Irony and Superiority, High & Low Culture

"So back to high and popular culture. What happens in popular culture is that the audience is being flattered so that it will enjoy itself and come back for more of the same, that it will luxuriate in the cliches of storytelling. That is why popular culture works so hard at the self-aggrandizement of the audience while high culture, whatever its conventions, is recognized as such because of its levels of difficulty: that it attempts to engage the audience in an unanticipated irony if for no other reason than to demonstrate its seriousness."

Irony and sarcasm are used in everyday life to indicate that a person is in the know and in that way superior to someone not in the know. When I was a preteen I was a member of a stamp collectors club, none of us very knowledgeable about the hobby. One of our members sarcastically noted that a non stamp collector might take a stamp with a reverse postal mark because the stamp had been affixed upside down on an envelope as making it more valuable even though that happened all the time. My fellow stamp collector had immediately turned an insight he had just had into a criticism of people who had not had that insight. He had used sarcasm to establish his superiority. All people fall into that trap from time to time, most clearly and with much consequence when they turn limited knowledge about how government works into cynicism about the political system and so support whomever will overturn the idols.

Advertising regularly engages in irony to win over readers to its messages. A recent ad in the New York Times for Mount Sinai Hospital enhanced a testimonial by a patient named Susan, with the headline: “For Susan, Diamond-coated Arterial Cleaners are a Girl’s Best Friend”. This is clearly an allusion to the song “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”. The consumer of the ad is supposed to get the allusion or the idea that it is an allusion and so feel knowledgeable for having recognized it, that satisfaction supposedly transferring to Mount Sinai. An allusion is clearly a species of irony in that it points to something that is not there as a way to suggest a meaning.

For the most part, serious literature does not use the form of irony that points to the superiority of the person who invokes it as one of its forms of irony. Rather, it engages in the traditional forms of irony. There is dramatic irony in Pip thinking his benefactor is Lady Haversham when the reader thinks that it is probably the man Pip met on the marshes and that  his intersection with the Havershams is the great coincidence that shadows his life and which he finally decides to put behind him. There is even irony, what we might call “contrasting irony” in Dickens opening “Little Dorrit” with a description of how hot it is in Marseilles, most of the novel is set in the dank and darkness of London and the debtor’s prison. There is what we might call sentimental irony when Trollope closes the first section of “The Warden” with the simple announcement that the churchman’s daughter is in love with his great detractor. Jane Austen does not have her characters treat themselves as more knowledgeable than they are so as to show off their limitations. Mrs. Bennett is obsessed with getting her daughters married off well, but is not given to that pretension, even at the ball where she finds other ways to indicate that she is a fool. Perhaps Dickens comes closest to using popular irony when, in "Great Expectations", he has John Wemmick describe his home as different from his office, giving the two different names, but I take that to be a serious insight into the nature of the emerging bureaucratic society rather than just a self-glamorizing moment. And is clearly an irony when a person turns into a bug in Kafka because the meaning is that we all think of ourselves as bugs now and then.

Self-aggrandizing irony is, on the other hand, a prominent feature of popular culture. Cop and hospital television shows often start a series or a season with an orientation session for rookies and interns. There, a grizzled veteran will warn them just how demanding their jobs will be of their intellects, courage, and souls. The viewing audience is presumed to be willing to take the side of the veterans, already knowing from past series that this wisdom will be put to the test and justified episode after episode. The viewer, even if never having gone to college, is more sophisticated about the world than is the rookie or intern, and so appreciates the irony that what is predicted will come true. The same thing happens in the now almost defunct tradition of sketch comedy. The viewer knows just enough to identify the takeoff on “The Carol Burnett Show” as being about “Gone With the Wind” or “Streetcar Named Desire” whether or not they have ever seen the movie and so can get the irony of the sketch being an exaggeration of what the movie played as straight, and indeed the sketch is funny enough to stand on its own, the movie something the writers of the sketch worked off to get their own slapstick senses of humor going. People learn the news by seeing how “Saturday Night Live” lampoons it, imagining themselves to have known what a “Saturday Night Live” tells them, glimmerings of which they may have picked up from whatever sources they use for news. Alec Baldwin is parodying Donald Trump and did he really say something that outrageous or something like it? There are layers and layers here.

