German Idealism and its discontents

Tag: hegel

A Garment of Flesh: Kawabata’s Snow Country and the Allure of Myth

“Wasted Effort” and the Deeper Malaise

As we live our day-to-day lives, what drives us to make the decisions that we do? Regardless of whether or not we are conscious of why we make these decisions, there is an abundance of rhetoricity at work that moves us to action and forms the words in our mouths, often before we are even aware of their effect. These forces work on not just us but others as well, driving us apart and then together again like specks on ocean waves. Through what means do these effects manifest in our material circumstances, and what is the irrational source from which they are born?

In the 1948 novel Snow Country written by Yasunari Kawabata, a wealthy city dweller named Shimamura befriends the country geisha Komako and pursues an extramarital affair with her. The novel follows the laborious progression and slow unraveling of their relationship as it plays out in a small hot spring town, tucked away in the snowy mountains of Japan. Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that Shimamura initially pursues the geisha because she embodies his obsession with the tragic futility of relationships—or as he puts it, “wasted effort.”

Shimamura’s notion of wasted effort as a particular kind of tragic beauty is a motif that is often revisited in his ruminations on the farce of his affair with her and the immeasurable distance between them that resists closure. However, as I’ll explore in further detail later on, his obsession with wasted effort is really just a symptom of a deeper emptiness. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that he is motivated to overcome this emptiness, or impurity, by means of an unconsciously enacted myth of purity.

The Signification of Waste—The Myth of Purity

Shimamura projects fantasies of authentic love onto Komako as a way of coping with his obsession with waste. At one point, he ponders the local gossip that she chose to become a geisha to support her dying fiancee, which he chooses to believe. Thought the rumor proves untrue, his belief in it is further evidence that his cynicism is a sham. Indeed, at the end of the novel, Shimamura’s cynicism is stripped bare as the means of repression that it was all along: inspired by the sublime beauty of the Milky Way in the night sky, he realizes his smallness in the grand scheme of the universe, experiencing something akin to profound humility for the first time.

Part of the Chijimi cloth-making process—the cloth is “bleached” in drifts of snow.

However, this moment of transformation only occurs after Shimamura has further indulged in his obsession with wasted effort. Nothing more fully encapsulates this fixation more than the summer kimono he muses about toward the end of the novel. Bathed and “bleached” in snow in a kind of ritual cleansing, the Chijimi cloth used to weave the kimono is treated as a kind of totemic fetish that Shimamura regards as a waste of effort for a number of reasons.

First, he seems impressed by the amount of labor required to make an “authentic” Chijimi kimono—“the thread was spun in the snow, and the cloth woven in the snow, washed in the snow, and bleached in the snow.” All this work is done by young women, in a specific manner, and during specific months of the year. This laborious process comes off as a kind of purificatory gesture intended to imbue the kimono, a consumer product, with a sense of authenticity. Second, he is strangely attracted to the complete irrationality of his desire for the item in the first place, as there is no guarantee that such a kimono is truly authentic—a fact that seems to amuse him.   

In this way, the Chijimi kimono takes on the qualities of Roland Barthes’ version of the Saussurean signifier. In Barthesian thought, almost everything we can speak of or write about using language functions as text, since everything has a linguistic, symbolic function of signifying an abstract something-else. Barthes articulates this difference as the distinction between form and concept, which operate in tandem to generate signification. Signification, in turn, is the interplay between the form and the concept that leaves room for ambiguity. Most importantly, however, the signification of an object, concept, or person always has the potential to be transformed into myth.

