Forget shallow Bill Maher — Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert have the needed depth to attempt a reach at the deepest art/ontic of irony

http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=images+of+suffering+and+irony&qpvt=images+of+suffering+and+irony&FORM=IGRE#view=detail&id=789DBEDC6CC6C79108C0423E8EA95750F9DD13C6&selectedIndex=11

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http://www.salon.com/2011/11/04/what_happened_to_irony/

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Do you consider satirists and comedians like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert or Bill Maher to be ironists?

I make a big difference between these three.

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I put Colbert and Stewart on one side, and Maher on the other.

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Maher is more snarky. He’s sort of preaching to the converted. He’s asking people who already agree with him to laugh at people who don’t agree with him, and, in itself, it’s a group activity.

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I think there’s less of that certainly in Colbert, and I think in Stewart too. There’s more of an attempt to play with ironic moments – especially the whole persona of Colbert, which is hilarious. But when [Colbert] looks straight into the camera and says, “Nation,” on the one hand it’s a very funny routine and it’s mimetic. He’s imitating others, and we recognize the imitation, and we enjoy the mimesis, and it’s pleasurable, but when he does that, is there ever a moment when one is stung by the thought: Well, what would it be to be a nation? What would it be for us to be a polity that could be addressed? Underneath the very real humor – and I’m not saying it’s always arising – but there’s a possibility of actually getting shaken up about this.

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I think Stewart does this as well, pointing out, in a hilarious way, the various ways our leaders can be hypocritical.

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Again, we laugh at the humor, and he’s very good at it, but I think that in laughing at the humor there’s a possibility for that kind of a sting – what would it be to either have a leader or to be one? Or to take responsibility for our elected officials?

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For Colbert and Stewart, there’s a possibility for irony that I don’t much see in Maher.

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/jonathan-lears-case-for-irony/

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http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204612504576611200723685590.html

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To illustrate the meaning of irony in his “Poetics,” Aristotle chose the statue of Mitys, a man from Argos who had won a chariot race in the Olympic Games and who was later, for unknown reasons, murdered. As Aristotle tells it, Mitys’ murderer, having left the city, eventually journeyed back to view the stone monument to his victim, which then promptly toppled on him and killed him.

For most of us, the kind of misfortune that befell Mitys’ killer will jibe well with our understanding of irony. And so we are likely to scratch our heads at Jonathan Lear’s recommendation, in “A Case for Irony,” that we make episodes of irony central to our growth as human beings. Yet Mr. Lear explains himself and in the process offers a provocative case for leading an “ironic life.”

There are two basic types of irony, Mr. Lear informs us: situational and verbal. Situational irony, the kind exemplified by the tale of Mitys’ statue, relies on a contrast between what one expects to happen and what does happen. But not just any kind of contrast will do. Situational irony arises when one’s expectations lead to their own subversion. Mitys’ killer expected to come to Argos to preen before the statue of the man he had killed, and in doing so created the circumstance for his own death.

As for verbal irony, it relies on a contrast between what is said and what is meant. I might say, for example, that the president is doing “a mighty fine job” when I mean the opposite. Mr. Lear finds this understanding of verbal irony, which is indistinguishable from sarcasm, too superficial. Nor does he have much time for the tedious postmodernist take on verbal irony, according to which all meaning contains within itself, because of the instability of language, the seeds of its own subversion.

Mr. Lear instead offers a psychoanalytically tinged reworking of the whole ironic category. His understanding of verbal irony is illustrated in an old psychoanalytic joke. “Last night at dinner with my mother, I made a terrible Freudian slip,” a man tells his friend; “I meant to say ‘please pass the salt,’ but what I actually said was ‘you’ve ruined my life, you manipulative witch.’ ” Here the social convention normally surrounding what we say—that is, the need to be civilized—buries our true thoughts deep in our unconscious mind until one day they burst through. When this happens, Mr. Lear says, a moment of irony occurs. We realize that what we have been saying, perhaps for years, diverges from what we truly mean. Such ironic episodes are invaluable, Mr. Lear argues: Through them we come to know things about ourselves that we did not know before.

A Case for Irony

By Jonathan Lear (Harvard, 210 pages, $29.95)

Mr. Lear similarly reinterprets situational irony, the kind of irony where what happens diverges from what is expected. He offers the example of married “Ms. A” who—given what’s socially expected of married women—resolves not to ask her handsome friend Bruno out for a drink but then does so anyway. Here a social expectation leads to the opposite result, but not in the Mitys sense. It’s not as if Ms. A heads to the gym to avoid calling Bruno, runs into him there and winds up taking him out for a drink. It’s that the very expectation itself—married women do not invite single men to socialize tête-à-tête—causes a resentment to build up until Ms. A surprises herself by taking the opposite course. In the process, she gains a deeper understanding of the parts of herself that had been “cut off” by social rules and her own acquiescence in their logic.

For Mr. Lear, such moments of irony—whether they involve true meaning bursting through civilized surfaces or true desire erupting through social constraints—can be therapeutic. The more such episodes we can incorporate into our life, the more we will stay in touch with who we really are. It may seem as if Mr. Lear is simply applying the term “irony” to insights that Sigmund Freud discovered a century ago; indeed “A Case for Irony” includes commentaries by a few distinguished thinkers who, in different ways, say as much. And yet perhaps for that very reason, Mr. Lear helps us to gain perspective on the ways in which irony has since evolved.

Consider the tiresome verbal irony signaled by air quotes. A person might acknowledge himself to be (air quotes) “a Wall Street tycoon” or describe her new leopard-spotted rug as “the quintessence of awesomeness.” (Or think of Dave Eggers, who called his best-selling memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”) The idea is to show off one’s accomplishments and acquisitions but at the same time to mock them. Such verbal irony conveys two opposed meanings, serious and scoffing, as if we’re too cool to care much one way or the other.

