A Case for Irony (The Tanner Lectures on Human Values)
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In 2001, Vanity Fair declared that the Age of Irony was over. Joan Didion has lamented that the United States in the era of Barack Obama has become an "irony-free zone." Jonathan Lear in his 2006 book Radical Hope looked into America’s heart to ask how might we dispose ourselves if we came to feel our way of life was coming to an end. Here, he mobilizes a squad of philosophers and a psychoanalyst to once again forge a radical way forward, by arguing that no genuinely human life is possible without irony.
Becoming human should not be taken for granted, Lear writes. It is something we accomplish, something we get the hang of, and like Kierkegaard and Plato, Lear claims that irony is one of the essential tools we use to do this. For Lear and the participants in his Socratic dialogue, irony is not about being cool and detached like a player in a Woody Allen film. That, as Johannes Climacus, one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authors, puts it, “is something only assistant professors assume.” Instead, it is a renewed commitment to living seriously, to experiencing every disruption that shakes us out of our habitual ways of tuning out of life, with all its vicissitudes. While many over the centuries have argued differently, Lear claims that our feelings and desires tend toward order, a structure that irony shakes us into seeing. Lear’s exchanges with his interlocutors strengthen his claims, while his experiences as a practicing psychoanalyst bring an emotionally gripping dimension to what is at stake―the psychic costs and benefits of living with irony.
with commentary by Cora Diamondâ•–.â•–.â•–.â•–[et al.]. p. cm.—(The Tanner lectures on human values) Includes bibliographical references (p.â•…â•… ) and index. ISBN 978-0-674-06145-3 (alk. paper) 1. Irony.â•‡ I. Title. BH301.I7L43 2011 128—dc22â•…â•… 2011014608 For Gabriel, Sophia, and Sam Contents Preface ix Part One: The Lectures 1. To Become Human Does Not Come That Easily 2. Ironic Soul 3 42 Part Two: Commentary 3. Self-Constitution and Irony 75 by christine m.
options. I want to open up room for a plausible moral psychology that in allowing us to see how irony works will also legitimate ironic activity. Second, getting the proper psychology in view will require us to rethink what it is to be a unified self. The unity that is genuinely available to us is, I think, marked by disruption and division. This is not the well-known view that whatever psychic unity we achieve will always be vulnerable to disruption, but rather a view that whatever unity is
aspiring to an ideal that is more true, better, than any finite socially embedded conception. Thus if there is some part of us that naturally does such aspiring, then there is some part of us that is naturally oriented toward Â� and fulfilled in the real, the true, and the good. Plato’s accounts of psychological breakdown are astonishingly astute, but both Christine Korsgaard and Bernard Williams have argued that his positive account of how pretense-transcending aspiring occurs begs the
argued) be disrupted by ironic questioning, the result of [â•… 135â•… ] c o m m e n t a r y such questioning would be, not that one loses any sense that one knows what it is to inhabit that identity (as in Lear’s description of ironic disruption of the practical identity of teacher), but rather that one is thrown out of the sense that that is one’s practical identity. To suggest that my account of such identities resembles Socrates’ account of rhetoric at Gorgias 462–466 is to suggest two
of being human and yet embodied, in Athens, only by SocÂ� rates. I have tried to bring out in section 3 Tolstoy’s anxiety about becoming comme il faut. So far as the task of “becoming human” has been, for Tolstoy, identified with that of living as those do who are entitled to be members of smart society, anxiety about his ability to do so is the expression of what Lear describes as the insecurity about being human that is constitutive of being human. The idea I mentioned in section 3, of the