The Alchemy of Irony

This is something of a postscript on a previous post on a popular subset of postmodern literature, something you can find here.


Despite postmodernism’s recognition of literature’s limitations – and this includes the limitations of history’s previous accountings of events, as well as our attempts to explain the human experience through philosophy – this particular, popular strain of literature has fallen prey to ego, in particular writers’ egos. The crux of this corruption is in irony. But let me explain.

Irony is the juxtaposition of opposing forces, viewpoints, linguistic twists, etc., usually for one of two purposes: humor and emphasis. We all need humor, for sure. And it’s well and good to have in one’s arsenal such a tool as irony to add texture to whatever is written. Even though humor is meant to be a gentle shove toward correcting social mores, actions, and attitudes, its corruption comes when the humorist, the implementor of humor, uses it in a condescending fashion, to debase and demean its objects, rather than to correct them. And when too much is made of irony in the context of emphasis, the corruption is essentially the promotion of the user’s ego.

But how does this translate within postmodern literature?

In the post linked above, I sat down hard on overuse – and overemphasis on – narration. In nineteenth century novels, the narrator was the proxy oral storyteller (we were not yet that far removed from oral versions of story, it seems); thus the narrator was omniscient, able to speak to all phases of story and character – as if a literary god. After more than a century of modernism in storytelling, in which the reader was invited in, ever so intimately, to his or her own take on the story’s significance, the plumbing of character, etc., we now see a return to narration – not for the benevolence of story or character, but to express the self-consciousness of the writer. But why would a writer want to create a story in which all aspects of it revolve so obviously about the writer’s psychology? Sadly, to place the writer on a pedestal, above the character, the story, and the reading public.

And this is where irony begins to tarnish. Where once the writer was the instrument of literature’s muses, and to paraphrase McLuhan, the writer is now the message – the ultimate, abstracted end result of the “me” phenomenon. Here, irony turns cynical, egoistic, mean, literarily destructive. Where once irony was a tool to add depth to characterization and story, its modern corruptions make characters flat, story meaningless.


If we were to return to irony as a social corrective, a tool to create literary terrain, what would be the effect on the postmodern perspective?

  • the return of story as a social construct – incorporating history, philosophy, ethics – but with a more universal emphasis.
  • the surrender of writerly ego to the presence of literature itself.
  • a renewed ability of readers to embrace characterization as part of themselves – even when the characters aren’t within the reader’s personal experience.
  • the continued democratization of literature.

Clearly postmodernism is a transitory step in social evolution. What will emerge from that tunnel’s far end? I can guess, but I’d likely be wrong. But one thing’s for certain: were we to continue in the current path of postmodern literature, we would soon be presiding over the demise of literature itself.



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Immovable Objects, Irresistible Forces

Harper’s Magazine, February 2013


The price exacted for good journalism is, occasionally, a cynical screed. Reporters look at events and public personalities with a practiced, often jaundiced eye and, I suppose an occasionally overly critical piece is to be expected.

This is the case with Thomas Frank’s take on the Spielberg movie, “Lincoln.” The movie’s message, claims Frank is one of success through the corruptions of intimidation and bribery. This wasn’t my takeaway (and maybe I’m a Pollyanna politically) but I thought Frank’s comments overly caustic – although, in perspective, he had much truth to espouse concerning the limitations of the U.S.’s form of government.

Elsewhere in this issue, the theme of immovable objects jousting with irresistible forces played out plainly. In “This Land Is Not Your Land,” Ted Genoways reduces immigration issues to Fremont, Nebraska, and its Hormel plant. Here, Hormel has been ridding itself of union workers, even domestic workers in general, in favor of illegals. Out of work locals tilt at illusory windmills in Fremont in the form of deporting all immigrant/illegal workers. But what’s to be the upshot of that? Locals reduced to working for minimum (or less) wages and overlong hours?

In “Kabubble,” Matthew Aikins takes a hard look at the state of the Afghani state with Kabul as microcosm as Allied forces continue to withdraw troops and money. Well meant money has provided jobs and a creakingly emerging middle class in Kabul. What’s to become of Afghanistan, then, as money and jobs draw down? Aikins wonders if this emerging middle class will escape the country, fall back into poverty, or endure – and his best guess isn’t a positive one.

