Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Concept of Irony

Some Reading Notes

Here is the first in what I hope will be a series of occasional posts presenting some of my notes from the work of thinkers of central importance to Weimar thought. These notes may be on texts by thinkers of the Weimar period itself (Carl Schmitt, say), or alternatively on texts by earlier philosophers, such as Hobbes and Kierkegaard, who significantly influenced Weimar era theorists.   

Kierkegaard’s dissertation, The Concept of Irony, is referred to substantively in Adorno’s second Habilitationsschrift, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic (1933). Page references here are keyed to the relevant volume of the Princeton edition of Kierkegaard’s Writings.

‘Socrates, in assigning to insight, to conviction, the determination of men’s actions, posited the Individual as capable of a final moral decision, in contraposition to Country and to Customary Morality, and thus made himself an Oracle, in the Greek sense. He said that he had a daimon(ion) within him that counselled him what to do, and revealed to him what was advantageous to his friends.’ [Hegel, quoted on 161. Compare Hegel’s reference to self-knowing and freedom cited on 162; Kierkegaard (hereafter SK) on subjectivity versus ‘the established’ on 163 (cf. identity vs. the established on 126); & the remarks on heteronomy, subjectivity and decision in Hegel on 163-65 (cf. 263, 264).]

‘When we take into account that even in our countries, where the state, precisely because it has undergone a far deeper mediation, allows subjectivity a much greater latitude than that which the Greek state could allow, when we take into account, I say, that even in our countries someone living on private means is always a dubious person, we may infer from that how the Greek state must have regarded Socrates’ attempt to go his own way and live as a private person.’ [179. Cf. 447. Compare too the remark on Socrates’ ironic and ‘purely personal relation to individuals’ on 180-1. Compare also the remarks on the ironist, the Taugenichts (good-for-nothing) and a vocation of obscurity on 281 (& on Hamann: 434).]

‘True freedom, of course, consists in giving oneself to enjoyment and yet preserving one’s soul unscathed. In political life, true freedom naturally consists in being involved in the circumstances of life in such a way that they have an objective validity for one and through all this preserving the innermost, deepest personal life, which certainly can move and have its being under all these conditions but yet to a certain degree is incommensurate with them.’ [182-83]  

‘we do find [in Socrates] a most consistently sustained irony that lets the objective power of the state break up on the rock-firm negativity of irony. […] In this way he becomes alien to the whole world to which he belongs […] ; the contemporary consciousness has no predicate for him – nameless and indefinable, he belongs to another formation.’ [196. Cf. 447. Compare too the note on Socrates’ ‘negative relation to life’ on 39; & the remark on his inability to ‘contract any real relationship to the established order’ on 178. Cf. dissident consciousness: Schmitt-Luhmann-Konrad (etc.); & the category of the extraterritorial as in my ‘Vortex Out of German London’ (Kracauer: here)? See also the counterposition of ‘fear of the law’ to ‘conscious knowledge of why he acted’ on 228.]

‘In many ways, the Athens of this period calls to mind what Rome was at a later time. Intellectually, Athens was the heart of Greece. Thus when Greek culture approached its disintegration, all the blood rushed back violently into the chambers of the heart. Everything concentrated in Athens – wealth, luxury, opulence, art, science, recklessness, the enjoyment of life – in short, everything that, as the city hastened toward its ruin, could also help to glorify it and illuminate one of the most brilliant intellectual dramas conceivable. There was a restlessness in Athenian life; there was a palpitation of the heart intimating that the hour of disintegration was at hand. But from the other side, that which was the condition for the decline of the state proved to have immense significance for the new principle that was to appear, and the disintegration and decay became indeed the fertile soil of the new principle.’ [200-1. Compare the Weimar/ interwar period?]

‘It [‘the contemporary age’] does not permit one to stand still and to concentrate; to walk slowly is already suspicious; and how could one even put up with anything like that in the stirring period in which we live, in this momentous age, which all agree is pregnant with the extraordinary? It hates isolation; indeed, how could it tolerate a person’s having the daft idea of going through life alone – this age that hand in hand and arm in arm (just like itinerant journeymen and soldiers) lives for the idea of community?’ [246-47. Community as a mere temporary alliance of the self-interested or combative: so that now, the phrase ‘care in the community’ means nothing at all. Cf. the comment on irony as ‘isolation according to its concept’ on 249.]

‘dissimulation denotes […] the objective act that carries out the discrepancy between essence and phenomenon; irony also denotes the subjective pleasure as the subject frees himself by means of irony from the restraint in which the continuity of life’s conditions holds him – […] Irony […] has no purpose; its purpose is immanent in itself and is a metaphysical purpose. […] irony, in which the subject has no purpose.’ [255-56. Irony as a freeing from contingency; beyond this, for SK, is the sort of acceptance of heteronomy commented on (in terms of assigned virtuous tasks) at 235. Compare the important remarks on a religious reconciliation with actuality on 297, 298 (on the latter page SK writes of ‘becoming clear and transparent to oneself, not in finite and egotistical self-satisfaction but in one’s absolute and eternal validity’, anticipating Either/Or, part II (& cf. 445, 299 here)).]

‘Here, then, we have the idea […] as the infinite absolute negativity. Now, if this is to become something, the negative must assert itself again in a finitizing of the idea – that is, in making it concrete. [> existentialism?] The negative is the restlessness of thought, but this restlessness must manifest itself, must become visible; its desire must manifest itself as the desire that actuates the work, its pain as the pain it engenders. If this does not happen, then we have only the unreal actuality of contemplation, devotion, and pantheism.’ [312. Compare SK’s reference to infinite absolute negativity on 26, the sourcing Hegel quotation on 476, and 131. Cf. also 305 (‘In no way is the true ideal in the beyond’); 319 (‘The true actuality becomes what it is; the actuality of romanticism merely becomes.’) Cf. too 271.]

‘if our generation has any task at all, it must be to translate the achievement of scientific scholarship into personal life, to appropriate it personally. [On subjectivity as truth (cf. in Bergman, Dialogical Philosophy), compare the note on 219 and 552 n. 189 (>Postscript etc.).] […] Irony as a controlled element manifests itself in its truth precisely by teaching how to actualize actuality, by placing the appropriate emphasis on actuality. In no way can this be interpreted as wanting to deify actuality in good [socialist] St. Simon style or as denying that there is, or at least that there ought to be, a longing in every human being for something higher and more perfect. But this longing must not hollow out actuality; on the contrary, life’s content must become a genuine and meaningful element in the higher actuality whose fullness the soul craves. [Actualized actuality an element of transcendental(-ized) life: the quotation continues onto the next page.]’ [328