[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: Harvie Ferguson: Glamour and the End of Irony

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Harvie Ferguson: Glamour and the End of Irony
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          Irony has been closely linked with personal identity in modern
    times, Harvie Ferguson argues, and the changing nature of this link
    provides analytic purchase on new conceptions of the self in
    contemporary society. Tracing its historical interrelation, he
    suggests that irony emerged as a practical solution to a vexing
    identity problem. The self was conceived as wholly inward and unique,
    and thus could not be directly communicated, and yet self-expression
    was, at the same time, viewed as essential to freedom. Irony, a form
    of negative communication, dissolved the disjunction by allowing the
    authenticity of the inner self to be expressed indirectly by affirming
    its opposite. Essentially, irony became a device that allowed for a
    separation of the public self from the private self. In this seeming
    detachment, the fact of an inner self was revealed, yet its deep inner
    workings could remain hidden, protected from view. Ferguson turns to
    the question of identity in contemporary society and argues that with
    the decline of the notion of the self as an inner depth and a new
    preoccupation with surfaces, irony ceases to function in the
    communicative role it has long occupied.

          Harvie Ferguson is Reader in Sociology at the University of
    Glasgow. His most recent books include Melancholy and the Critique of
    Modernity: Søren Kierkegaard's Religious Psychology, The Lure of
    Dreams: Sigmund Freud and the Construction of Modernity, and The Art
    of Detachment: Forms of Subjectivity in Modern Society.

          Since the romantics, who advertised the stunning insights of the
    first moderns, irony has waned. Everyone, of course, must remain on
    nodding terms, so to speak, with the ironic. It remains significant as
    a technique of affirming membership in a specific "in-group." But
    irony in the Romantics' sense is no longer in evidence; as an
    all-embracing literary and metaphysical position, it seems to have had
    its day, and now it must be content with playing its part, with other
    figures, in the repertoire of modern rhetorical devices. Of course
    discourse has now become a matter of living and breathing, a style of
    life rather than a mode of speech alone; but all the same, few would
    confess to, far less boast of, living-out an ironic style of life.

          Irony as a social form of communication exists in the period of
    developing individualism, a period in which voluntary communities and
    exclusive social groupings can form. The period of high modernity is
    inimical to irony in that sense because, for the most advanced
    societies, all communities tend ideally to be dissolved in the
    continuous flux of civil society.

          The interchangeability of persons, the anonymity of large-scale
    organization, the division of labor, the legal-rational forms of
    authority, the decay of personal relations as a form of political
    organization and public life--all mean that, most of the time, social
    interaction takes place among strangers devoid of distinguishing
    inwardness. Identity thus becomes a purely "inward" and personal
    marker, rather than something to be displayed. "Communities" are
    conjured by special occasions, as in large sporting events, which are
    expressive only of a carefully staged show of emotion. Among the most
    fervent supporters, as among the most devout fashion worshipper,
    nothing, in fact, is being communicated about the "inner-person."
    Modes of identification are at the same time displays of
    "role-distance." The privacy of the modern self becomes a secret even
    from itself--an obscure inner region that, in spite of the
    interpretive efforts of Freud, ultimately resists clarification. The
    individual cannot, thus, even use irony on himself or herself as a
    maieutic device to bring forth the hidden personality, as no such
    being any longer clothes itself in the possibility of existence.

          Ought we to refer, indeed, to the end of irony like the end of
    ideology--and for much the same reason? If irony betrays the "depth"
    and hiddenness, the inwardness, of the soul and always works "from
    below the surface,"[3]^1 then the contemporary age is no longer an age
    of irony. Now the soul is exposed,open, spread flat like the page of a
    book; there is nothing interior, underneath, or hidden. There is no
    disjunction or rupture upon which irony can get to work and in which
    it might take root. The most advanced societies are notoriously
    insensitive to irony. Identity is no longer linked to irony, nor is it
    secreted in the "ego." Rather, it openly displays itself in a vortex
    of disconnected experiences.

          Now there is no need to be ironic because no one would imagine
    that "depth," authentic or otherwise, is being expressed. The
    non-ironic identity of contemporary society, unlike that of pre-modern
    society, is not based on trust, or on openness, but on
    superficiality--on the glamour of the modern personality and of modern

          Personality, that is to say, is no longer that "deep" selfhood
    that can only be expressed indirectly and ironically, but has become
    an aspect of the network of relations in which it is implicated.
    Social and personal identities are reconciled in the unity of fashion.
    Personality and self-image are no longer fixed from within but easily
    adapt themselves to the continually changing circumstances of time and
    place. The personality, shiny and mirror-like, is a glamorous soul.
    This is not because the contemporary world has in some way lost sight
    of reality, or cut itself off from every form of humanly meaningful
    relation but, rather, that for the contemporary world, the surface of
    things has been consecrated as the paramount "reality." The
    contemporary world is conceptualized as continuous with the self, an
    extended, energetic, and sensitive surface upon which is registered
    the continuous flux of experience. Identity, in such a world, cannot
    be a function of interior self-expression or the outcome of a process
    of actualization; there is no interior to express or to actualize.