Barthes’ distinction between the semiolotic and mythological orders of signification


“Myth is a type of speech,” Barthes writes in his essay “Myth Today,” albeit one that operates on a more abstract level than linguistics. Thus, Barthes works with a particular conception of myth, one far more ubiquitous and banal than the word’s usage in common parlance. Here there be dragons, and although they’re figurative instead of literal, Barthesian myths are just as elusive as the mythical beast. Because myth draws power from the ambiguity resulting from the constant alternation between the emptiness of form and the fullness of meaning, it gains a rhetorical capacity that would otherwise be unavailable to it. Returning to the novel, we can view the Chijimi kimono in Barthesian terms. The cloth itself is the empty form of the signifier, while the meaning—the somehow desirable “wasted effort” that Shimamura sees in it—constitutes the signified for him.

The slipperiness of the relation between the physical kimono and the abstraction of what it signifies is “read” as a sign, or signification. This signification is meaningful: utterly compelling in its implications of decadence and comfort, yet somehow impossible to put a finger on. Myth, an irrational force, seizes on this ambiguity, drawing power from it in order to take on a life of its own. By feeding upon the signification of decadent yet wasted effort in the kimono, the myth that governs Shimamura in his everyday living holds sway over his thoughts and actions while remaining invisible.

This governing myth is the myth of purity that I mentioned earlier. It is a myth dialectically opposed to Shimamura’s impurity, yes, but is also a motive that has pre-consciously arisen as the answer anticipated by this very impurity. What this means is that, for Shimamura, waste is analogous to impurity, which cannot exist without its wholesome counterpart, purity. Therefore, the myth of purity that drives his actions is simultaneously wholesome and unwholesome—a cycle of bliss and sorrow in which the former is nonetheless at the end of the novel discovered to be the master of the latter.


When a Kimono Is Not Just a Kimono

We can see the mythical effect that the kimono has on Shimamura in the following passage:

The thread of the grass-linen, finer than animal hair, is difficult to work except in the humidity of the snow, it is said, and the dark, cold season is therefore ideal for weaving. The ancients used to add that the way this product of the cold has of feeling cool to the skin in the hottest weather is a play of the principles of light and darkness. This Komako too, who had so fastened herself to him, seemed at center cool, and the remarkable, concentrated warmth was for that fact all the more touching.

Threads being woven into Chijimi cloth

The fact that Shimamura’s governing myth of purity is invoked in terms of a garment is significant for specific reasons. However, a more general takeaway is that myth always appears in seemingly innocuous forms. The kimono is not just a kimono, but rather host to a myth buried deep at its center—coiled and interwoven within the materiality of form, yet powerful and resourceful. Indeed, once we realize a given myth as such (this is not to say “false” or “untrue,” but rather “hard to pin down and yet tangible, potent, and hyperreal”), much of its immediacy fades away momentarily. This is what happens when we experience a temporary lapse of faith in an institution, system, philosophy, religion, etc. The rhetorical appeal of myth sometimes falters when we recognize the emptiness of its form, yet myth always regains its footing due to its own ineffability and the ambiguity of language.

Indeed, as Barthes writes, “Myth is a value, truth is no guarantee for it; nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi….” Myth is many things, but above all it is an alibi—a scapegoat. When the meaning of life feels strained, we look to our myths to save us, just as Shimamura does with his myth of purity, albeit unwittingly and indirectly.

I’ll get to the particular significance of the myth taking up residence in the Chijimi kimono momentarily. First, it’s critical to note a few things. The individual myths that suffuse our individual lives appear to have, within them, the inscrutable power to contain the very motives of the “principles of light and darkness”—the seeming essence of things—that Kawabata writes about in the above passage from Snow Country. Yet the very thing that myths draw their power from—meaning—is depleted by the forms in which they present themselves to us.


The Naked Subject and the Garment of Identification

This is a side effect of language, which 20th-century rhetorician Kenneth Burke observes to be the reason for why we function as symbol-using and -misusing animals. By putting things into words—by acknowledging their textuality—we simultaneously open and close doors of possible meaning. Indeed, as Burke writes in Permanence and Change, “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.” By buying into myths, which is something we all do, we close off, regulate, and deplete meaning. Not only that, but myth also has the uncanny power to naturalize phenomena, causing us to fall into a type of essentialism that can be harmful and burdensome—e.g., Shimamura’s defeatist worldview concerning the possibility of authentic love.

