Invitations and Promises, or Irony vs. Irony
(x-posted to The Valve)
This piece is a response to a series of posts at Oublié Sur La Carte that send up (“roast” was his term) my essay on Paul de Man. It is possible to understand what follows without reading them, but to do so would be a shame, because they are fiercely and marvelously argued.
In his first post, surlacarte argues that my rhetorical reading of Paul de Man is illegitimate because of de Man’s explicit opposition to the rhetoric of persuasion. It is also about bad puns.
In his second post, surlacarte compares my hypothetical versions of authorship, selfhood, and meaning, to Pascal’s wager on the question of belief. It is also about poker.
I’m writing here about the way language works, the relationship between uncertainty and irony, and the role of the reader in the interpretation of texts. It is also about Mother Night and a birthday disaster. You can find an extended dialogue with surlacarte on de Man’s analysis of Pascal’s geometry in the comments thread here.
To begin with, let me expand upon the question of de Man’s rhetoric. When I wrote that de Man imagined irony to contain “Dionysian energies,” I was specifically referring to the ecstatic practice of destruction. Nietzsche makes clear in The Birth of Tragedy that Dionysian revelry is not merely an alternative to the ordered conduct of life that characterizes the majority of Greek sociality and art; rather, it is bent on the destruction of this order. One of the important references is to the myth of The Bacchae, when Pentheus’s body is torn apart by the maenads, whose ranks include his own mother Agave. The idea of going “beyond one’s limits” suggests a valuable, almost sentimental expansion of horizons, much too gentle for what I had in mind.
In surlacarte’s post, he argues that my reading of de Man’s rhetoric is “odd,” because it isn’t in keeping with de Man’s own stated positions on rhetoric in other essays. He claims that de Man is “really much closer, at least in this case to a logical philosopher….He’s particularly concerned with a certain kind of intellectual rigor.”
In order for this to function as a defense of de Man, we have to assume a correspondence between the explicit meanings of his texts (what he says he wants and is doing), and its implicit meanings (the totality of what we can say about the way his texts work). We also have to assume that de Man is internally consistent, such that different essays or books by him will not contradict one another.
This is just the sort of policing that de Man finds so objectionable in the work of the American ironists. Not every poet who is read in a deconstructionist fashion would support such a reading, but the critic is not obliged to change his mode at their request.
Let me explain why I claimed that, for de Man, irony has “Dionysian energies” that “bear a remarkable resemblance to bliss.” De Man claims that the American critics “would want to put themselves on their guard” against irony. This is an ambiguous statement. We don’t know whether they need to guard their own thinking against the implications of irony, or whether they need to guard their readers against it. We are thus forced to presume both. What kind of thing would tempt an interpreter of literature away from a position that they know is more practical and essential to keeping a job? The answer, of course, is “an inconvenient truth.” Because truth here inspires the interpreters of literature to abandon their livelihood and salty wisdom, it has the quality of seduction. (Thus Socrates was accused of “seducing” the youth of Greece.) One of the startling insights of analysts of jouissance, like Barthes and Lacan, was that bliss implied the rupture of order. The destructive nature of seduction (e.g. the mythical Sirens) was actually one of the reasons for its attractiveness.
The seductiveness of irony is part of its “very threatening” nature. It is in de Man’s interest to portray infinite irony as something powerful, to counteract the fact that most lay readers and many literary critics do not consider infinite irony to be a property of texts. So, first he separates literary critics from himself and his readers: “interpreters of literature, who have a stake in the understandability of literature” (167). Note that neither writers, nor readers who do not explicitly trouble themselves to produce “readings,” nor any person uninterested in literature, gets a mention here. Thus the reason for the watch on irony turns out to be sordid professional self-interest. That’s why it’s entirely appropriate to make “livelihood” the first entry in an equation representing de Man’s argument.