Even Cynthia Ozick’s too-erudite piece of fiction, “The Bloodline of the Alkanas,” pits  a creative writing father against a techno-daughter, this story a lament for the work of undiscovered and misunderstood writers.

There are also a couple of excellent book reviews here: Michael Scammell’s take on “Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956,” by Anne Applebaum, and John Crowley’s intriguing view of American spirituality, centered on Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, “Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality,” by Gary Lachman.

There’s an item here and there to take issue with, but all told this is an issue worthy of a cover to cover read.

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Living Breathing, In-depth Journalism

This month’s abbreviated magazine week showcase begins here:


The Atlantic, January/February 2013

Sometimes New Years’ resolutions really amount to something more than good intentions and, given that The Atlantic actualizes such intentions at the start of 2013, this issue gladdens me. It’s a return to in-depth reportage on a number off fronts. There’s a lot here that’s worthy of reading here, but let me hit the high points.

How is anesthesia use connected to consciousness? Read “Awakening,” by Joshua Lang. There’s been a long-held opinion, counter to classical philosophy, that consciousness is somehow a product of the brain and neural apparatuses, that consciousness goes away, more or less altogether, under the influence of anesthesia.. This opinion, however, is proving a slippery slope, and the chase to identify consciousness goes on. And on.

Are you breathing a sigh of relief, now that the banking industry has been saved  and that the Dodd-Frank law promises to bring modernized regulation to the banking industry? Maybe you shouldn’t. In a collaborative article by Frank Partnoy and Jesse Eisinger, “What’s Inside America’s Banks,” we discover that many (almost all?) of modern banking transactions are so hard to qualify and quantify that no amount of analysis can assess a bank’s health. This is true particularly in assessing the degree of risk taken on in, for instance, derivative transactions.

Most of us know enough about late-twentieth century politics to smile smugly as we talk about the U.S.’s face-down of the U.S.S.R., which ended the Cuban missile crisis. Some of us even talk about the particulars of the tradeoff – the Cuban missiles for relatively meaningless U.S. missiles in Turkey and Italy. But Benjamin Schwartz’s article, “The Real Cuban Missile Crisis,” draws on a trove of information made public since 1997 to paint a much different picture of this pivotal moment in international relations.

As I wrote above, there’s much more, and if you’re looking to home-school yourself on one dismal winter day, you should pick up this issue and read it cover to cover.


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Personal Complexities and Power

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Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham

A friend of mine, who at the time was deputy commissioner of a state agency in Georgia, had a very large portrait of Jefferson hanging on the wall outside his office. Each occasion I had to visit his office found me in the anteroom taking in the painting. On one such occasion, he stepped out to hand something to his secretary and smirked at my obvious admiration of both the painting and the man.

“Like that?” he asked, as he nodded toward the painting.

“Definitely,” I replied.

“A damn kook,” he said. “You want the painting you can have it.”

I didn’t take it, but our exchange pretty much defines feelings toward Jefferson in these United States, even after two centuries. Jefferson stood at the epicenter of a social and political revolution that now defines our world, and such people will invariably draw polarized reactions to anything they do. Jon Meacham knows that. Even so, what Meacham does in this book is to portray the many complexities of Thomas Jefferson and how those traits were brought to bear on the changing world of the eighteenth century.

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Meacham’s portrayal of Jefferson is one of a confident man, a visionary thinker in many realms – politics, religion, science, and philosophy, and architecture, to name the most obvious. But Meacham goes to pains to point out that Jefferson didn’t live in the clouds; over and over, Jefferson proclaimed that an idea was simply an idea unless one had the ability to implement it. Toward that end, Meacham’s Jefferson knew how to articulate ideas, particularly in writing (he was a less-than-imposing public speaker), and he knew every trick of political power of that time. He made many mistakes in exercising power, but he learned from them.

Beyond politics, he designed his Monticello home and devised many inventions within it. He spoke and read a number of languages. He carried on friendly correspondences with a number of prominent people, both in the newly founded United States, and in Europe. He lost his cherished wife early in his life, and following his period of grief, he apparently carried on a number of liaisons, both here and abroad. He cherished his friends and family, but paid little apparent attention to the multi-racial children he sired with Sally Hemings. He was a lifelong friend of John Adams, but for a while their politics made them adversaries. And he constantly feared that the European urge to monarchy would poison the new republic he helped form.