Why is there such a discrepancy between the way high and popular culture use irony? The answer to that question requires a more abstract consideration of the nature of irony, the inspiration for my discussion of the matter coming from Kierkegaard’s “The Concept of Irony”. Irony means putting a statement in a context which shifts the meaning of the statement, as happens when I say that all Presidents are legitimate--until now. So that means that the Trump Presidency has to be queried as to what are the things required to make a President legitimate, and so the meaning of “legitimate” has been made ironic, somehow not quite what it seems even if one does regard Trump as the legitimate President. It is similarly ironic to say that a wife is faithful in her fashion, opening the possibility that her fashion of being faithful is to be unfaithful. Everybody gets the joke, and irony is best digested as a joke. Literature is filled with irony, that part of its stable of effects, alternative and nuanced meanings available at every turn so that the experience of a good novel or play is to leave you with a sense of how complicated things are, how hard it is to pin down reality, even though somehow we go on, experiencing life in its multi-dimensionality, except, of course, for Hamlet, who does not seem able to live with the fact that his mother married his uncle and so has to come up with some explanation that he will treat as a fact to explain away the legitimacy of the marriage, an explanation that he will come to rely on, even though it is a product of the spirit world.

Now go beyond literature, as if there is such a thing, and consider any proposition at all. Every proposition is an assertion about reality, what really is. There may be any number of possible qualifications on the relation of an assertion to reality. Newton’s Laws are true with the proviso that they do not operate on the scale of Einstein’s Laws. So Einstein’s Laws can be said to be an irony on Newton’s Laws, though there is not very much that is funny in that irony, and so it seems best to regard Einstein’s Laws simply as a generalization which encompasses Newton’s Laws. Indeed, the genius of scientific discourse is that it stands beyond irony. Whatever the qualifications, a scientific principle is true for the matters it concerns, not caught up in a dialogue about what it really means. The qualifications of a scientific law are in principle capable of being built into the law itself rather than just an alternative meaning that exists alongside the straightforward meaning. That is the breathtaking leap beyond literature and conventional life that scientists are willing to make: into a world of declarative, uninflected sentences. Like a Catholic theologian, scientists say that what they say is true even if it does not exhaust the subject matter or what might be said about it. What is said is what is.

Now consider the character of such a proposition, one which provides no qualification. It just hangs out there in the ether surrounded by silence. But that silence might at any time be broken by an observation that acts as a context or a qualification for the proposition. So all propositions are always on the verge of being made ironic and there is nothing to be done about that except to suppress a person or a population in their contemplation from considering a “but” or some other qualification that makes the proposition something other than it seems to be. And so there is no avoiding the possibility of irony. We are thence embarked on a universe where irony provides unlimited mirrors stretching on to eternity whereby every fact is refracted slightly differently by the next mirror. This kind of irony is life enhancing because it increases possibility and stretches thought and makes every mind master of itself because the provision of an additional level of understanding is no farther away than the thinking of it. This process is what stokes the fire of humanist scholarship. Let us find another meaning for “Hamlet” or for Lucretius, whether from the text or from subsequent history, so that we can liberate ourselves by becoming more sophisticated. It is worth reconceiving an old text because that not only gives us the text afresh but also refreshes our sense of what can be done with thought, irony offered up as a way to make what now seems banal as if it were first come upon. It is doing the opposite of what a student I once had did when he said that “Macbeth” was boring because it was a compilation of cliches, never having thought that the play is where those now cliched phrases came from and that his job as reader might be to recapture a cliche as a fresh rendition of life.

Irony, on the other hand, is life diminishing when it is inturning, used merely for the enhancement of ego, which happens when cliches are praised for being cliches, the reader or conversation participant luxuriating in the fact that he or she knows only what he or she already knows. Socrates was wrong in thinking that education awakens you to what you already know; rather, education awakens you to what you do not know, to a new context, rather than reinforcing you in an old one, which is an irony, but not an enlightening one. Rather than a hall of endless mirrors, that kind of irony immerses a person in a self-enclosed gratification, a cocoon from which there might be no escape. Kierkegaard himself revelled in this second kind of irony by treating God, rather than his subjects, as the beneficiary of the self-reflecting glory, God made great by having people acknowledge that he is superior to them and not subject to them, but a creature who wants nothing else but the satisfaction of being worshipped, whatever he does, even if that is to order a subject to kill his own son. There is no getting around God’s need for self-regard, every act in life a shadowing or an irony on the fact that this is the doing of God rather than God’s creature. God finds ways to make himself wonderful, and Kierkegaard, in great fear for his own soul, wants to bask in God’s superiority so as to turn attention away from his own pathetic nature.

So back to high and popular culture. What happens in popular culture is that the audience is being flattered so that it will enjoy itself and come back for more of the same, that it will luxuriate in the cliches of storytelling. That is why popular culture works so hard at the self-aggrandizement of the audience while high culture, whatever its conventions, is recognized as such because of its levels of difficulty: that it attempts to engage the audience in an unanticipated irony if for no other reason than to demonstrate its seriousness. Not all paintings or novels are there just to be pleasing, however much it is also the case that artists also worry about how their productions will look in a living room and novelists worry about whether their stories move along quickly enough to engage the reader about what is going to happen next. Those are functions of art, not their meaning.