Irony #1

Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel

Q: You are an ironist.

A: It’s useful. 

Q: How is it useful?

A: Well, let me tell you a story…

The story ‘Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel’ is a short one by Donald Barthelme. It’s a questions and answer story in which an unknown speaker has a disjointed discussion with somebody sat across from him.

It’s the perfect story for anyone who, like me, sort of knows what irony is but can’t explain it. When I look it up in a dictionary, I quickly forget the definition, perhaps because whatever the dictionary says is not precise or piercing enough. ‘Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel’ offers a wonderfully illuminating walkthrough of some not very accessible philosophy: the philosophy of irony.

What is irony? A hard question. Well, we know it’s not quite sarcasm. We know this because we know what sarcasm is. “Oh, what a nice dress,” etc etc. That’s sarcasm. Something said in such a way as to mean the exact opposite, and often coming across as either aggressive or passive aggressive. Sarcasm is dependant on a clear divide between what was said and what is meant. When words succumb to sarcastic overuse their meaning can change (nice has been used to mean its opposite so often, that it actually does).

One common interpretation is that irony is the clever cousin of sarcasm. That irony is a bit cleverer than scarcsm because where sarcasm says two things in opposition to each other, irony says three, or four, or maybe even five things. Like: “I hate vandalism and irony.” Saying you hate vandalism while vandalising the word vandalism is clever, isn’t it? That’s saying one thing while meaning another. But saying that you hate irony as well, after you’ve just been ironic, adds that extra layer.

Or this one: “Things I hate: lists, oxford commas, and irony.” What’s ironic about this? Well, you say you hate lists and oxford commas while using them, and you also say you hate irony, while using it. Irony detected. However, it’s not much of a list, is it? Lists are usually numbered. Lists usually exceed three. So maybe here there’s the added irony of not actually having made a list to ironise in the first place.

Instead of viewing irony as something which allows someone to express multiple ideas through their opposite/s, irony might be better understood as the simultaneous existence of expressed ideas between which it’s impossible to decide. Is it a list? Isn’t it a list? How many other interpretations are we missing here? Irony quickly becomes limitless when viewed this way.

This is according to Schlegel. The way I see it, Schlegel’s view of irony means it must be insular. It’s not so much about what you thought or what you said as it is about the space in between those two things. Recognising that any expressed idea can be inexhaustibly interpreted, and recognising the difference between language and thought that this implies, is what supposedly makes the ironic moment truly ironic. It’s like that time when you wanted to say something witty and even thought of something witty, but what actually came out of your mouth was nothing like it.

‘The Ironist’ is usually thought of as the life and soul of a party: The Guy/Gal who gets watched enviously by others as they frolic in their very own logical landscapes. But if irony consists of this space in between two or more things, then how can this type of person exist? How can such a person be comfortable using irony, when when they do they cannot not miss out on most of their own joke? By definition they miss out because of how many possibilities there are. Perhaps one way to do it would be to say something which means something else and the two things contradict not only each other but also themselves.

But that makes it very hard to have the last laugh. Schlegel’s vision of stuttering introspection seems like a long-haul flight from our contemporary idea of what it means to use irony. If, at its bottom, irony is whatever the going in-joke about irony is, then how can one use irony to expose contradiction and hypocrisy and the like?

Was Ricky Gervais being ironic when he hosted the Golden Globes? Because if irony can’t be used without taking in to account all of this mumbo-jumbo, then what exactly did Ricky do at the Golden Globes?

The best question to ask is: Who did Ricky make uncomfortable? After all, the superstars were all laughing with him. None of them didn’t want to be there. They loved the Epstein gag at their expense. And we know Ricky will be invited back next year, so maybe he’s just putting on an “exotic display for the court” to use something Chris Morris once said.

Kierkegaard has something to say on the matter, and I think we should listen to him.

Although “irony is the first and most abstract determination of subjectivity,” he says, (so far agreeing with Schlegel), “with this we have arrived at Socrates.” Socratic irony’ is when you fein ignorance from a position of knowledge in order to tease out someone else’s inconsistencies, but when the very nature of irony is one of inexhaustible interpretations, or ‘the space in between,’ Kierkegaard says that the practice of Socratic irony must be negative. Irony might be able to knock down a person’s house, but it cannot rebuild it.

Where Schlegel enables Ricky to do an ironic speech free of constraints, Kierkegaard reins him in. You shouldn’t want to win the game of irony just because you’re operating on ‘x’ many levels and are therefore having the last laugh. Stewart Lee dished out some left-wing criticism of Ricky’s Golden Globe performance, and ended it with this: A Ricky Gervais Netflix standup special walks into a pub with a massive pile of stinking dogshit on its shoulder. The barman says: “Where did you get that massive pile of dogshit?” And the dogshit says: “Netflix. They’ve got bloody loads of them!”