Not only are we cursed with this burden of ambiguity, which is instituted by language and our human tendency toward irrationality, but according to Burke, the core of the human subject is empty at birth. This is essentially a Freudian position, but Burke uses it as a point of departure to develop his concept of identification. Identification serves as another building block of myth, albeit one that expands beyond semiotics and signification to underscore myth’s sociologico-rhetorical function.

Identification is a deceptively simple concept that can be tough to make sense of, so here’s a loose definition by way of example: all of the identifications we make in life—whether with the parents that raise us, the friends we make, the products we buy, the work we perform, the hobbies we pursue, the politics we engage in, the religion we adhere to, etc.—are attempts to “clothe” the naked emptiness at the core of our subjectivity. Borrowing from the philosopher Thomas Carlyle, Burke writes the following on this subject:

For round a man’s “mysterious ME,” “there lies, under all those wool rags, a Garment of Flesh (or of Senses), contextured in the Loom of Heaven….”

Although this passage initially seems enigmatic, it can be decoded if we attend to a passage from Snow Country:

[Shimamura] was conscious of an emptiness that made him see Komako’s life as beautiful but wasted, even though he himself was the object of her love.

The “emptiness” that Kawabata references here corresponds with the “mysterious me” that Burke and Carlyle draw upon. It is therefore evident that Shimamura is likely in great part motivated to pursue a relationship with Komako not for the purpose of pure escapism, but in order to try to fill the emptiness inside himself with an excess of “wasted effort.” Obviously, this is a futile kind of behavior. However, for the majority of the novel, Shimamura ironically pursues his myth of purity by attempting to exorcise the emptiness inside himself with impurity, perhaps as a form of catharsis mingled with masochism—basically, atonement. Still, it holds that this impurity manifests in forms that are rhetorically and sensually appealing—i.e., having an extramarital affair with a young geisha, hiking up snowy mountains in a pastoral locale, purchasing expensive kimonos crafted with an absurd inefficiency, and so on—so Shimamura finds its allure almost impossible to resist.

Returning to the passage from Burke, we should next examine the “Garment of Flesh” woven by the “Loom of Heaven.” What Burke seems to be alluding to is the idea that we “wear” the identifications that exist between ourselves and other subjects and objects in the world—that we “put them on” and carry them with us. Referring back to the passage from Snow Country, we can see this occurring with Shimamura when he muses about how Komako seemed to have “fastened herself to him.” Just as he depends on Komako to shield him from the emptiness inside him, so does she use him as a cloak for a similar function.

We can view the “Loom of Heaven” in Burke’s analogy as the prehistoric birth of humanity, whether by pure chance or intelligent design. However, it can also be read as the originary purity that we struggle all our lives to reattain. When Shimamura experiences a kind of mono no aware at the end of the novel, gazing up into the vast womb of the Milky Way, it is that purity that he finally experiences for the first time, after only glimpsing it earlier in the laborious process of “purification” that goes into a simple summer kimono.

The Milky Way Galaxy


Overtaking Myth

In light of all this explication of semiotics, myth, and identification, the Chijimi kimono is perhaps best viewed as the signifier for Shimamura’s governing myth of purity. Rationally, he has tried to convince himself that purity and authenticity in human relationships are impossible. This explains his cynicism and “occupation” as a dilettante—he sees the pursuit of authenticity as wasted effort. Irrationally, however, he continues to “waste” effort by pursuing Komako, as well as desiring the Chijimi cloth and other excess and finery.

So, whether Shimamura realizes it or not, his obsession with wasted effort signifies his impulse to gravitate toward a myth of purity. The quietude of the snow country, the noble and lonely geisha, the revitalizing hot springs, the sublimity of the pastoral landscape, the cool Chijimi cloth bleached in snow, and so on all point toward this governing myth. Even so, that purity is the primary myth around which Shimamura organizes his life remains unidentified by him, even at the end of the novel.

