Thursday, February 07, 2008


Part of my thesis research has come around to the concept of irony, or cynicism. Irony is something that I've flirted with or outright wallowed in for a few years now, but I've come to see it as something of a hypocritical or empty pursuit.

So what is irony in a nutshell? It is a stance one takes towards themselves, their beliefs, and the world. Rather than allowing one's self to be encompassed by a particular description or particular roles, one insists on setting up a distance between themselves and these roles. It could be in the name of some persistent inner core, as in "The real Mike isn't a student or an atheist; the real Mike is a hard kernel of individualistic subjectivity that stands against the world." Or, one could say "the real Mike is a persistent flux, a framework of constant change. Being a student is just a suit to wear or shed at will."

There was a time when I was attracted to both of these kinds of irony. However, I've become convinced that such a stance is always supported by a totally non-ironic element.

Let's make that more clear. Take a liberal Christian, and for my specific example I'll say Paul Tillich. He'll argue that religion is about one's ultimate concern, but that exactly what that ultimate concern is is just a placeholder. While he'll say that Christianity provides the best articulation of God as the ultimate concern, over and above other religions, he'll still say that others hold true religion, and that's fine for them. He is unwilling to say to a Muslim "what you believe is false, and we are at odds with one another."

So I'd argue that Tillich takes up an ironic distance from orthodox Christianity. Why is this shallow or hypocritical? Because (as Slavoj Zizek as convinced me) this distance in fact depends on the existence of an other who really believes. Tillich cannot maintain his stance without a secret reference to the Muslim, a Muslim that is entirely interpolated into Islam and that has no distance from it.

Other forms of irony or cynicism have the same issue. Take your standard pragmatic hardboiled liberal individualist. They'll say that there are no more standards, only pragmatic exigencies. They'll say that they have no problem taking advantage of the system or of other people. "Do what thou wilt, with due regard for the policeman around the corner." They may in fact behave this way - but their statements actually concern the fact that they really do believe. When you're speaking to someone that claims only to make pragmatic calculations, then you're actually speaking to someone that, deep down, really does care. They just can't admit it to themselves or others.

The reason this has become an issue for me is the the writer I study, Martin Heidegger, is very easily interpreted as an ironist. To put it briefly, human existence is always embedded within a particular horizon of meaning. There is no particular human nature; rather, what humans do is project themselves into particular projects. We do things in order to be things, based on a prior pre-ontological understanding of existence.

All the projects and possibilities we take up come not from ourselves, because that would require a human nature; rather, our possibilities come from the world around us. We find them in our culture, in the objects we use, in the people we meet.

Most of our lives are spent just taking up the possibilities that the "they" of "they say" we should take up. We wander through our lives fulfilling all the obligations and expectations that the world places upon us, never catching a glimpse of anything that is proper to me, something that has nothing to do with you or any sort of we.

Heidegger will say there is only one possibility proper to you as you - your death. Death is the one single possibility that we do not take from the world. It is our ownmost possibility; it is the possibility that sets us apart from the "they" and individuates us.

The resolute anticipation of death is what allows one to take up projects in the world as if these projects were, like death, proper to one's self.

It's that "as if" that is the problem. You see how it sounds exactly like the irony described above, right? I behave "as if" I were a student, but I'm really not, I'm a being-for-death.

The student example is a bit facile. I guess you can already see how this would play out in other cases; "I'm not really a political activist," "I'm not really a husband and a father," "I'm not really a Christian."

Part of my thesis will involve trying to argue that one does not need to read anticipatory resoluteness as ironic. Explaining how I intend to do that is probably best left for another post.

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