          The non-ironic mood--melancholic still, but no longer detached
    and superior, no longer heavy with suppressed passion--is very well
    expressed, for example, in the contemporary American writer Richard
    Ford. His celebration of the ordinariness of American life, or one
    section of it at any rate, seems, to a European reader still charmed
    by irony, to be so sincere that it must be ironic through and through;
    however, given that it might be read in two ways, Ford plausibly
    represents a non-ironic, and yet non-naive, central character who
    claims at one point, "I can't bear all the complications, and long for
    something that is façades-only. . ."[4]^2

          He depicts the amorphous, and more or less anonymous, drifting
    soul and the contemporary world of appearances on which it floats:
    "And for a moment I find it is really quite easy and agreeable not to
    know what's next . . ."[5]^3 Ford's character experiences the serenity
    of finding pleasure without identity: "All we really want is to get to
    the point where the past can explain nothing about us and we can get
    on with life."[6]^4 The abandonment of the personal past, more than
    any other aspect of the novel, makes it clear that he is serious about
    rejecting the unequal struggle of self-actualization. Though, of
    course, he cannot really be serious about that either. This lightness,
    the floating quality of the sportswriter (an ideal postmodern
    occupation) is quite unlike the detachment of the ironist. And, in
    spite of the phenomenological similarity, he is not bored, not
    "seriously" bored in Heidegger's sense, not the "profound boredom,
    drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a
    muffling fog, [which] removes all things and men and oneself with it
    into a remarkable indifference."[7]^5 But this drifting is engagement.
    He is fully absorbed in and by reality; it is just that this reality
    remains ill-defined and fluid. He is borne effortlessly in the
    directionless and intermittent currents of life. This characterization
    of contemporary life as a ubiquitous sense of drifting, in contrast to
    the rectilinear motion of self-actualizing intentions, resonates with
    much of the literature of this century and is by no means confined to
    recent examples. Its most complete and (ironically) its most profound
    expression can be found in Robert Musil's masterpiece The Man Without

          The abandonment of the personal past, more than any other aspect
    of the novel, makes it clear that he is serious about rejecting the
    unequal struggle of self-actualization. Though, of course, he cannot
    really be serious about that either. This lightness, the floating
    quality of the sportswriter (an ideal postmodern occupation) is quite
    unlike the detachment of the ironist. And, in spite of the
    phenomenological similarity, he is not bored, not "seriously" bored in
    Heidegger's sense, not the "profound boredom, drifting here and there
    in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, [which] removes
    all things and men and oneself with it into a remarkable

          Identity for a person without qualities becomes a more or less
    arbitrary matter of social relations. Identity can be multiple,
    transformative, and variable without impinging on the obstructive
    notion of an inner soul. Social identity is expressed not in terms of
    ego-based utterances but in terms of superficial signs: clothing,
    style of life, advertising, and so on.

          Glamour is non-ironic non-identity--a surface gloss, which, in
    fact, neither conceals nor reveals the "person." Glamorous personal
    accessories are, in this sense, non-ironic commodity consumables,
    taken up and put down as is convenient. Once the ego-self relation is
    split apart, it becomes possible to parade quasi-self-identities like
    any other aspect of fashion. Glamour is exciting; in it the self loses
    itself, abandoning itself to appearance. Whereas the classical ego
    recognized itself in melancholy, in a gloomy despair, the contemporary
    self (non-self) recognizes itself in the despair of glamour. Glamour
    is the exclusiveness of money alone, and it requires no effort, no
    refinement of taste, to consume. Glamour does not expose the
    private--it is not conspicuous consumption--so much as it transforms
    the private into the visible innocence of the "man without qualities."
    The lives of the rich and famous become glamorous not because they are
    unable to conceal how they live privately, or because they court
    publicity to become yet more rich and famous, but because glamour in
    itself de-individuates and disintegrates all boundaries; the glamorous
    is essentially public.

