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Irony, Masochism, and Hipsters

hipster2The philosophic value of irony has been a topic of investigation from Kierkegaard’s On the Concept of Irony With Continual Reference to Socrates, if not all the way back to Plato’s dialogues themselves.  Yet, seemingly unaware of the long philosophical tradition of practiced irony, Christy Wampole’s recent article “How to Live Without Irony,” through an irredeemably surface reading of so-called “hipster” culture, advocates a total rejection of irony, a self-conscious cleansing of the inauthenticity of ironic self-reference.  Yet, is such a radical position vis-a-vis irony necessary?  Is there no possible value to be gained from the use of irony in discourse or even life?

In Slavoj Zizek’s Are We Allowed to Enjoy Daphnée du Maurier?, he offers the seemingly paradoxical assertion that, not only does feminine masochism fail to support patriarchy and its most heinous manifestation in sexual violence, but that feminine masochism is subversive of this patriarchy itself.

“What this means is that, paradoxically, the staging of what appears to be a masochist scenario is the first act of liberation: by means of it, the servant’s masochistic libidinal attachment to his[sic] master is brought into the light of day, and the servant thus achieves a minimal distance towards it. In his essay on Sacher-Masoch, Gilles Deleuze elaborated this aspect in detail: far from bringing any satisfaction to the sadistic witness, the masochist’s self-torture frustrates the sadist, depriving him of his power over the masochist. Sadism involves a relationship of domination, while masochism is necessarily the first step towards liberation.”

In essence, through the overt enactment of patriarchal power relations, the frailty and fiction of this power structure is made manifest.   The apparent acting out of this problematic structure, in reality functions as its very undermining.  By playing out the structure as fiction, it is revealed to already be fiction.*

hipster_fucksCould not irony, even “hipster” irony, provide such a necessary acting out.  Does ironic fashion not reveal the vacuous nature of fashion?  Does ironic language not reveal the artificiality of language?  Rather than reject irony, perhaps it is the role of the philosopher to live out irony, to live it out as radically as Kierkegaard or Socrates.  Perhaps it is the destiny of philosophers to become hipsters.

EDIT 12/06/12: [Check out THIS response to Wampole by The Atlantic‘s Jonathan D. Fitzgerald]


*Special thanks to Noelle Vahanian’s “Theology ‘after’ Lacan”.  Presented at SPEP 2012


Back from SPEP

This past week/end the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy held its yearly conference.  Although the flight cancellations and other travel difficulties (resulting from Sandy) brought a large number of paper cancellations, particularly on Thursday, the event was nonetheless a great experience to be a part of.  With scholars from across the globe, the program was bursting with presentations on Phenomenology (particularly Heidegger, Husserl, and French thought), Deconstruction, Race and Gender Theory, Critical theory, psychoanalysis, and much more.  Generally, there were about a dozen simultaneous presentations, interspersed with a variety of plenary addresses, including, notably, Miguel de Beistegui’s lecture “The Question of Desire in French Phenomenology” (gotta give a shout out for the Silverman Pheno. Center).

Of the panels that I was able to attend, the standout was by far “Is Radical Phenomenology Too Radical? Paradoxes of Michel Henry’s Phenomenology of Life.”  There, Frederic Seyler (DePaul University)presented the above paper, with a response by Jeffrey Hanson (Australian Catholic University) notable for his recent publication Affects of Thought.  Both speakers were particularly clear and cogent, and Seyler was able to critique Henry’s thought, while simultaneously remaining quite fair to the thinkers position, an accomplishment which is seldom achieved.


“Quietude,” we have been taught: an internal harmony, a concordance of the soul.  From the pulpits, as from the analysts seat, discord has been routed.  Yet, has it been refuted?  For, as Boehme, that philosopher extraordinaire taught us–if not more so the Kabbalists–even God itself persists in dissonance.  How much more we?  Is not the internality of life, life-itself, precisely this dissonance, a dialectic sans synthesis?  Let us embrace this which we are in our innermost, let us balk at concordance.  If it is consonance that we are to seek, let them demonstrate it.  But, until then, let us remain as discordant as we know ourselves to be.

The Phenomenological Dignity of the Unconscious

Working thorough Freud’s infamous Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, one cannot fail to recognize a profound ambiguity within both Freud’s concept of the unconscious and its related contents, the presence of two minds–two Freuds.  The unconscious, it seems, rests upon an unsure footing, tipping between the irrational, non-objectifible realm of affectivity, and the realm of consciousness: the rational, the conceptual, the objectifiable.

It must first be recognized that psychoanalysis always works with two distinct forms of evidence: the conscious and the unconscious.  Moreover,  the latter is not to be subsumed under the former, but retains its own evidential dignity.  As Freud expicitly states:

“I handle unconscious ideas, unconscious trains of thought, and unconscious emotional tendencies as though they were no less valid and unimpeachable phsychological data than conscious ones.” (p. 134)

Yet, what is the precise nature of “unconscious ideas”?  Is it even possible to designate the unconscious as a “train of thought” without sacrificing the clear phenomenological distinction between these two realms?  It is precisely this conflation of the conscious and the unconscious that manifests itself throughout Dora.  Our “first” Freud explicitly proposes the absorption of the unconscious  into the conscious, marking this phenomenological disingenuity as the principal role of psychoanalysis.

“Dreams in general can be interpreted, and that after the work of interpretation has been completed they can be replaced by perfectly correctly constructed thoughts which find a recognizable position in the texture of the mind.” (p. 29)

“The practical aim of the treatment is to remove all possible symptoms and to replace them by conscious thoughts.” (p. 32)

“The technique of psychoanalysis enables us first of all to infer the unconscious phantasies from the symptoms and then to enable the patient to become conscious of them.” (p. 148)

The question must again be repeated.  Is such a transubstantiation of unconscious material into conscious forms possible without a loss of the original material in its entirety?

