Of Which We May Speak: Meditations on Irony

Things I Hate

The intelligentsia professes to admire irony.  In the 1990s the members of that class watched Seinfeld in first-run and they subsequently bought the program on DVD because they took it for ironic.  In the 2010s they watched Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm for the identical reason.  Intellectuals usually identify themselves as ironists, of a rarer variety even than the redoubtable television comedian, whether it is Seinfeld or David, on the supposition that they stand askew to the prevailing social consensus, such that their perspective yields them an insight into matters opaque to hoi polloi.  “I have baffled them,” the late Joseph N. Riddell, an English professor, once said within earshot of his graduate students while emerging from the Haines Hall lecture auditorium at UCLA.  He had been deconstructing Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe in a lecture that quoted Jacques Derrida and other then-obligatory Frenchmen rather more than it quoted Emerson or Poe.  The remark partook more in the self-congratulatory than in the ironic, but it was symptomatic of a certain enduring intellectual conceit in which the sense of a privilege of irony, or a satisfaction in superiority, also takes root.  The modern or postmodern intellectual pretends to hover above the settled and the established, to gaze down upon the “culturescape,” as though from a height.  Even while he declares himself “against Platonism” and works “to subvert metaphysics,” he cannot help but to take, likely without grasping the contradiction, a transcendentally guaranteed view of life, the world, and everything.  Naturally he will deny participating in a transcendent domain, the idea of which he will mock, borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche’s redoubtable treasure-trove of anti-Christian sophisms, but probably without knowing it.

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Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 - 1905) Homer & His Guide (1874)

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905): Homer & His Guide (1874)

[A Short Preface: I first delivered the following essay as a keynote address on the occasion of the fourth annual conference of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, in New York City, in the fall of 1999.  It subsequently appeared in a number of Modern Age, the ISI quarterly.  Some of the references are, in 2020, a bit dated, but nothing has changed essentially since the end of the last century – except that what was bad then has only gotten worse.  I have rewritten the essay a bit, but have made no attempt to update the references in sections III and IV.]

This essay attempts to set out the basic or better yet the deep justification of the traditional curriculum.  That phrase, “the traditional curriculum” means, of course, the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and select items from modern and national literatures.  The list in Harold Bloom’s study of The Western Canon (1997) is perfectly acceptable.  “The traditional curriculum,” it must be added, also implies the basic training in literacy that comes before any acquaintance with the classics, or with a literature of any kind.  It is worth remembering that alphabetic literacy, the precondition of literacy in the larger sense, constitutes a recent development in the half a million years or so of incontestable human presence.  The literary tradition is the cumulus of a particular type of intellectual activity that first became possible less than three thousand years ago in Syria and the Levant and, a bit later and rather more pronouncedly, in the Greek cities from Ionia to Magna Graecia.  Just how much this activity differed from anything else that human beings had ever done these paragraphs shall attempt to indicate.  That the alphabet itself might be, in its way, the first great work of literature in the Western Tradition is not a thought that most people are used to thinking.  Yet there could well be a pay-off in contemplating the ABCs in just that light.  Like poems and dramas and novels, the alphabet imposes a wholly artificial order on an element, speech, of human experience and therefore puts that element in a new and unprecedented perspective.  The confrontation with poems and dramas and novels is a continuation of the confrontation with what the letters and their combinations reveal about the distinguishing human trait, language.  One begins, then, at the beginning.

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Tradition or Meaninglessness?

One of the main functions of tradition is to pass down to successive generations a comprehension of the meanings of the customary and traditional praxes and language. If the Tradition fails at that, then the praxes become meaningless and stupid, and are soon discarded as extraneities worthily subject to Ockham’s Razor: to the first principle of order, which is deletion. That’s when you get iconoclasm, whether intentional or not.

Intentional iconoclasm knows the meanings of the icons it destroys. Unintentional iconoclasm does not. The former is effected by destruction; the latter by desuetude.

Once the meanings of the cultural praxes are gone, the praxes themselves soon follow; for, there is then no longer any reason for them, that anyone knows or remembers. And that’s when the culture decoheres.

What Cannot But Be Carried Into Practice Must Perforce Be Veridical

A proposition that can’t be acted upon must be false, or even meaningless. So its contradiction must be true. Thus you can’t think that you can’t think, e.g.; so you can think, period full stop.

The corollary is that if you cannot avoid acting as if a proposition is true, then it must be true. You must at every moment act, willy nilly; so it is true that you can act. Your agency is real. There is literally no way around this operational presupposition. There is no way for us to be, except by an implicit presupposition of its truth. And the only way for us not to be – namely, suicide – is a way that, again, implicitly presupposes its truth. You can’t kill yourself if you can’t act. You can kill yourself. So you can act. QED.

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Apologetical Weapons: Projection Manifests a Conviction of Personal Evil

It is a commonplace of neoreactionary and reactionary discourse that Social Justice Warriors always project. Once you’ve digested a Red Pill, in respect to any domain of life, you cannot help but notice this phenomenon. No one in the modern West is as hateful as the haters of haters; no one in the modern West is as blind to his own hatred.