Irony cashes in all right, but it establishes nothing. At best you come away feeling like a king because ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’. An Ironist worth something must have more than just his sense of irony. An Ironist worth something must be trying to reconcile with the world, says Kierkegaard. How do you reconcile with the world? – through something beyond irony, (at this point K says religion, but we can drop K here and choose something else.)

Ricky tweeted in response to the more generic left-wing criticism of his Golden Globes performance: “How the fuck can teasing the richest most privileged people in the world be considered right wing?”

The point is not (or shouldn’t be) that Ricky’s right-wing. (He’s not. He loves dogs.) The point is that he could be doing so much better, and that there is a big difference between using the money you make from art to bring about change after you’re finished at the podium, and using a platform you’re guaranteed to have anyway to bring about change from up at the podium. Sure, offence-taking culture is a problem. It’s just a suspiciously easy target compared to any other topic Ricky says he cares about.

You wouldn’t think it, but I actually enjoyed the Golden Globes. Or, I did while I was watching. The thing I guess I’m complaining about is the empty and hollow feeling Ricky’s performance left me with by the end… knowing he’ll be back next time for another Hollywood roasting. Socratic irony, when it’s done right, rips off the mask in such a way that it can’t be put back on. Ricky, for all his snowflake-bashing, is not of the Socratic school. Instead, his mode of irony is a postmodern one, ironically enough. Ricky’s postmodern irony says, if it says anything at all, that there is no mask to cut off. The Emperor basks in the limelight, safe in the knowledge that he knows that everybody else knows that he knows he has no clothes.

This diagnosis has been lifted from the best essay ever written on irony: David Foster Wallaces’ E Unibus Pluram. It is an essay written in 1997 about TV, how saturated the culture is with irony, and how irony, once a rebel’s weapon, has been co-opted by pop culture. “Irony tyrannizes us,” he writes. “All US irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying’.”¹

We know this to be true. We all know someone who finds it impossible to talk with earnestness or sincerity about personal things. Some lines in the sand can only be crossed if you let someone hold your hand, and some people just won’t let you hold theirs. The really sucky thing about this is that them being so lateral often makes you look like a pig for being so literal. It’s sad, because deflecting through in-jokes that are in fact everybody-jokes slowly empties a person. When you rely on them they don’t seem to make anything mean much… like unsatisfying ellipses… or Family Guy cutaways…

A: But I love my irony.

Q: Does it give you pleasure? 

A: A poor… A rather unsatisfactory. …

Q: The unavoidable tendency of everything particular to emphasise its own particularity.

A: Yes.

Q: You could interest yourself in these interesting machines. They’re hard to understand. They’re time consuming.

A: I dont like you.

Q: I sensed it. 

A: These imbecile questions…

Q: Inadequately answered….

A: …imbecile questions leading nowhere…

Q: The personal abuse continues.

A: …that voice, confident and shrill…

Q: (aside): He had given away his gaiety, and now has nothing.


¹ David Foster Wallace (DFW) is famous for having written Infinite Jest, a rather large and overly-complex novel. Some parts of Infinite Jest are perfect and needed. In fact, those moments are so good, so insightful, and so profound, that to write about what they conveyed here just wouldn’t be right, no matter how sticky that sounds. There are maybe three or two of these moments for me. I will not tell you where or what they are. You must find them for yourself and I hope that yours are different from mine, so we can tell each other about them later. I couldn’t find who, but it was either Kierkegaard or Schlegel who said that irony was the discovery of novelty in repetition, which means no wonder the fractals, no wonder the Hamlet. Infinite Jest makes irony somewhat more understandable I think. It talks a lot about the importance of incomprehensibility. How is it possible to speak comprehensibly about incomprehensibility? Write a one-thousand page monster about something else? Infinite Jest is a moral text, plain and simple. If it’s read as nothing but masterbation over abstraction, then you’ll miss its lessons, which it has in abundance. For example, Infinite Jest tells you not to get lost in closed-systems, for they are lonely. TV is one. Infinite Jest is another. Why am I watching (reading) all this shit? a curious reader or character is invited to ask. Is it ironic that I’m reading a footnote which reads like a receipt from the pharmacy? Or is it only meant to be ironic? What’s the difference? Once you finish it, the book I mean, you’ll have been led back to the beginning, arm in arm, to find out how it all ends, because oh my freaking DFW it does have an ending, a purpose, a connection, a something something between Hal and Gatley.

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