This, I think, is the main takeaway from Snow Country, and also discourse on myth in general: myths are deceptive and elusive, and we will always fail to fully identify or understand them because of this. They can persuade us to do things in the heat of the moment, appear to be a natural part of the “order of things,” and are composed of an entanglement of both Light and Darkness. Not all myths are created equally however; in some, purity dominates impurity, while in others the opposite may be true. Therefore, it is up to us to be mindful of the multiplicitous myths that are always there to guide us, because if they remain unexamined, then it is them that we end up serving instead of the best interests we share with one another.

But what are these vaguely invoked best interests, exactly? They’re too much to satisfactorily expound on here, so maybe I’ll try to draw out some specifics in a later post. For now,  think about the proliferation of the Golden Rule throughout time, and how the Rule itself has escaped the confines of any one place, ideology, or religion, transcending the contemporary moment to become a transhistorical, transcultural ideal. This ideal that exists outside the bounds of any single system of ethics or morality is precisely the kind of metaphysical foundation in whose direction we should look, so we can attempt to find better myths.


Kenneth Burke and the Rhetoric of Economics


Deidre (then Donald) McCloskey’s “rhetoric of economics” movement was one of the most important, yet least celebrated developments in the field during the 20th century. Perhaps an even greater benefit is that it comes from a former University of Chicago economist. The idea that such an “establishment” school of economics, much less the one that produced Milton Friedman, could conceive of a non-monetarist, humanistic development in economics could conceivably lend more credibility to the movement. However, the movement seems to have lost steam due to resistance from the economic establishment. McCloskey’s critique, while important, doesn’t come close to addressing what we’ll call “the economics problem” of mathematicization, marketization, and synthetic commodification.

However, two contemporary issues problematize mathematicized economics. First, and unforgettably, the 2008 financial crisis revealed structural issues in the economy that had existed since Reagan and remain today: the mystification of the importance of monetary policy at the dawn of the postindustrial economy rent asunder the institutions (namely labor unions and information/education gaps) that play disproportionately large roles in the economy but cannot be harnessed for capital. Second, and with tremendous respect to Thomas Piketty, who argues this wonderfully in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, when rates of return on capital outpace economic growth rates over long periods of time, inequality of both income and wealth will increase. This is obviously a problem for the physical and material conditions of the world, as there is no viable, non-extractionary option to eradicate poverty globally if the United States renders itself functionless due to its own economic cannibalism. The absence of any metaphysics for economics renders this problematic academically, as well. The ruling ideology for economics casts out any non-market-oriented research that wouldn’t be publishable at Brookings or the American Enterprise Institute. Thus, a reworking of McCloskey’s critique that is informed by Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives is necessary. With such a critique, the underlying principle of economics is revealed to be not an abstraction such as the autonomous invisible hand of the market; rather, it is one of politics and rhetoric.

The Paradox of Substance, Rhetorical Identification, and the Subject:

When President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, in front of the Nobel committee, foreign dignitaries, and royal heads of state, he made a speech in which he invoked one of the most seemingly obvious, yet often overlooked traits of mankind:

War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease—the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences

Though well-read and surely more literary than his predecessor, the president (likely) unknowingly acknowledged what rhetorical theorist and literary critic Kenneth Burke put forward in his landmark treatise on rhetoric, A Rhetoric of Motives (1950): that humankind exists in a fundamentally divided, or contradictory, state. Such an observation reminds his audience that despite the better judgments of liberal enlightenment philosophers, parliamentary bodies, and his own Hegelian tendencies, to be human is to be at war.