If we might consider the second strand of Freud’s thought, one that does not propose the subsumption of the unconscious under the conscious, than we might find a psychoanalytic theory which retains the phenomenological dignity of the unconscious as illogical (or perhaps pre-logical), a theory which does not reduce the unconscious to mere messenger of the conscious as signifier of a conscious signified, but allows the unconscious to retain its own effectivity.

At many points, Freud moves in precisely this direction.  Refusing the critiques of hysteria often proposed by laymen, Freud writes:

“People who speak of the patients in this way are right except upon a single point: they overlook the psychological distinction between what is conscious and what is unconscious.” (p. 62)

Yet, is this not precisely what Freud himself has proposed as the mission of psychoanalysis? In his effort to reduce the unconscious to the conscious, it is precisely the phenomenological difference, the “psychological distinction,” that he must overcome (or overlook).  Instead of supporting such an “overlooking”–even if disguised as a “replacement”–the maintenance of phenomenological dignity requires that we side with our “second” Freud, the Freud which recognizes the irreducibility of unconscious material, the Freud which wrote:

It cannot be resolved by any effort of thought, either because it itself reaches with its root down into unconscious, repressed material, or because another unconscious thought lies concealed behind it.” (p. 72)

As long as the unconscious is recognized as a distinct psychic realm, it must be treated as such.  Its contents must not be relegated to a secondary role, images of the principal mind, consciousness.  Instead, psychoanalysis must side with Lacan who recognizes that the unconscious does not follow the logic of consciousness, it is not reducible to consciousness.  Like Michel Henry’s affectivity, the unconscious is the realm of where life is lived, and life does not play by logic’s rules.

Merleau-Ponty on Sexuality

“Existence permeates sexuality and vice versa, so that it is impossible to determine, in a given decision or action, the proportion of sexual to other motivations, impossible to label a decision or act ‘sexual’ or ‘non-sexual’ . There is no outstripping of sexuality any more than there is sexuality enclosed within itself. No one is saved and no one is totally lost.”

-Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

Lacan on Negation

Speaking in terms which seem to betray a strong Hegelian (i.e. dialectical) influence, Lacan writes:

“In the symbolic order nothing exists except upon an assumed foundation of absence. Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”

Lacan… being awesome.


Lacan… being Awesome.

Micro-Reviews #2: Jacques Lacan’s “My Teaching”

Overall Rating: 7/10

A provocative, short, and delightful read, Jacques Lacan’s My Teaching provides an enlightening introduction to Lacanian psychoanalysis, particularly for those uninterested or unable to tackle his Écrits or Seminars. As a disclaimer, it should be noted that this work is anything but systematic; on the contrary, My Teachings—composed of three lectures (all 1967)—exemplifies Lacan’s lighthearted, playful, and often crass character. Gaiety aside, Lacan here succeeds in providing a concise examination of his psychoanalytic project within these three short lectures, engaging such key topics as the Subject, the Other, language, the unconscious, the essence of thought, and his complex relationship to Freud.

In his first lecture, The Place, Origin, and End of My Teaching, Lacan offers a direct challenge to his contemporary clinical psychoanalysts. Dismissing the attempted “legitimization”of psychoanalysis—the tendency to (mis-)identify sexuality in the psychoanalytic sense with the quite different sexuality of the biological sciences—as mere “sales patter” (p.11), Lacan proposes a psychoanalysis which might go beyond the mere creation of “good employees” (p.19), better consumers. Instead, drawing upon Derrida’s Grammatology and (to a lesser extent) Heidegger, Lacan underscores his Saussurian (i.e. linguistic/structuralist) reading of psychoanalysis which “is in fact quite simply language, and absolutely nothing else.” (p.26) For Lacan, Freud’s “unconscious” is nothing other than a linguistic “knot,” underlying all conscious thought and conscious language. This region of the unconscious, although seemingly illogical, nevertheless functions within its own distinct logic, the logic of the homonym. In this realm, word-play, pun, slips of the tongue, and the raw association of signifiers reign.

Closing the lecture, Lacan delves into the controversy surrounding his use of “subject” and “Other.” In language reminiscent of Fichte, or perhaps the earlier Boehme, Lacan posits the “subject” as a necessary product of desire, a desire which is always directed outward towards an Other. In this specific sense, Lacan understands his language of the subject to be, implicitly at least, prefigured in Freud’s analysis of desire.

His second essay, My Teachings, Its Nature and Its Ways, continues directly in this vein. Focused directly upon the “subject” of the previous discourse, Lacan explicitly identifies this concept with the unconscious. “If something gives us the feeling that there is a place where we can lay hands on it, where it’s the subject we are dealing with, then it’s at the level known as the unconscious.” (p.81) In this way, Lacan hopes to divest subject and substance, two concepts which have become fully identified in post-Aristotelian thought. This choice—to retain the language of the subject—is not therefore intended to invoke the subject of classic metaphysics, but quite to the contrary, to completely “invert” it.

In the final essay of this short volume, So, You Will Have Heard Lacan, Lacan engages the essence of “thinking.” Rejecting the epistemological axiom that thinking always knows itself as thinking, Lacan proposes an unrecognized and embodied thinking which does not know itself to be thinking, a thinking which “does not grasp itself” (p.103). It is this thinking that overwhelms the human at all times: one is constantly emerged in this thought, thought which is nothing other than the unconscious.