It would be easy in writing of this era to be seduced by events, to leave Jefferson as a supporting character to history. But Meacham resists this. Instead, he stays close to Jefferson the man, the friend, the father, the politician. As such, many readers will likely feel cheated by this book, as many of the events of the Jeffersonian era are given only passing note. Early in the book Meacham repeats himself in places, which always unsettles me a bit. But his prose is elegant, his portrayal of Jefferson fair and, I think, honest. It’s a book worthy of the man he portrays, and I believe it’s a significant addition to the many books already written about Jefferson.


My rating: 18 of 20 stars



The View From Afar

I’ve always suspected that we in the U.S. are a rather insular bunch when it comes to our homegrown literature. I’m probably “worse” than much – I remain smitten by Southern literature, even to the point of jumping on that train as a writer. You gotta be what you are, you know?

But in this article by Anne Korkeakivi (linked below), we get a view from across the pond regarding the types of our writing that resonate with the French.

What do you think of these choices?




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The Perilous Lack of Reality in Virtual Life

I, like most of us, have begun to think seriously of late about various socio-political things facing us everyday (trust me – this will have to do with my usual subject matter of media, technology, creativity, etc.), particularly the gun-realted tragedies of the past few years, but also related subjects such as an obsession with militias, tri-cornered hats, “don’t-tread-on-me,” Tea Parties and no taxation, and the accompanying romancing of small government. But to all this I want to add other social obsessions: video games,the Internet in general, the postmodern spectacles of pop music and big-time sports. What do all these have in common? Let’s take a look. – – (NOTE: this is a long post, so if you want to get down to business, scroll to the end of the post.)


  • Gun crimes until recent years have been largely (and sadly) black on black, in inner cities neighborhoods that are predominantly black, Hispanic, and Asian. So why do whites in predominantly white neighborhoods feel threatened? Why do some feel the need for assault rifles, pistols, even more dangerous weapons? Sure, racism and its correlate, fear of what you don’t understand, figures prominently into this. But to my mind, the culprit is largely TV. With the proliferation of of TV networks and channels, each one has to shout louder than the rest to gain your attention to their versions of the news – and to their sponsorships. Certainly FOX is the biggest miscreant in this, but they aren’t alone by any means. There seems to be an element of attention to perceived danger that governs over the reality of relative peacefulness in our nationwide society. I have a cousin who watches FOX all day long, and when I talk to her, the conversation quickly grows toxic a la “the world’s going to hell in a hand basket.” She – and many others, I fear – are blind to optimism, to the idea that whatever problems are out there have solutions – and that some may involve her/their participation. I could give many more examples, but the idea here is that we tend these days to surrender the perceivable reality out there to the virtual, “reality-based” one TV dishes.


  • The grandest and most erroneous political phenomenon of recent years is the Tea Party, and I won’t dwell on people who advocate against their own real interests. But before the TPs formed, we were pummeled by Ronald Reagan with “government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.” Newt Gingrich espoused a hue and cry for no new taxes during his time as House Speaker, an idea that still resonates with much of the public despite a Federal budget broken by adventurous spending on several large-ticket unfunded mandates. Any household checkbook keeper will tell you that spending more without more income is dangerous. Of course, this doesn’t translate purely at the macro-economic level. Keynesian economics will tell any high school student that in bleak economic times, when the public isn’t buying and business isn’t hiring or producing, government just might have to deficit-spend to pull us out of our financial doldrums. And lest I be accused of pounding only on Republicans, let me vent my spleen briefly on the current “god”of the Democrats, Bill Clinton. In order not to be a do-nothing president with a Congress hard-set against him, he compromised his ideas to death in order to have his “grand bargains.” On Education? Clinton bowed to the large corporations who continue to donate massive amounts of money to the large and growing universities for research that benefitted largely those corporations. Universities should be job factories, Clinton proclaimed, and the idea of teaching young minds to think lucidly (until recently the primary purpose of higher education) was pushed to the back bench in order to serve corporate needs. And Obama is taking the same posture. But what does this have to do with virtuality? Politics has become a virtual world; whether it’s the TPs or Joe Lunch Bucket who is out of a job, or the emerging proliferation of minority perspectives that are finally getting their day in the sun, politics preaches a zero-sum game, rarely trafficking in solutions to problems or a calming of social angst. Like the TV moguls, politicians pummel us with sound bites and speeches void of fact-based rationales. That they appeal mostly to our emotions – and not our reason – is a trait of this emerging virtual word as it spills into the real one we live and breathe in.