At the core of the subject, the very thing which makes it what it is, is the very thing which makes it what it isn’t. This is what Burke, critiquing John Locke, refers to as the “paradox of substance”. If, etymologically, substance derives its origins from an Indo-Germanic tradition indicating “a concept of place, or placement,” and out of this, he argues, has arisen “a family comprising such members as: consist, constancy, constitution, contrast, destiny, ecstasy, existence, hypostatize, obstacle, stage, state, status, statute, stead, subsist, and system…[then] one could build a whole philosophic universe tracking down the ramifications of this one root.” There lies a pun, he notes, foreshadowed by the prefix sub-, denoting that which supports the thing, stands underneath it, or provides a foundation for it, but by its very existence is not the “thing itself”—to put it in Kantian terms.

Extrapolating from this, we can see how the process of identification—Burke’s precondition for rhetoric to unfold—is in fact the precondition for history, politics, and economics to unfold. By identifying, the subject asserts itself to have the general nature, be like—or be—a thing. Burke’s example of this is the “shepherd qua shepherd,” an example in which the shepherd, acting as a shepherd does, looks after and protects his sheep to keep them from harm. However, by the very act of doing so, or the very act of shepherding, he is preparing those same sheep for the slaughter. Language, being the way we materialize and conceptualize our thoughts and instincts, cannot prevent us from being contradicted within ourselves. Thus, we are in a state of logomachy, or a “war of words,” at all times.

Homo economicus as homo dialecticus:

So what has this to do with economics? If we take the point of departure for economics as the principle of scarcity, and how the subject interacts with society in a world of scarce resources, this presents us with an opening for a new, more primordial, and more complete understanding of the “rhetoric of economics”. The failure of homo economicus, or “the rational actor,” to act rationally provides a justification for rethinking the entire foundations for economics. By electing Donald Trump, by assuming the United States housing market will maintain its present value despite the institutional changes informing the market growth, by engaging in a 50+ year nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, and by going to war—as Obama notes—since “the dawn of history,” we have no reason to assume the corrective function of the market or the supremacy of homo economicus as the subject on which to model our theories. Despite what we want to believe, there will always be a global community of fundamentally divided people, otherwise known as homo dialecticus, and this division must work itself out.

Hegel’s dialectic notes that there is always a contradiction that resolves itself. Every thesis is negated, by antithesis, so to be sure, Burke is operating within a Hegelian framework. This same principle works socially because a group of subjects at war with themselves will be at war with each other, by identifying, taking different rhetorical positions, et cetera. In economics, as in politics, any move forward will be followed by the same process of “tarrying with the negative.” Obama’s mention of war in his acceptance speech reveals what is essentially a meta-rhetorical stance. He’s critiquing war as something inherent to society, but by implying a possible moral stance, he is hoping to move forward to a postwar world. He’s hoping—although perhaps not in so many words—to progress through Hegel’s dialectical process to a state of world spirit, absolute knowing, or the end of history (Hegel basically refers—somewhat confusingly—to the completion of the dialectic as all of these things).

Such a tautology is tempting, and Burke understands this. His dialectic, although certainly informed by Hegel’s, has no predetermined completion. Similar to Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s argument in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) stating that Hegel’s “negation” in the dialectic reduces tragedy to something predetermined and necessary, he observes that rhetoricians engaged in a war of words have the potential to cause unprecedented levels of destruction. Burke is writing the two works mentioned here, A Grammar of Motives and A Rhetoric of Motives, in the aftermath of the Second World War and the dawn of the Cold War. In Rhetoric, he critiques Hegel’s notion/thing itself dyad as consistent with “myth” and “ideology”. Myth in Burke’s terms consists of the non-conscious justifications an interlocutor makes to justify their actions in the “war of words,” and an ideology is the socio-cultural materialization of such a myth. In the rhetoric of economics, we find that economics itself is the myth. It’s a way for people competing with one another in a rhetorical conquest to justify their “rational self interest”, and the ideology in the West, is capitalism. For Hegel, his entire German Idealist philosophical project could be considered his ideology. His myth is the myth of the teleological completion of the world spirit—a thinly veiled philosophical take on Christian theological telos. But what Burke stresses is that it isn’t predetermined. It isn’t a tautology.

