Irony and Irony about Irony

Irony, reflection, and dialectic are all practices that let us become aware of other possibilities.    They can be rhetorical — methods of speech — or methods of thinking, since thought is much like self-talk.

Start with irony.  If we respond to a judgment with an ironic “yeah, right!” we are pointing out that one could judge differently.  If the parent says “Now that you’ve graduated from college you will get a job and be happy.” the adolescent’s response “Yeah, right!” suggests other possibilities — that she won’t get a job, or won’t become happy, or that she might instead die in an automobile accident.

Pointing out possibilities can be bitter and critical but need not be.  It could be joyous.  If we have no money for Christmas and you say “Christmas is cancelled this year.” I can respond “It sure is” ironically, because I think there is another possibility — Christmas is not cancelled because, like the hoos in hoo-town we can have a great Christmas without presents, or because I have a lottery ticket in my pocket I haven’t told you about yet.  However, irony is often used in the service of critique because to suggest other possibilities suggests that the current arrangements might be bad, or at least sub-optimal.

Irony is part of a group of practices that make us aware of other possibilities.  Dialectic is another one — the practice of asking “why do you think that?”.  Reflection is a third one — the practice of taking our judgments or speech as itself a topic of judgment of speech (the metaphor is looking at the judgment and speech in a mirror).

These practices have twins that try to make us not talk about other possibilities that we all kind of know are there.   Sentimentality, hypocrisy, and bullshit are such practices but there are many of them. Unlike the possibility-pointing practices which try to make us aware these try to make us less aware (or pretend to be less aware) so they can be less explicit and conscious.  So simple self-distraction and changing the subject, as well as various forms of splitting and histrionic self-dramatization are part of the complicated modern human being’s tool kit.  People sometimes talk like the ironists are having a field day and the people who just want to get a job and have a family are cowering before them, but this is false;  the powers of the anti-ironic (ant anti-dialectic and anti-reflective) practices are, generally, much stronger.

If it is impossible for us to become aware of another possibility — e.g. we are dying of thirst and confronted with water — irony  and its related possibility-suggesting practices has no toe-hold with us.

It is possible to be ironic about irony.  So, suppose we are confronted with a person who is using irony mechanically.  Without even listening to what we say this reflexive ironist responds “Yeah, right.”  We can say “It’s great how you are using your ability to point out  possibilities” meaning there are other options than pointing out possibilities — in other words there are other possibilities than irony.

The higher order version of irony is irony about irony, about reflection, double reflection, about dialectic, just dialectic, since the possibility of talking about talking is baked into that notion.  These phrases I believe work for any sort of n+1 version of the practice.  In other words, I am pretty sure there is no important difference between being ironic about the possibility of irony, and being ironic about the possibility of being ironic about the possibility of irony.  But if I am wrong please let me know in the comments.


What Can Be Said About Eternal Happiness?


But concerning the eternal happiness nothing can be said except that it is the good which is to be attained by risking everything.
 (2009-05-28). Kierkegaard: Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) (p. 358). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.


Is it True that “Everything is True” just means “Nothing is True”?

Does “God is everything” mean “there is no God”?

Does “I love everyone” mean “I love no one”?

Does “It’s all good” mean “nothing is good”?

Maybe!  It could be that we only have words like “true”, “love”, and “God” to pick out certain situations or aspects of reality as worthy of trust, love, faith or worship.  If so that would mean that applying these words globally means nothing is worth picking out as especially worthy of these attitudes.

If this were true one of our requirements of a meaningful speech act is that it runs some risk.   That is, we want to say to the person talking about truth, if there is no chance you are wrong, don’t waste my time.  You need, as they say, to have skin in the game.  You need to run the risk of misleading me for me to bother even considering following you.



Jackie and the Suicide Ants

This is not something that actually happened, although something quite similar did.  As is my wont I have just changed all the names and concepts to different ones in order to protect the feelings of those involved:

There once was an attractive young woman named Jackie who had a good income and who had just graduated from college with excellent grades and recommendation letters and was living in a small apartment in Brooklyn.  She heard from her friend Joseph who was a contractor in Jersey City obsessed with THE PICATRIX that there was an apartment complex off the grid in the southeastern united states where the people were extremely artistically sensitive but were given to suicide.  She conceived a desire to learn more about these strange people and was able to find a hippie bus line that could take her there.  She discovered that these people lived at a very, very high level of sensitivity.  This sensitivity had a plus and a minus.  The plus was that they were able to express their intense feelings in beautiful poetry and essays which they published in an APA (amateur press association) zine.  The minus was that when something struck them as painful sometimes their only way out was suicide.

Jackie worried about how to take account of this strange apartment group given evolutionary biology.  How did they come to be?  She later learned that their mother (not biologically exactly) was a woman named Ilana Beverly.  Ilana Beverly deliberately brought about this state of heightened sensitivity in her “children” so as to explore paths of human flourishing that were hidden from most human beings by their unsensitivity.