  • Anyone who reads even a portion of this post will see it in various “places” on the Internet. The Internet has become a social and political phenomenon that is with us for the long haul, and that’s probably a good thing in the overall sense. Still, it does have its problems. Journalistic in-depth reportage, the fifth estate, served us well for years as a tool for informing us  of issues foreign and domestic, but it’s now quickly being replaced with blogger posts (like mine here, I suppose), and the tendency there is not to separate oneself from the fray in order to construct a relatively unbiased, rational perspective on our changing world. E-mail, even games, can be ways to communicate regularly with those we hold dear, with those we wish to get to know better, but the nuances of those media (I’ll return to nuance a bit later) forestall the human intimacy we need, emotional, even biological. And these games, and the growing number of virtual worlds – – my wife played a game called Glitch for a couple of years. In Glitch, you have an avatar (a virtual person) living in a neighborhood of your choosing within the world of Ur. During those two years, she experienced, virtually the issues of the real world: making money, buying clothes, furniture, a home, etc., going to parties and general socializing. But there was also robbery, animal abuse, and a number of other community problems the players had to contend with on a regular basis. Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it?  But the game ended some months ago (The developers “Devs” weren’t able to keep this inventive game going financially). The night the game ended I accompanied my wife at the computer, reading posts by the players, as the game was slowly shut down. For weeks she was morose over the loss of something that had only a tenuous grasp of living, breathing reality, and I can’t blame here, really; the game had mimicked real life to such a degree that the shut-down seemed barely short of an apocalypse.  And then there are the kid games: action games, war games, all sorts of games out there, and kids play them constantly. Many games are sanctioned by the military (this isn’t my paranoia -it’s real) in order to de facto train kids to military service in a country that remains void of a military draft. Some games are extremely violent, others not so much. But if my wife cried over the loss of Glitch, is it too great a leap to think that kids might allow virtuality to confuse their corporeal reality?
  • Any educator, even in the lower levels of K-12 will tell you it’s hard to gain kid’s interest on mundane subjects such as history, geography, math, English, without appealing to any sensationalistic aspect that might be wallowing about on the surface of those subjects. Take this poll: Kids, do you want to be a physicist? An engineer? A schoolteacher? A plumber? A carpenter? Or would you like to be a CIA agent? A professional athlete? A rock star? I’d be surprised if those first five occupations win out over the latter ones. Why? Media has glamorized pop music, rock stars, athletes and governmental intrigues to the point of virtuality. Would it be possible to do the same for the more mundane occupations? I would hope so, but I doubt it.


So what’s point here? It’s that there’s no ethical basis inherent in our technologically generated virtual worlds, whether it be digital communities like Glitch (which did espouse an unregulated  sense of ethics)  or Call of Duty. The Daily Beast published an article on such virtuality recently, and in a latter paragraph, the author had this to say:

“No matter how you beef it up with little icons or fancy colors, [virtual worlds] don’t have the nuance of face-to-face interaction,” says Oxford University’s Susan Greenfield, who heads the U.K.’s Institute for the Future of the Mind.”

And nuance is the key to the problems of viruality: Social interaction in real life are deceptively complex, allowing persons to express, but also allowing for doubt, consolation, accommodation, and understanding that still seems only a dream in virtual worlds.

TV seeks only to draw our attention to their sponsorships, and it doesn’t particularly care about the short- and long-term effects of the manner in which it draws viewers in. Politicians, who we hope will solve the problems they’re elected to treat, make virtual games of competing ideologies – not in order to serve, but the keep their jobs. Athletes, singers, actors – and much of popular an literary writing – seek to entertain without the Aristotlean adjunct of art to also educate.

As a result, we’re drawing ourselves into a new form of tribalism, much of the impetuses for them based in unreality – – virtuality –  – a  series of worlds as imperfect and flawed as the new technologies that create them – – and we’re coalescing within thse new groups with weaponry. Can we retreat from these unreal worlds – or at least keep them in peaceful perspective? Let’s hope so, for the good of us all.


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The Thing About Printed Books

You might think this article would be for literary Luddites, who prefer Gutenberg to Steve Jobs.

Not so, according to its author: “E-books are not simply a better format replacing an inferior one; they offer a wholly different experience.” Thus, there’s room for both in the modern experience.

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