The tautology of economic liberalism that the market will work itself out and come to an equilibrium over time is surprisingly less liberal than glaringly Hegelian, but it is also rhetorical. After all, what is a market at its core but a group of subjects negotiating prices of scarce goods and resources with one another? But such equilibrium is also inherently destructive. When market participants fail to act rationally, which they undoubtedly will do, the cost is material. Not only is the wealth of the already-wealthy lost, but those whose labor and intellectual property are exploited to accumulate capital at the expense of wage growth end up with their livelihoods destroyed in the process, as seen in 2008. (We will not get into Marx now, but future posts will address this, to be sure.)

In the Burkean rhetorical dialectic, the telos is complete when the interlocutors reach what he refers to as higher or ultimate terms of engagement. He describes this in Part III of  Rhetoric. What this means is that these terms are reached through a rhetorical procession, or as he says:

in a hierarchy, or sequence, or evaluative series, so that, in some way, we went by a fixed and reasoned progression from one of these to another, the members of the entire group being arranged developmentally with relation to one another. The “ultimate” order of terms would thus differ essentially from the “dialectical”…in that there would be a “guiding idea” or “unitary principle” behind the diversity of voices.

Burke’s dialectical terms amount to a series of demands at the lower range of the hierarchy onward. But what remains distinct from Hegel about the procession to ultimate terms is that it isn’t a guaranteed result. It leaves open the potential for actors to do things that are incredibly irrational, for institutions to leverage their asymmetric power and information to tilt the result, and for both the myth to be taken to the extent that instead of teleological market equilibrium, the other side of the telos is reached, and the market fails. Consider the following anecdote about the 2008–2009 global financial crisis, the effects of which are still felt today.

Homo dialecticus and market failure:

Under the liberal assumption of the properly functioning market, lenders don’t lend to non-creditworthy borrowers, because under economic orthodoxy, that is irrational in that it is more likely than not that a risky borrower will be unable to repay said loan. However, the governments of Clinton and Bush implemented policies intended to make home ownership more inclusive. Thus, mortgages became available to people who lacked sufficient credit to receive them before. With the dawn of the aforementioned financialization of the 80s and 90s and its cousin, securitization, mortgages—both good and bad—were no longer held on the books of the lenders. They were sold to investment firms that turned such mortgages into collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs—intended to spread the risk around in various tranches. High-credit mortgages were combined with “subprime,” or low-credit mortgages (itself a financial paradox) and sold on secondary derivatives markets. Eventually, the chickens came home to roost and borrowers defaulted en masse; however, because there were fewer high-credit mortgages to go around, the CDOs were supplied with disproportionate numbers of low-credit mortgages that were being granted—but they were not rated as such by the ratings agencies, thus deceiving other economic actors in their risk management practices. These secondary derivatives markets became troubled by the securities to which these defaulted mortgages were tied, and soon enough the governments, insurance companies, pension funds, banks, and businesses that had invested in them became susceptible. We all know the aftermath.

The answer to why this happened lies in the rhetorical condition in which economics is practiced. Politics, the rhetorical activity par excellence, dictated that Clinton and Bush implemented such a risky but politically rewarding mortgage policy. While well-intentioned, it was by definition irrational because the risk outweighed the reward. The inclusive lending, especially under Bush, lent itself to predatory lending practices by companies such as Countrywide and IndyMac. Now, the reverse argument of this is the typically conservative argument of caveat emptor, but such an argument fails on its face because of the rhetorical implications within economics. Through specialization, we rely on people who are supposed to have our best interests at heart. In many cases, we have ethics laws that dictate this. This is the rhetoric of economics at its most manifest level because specialization is, essentially, an ethos-based argument, but even the core of lending practice in general is itself rhetorical: the rhetorical subject is engaged in what amounts to a debate between giving someone money in exchange for a promise to repay it. What obscures the rhetoricity here is the asymmetric information level and socioeconomic power of the lender leveraged against the bare precarity of the borrower. This problematizes the “free” market narrative, and is fundamental in disguising the fact that, beneath economic jargon, the lender, in the very act of offering a loan and growing the economy on the microcosmic level, provides the very means for defaulting on a loan and economic collapse. One might argue with this conclusion, yet it has repeated itself since the dawn of capitalism. It brings to mind the scene at the end of the film, Margin Call, where Jeremy Irons’ character lists every major economic collapse since the Dutch tulip bubble, chalking it up to “it’s just money. It’s made up.” Extrapolating from this, the same thing occurs at the policy level and on Wall Street on the trading level. The flaw in financialization was the confidence in placing the most crisis-prone sector at the heart of the economy.