          Has, then, the "age of irony" passed to be replaced by an "age
    of glamour" in which appearance is consecrated as the only reality in
    which both personal and social identities are assimilated to a new
    culture of consumerism?[8]^6 Possibly. Where it does not matter what
    sort of person one is--even to that person himself or herself--then
    neither identity nor irony remains important, and there are only the
    continuously shifting boundaries of impersonal and transient life
    contents. In this context, identity is a transitory selfhood,
    momentarily distinguished from what might be termed the "background
    radiation" of self-presence. This hardly amounts to an alternative
    spectator ego, watching over the whole comedy. There remains not much
    more than a bare impersonal presence, a quality of hereness and
    nowness, which lends to the fleeting experience of conventionalized
    selfhoods their peculiar, but intermittent, primacy.

          Modernity thus moves through a period of "authentic" selfhood to
    one of "ironic" selfhood to a contemporary culture of what might be
    termed "associative" selfhood--a continuous "loosening" of the tie
    between an "inner" soul and an "outer" form of social relation. A
    certain contemporary infatuation with the notion of "irony" as the
    inauthentic is surely misplaced. The age of irony is primarily the age
    of high capitalism; the post-modern is, in contrast, the age of

          Yet we remain aware of ourselves as individuals; personal
    identities are not wholly dissolved into immediate relations. Or,
    rather, of the modes of identity and non-identity available to us,
    "old-fashioned" individualism remains a possibility. It seems that
    modes of experience persist in us, or through us, which not only have
    their origin in the past but also continue, as it were, to point to a
    vanished social and cultural context. We do not live only in the
    contemporary world, but at every period in the development of Western
    society--pre-modern as well as modern. We thus "feel" ourselves to be
    in one moment souls enclosed in bodies, and then, in the next moment,
    we are spread out as extended surfaces, or become primitive
    cosmological schemas.

          Identities, thus, are continuous oscillations, movements from
    one world to another. And irony, its protean form adapting to
    contemporary conditions, now expresses the freedom of this movement
    and the false limitations of accepting any position or perspective as
    genuine and authentic. Contemporary identity has the added advantage,
    as it were, of being a self-conscious form of historicism and
    perspectivism. Without irony we remain unaware of this and cannot
    commit ourselves even to the possibility of variety. Irony, thus, has
    become a technique of losing rather than gaining the soul. Indeed,
    contemporary irony has become self-consciously historical and social.
    It is a succession of forms, now "postmodern" superficiality, now the
    depth of the soul--a succession from which we do not detach ourselves
    but adopt in relation to it, at appropriate moments, an "ironic" or a
    non-ironic standpoint. This perspectivism might be regarded as itself
    a thoroughgoing irony. The idle playing with forms with which Hegel
    charged the Romantics has become, rather than an extreme measure of
    individuation, the general condition of contemporary life. More
    optimistically, it may be closer to Thomas Mann's understanding of
    irony as, "adopting, one after another, an infinity of points of view
    in such a way that they correct each other; thus we escape all
    one-sided centrismes and recover the impartiality of justice and

          As in the postmodern world, all distinctions become fluid,
    boundaries dissolve, and everything can just as well appear to be its
    opposite; irony becomes the perpetual sense that things could be
    somewhat different, though never fundamentally or radically different.

          Modernity, that is to say, has become so well established (as
    postmodernity) that it can now allow individuals not simply the
    reconciling luxury of an inner and harmless freedom--a personal
    identity conceived as a soul--but also the freedom to express
    themselves, and, even more significantly, to act without expressing
    themselves and to abandon altogether the pursuit of personal identity.
    Modernity has become so effectively institutionalized that it no
    longer requires that its subjects be individuated, personalized, and
    identified in terms of the unique qualities of inwardness.

          In this perspective the inexplicable succession of events and
    images exercises a fatal power over us. The world becomes so confident
    in its appearance (glamour) that it parades itself before us and
    humiliates our puny efforts to assert ourselves, ironically or
    actually, over its objectivity. Now, rather than the exalted subject
    rising ironically above the world of its own limiting objectivity, the
    irresistible force of this very objectivity transforms every subject
    into a plaything of its casual irony.

    [9]^1 Douglas C. Muecke, The Compass of Irony (London: Methuen, 1969)
    5. ] [10]^2 Richard Ford, The Sportswriter (London: Harvill, 1996) 37.
    ] [11]^3 Ford 147. ] [12]^4 Ford 30. ] [13]^5 Martin Heidegger, "What
    Is Metaphysics?" Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York:
    Harper and Row, 1977) 101, as quoted in Pat Bigelow, Kierkegaard and
    the Problem of Writing, Kierkegaard and Postmodernism (Tallahassee:
    The Florida State University Press, 1987) 120. ] [14]^6 See Don
    Slater, Consumer Culture and Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 1997). ]

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