Having isolated the critics, de Man ventriloquizes them as stutterers: “very legitimate to want, as Booth wants, to stop, to stabilize, to control the trope” (167). The word “legitimate” is an extremely weak endorsement, suggesting the punctiliousness of a businessman. More important, the repetition of “want,” followed by the insecure slippage of “stop….stabilize….control,” implies an impotent desire to keep the dam from breaking. What appears to be humble sympathy constrained by the truth functions rhetorically as a form of mockery.
To be sure, Booth appears to be helpless in just the manner de Man suggests. When he writes that the appeal to finite irony is a practical necessity, he has already given the game away. Who knows what worser things we might call practical necessities, if we endorsed this kind of logic? One of the great virtues of Kierkegaard’s judge, who is utterly trapped, is that he finds himself tempted by the ironist he is trying to educate.
For my part, I do not find myself trying to set limits on the irony I encounter in texts; instead, I find in Paul de Man a barren insistence on undecidability that tries to compensate for its lack of substance with appeals to shame, to fantasies of discursive power, and to a love of truth and rigor. In other words, regardless of whether this forces me to part ways with Wayne Booth, my quarrel isn’t with irony.
For the second part of my response, I’ll be moving back and forth between surlacarte’s two posts, before finally returning to Pascal and the question of his wager and his faith.
In order to clear up the question of the so-called “appeal to consequences,” we have to ask a more fundamental question: what are the constituents of a truth? What makes something true in language?
Surlacarte assigns two properties to language: the constative, and the performative. Constative statements are statements about the way things are. They represent what might be called our personal obligation to impersonal truth. I am free to deny the fact of my mortality, or the fact of my gender, or the global phenomenon of hunger, but these things are facts whether I like it or not, and denying them is likely to create problems in my world.
De Man’s argument about infinite irony is based on constative statements. He perhaps wishes that irony had a limit, but there’s nothing he can do to alter its infinity. In his mind, we are as obligated to recognize infinite irony as we are obligated to accept the germ theory of disease.
The counter-claim, naturally, is that literature is performative. In order to understand this counter-claim, we need a more refined definition of performativity.
When Columbus claims Hispaniola for Spain, he does so through an intersubjective agreement between all the powers of Europe. In other words, the only thing that makes his statement into an “action” that instantiates a fact (the fact that “Hispaniola belongs to Spain”) is the willingness of France and England to abide by that claim. The idea that such performative claims were made on unclaimed and uninhabited land is historically inaccurate, which is relevant because the performative utterance was forced on the non-compliant indigenous tribes who lived there. The utterance has to be backed up with steel.
The same thing is true of marriage vows. It used to be commonly accepted that marriage vows were performative: the couple was married as soon as the priest performed the ceremony (with them playing a part), and their marriage had the ontological effect of fusing two beings into one. That is why divorce was originally a ridiculous concept, and why things like annulments performed by the Pope, which might seem ridiculous to us now, were actually the only way to undo the magical effects of the ceremony.
At this point, however, marriage is understood to be a mutual promise that has to be honored by both parties. If it withstands the test of time, then it retroactively becomes performatively true. If it ends in divorce, then it was a failed experiment. In other words, it is not true unless both people honor it over the course of time.
Surlacarte writes, perceptively,
One is never really certain whether the speaker means “God exists” (the “I” being, ultimately, redundant, already implied by the fact that the statement has been uttered by someone) or something like “I promise to believe in God,” a sort of prayer by which one places faith not only in God, but in the power of the speech act to overcome a gap in one’s actual belief.
This is precisely the situation of the potential suicide, and then the gambler, who face anguish in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness:
Fortunately these motives in their turn, from the sole fact that they are motives of a possibility, present themselves as ineffective, as non-determinant: they can no more produce the suicide than my horror of the fall can determine me to avoid it. It is this counter-anguish which generally puts an end to anguish by transmuting it into indecision. Indecision in its turn calls for decision. I abruptly put myself at a distance from the edge of the precipice and resume my way.