What remains is a question that is far from positivistic—indeed, it is ideological: why do we assume our economy operates autonomously, to be explained away by math? Such an assumption rests on a false assumption of its own, that economic actors are acting rationally, when in fact such “rational” action is itself irrational—inherently so. It benefits those in power to rely on such assumptions when making policy in both the private and public sectors. By obscuring the rhetoricity on which economics, if not all human action, is premised, the capital accumulation and power leveraged thereof will continue and more disregard for the victims who suffer most from economic crises—the poor—will continue to be chalked up to market adjustment.


Beyond Simple Irony

I’ve heard it said many times in recent memory: irony is cynical, destructive, and dangerous. This negative perception of irony as a destructive force is also regularly cast as a primarily postmodern issue. The cyclical pattern of this fear indicates a shunning of nonbinary worldviews that manifests regularly due to ideological impatience. (Here, I’m not using ideology as a whipping boy. We’ve all got it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing so much as a thing that’s simply here to stay, and whose worst tendencies toward scapegoating and violence should be actively avoided like the plague.)

Just like the dialectical opposition between the political Left and Right, irony is often seen as a pure contrast to sincerity. Sincerity, in turn, is cast as a direct, purposive means of achieving change within a community, nation, or other sociopolitical body. It is also frequently seen as the only real means of remaining beholden to Truth in a world swirling with the dark profusion of the Lie.

However, to blame irony for a lack of sincerity is commit two errors at one stroke. First, and perhaps most grievously, it is to mistakenly conflate postmodernism with relativist nihilism. Second, it is to dyslogistically pigeonhole irony as a concept with purely cynical intentions. Both of these errors detract from the ability to move beyond simple, or mere, irony and go on to understand irony as more of a tool that can instigate harmful or helpful attitudinal shifts, depending on how it’s used.

In regard to the first error I mentioned, I think it’s fair to concede that postmodernism at least gets a bad rap for honest reasons. After all, innumerable definitions are thrust so carelessly upon it that it often is brought to its knees, unable to sustain the conflicting expectations simultaneously thrust upon it. That said, I’d like to temper the more negative definitions of postmodernism for the sake of dialectical movement. So: let’s toss another definition onto the pile, shall we?

On its face, postmodernism is a playful reaction to the stone-faced seriousness of modernism, with all its post-realism, post-Enlightenment holdovers pertaining to an over-reliance on science. This modernist over-reliance typically manifests itself in positivism and logocentrism. These are viewpoints that have the tendency to oversimplify the material and metaphysical conditions of the world, and postmodernism seeks to “out” these tendencies for transparency’s sake. Indeed, postmodernism also seeks to acknowledge our irrational, passionate dispositions as a fundamental part of our human subjectivity: we are rational animals, yes, but irrationality in the forms of both hatred and empathy still lingers.