Mr. Lear does not mention this current form of verbal irony. Nor does he touch on any new versions of situational irony. In her song “Ironic,” for example, Alanis Morissette croons that “it’s like rain on your wedding day . . . a traffic jam when you’re already late.” A few critics noted that there is nothing ironic in what she describes since none of it is truly unexpected. Rainy weddings and inopportune traffic jams happen all the time. What Ms. Morisette finds ironic, apparently, are situations in which her wishes are frustrated, not her expectations.

Irony today is thus a mixture of self-detachment and self-absorption: an unwillingness to take a stand and an eagerness to see the strange workings of fate in mere thwarted desire. By turning away from these forms, Mr. Lear performs a valuable service. He shows us just how far the contemporary usage of irony diverges from an older, far more appealing meaning, according to which irony is a portal to self-knowledge.

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http://commonwealmagazine.org/called-halt

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Ironic experience, for Lear, is indexed to our practical identities—our sense of ourselves as being such that we can put ourselves forward in this or that role—as a teacher, say, or a Christian or an American or a parent. Those practical identities are largely constituted by a sense that one knows how to go on with one’s role—knows the next steps in being such and such. I teach a class, and have some sense that I know how to; I instruct or cuddle or chastise my child with the same sense; I perform political speech as an American, similarly.

But these practical identities are not only a matter of know-how; they are also aspirational. They carry with them a sense that we have as yet more to learn about how to perform them. I am not the perfect parent or the perfect teacher, and my knowledge of how to go on as either carries with it an aspiration to improve. And not only that. Many of our practical identities contain moments of self-reflection: part (though a relatively small part) of what it is to be an American or a Christian is reflection on those identities, reflection that often includes puzzlement about what comes next.

All that, for Lear, belongs to the sphere of practical identity and the habitation of various available social roles. It is good and normal, but not enough for flourishing. Ironic experience, as it relates to any one of our practical identities—or to some range of them at once—is what moves these identities toward what they should be. It does so by radically disrupting practical knowledge: when it occurs, it has the form, “I now find myself utterly committed to going on with something that I have no idea whatever how to go on with.” Or, to put the same matter a little differently, the ironized practical identity is confronted by the unrealizability of its own aspiration, and so “in the ironic moment, I am called to a halt.” I don’t know how to go on; what to do next escapes me utterly.

Irony as Lear understands it is uncanny (we don’t know what to make of it); it is erotic (it calls us, with longing, to something whose shape we cannot see); and it breaks apart whichever practical identity it pertains to, showing the repertoire of that identity to be essentially inadequate to its own aspirations. Lear values ironic experience because it is a form of truthfulness and thus a form of self-knowledge. It shows us the incompleteness of our practical identities without providing a solution. It shows us something with which we must live, something that binds the fabric of our existence. Augustine knew this: mihi magna quaestio factus sum (“I am become a great question to myself”).

Lear thinks that ironic experience can be cultivated and integrated into a life. It need not bring us to a halt for good. He takes the example of Alcibiades’s Socrates, puzzle-struck for a whole night on the eve of battle, a man who, halted by ironic experience, does not know how to go on. But the same Socrates fights the next day, with bravery and dispatch. And Lear offers the following elegant formulation: “The practical knowledge that is human excellence contains a moment of ignorance internal to it.” Note the word “moment”: irony doesn’t have to paralyze us forever—we can go on—but those who live with irony now know their goings-on to be inadequate and opaque to their own purposes and aspirations.

Lear is interested in the psychoanalytic applications of this understanding of ironic experience. Those are what his second lecture is about (I’ve been writing here mostly about the first). I’m not the least interested in the psychoanalytic mode of thinking and practice. But I am interested in the uses of Lear’s analysis for Catholic theology, and these, I think, are real and important. Lear sees some of them himself, because of the place that Kierkegaard has as his interlocutor. It seems to me that the liturgy, especially the liturgy of the Mass, already represents an ironic understanding of what it performs—and that such an understanding is essential to the Christian life considered more broadly.

Consider, to take just one example, the non sum dignus said after the consecration. This is a deeply ironic moment. Something of great importance has just happened, and I, as a participant, am now about to be incorporated into it. But I am incapable of deploying concepts adequate to what has just happened; and, still more important, I am incapable of receiving the gift that is being given in the events now underway. That’s just what the non sum dignus means: saying it disrupts the form of activity to which it belongs and leaves me on my knees with no idea how to go on. And this moment is the heart of the Christian life here below: the identification of an aspiration that can neither be adequately understood nor acted upon in such a way as to realize it. This is the liturgical expression of Augustine’s discovery: “I am become a great question to myself.”

That, at least, is the grammar of the practical identity called being a Christian, and of its principal activity, which is worship. One can live that life and perform that activity non-ironically, but not without some loss.

Lear’s book provides intellectual pleasure of a very high order: its distinctions are careful, its prose lucid and elegant, and its examples suggestive and well chosen. It’s too bad he hasn’t thought more than he seems to have done about the extent to which a life ordered by the liturgy is and must be an ironic one, or about the place that irony ought have in the Christian life. But that is no reason to hesitate: you should read this book.

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2 Responses to Forget shallow Bill Maher — Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert have the needed depth to attempt a reach at the deepest art/ontic of irony

  1. Pingback: In praise of married couple Sista’ Clara and Herb Alvarez and Sista’ Clara’s Under His Wings Social Ministry | Curtis Narimatsu

  2. Pingback: topic: irony | Curtis Narimatsu

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