Feb 4, 2015

A Great Kierkegaardian Passage on Irony

In a passage from his Point of View of My Work as an Author, Kierkegaard recalls a time in which, "the entire population of Copenhagen became ironical -- and just so much the more ironical in proportion as the people were more ignorant and uneducated." 

Lest that immediately raise hackles (which Kierkegaard would himself predict) on the part of the right-thinking of our own culture (whether they be late-modern bobos, their hipster successors, or even earnest defenders of everyperson's hidden abilities just waiting for expression) -- cries of "Who is this guy to make rules about who can be ironic or not?"  "Who died and made him the arbiter of true and fake irony?"  Who is he to call other people ignorant and uneducated?" -- it might be worth bearing in mind that Kierkegaard did quite literally write the book, as one says, on irony, namely his doctoral dissertation, The Concept of Irony!  So, presumably he had given the topic quite a bit of reflection and observation, and just possibly. . . might be right about it.

What happens when what we call "irony" becomes a widespread, even wildly popular cultural phenomenon, when it becomes something that everyone feels he or she ought to try their hand at?
It was irony here and irony there, from one end to the other.  If the case were not so serious, and I could venture to contemplate it with a purely aesthetic interest, I do not deny that it is the most ludicrous thing I have ever beheld, and I really believe that one might travel far and still be lucky to encounter anything so fundamentally comical.
This democratization, or popularization, or better perhaps, this commodification of irony extends throughout all the classes of society, working by means of an aid for them, a crutch supplied to them by modern media.
[T]he entire population of a city, guilds, corporations, businessmen, persons of rank, they become. . . just about the one thing I would venture to assert it is impossible for them to become. . .  they become ironical, by the help of a sheet, which in turn (ironically enough) leads the fashion by the help of editorial blackguards, and the fashion it sets is . . .  irony.
Is it, though?  Or has only a kind of appearance been generated, captivating the masses, as well as those who deem themselves above the masses, but still behave, think, feel, and desire in a mass manner?  Is it possible to get irony wrong, to ape the stance -- or perhaps even to view it as a stance is already to cheapen it, to adulterate it?
[I]rony requires a specific intellectual culture, such as is very rare in any generation - and this cohue and rabble were adepts in irony. Irony is absolutely unsocial; an irony which is in the majority is eo ipso not irony.  Nothing is more certain than this, for it is implied in the very concept.
Have we reached the stage in our society -- or did they back in the Copenhagen of the 1840s -- where our public sphere and space can support all these little bubbles of unsocial performance, meaning, appreciation?  Do cultures and societies evolve to such a point where the ironic becomes something like low-hanging fruit, within the easy and almost instant capacities of anyone?

Can a mass culture -- and this is particularly worth thinking about in our own time, when we inhabit an ever-growing media environment that feeds off of, comments upon, and ever so angularly twists, the stories and images of the past -- offer its members formulas, methods, examples, resources, ready at hand for indulging themselves in what was in the past a hard-earned luxury of an eccentric elite (eccentric, that is, by not remaining reliably within the centers of public meaning)?
This irony was of course sheer vulgarity.  For even if the real instigator possessed a talent by no means insignificant, it could not but become vulgarity in passing over to these thousands and thousands; and unfortunately vulgarity is always popular.
Can reactions against mass culture -- which on the one hand involve miniature masses, and on the other risk by success actually captivating a new mass -- stake their own claim on the ironic, as, for example, the hipsters attempted to do (perhaps it's clear now at least that the hipster experiment has largely failed, crashing under the combined weight of its own pomposity?) 

Well there, if we're thinking in Kierkegaard's terms, we've got something a little different going on -- at least there, the persons are monkeying around in the dimensions that he calls the Aesthetic, or perhaps even are about to teeter over into the dimension adjoining, the Ethical (say, if they start getting serious about the claims they make about their consumption and enjoyment. . . )

Myself, I feel somewhat dubious about Kierkegaard's own discussions -- does he not go too far into the category of individuality?  Irony is, after all, at least some of the time, interpersonal -- we can be in on, share, and appreciate the ironic stance articulated by the other, and perhaps even improvise or improve upon it. . .   Much more to be said and thought about that matter, but with that parting shot, I leave off for today.

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