“How could you do that?” said Jackie and that night they all committed suicide.

She became friends with Ilana Beverly (I don’t know if it was Platonic or not — I don’t have that kind of prurient interest in this story) and discussed the pluses and minuses of raising children who skate so close to the edge.  “It just doesn’t seem fair.” said Jackie.

“Great!” said Ilana Beverly.  “Now you made me feel guilty.”

MORAL:If somebody can make you feel guilty, it might be because you are.



I don’t need to tell readers here about Giambattista’s theory of cultural cycles, which is an important part of my emotional life and has helped me get through many a trying time of personal challenges.  To recap Vico believed that in the beginning of culture groups of human beings looked at metaphors as if they were actually real — they actually perceived the river as having a mouth.  During this time — which I think the Italian sage called “the age of giants” — groups lived in terror of each other, of nature and of the patriarchs of their clan, and enforced the norms of the community with terrifying punishments and supernatural sanctions.  As cultures progressed they passed to an age of prose from an age of poetry.  However ultimately the bonds of community necessary for a society’s survival could not survive this greater growth of self-consciousness.  A cultural period called “the barbarism of reflection” ensued, society collapses into roadwarrior-style chaos and then the whole thing begins again with a new group of patriarchal clans who viewed the world as poetry.

So I feel very much inclined to tell the story of a computer generation starship that is aware of Vico cycles and has to shepherd his crew of humans across the galaxy and oversees a series of Vico cycles.  The crew begin as modern, secular, skeptical scientists.  After a few generations they collapse in chaos.  A new religion of worshiping a patriarchal God springs up.  The religion has an enlightenment.  It collapses many, many, many more times.

When the earthmen arrive at the alien planet they are aware that “there is a Sky Thunder god who will punish you if you disobey him” and “there is truth that we need to understand to live our lives responsibly” mean exactly the same thing depending upon where they stand in the cycle.

They encounter a group of insects whose religion is a hypostasis of their relationship to the sentient fungus they live off of. Their cycles are different: for them the poetic and the literal are much closer.

The two species join together in a cosmic analog of love.

In the after-life the sentient robot meets God who is mildly disappointed in him.  “I was kind of hoping human beings would come to love me for myself”.  “I tried to do that” says the cycle-overseeing robot.  “Yes” says God” But I wish they had done that for themselves.  I feel like you helped too much.”  “I’m sorry.” says the robot.  “It’s okay.” says God.


History of the Future as Told by An Extremely Ethical Robot

Biological moral enhancements have led to a race of super-moral cyborgs overseeing the lives of pure human ethical corner cutters.  The internet of cells has given everybody a tumor that is modifiable according to downloadable information.  Most people use their tumor to create a talking pony named AMBROSE, a smaller proportion of the population modify their tumor into two twins named WIZ and WAZ who copulate and create a mystical insight into the world economy of cells with their orgasm for the benefit of the tumor-possessor, and a tiny group of outcasts live off the grid with no tumor at all.   When writing science fiction we have no choice but to look backwards for our models, because the yet-to-be-imagined is yet to be imagined, so I reflect upon how the Emperor Constantine gave the bishops of the early Christian church the right to use the empire’s system of roads to send their letters, and this edge in disseminating information soon transformed Christianity into the dominant ideology of the Mediterranean and, soon, all of Europe.  Consequently in this future society the ethical robot creates a beneficent tumor named ROGER LICKS and violates net neutrality so that the LICKS tumor penetrates at a faster speed than its competitors AMBROSE and the WIZ-WAZ twinship.   The story is narrated by the ethical robot centuries after the ROGER LICKS tumor achieved pre-eminence during a time that it is being challenged by the few rogue unmodified humans who are regarded by the LICKS HUMANOIDS as demons, witches, and monsters.  The ethical robot witnesses an auto-da-fe in which a WIZ-WAZ tumor humanoid has its tumor removed by a member of the Sacred Order of Information Technologists and feels intense guilt for what he did.  He tries to relieve his guilt by putting his deeds in writing and justifying himself to an imagined audience of early 21 c. humans.

Possibly a children’s book?


New Characters

Richard and Andrea a couple who have themselves legally reclassified as a single person.

Don a punk rocker who does not know what punk is or what rock is or what music is but is committed to punk rocking.

Andres-Sam a competitive pitier who is training for the Compassion Olympics.

Vice-Chatelaine Wong, a former member of Khmer royalty who now makes a living designing games and losing them.

Cradybor, a lich who lives in the copy room of a New York law firm and forces the lawyers to prosecute an ancient case using mind control.

Tim, a warlock who feels sad that he cannot satisfy the three witches in his coven.  Not sexually, not intellectually, not financially, not morally and not spiritually.

Mister Nolo Contendere, a man who has decided to stop fighting life.

Wendy, a fabulous composer of arabesques whose personal life is equally complicated.