Postmodernism, like its predecessors, is a transdisciplinary movement. As such, it feeds into philosophy, art, literature, and so on. In doing so, it seeks to play with the modernist reliance on innovation and logic, which postmodernism views as inadequate (in itself) in approaching what G.W.F. Hegel calls “the end of history.” Now, for the purpose of moving beyond simple irony, it’s not necessary to draw out precisely what the end of history entails. In order to understand irony as a tool with a multiplicity of uses, it will suffice to view the end of history as a theoretical point of sociocultural equilibrium, after which human society will more or less remain constant. Basically, it’s up to us as human subjects to move, behave, and communicate in such ways as to ensure that the end of history is a positive one. Coming to understand irony as a multifaceted tool is critical in this.

Let’s move on to the second of the two errors often committed when speaking of irony: the dyslogistic treatment of irony. In this, irony is scapegoated as an insincerity that stands in opposition to sincerity and capital-T Truth. This pessimistic view need not be the case. Indeed, on its most basic level, irony is a grammatical vessel to be filled with a message, and the accompanying attitude of irony does not in itself signify insincerity. One can be entirely sincere in one’s condemnation of, say, a political regime and yet present their message using the mechanism of irony.

To illustrate how this can happen, I’ll briefly call upon Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte to lay out how irony can be used to move us toward a more positive end of history. In his essay, Marx addends Hegel, writing the following:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Here, Marx is of course referring to the campaigns of domination undertaken by both Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew, Napoleon III. While Napoleon I was able to bring a degree of order and stability to a traumatized France following the French Revolution, his jingoistic policies and murderous land-grabs pushed him well into sociopath territory. With the similar reign of Napoleon III, we are left to perhaps naively, yet understandably, question the value of historical studies. If we cannot demonstrably learn anything from history, then what can we do to resist when it inevitably repeats itself?

Irony has a part in this resistance of farce. To continue with Marx’s example of Napoleon, let’s take a quick look at this famous political cartoon by James Gillray, The Plumb Pudding in Danger (~1818):

The Plumb Pudding in Danger by James Gillray, ~1818

Here, irony plays an indelible role in making the cartoonist’s point. The visual rhetoric of the image converts the all-too-real atrocities of Napoleon’s regime to a far more innocuous set of tropes. For example, Napoleon’s oft-lampooned stature translates to a sense of childishness that is reinforced by the activity he engages in: feverishly carving up a plum pudding representative of the entire world. Ironically, the effect is that a brutal dictator take on the form of a greedy child, and the world in all its grandeur and complexity a mere after-dinner dessert.

Is this manner of portrayal intended to make light of real atrocities? Clearly not. The irony of the scene is supposed to make the viewer loathe Napoleon all the more, not sympathize with the trace of innocent frivolity evoked by his childlike form. Here, irony encourages the recipients of the cartoon’s visual rhetoric to criticize characteristics of despotism—to resist history from returning to its own vomit, farce, by moving dialectically in the opposite direction.

This is the appeal of satire, which draws much of its strength from the subversive capabilities of irony, which in turn “tarries with the negative” (Hegel’s terminology) to advance toward the end of history. Irony—and satire by extension—explain the enduring appeal of this cartoon in particular, as well as political cartoons in general. Now, direct, unironic usage of the indicative grammatical mood has its place as a fundamental basis of argumentation and everyday speech. I’m not suggesting that ironic modes of communication should, or even can, supplant this condition. What I am claiming is simply that irony can be a rhetorically powerful way of leading others toward an understanding of a particular opinion, perspective, or what one holds to be Truth— but only if we let it.

It may seem silly to consider that someone could mistake the simple political cartoon above for an earnest, de facto representation of reality. However, when one distances oneself—whether by one’s political, social, ideological, or religious affinities—from the context of specific rhetorical engagements in the perplexity of wider communicative circumferences, that is a very real risk. Irony is grounded by context. Trite as it may sound, context is key. To what? Discerning the playful earnestness of irony from the more straight-faced variety. And understanding the difference between those is key to discerning rhetorical intent. And so on. In light of this, let’s not leave “simple” irony by the wayside. Instead, let’s pick it up, brush off its dingy accoutrements, and behold it with something at least closer to appreciation for the fullness of its rhetorical capacity.


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