It is worth remembering, then, that as Jung first developed the notion of projection from his own vast clinical experience, projection is of those traits that people most abhor in themselves. It arises from their deep conviction of their own personal evil. What we most hate in others then is – so Jung found – a pretty reliable indication of what we hate in ourselves, but would rather not confess to ourselves, or of course a fortiori to anyone else.

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Apologetical Weapons: It’s Not About You

I have noticed that our adversaries often mistake our critique of their notions as ad hominem condemnation of them as persons. They then react defensively, levying just the sort of vicious ad hominem attacks they say they abhor. This mystifies me.

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Is Traditional Culture Even Possible Henceforth?

The acid eating at tradition is cheap information. This is to say that the acid eating away at cultures – all cultures, properly so called – is cheap information.

And information is from now on essentially free.

Can there then ever again be such a thing as a coherent traditional society?

Sure, tradition is necessary; it is the atomic stuff of culture as such. But is it even possible anymore? Are we looking at the death of culture?

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The Age of Disorientation

Electronic maps are great. Their route planning vis-à-vis current traffic conditions is terrifically handy. But I am sure I am not alone in finding that reliance upon electronic guidance for direction to destinations impairs my ability to build my own internal maps of new territory – to know where I am and find my way.

I’m pretty good at orienteering. It’s an occupational requirement for professional outdoorsmen. I know where North is almost always, and without thinking about it; and I can often find my way to a new place by the seat of my pants. I’ve trekked in the wilderness for weeks with no better map than what I could draw on the back of an envelope, and never got lost. To be fair, I’ve also found myself totally bewildered in company with three other experienced outdoorsmen equipped with good topo maps and compasses under clear skies. Too many cooks in the kitchen, perhaps.

But when I rely upon electronic guidance to get to a new destination – rather than map reading, memory, and dead reckoning – I find that *I can’t find my way there the next time without that same electronic help.* Why? Because, knowing that as I travel I can rely upon the electronic guidance to support me in my first foray, I relax my conscious attention to my environment versus my map, and turn it instead to my own thoughts of this or that. I arrive at my destination, but without a vivid memory of how I got there. It’s almost like driving a route you’ve known for years; you do it automatically, thinking of other things, and arrive with no vivid recollection of the trip. The difference of course is that when I get someplace new in that semiconscious way, *I have no clear idea where I am.* I am disoriented. I literally don’t know where East is, and must examine the shadows to calculate it.

That state of disoriented befuddlement is a fitting analogy for what is overtaking us in many departments of modern life.

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The Simultaneous Emergence of Language & Religion

Gans & Girard

Rene Girard (Left) and Eric Gans (Right)

My article on Oswald Spengler and William Olaf Stapledon – Two Eccentric Theorists of the Origin of Language – appears in the current number of Anthropoetics: the Journal of Generative Anthropology. Assuming the framework of Eric Gans’ “scenic” and “evenemential” model of the origin of language, the article examines the convergent intuitions of Spengler and Stapledon that language represents a distinctive break from animal signage rather than a gradual development on the basis of animal signage. Spengler, in his Decline, and Stapledon, in his Last Men in London, agree that language and religion spring into being simultaneously in response to a breakdown of the instinctual order in the proto-human group, a breakdown that is exacerbated by the increasing mimeticism of the individuals who comprise that group. The first sign designates both the group and the emergent consciousness, which what is suddenly a community rather than a mere group perceives as God. The argument also draws on René Girard’s concept of the origin of culture in a “sacrificial crisis,” which provides the starting-point for Gans’ theory.  I reproduce three paragraphs from the article’s Introduction. –

Cognoscenti of Generative Anthropology will have acquainted themselves with the history of language-theory in its broad outline as well as with the narrower history of those investigations of things human that sought plausibly to account for or to characterize, in one way or another, the origin of language and by implication the totality of institutions.  Generative Anthropology is itself a late instance of the latter and its originator Eric L. Gans, in his study of The Scenic Imagination: Originary Thinking from Hobbes to the Present Day (2008), offers a rare and succinct survey of logo- and etho-genetic hypotheses, as one might call them, from the Seventeenth Century down to the Twenty-First.  Gans writes, “My thesis is that human experience, as opposed to that of other animals, is uniquely characterized by scenic events recalled both collectively and individually through representations, the most fundamental of which are the signs of language.”  It belongs to Gans’ thesis that, “If the human is indeed a series of scenic events… then the human must have originated in an event… the representation of which, the first example of language and ‘culture,’ is part of the originary scene itself.”  Gans’ term “originary scene” refers to the logically necessary first occasion when the mutual awareness of the ego and the tu, mediated by an object of contention, articulated itself in a gesture or utterance that, lodging in the newly commenced self-acknowledgment and mental continuity of the group, could be recalled or repeated.  Gans makes his own case for the intuitive likelihood of the originary scene, but there is a simpler argument all the more poignant for originating outside of Generative Anthropology, while lending it logical support.  Every word in every language is a coinage.  Whatever the word, there was a time of its coinage, of its first instance, before which it never existed.  Traveling backward in his time machine, the observer would notice, first, a de-ramification of tongues until, an initial bifurcation into two dialects being annulled, only one tongue existed.  In the case of that tongue, the traveler would then witness a diminution of vocabulary until he arrived at the first, and in its day singular and only word of that tongue’s vocabulary.  He would have arrived at the origin of language.

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