The remains of the Twin Towers were still smoldering when Roger Rosenblatt’s essay in Time appeared. The aftermath of America’s “worst” day since Pearl Harbor revealed the dawning of a new, profound era to Rosenblatt and other conservative observers. “One good thing could come from this horror,” he wrote, “it could spell the end of the age of irony.”
Right…irony disappeared into a haze of violence and robo-patriotism. More than a decade after the event that made our world “real” again, it seems pretty clear that without irony we are stuck wondering what the hell just happened. I had a problem not merely with the impulse of many conservatives had to declare an end to irony–which meant to them an end to the culture wars–but with the reflexive way many conservatives and many liberals used Reinhold Niebuhr as their go-to guy for rationalizing the age that would follow the end of irony.
Niebuhr’s famous essay, “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” was reworked into a clarion call for defeating evil in the age of terror. The cold war caricature of Niebuhr was resurrected as the dark, brooding theologian of war. His sense of irony reimagined as a the worse kind of engagement–America would be given a pass on evil acts as long as it claimed to defend (and spread) civilization.
Yet missing from this discourse was the foundation on which Niebuhr built his sense of irony–his understanding and acceptance of sin. I write that word knowing that it might conjure images of Puritans, the devil…and the Church Lady. I accept the slippage because the aspect that enraged me as the U.S. plowed across two countries was the willful lack of reflection. I wrote about Susan Sontag’s rage in this respect earlier, and reading the perceptive discussions on irony over the last week here made me think further about the link, as James Levy writes so evocatively about, between irony and engagement.
Niebuhr considered himself nothing if not an engaged religious intellectual. He was a preacher more than a theologian, according to his autobiography, and had view of sin that differed markedly from versions of original sin in that he believed the fallen nature of man did not condemn humanity to existence of perpetual paralysis. Rather he understood sin as essential to seeing or recognizing without qualifications the work that needed to be done. In other words, humanity was in a collective of hope because it was in a collective of despair. Irony described the state of affairs but not the state of humanity.
I admire the different discussions of irony we’ve had here. And it seems to me that there are two broad ways to understand and perhaps use the term from those discussions. Jim Livingston gives us the paring of William Appleman Williams with practicioners of irony in the first half of the cold war–Niebuhr, Burke, White. Accordingly we are caught in a play on truth–recognition of that existence does not clarify our state but moves us from understanding our plight as tragedy to irony. And we have James Levy’s philosophical discussion of irony as processed through the culture of audience. In Levy’s understanding, irony makes evident the culture of reproduction–its technocracy from top to bottom–and thus using the methods of play to create not a reproduction but a fractured mirror and therefore a critique of the culture we often can’t see clearly enough to critique.
Both versions are products of modernity and as such, I think, suggest the existence of third, foundational understanding of irony. Chris Shannon in his review of cold war social science and in particular in his comments following the post, argues for a way beyond our modern use of irony–as a reminder of what the object of irony might be and therefore the point of engagement. Shannon points out at the heart of the struggle to make sense of the world either violated or imagined by social science is the human person. Irony makes sense only if one accepted that the person was rooted in a perpetual, not a sociological, community. By this I mean a community that was not waiting to be discovered or perfected or more fully realized by the advancements in science, technology or, even, theology. It was a community that people lived within but had no real ability to fully understand. And the distance between living and understanding allowed for two responses, a humility borne out of awe of ignorance and a confidence (and hubris) borne of out awe of accumulation.
Niebuhr practiced a theology of irony because he believed both positions were joined by the human condition of sin. Neither could recognize the their truths were not normative; and neither would allow that those of the other position were involved in the same struggle to preserve this perpetual community. But accepting sin meant accepting something modernity was suppose to make obsolete–the irrational belief that, as Niebuhr wrote in 1925 as a young preacher in Detriot, the “cross is a symbol of ultimate reality.” But this ultimate reality was not to be theorized, measured, and cataloged. Nor was it to be understood as exceptional, as a metaphysical club that gave members a pass on dealing with non-members.
This is why for Niebuhr the Christian church could not be pacifist. Faced with the crimes of fascism and communism, Niebuhr went to war because he saw abominations against the perpetual community. Both movements abandoned civilization in an attempt to produce a materialist definition of the person–that was tragic (and horrific). What Niebuhr saw as ironic was the terrible prospect of responding to these abominations because whatever means would be used to counter fascism and communism would violate civilization as well. But Niebuhr’s use of sin could make him sound “churchy” and alienating.
Yet, Niebuhr’s irony, grounded as it was in sin, presaged a reality that allowed him to argue for a type of engagement that went beyond the tautology of truth that Jim Livingston points to and a world of engagement that James Levy’s ironic brigades imagine for us. As Chris Shannon notes, to make a perpetual community viable requires recognizing that there are limits on a society, and that this society also accepts a notion of perpetual community. For Niebuhr, there was no other way to understand those two ideas than to recognize the relationship between our perpetual community and a kingdom of God. That was the Christian life for Niebuhr and it was the source of his irony. When many other post-9/11 conservatives rallied to return the United States to a pre-culture wars reality, claiming a return literally to God, they often used Niebuhr as a crutch. What they utterly overlooked (or more likely willfully dismissed) was Niebuhr’s radical notion of irony in calling any society back to God. It’s not that Niebuhr shared more in common with the critics of the war on terror than it’s promoters acknowledged, but that his view of civilization shared little in common with a materialist notion often associated with civilization. We often forget that Niebuhr shared Marx’s visceral repulsion to the degradation of modern industrial society. But Marx never went far enough for Niebuhr. (a view Zizek seems to share as well, correct? Perhaps that is where Zizek is headed when he praises the Chinese cultural revolution for its ideological boldness in attempting to make community an ideology) For Neibuhr irony described the contemporary situation, sin grounded that situation in history, and community existed as the reality that made the human person something more than a sociological study.