The example which we have just analyzed has shown us what we could call “anguish in the fact of the future.” There exists another: anguish in the face of the past. It is that of the gambler who has freely and sincerely decided not to gamble anymore and who, when he approaches the gaming table, suddenly sees all his resolutions melt away….What he apprehends then in anguish is precisely the total inefficacy of the past resolution. (70-71, trans. Hazel Barnes)
In other words, the “gap in one’s actual belief” is not some personal failure of sincerity or nerve. It is a gap present in the very nature of resolute language. Not only do we not know whether a promise is true or false, until we see whether or not it has been performed, we do not even know to what the promise refers until we see how it is performed. Fundamental concepts like “love,” “friendship,” “belief in God,” and the like are likely to entail entirely different complexes of emotion, thought, and action, for different people.
One finds in response, first in de Man, and then ably represented in surlacarte’s posts, a disgust with the uncertain and frequently ineffectual nature of language. surlacarte writes, with a discernible trace of nostalgia, that
This is a long way of saying that as soon as one adopts a belief on the basis of an appeal to consequence, one posits, in writing, a self which is bound to say certain things and to explore their consequences, but which is never certain whether it means any of the things that it says…One faces undecidability in language by positing a “self,” an “I” which is not really a self, because it has nothing to do with the concept of genuine belief…All statements that follow…are said inauthentically, almost in jest, out of a sense of decorum…the only possibility of ever saying anything unironically is to abandon, from the start, these utopian projections of belief, these things that we claim to believe in because we must, these hypothetical worlds we posit for very noble reasons, in response to real exigencies.
In response, I would like to know where, besides religious tracts or in the most sentimental narratives, one finds a self constituted in these miraculous ways. If by genuine belief the critic comes to mean a belief which is not only in earnest, but which is actually an inviolable, changeless kernel inside the subject, then we are talking about the spark of divinity itself. We are talking about a soul.
This helps us understand why de Man should take such a strong position against the revelatory powers of “experience.” Experience is the anchor of pragmatic uncertainty, but it can do nothing except cloud the soul, in a fashion reminiscent of Wordsworth’s ode on intimations of immortality. When surlacarte writes that the self “is never certain whether it means any of the things that it says,” he is right on several levels. First of all, the speaker is never certain whether she herself is capable of making good on her own claims. She encounters the anguish of language when she realizes that time will interpose itself between her claim and her self, making them non-identical. It may be that she will simply break her promises. More sympathetically, she may meet with accidents that make the performance of the claim impossible (as with unfinished final novels). Above all, she may have an experience that shatters the essential context of the claim.
This shattering experience can happen entirely within language, based on the way a piece of communication is received. In other words, the speaker is never sure if she means what she says, because what she means is based on a guess about the reception of her words. In the Kurt Vonnegut novel Mother Night, Howard W. Campbell, Jr. believes that he is helping the Allied war effort, because he is secretly giving information to the Allies in anti-Semitic radio broadcasts that rally support for the Nazis. He assumes that rhetoric is less powerful than military secrets. By the end of the novel, Howard has come to realize that the effect of his overt propaganda was much greater than that of his coded messages. That means, ironically, that he must finally be held accountable for not “saying what he meant” – that is, for making a foolish judgement about his own words, and aiding the cause of fascism.
This leads us to the answer to de Man’s question: “Why is it that the furthest-reaching truths about ourselves and the world have to be stated in such a lopsided, referentially indirect mode?” (Aesthetic Ideology 52). The answer is that without allegory, which is already a kind of performance of one thing through the reference to another, there is no hope of creating mutual agreements about what we mean when we use phrases like “genuine belief.” There is literally no truth to any statement, or to the larger compounds of whole texts, until they have been acted out in some way. Before that, they signify nothing, which is why an appeal to interpretation is not an “appeal to consequences.” The Ten Commandments, the direct utterances of God to Moses, are more substantial for having been interpreted in the course of Kieslowski’s Decalogue.