The Identity of an Object: The Lion’s Mouth

When i was in graduate school I took a class on “Metaphysics” and one of the problems we considered was identity of an object over time.  If you have a deck of cards and swap one out every century, at what point does it become a different deck of cards?  After 1?  After 26?  After 52?     If you answer for example — “after 26” — you are faced with the puzzle that you could re-collect the 26 cards from the original deck that you swapped out and make a new deck which has every bit as much of a claim to being your first deck as the one in your hand from which you have been swapping cards.  And what about other things that upon reflection are collections of smaller parts?  What about a ship in which you swap out boards?  What about a house in which you swap out bricks?  What about a diamond from which you swap out atoms?

When I took my class I decided the question of identity at a time was too hard, because it relied on a harder, antecedent question: what is the identity of an object at a time?  What makes a deck of cards a single deck of cards rather than 52 cards?  If we don’t know the identity of an object at a time we surely don’t know the identity of an object as time passes.

Some of the authors I studied suggested that the important thing about being an object is physical continuity.  If there is a bunch of stuff that is all touching and is surrounded by a bunch of nothingness or of different stuff it’s an object and if not, not.   And some of these authors looked at brains and visual cortices and stuff to understand the underlying psychological architecture which conspired with a mute, undifferentiated universe to produce our perception of objects.

The problem with this example is a lion’s mouth.  The gaping mouth of a lion is not a bunch of stuff that is touching but you had best regard it as an object!  Or the lion will eat you.

This leads me to propose an alternative definition of an object which is, something is an object if and only if we ignore it at our peril.  If it promises the risk of weal or of woe it is an object, if not not.  So “communism” might be an object and a cloud, not, although a high pressure system might be an object.  An object is that which poses a risk, or a reward.

It’s a better definition I aver than the “continuous stuff” definition but it won’t wash..  Supposing that whenever a lion eats a human being it defecates out another being with golden skin and a melodious voice who is interested in constructing a just city state in Antarctica.

Is being eaten by a lion a risk or a reward?  To whom?

To answer that question requires answering the question: is the golden-skinned Antarctica utopian the same as the person who took his journey into the lion’s mouth or is he different.  If he is different then the lion’s mouth is a source of risk and thus an object.  If he is the same then he is a source of benefit and thus an object.  But as we vary the example of what comes out of the lion’s rectum we can come up with things that make us wonder whether that is the same person or a different person.  So the criterion of risk won’t work because it depends upon a criterion of personal identity.

Because a risk must be a risk to something or to somebody.  If there were no objects at all there would be no risk.




The “Trick” of Deadpan

I used to like a writing technique in which I would ruthlessly scrub out any sign of what my intention was.  Specifically I would remove any clues (of voice or mannerism or framing) that made it clear if what I was writing was intended to be serious or funny.  I thought it made the writing more beautiful if there was no hint of what its purpose was (like a smooth piece of wood found on the beach), and I thought it was more enjoyable for the reader as well, because it did that person the courtesy of allowing him or her to run the risk of laughing or not without an elbow to the ribs from me.  So if the reader laughed at something funny, when there was no clue that it was funny, it was a greater achievement, a bit like loving someone who does not ask to be loved.

As I wrote for shows aimed at a wider audience though I felt (and it was pointed out to me) that this dead-pan maneuver was potentially self-defeating.  “The Big Bang Theory” is filmed in front of a live studio audience.  If members of the audience don’t know when and if they are supposed to laugh, they by and large don’t.  So the deliberately enigmatic doesn’t play that well, at least in our multi-cam world.

I’ve decided that for art (or entertainment — is there a difference that’s not status- and snobbery-related?)  I don’t want to rely on the “trick” of deadpan.  I’ve decided that deadpan is not a sign of nobility; rather, it is just one technique among others.

That said, I wonder if there might not be a way of having it both ways.  Perhaps there is a way I can write something that lets most members of the audience in on the joke, but also has a couple of secret jokes for those who are able to get deadpan.  It would be a bit like a perfectly servicable comfortable hotel room that also has a secret door to a slide with an underground chamber in which there is a dark grotto within which lurks a Friendly Walrus.

I think I will start doing that, although if I do decide to though I will, perforce,  not let anybody know.


The Sentimental Shoggoth

Images of Wholeness in 1980s Jersey City: From Wonton to Das Alle

What You and Your Loved Ones Can Do To Avoid Unreliable Hadiths

Who Keeps Repeating the name of the Rose: An Umberto Echo

Use “Catafalque” in a Sentence: Julia Saw the Catafalque

That Canary is a Liar and he is telling me to Kill: Stories of a Texas Girlhood

From Jelly to Jam to Preserves and Back Again: My Life Among the Fruit Spreads

Whose Auroch and Other Extinct Bovine Mysteries

The Fetus Who Wouldn’t Stay Dead: A Little Wally Mystery

I’m Gonna Wotan Your Hide

The Three Bitches of Sacramento