Disappointment with a year of Obama prompts artist Tyler Coburn to reflect on the disappearance of irony in the political area, and society as a whole.
The wait is over. At long, anxiety-ridden last, the figurative other shoe has dropped, and with it the expectations that kept many in the nation afloat for the past year – tethered as they were to deadlines issued, in no uncertain terms, from the captain of the ship. If we take advice from the nigh-ubiquitous political-media complex – considering, soberly, a remark presidential historian Richard Norton Smith made about its increasing authority over the bully pulpit (quoted in Sunday’s New York Times, natch) – then we as a nation should register some emotion on the continuum from disappointment to outrage at President Obama’s ‘broken vows’ and ‘promises not kept’: failing to close Guantánamo within a year of his inauguration, for example, or to pass a universal health-care bill by a now repeatedly deferred date. That the press is writing this up as a romantic drama is no surprise, and added to the customary thrill of the broadsheet scandal is the satisfaction that we, American citizens, are the jilted lovers, and Barack, the jilt! Yet every betrayal has, as its predicate, a sentiment of the name or intensity of love; the surprise may be to find either such feeling stirring at a terminal stage of American political legitimacy.
No less a cultural maven than Joan Didion was on hand, days after Barack’s election, to deliver the diagnosis. Speaking as part of a symposium at the New York Public Library, Didion surveyed the naïve enthusiasm cropping up in response to the president-elect, glossed, in part, as a ‘generational thing’ (‘only the very young were decreed capable of truly appreciating the candidate’) and more troubling still as an uninformed reclamation of 1960s Leftist ideology. ‘We are gearing up for another close encounter with militant idealism,’ Didion warned, ‘by which I mean the convenient but dangerous redefinition of political or pragmatic questions as moral questions.’ And to underscore the tactical antidote here given the slight, Didion concluded by characterizing the emerging nation as an ‘irony-free zone’.
A fellow discussant would, at this point, have been welcome to lean over and inform Ms. Didion that not only was irony given a swift death by not the Left but the Right, in a campaign spanning the 1999 publication of Jedediah Purdy’s For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today to the bilious journalism that followed September 11th, but that its demise numbered as the only significant military victory (if we count militant rhetoric) of Bush-era neoconservatives. The points were painted broadly and expressively: while we ironists are products of an impoverished political and moral ecology stretching back to 1974, per Purdy, growing up to ‘never see the government undertake a large-scale project other than highway maintenance and small wars’ (nor, according to Time columnist Roger Rosenblatt, experiencing anything approaching ‘tragedy’ or ‘evil’), and have since sapped life with our self-awareness, ‘perpetual suspicion’ and media-savvy referentialism, September 11th arrived with the perceived force of a moral reprimand that a range of variably jingoistic and hypocritical writers elected to shove down our smug cake-holes.
Nevermind the modes of irony delineated, in Merold Westphal’s writing on Kierkegaard, including the superficial romantic irony of the sophists (a ‘critique of idolatry’ that ‘is but the disguise of an aestheticism beyond good and evil’) and speculative, critical Socratic irony (‘by showing the real to not be the ideal, by disclosing how the real has acculturated or habituated into its subjects a premise of self-ideality’); nor the distinction journalist David Beers has made between the ‘low-grade irony’, the ‘severe ironic detachment’ that Purdy targets, and his prescribed method of ‘Ironic Engagement’, which, he contends – with a nod to war historian Paul Fussell – defends against the rosy sentiments that can retrospectively affix to even the most devastating of events. Within the limited lexicon normalized to the political Right and Left alike, only a base romantic irony could be sufficiently reduced to an argumentative point of contrast.
Beers’s recommendation deserves attention more now than ever, as the forces threatening to delimit categories for civic engagement are emerging from the Left, and as their enthusiasm is bolstered, says Didion, by a paradigmatic recall of 1960s idealism that ignores conditions meriting contemporary modes of address. In her lucid essay, ‘Resisting Left Melancholy’, Wendy Brown attributes the ascendancy of the neoconservative Right partly to ‘the Left’s own failure to apprehend the character of the age and to develop a political critique and moral-political vision appropriate to this character.’ Yet insofar as a defining characteristic of neoconservatism is ‘the open affirmation of moralized state power’ – ‘a strange verbal brew that mixes idioms of moral rectitude and entrepreneurial calculation’ – then it may appear that the Obama administration’s bid for timeliness has, as Didion suggests, succeeded from a similar blurring of moral and political lines. As the honeymoon draws to a close, we had best keep ours wits about us, leaving nothing without scrutiny – not the least ourselves.
Tyler Coburn is an American artist currently living in Berlin