Because the text must be completed, and thus simultaneously risked in some way by a reader, Nietzsche was able to claim that the essence of nobility was the capacity to fulfill promises – that is, to renew one’s words across a span of time. Beliefs themselves are promises of just this sort. Such nobility is only possible through integrity, meaning an awareness of the conditions of possibility for the promise, and a willingness to accept that that those conditions might change. That is what a scientist means when she says that any scientific theory is liable to revisions. This awareness and critical acceptance of uncertainty was expressed beautifully by Foucault in an aside to The Use of Pleasure:
As to those for whom to work hard, to begin and begin again, to attempt and be mistaken, to go back and rework everything from top to bottom, and still find reason to hesitate from one step to the next—as to those, in short, for whom to work in the midst of uncertainty and apprehension is tantamount to failure, all I can say is that clearly we are not from the same planet. (10)
If the language in which we speak about ourselves has the nature of a promise, the texts we produce for others have the nature of invitations. The invitation is not necessarily a summons; sometimes nothing more is offered than a shared pleasure, or a common moment of clarity. That is the religious moment in the Pascalian wager of belief; the moment of acceptance undertaken in freedom, in spite of the perverse possibility of refusal.
The problem with Pascal’s wager is that Pascal pretends that only one text (i.e. the Christian Bible) makes a claim to authority, and therefore that it is the only text to be either refused or embraced. The problem certainly is not the supposed coldness of the gesture, for two reasons. First, Pascal believes in performativity: “Kneel, and you will believe.” Second, it is only from within a particular version of Romanticism, influenced heavily by the Reformation, that one would speak of the insufficiency of reason in anti-Pascalian terms. In Pascal’s account, reason is capable of recognizing its own limits and choosing faith, and thus in a sense retains its original agency.
Similarly, the integral uncertainty codified in the scientific method is not a frigid wager. It comprehends the full pathos of a choice undertaken without a guarantee, precisely because it is guaranteed by the fallible record of experience. Each reading, and each justified action, is based on a hypothesis, and it is impossible to privilege any reading over another on transcendental grounds. The only admissible means of judging a reading is through references to the fuzzy intersubjective ground of linguistic convention.
Ludwig Wittgenstein responds to the answering charge of lack of rigor thus, in his Philosophical Investigations, while trying to describe the “family resemblance” of all games:
One might say that the concept ‘game’ is a concept with blurred edges.—“But is a blurred concept a concept at all?”—Is an indistinct photograph a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to eplace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need?
Frege compares a concept to an areas and says that an area with vague boundaries cannot be called an area at all. This presumably means we cannot do anything with it.—But is it senseless to say: “Stand roughly there”?
So, then, a text is an invitation that produces a variety of responses, all of which bear a family resemblance to each other. It does not refer back to its author; once written, it refers to the blurred linguistic consensus of its time.
But this is not merely to re-state the now-conventional claim that the author is dead. The invitation is accepted, and the author herself is interpellated by it in some way. I will conclude my own investigation with a real example.
This November, I sent out a series of invitations to my birthday party. Its design was somewhat ponderous: there would be a reading, then there would be a dinner, and then drinks at a local bar, and then an after-party. Naturally, there were some people who could only come for part of the event, rather than the whole thing.
What I did not expect was that some people would read the invitation and — like those readers who will tolerate only Volume 1 of The History of Sexuality — decide only to attend the after-party.
When they arrived, having followed the directions in my invitation, I wasn’t there yet. They stood around for a while, considering, and then finally let themselves in and began having a party. Many things that I had been saving for a rainy day were consumed. The police were called, and were appeased by people who, once again, were not myself.
In short, the text created a gathering, despite the fact that the author was nowhere to be found (nor dead). This happened in absolute defiance of authorial intention; and yet, it happened coherently, hampered not at all by the specter of infinite irony. The next day, by talking to people, I was able to confirm what the state of my house made abundantly clear. They had had a marvelous time.