Korea’s LittleBig Dictator, Kim Jong Un, heartily endorses Trumpismo. He apparently likes the idea of walls.

Looks to me more like the intensification of the ironic rather than any kind of “post-ironic” transition.

Maybe by “post-ironic” they mean, any lack of sense for the irony of it all. And in that regard, it’s probably true. But that just means that we’ve passed from comic irony to tragic irony. Take Stephen Hawking and his perplexity and bewilderment. Seems he bought into, or fell under the spell, of Mr. Fukuyama’s “End of History” when he pronounced philosophy useless, but now finds himself anxiously defending Enlightenment principles and virtues against the onslaught of some very anti-Enlightenment social movements. No one finds any irony in that? It reminds of Shakespeare’s “hoist on his own petard”.

Dig deep enough and you’ll find that those who have pronounced the death of philosophy are also subscribers to the “end of history” conceit. They simply assume that the philosophical foundations of modernity laid down during the Enlightenment are as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar and no new philosophy can add anything to them, or even subtract from them. Unfortunately, their confidence in the finality of Enlightenment principles is being contradicted everywhere. The Modern Age is devouring itself as Nietzsche foresaw. And nobody finds that ironic?

Another irony: the last national polls I saw for the U.S. had Mr. Sanders thrashing and trumping Trump soundly in the upcoming presidential election. Yet, contrary to the popular sentiment, Mr. Sanders is struggling against a party establishment that seems determined to make sure he doesn’t, thus favouring a Trump victory. In some ways, I’ld suggest that the election in the US is a referendum on the philosophical values of the Enlightenment, pro and con. Sanders is very much the idealist of the Enlightenment, and Trump the cynic. And Mr. Hawking doesn’t get it? Could it be that his disdain for philosophy, which is the pursuit of wisdom, is simply the counter-point to Joe and Josephine’s apparent disdain for it as well?

Big changes are afoot. The ironic is the sure sign of those changes. What is irony except all those things we’ve identified as “ironic reversal” or “enantiodromia” — unintended consequence, perverse outcome, revenge effect, blowback, reversal of fortune; all just different ways of describing enantiodromia as ironic reversal? “Post-ironic”? It’s nothing of a kind. It looks more like the intensification of the ironic, and in that intensification, the ironic passes from the quaintly humourous into the tragic as nihilism — as self-contradiction and self-negation.

It’s not just the idea of “Universal Reason” that is being chucked aside, but the very principle of “universality” itself. The migrant crisis has really tested the Enlightenment commitment to self-determination and the universality of human rights — and found that commitment quite wanting (in fact, now it’s considered “unreasonable”). What is ironic reversal? Well, the Greek name for it is Nemesis. Irony and crisis are two sides of the same process.

There’s a popular saying that runs “he who laughs first, laughs last” that sort of bears witness to ironic reversal — what first appears as farce turns tragic. Is it not strange that the two nations most associated with Renaissance and Reformation — Italy and Germany — should finally revert to barbarism in the form of fascism and Nazism? As if they were weary of Reformation and Renaissance which ended in fundamentalism for the one, reductionism for the other — precisely the kind of mental milieu and habitat of commonplace reality that average Joe and Josephine feel most at home in — exactly what Mr. Hawking calls “the lowest common denominator”.

So, there’s maybe the biggest ironic reversal of all — the Enlightenment ideal of the ennoblement of mankind by Reason reverts to the debasement of mankind in the form of average Joe and average Josephine. To insist on the Enlightenment goals of elevation and ennoblement in the face of the leveling and the debasement of those ideals is somewhat quaint, given the facts of the matter. Nietzsche, of course, already anticipated that perverse outcome.

No… it’s not the end of irony. It’s simply the onset of its tragic phase. It’s just the Tao of the psychodrama — of the psychodrama long recognised in the interplay of the Promethean and Epimethean spirit, as the coincidence of the comedic and the tragic, or what Gebser calls the life-pole and death-pole of the soul,

Comedy TragedyAs horrifying as it might be to contemplate, Gebser saw the events of the early twentieth century as simply a foretaste of what was to come — even child’s play compared to what he envisaged as the endgame of the deficient rational. I would like to think he’s wrong about that. But there are too many indications to suggest that he is probably right, and fulfilling Seth’s dire warning some 4 decades ago that I once posted as “The Most Haunting Words in All Literature“.



6 responses to “The End of Irony?”

  1. Steve Lavendusky says :

    • Charles Leiden says :

      Good writing.
      Big changes are afoot. The ironic is the sure sign of those changes. What is irony except all those things we’ve identified as “ironic reversal” or “enantiodromia” — unintended consequence, perverse outcome, revenge effect, blowback, reversal of fortune; all just different ways of describing enantiodromia as ironic reversal?

      Enantiodromia. The first book I read by Thompson was Darkness and Scattered Light (late seventies) and he talked about this dynamic. “becoming what we hate.” A book by James Carse – Finite and Infinite Games offers many perceptive observations. There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. He suggests that most of the dynamics in society are finite games. Finite games are inherently contradictory whereas infinite games are inherently paradoxical.

      • Scott Preston says :

        That’s interesting. I’ve begun thinking in those terms of “gamesmanship” lately. Of course, the historian Johan Huizinga proposed his “homo ludens” or “man the player” earlier in just this sense, and in the sense Shakespeare used it “all the world’s a stage” — or an arena, if you prefer. So, yeah… this “games theory” approach is something I’m interested in pursuing further. Nietzsche was also interested in games — since he recognised in them the cultural rules generally, and their connection with the mode of consciousness one brings to life. Advertising, entrepreneurialism, competitive business culture are often compared to sports events or gaming (or warfare as a game, too) — like how to outwit the consumer so that you overcome “sales resistance” — games of strategy. You remember how war was earlier described as “the sport of kings”. But Kissinger and Brzezinski approached war and foreign policy in exactly the same way — as sport, quite indifferent or even oblivious to the “collaterial damage” that their gamesmanship brought about. But, they’re not unique in that regard either. Nietzsche tended to think that the invention of new games would be a good indication of new consciousness.

    • Scott Preston says :

      That’s a pretty good short description of Nietzsche’s philosophy, although still a bit limited. The narrator still seems to think that it’s about self-aggrandisement or “egoism”. But the Nietzschean “self” isn’t the ego-nature. And I don’t know how people who talk about Zarathustra so often fail to overlook or misconstrue his chapter on “The Despisers of the Body” where Nietzsche makes quite clear his distinction between self and ego. Really no point in talking about “self-overcoming” or “self-realisation” without recognising that distinction. And yet, even Nietzsche scholars still seem confused about Nietzsche’s “egoism”. Well.. the ego is a jealous god, and it probably doesn’t like the idea of not being in control, which is I suppose, why it performs all these intellectual acrobatics.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    I read this which might be of interest in the ongoing dialogue, that Thompson is a better carrier of the Gebserian tradition than Wilber and that he has continued to follow in the steps of Gebser.

  3. Charles Leiden says :

    Scott -The book by Carse isn’t about game theory as I see it. Carse contrasts the differences between finite and infinite games in many different contexts. It is imaginative. Here is one example:

    Death for finite players, is abstract, not concrete. Infinite players die. Since the boundaries of death are always part of the play, the infinite player does not die at the end of play, but in the course of play. The death of an infinite player is dramatic.

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