Continuing from part 1 and part 2, let me add one further example of how meaning is reversed under the Ironic perspective. At my abandoned group blog, Creative Destruction, which garners more traffic than The Spiral Staircase despite being woefully out of date, the post that gets the most hits argues (without irony) that, in the Star Wars universe, the Empire represents the good guys and the Jedi are the terrorists despite the good vs. evil archetypes being almost cartoonishly drawn, with the principal villain having succumbed to the dark side only to be redeemed by his innate goodness in the 11th hour. The reverse argument undoubtedly has some merit, but it requires overthinking and outsmarting oneself to arrive at the backwards conclusion. A similar dilemma of competing perspectives is present in The Avengers, where Captain America is unconflicted in his all-American goodness and straightforward identification of villainy but is surrounded by other far-too-clever superheroes who overanalyze (snarkily so), cannot agree on strategy, and/or question motivations and each others’ double or triple agency. If I understand correctly, this plot hook is the basis for the civil war among allies in the next Avengers movie.

The Post-Ironic takes the reversal of meaning and paradoxical retention of opposites that characterizes the Ironic and expands issues from false dualisms (e.g., either you’re with us or against us) to multifaceted free-for-alls where anyone’s wild interpretation of facts, events, policy, and strategy has roughly equal footing with another’s precisely because no authority exists to satisfy everyone as to the truth of matters. The cacophony of competing viewpoints — the multiplicity of possible meanings conjured from any collection of evidence — virtually guarantees that someone out there (often someone loony) will speak as though reading your mind. Don’t trust politicians, scientists, news anchors, pundits, teachers, academics, your parents, or even the pope? No problem. Just belly up to the ideological buffet and cherry pick choose from any of a multitude of viewpoints, few of which have much plausibility. But no matter: it’s a smorgasbord of options, and almost none of them can be discarded out of hand for being too beyond the pale. All must be tried and entertained.

One of the themes of this blog is imminent (i.e., occurring within the lifetimes of most readers) industrial collapse resulting from either financial collapse or loss of habitat for humans (or a combination of factors). Either could happen first, but my suspicion is that financial collapse will be the lit fuse leading to explosion of the population bomb. Collapse is quite literally the biggest story of our time despite its being prospective. However, opinion on the matter is loose, undisciplined, and ranges all over the map. Consensus within expert bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, assembled specifically to study climate change and reports its findings, ought to put an end to controversy, yet waters have been so muddied by competing narratives that credulous folks, if they bother paying attention at all, can’t really tell whom to believe. It doesn’t help that even well-educated folks, including many professionals, often lack critical thinking skill with which to evaluate evidence. So instead, wishy-washy emotionalism and psychological vulnerability award hearts and minds to the most charismatic storyteller, not the truth-teller.

Perhaps the best instance of multiple meanings being simultaneously present and demanding consideration is found in the game of poker, which has become enormously popular in the past decade. To play the game effectively, one must weigh the likelihood and potential for any one of several competing narratives based on opponents’ actions. Mathematical analysis and intuition combine to recommend which scenario is most likely true and whether the risk is worth it (pot odds). If, for just one example, an opponent bets big at any point in the poker hand, several scenarios that must be considered:

  • the opponent has made his hand and cannot be beaten (e.g., nut flush, full house)
  • the opponent has a dominating hand and can be beaten only if one draws to make a better hand (e.g., top pair with high kicker or two pair)
  • the opponent has not yet fully made his hand and is on a draw (open-ended straight or four cards to a flush)
  • the opponent has a partial or weak hand and is bluffing at the pot

Take note that, as with climate change, evaluation in poker is prospective. Sometimes an opponent’s betting strategy is discovered in a showdown where players must reveal their cards; but often, one player or another mucks or folds and the actual scenario is undisclosed. The truth of climate change, until the future manifests, is to some tantalizingly unknown and contingent, as though it could be influenced by belief, hope, and/or faith. To rigorous thinkers, however, the future is charted for us with about the same inevitability as the sun rising in the morning — the biggest remaining unknown being timing.

Habitual awareness of multiple, competing scenarios extends well beyond table games and climate change. In geopolitics, the refusal to rule out the nuclear option, even when it would be completely disproportionate to a given provocation, is reckless brinkmanship. The typical rhetoric is that, like fighting dogs, any gesture of backing down would be interpreted as a display of submission or weakness and thus invite attack. So is the provocation or the response a bluff, a strong hand, or both? Although it is difficult to judge how U.S. leadership is perceived abroad (since I’m inside the bubble), the historical record demonstrates that the U.S. never hesitates to get mixed up in military action and adopts overweening strategies to defeat essentially feudal societies (e.g., Korea and Vietnam). Never mind that those strategies have been shown to fail or that those countries represented no credible threat to the U.S. Our military escapades in the 21st century are not so divergent, with the perception of threats being raised well beyond their true proportions relative to any number of health and social scourges that routinely kill many more Americans than terrorism ever did.

Because this post is already running long, conclusions will be in an addendum. Apologies for the drawn out posts.

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Comments
  1. bangkoksteve says:

    Brutus,

    My reading of Iain’s book leaves me hopeful not pessimistic. In the last chapter, the Master Betrayed, there are reasons for hope to be found in: nature, Eastern thought, paradox, in the Christian mythos, traditional values, ‘between-ness’ (his word), spirit & mind, and other dispositions of the right hemisphere (RH).

    One of the more important themes of the book is the return to the RH of what has been given to the left hemisphere (LH) to be re-presented and examined. The term McGilchrist uses for this process is ‘Aufgehoben’. The example he uses to illustrate this point is a pianist working on a complex passage, slowly working through each note, etc and then returning it back into the total understanding of the piece, the context for the performance of the piece. Its this act of not returning the matter at hand to be taken in, assimilated, learned, absorbed, understood into our experience and collective wisdom.

    I see that McGilchrist is warning us. I get that. Scheler also warned Europe before he died, and there was WWII. Perhaps, we will have a global disaster but nature will prevail. The RH and the universal disposition it represents shouldn’t be underestimated.

    I guess I’m an optimist when I say the brain isn’t half empty, its half full. :)

    PS Some of your writings on humor, media, particularly in the US, makes me think of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. He was a philosopher who turned to writing fiction because he said he could get further in fiction than he every could in philosophy. I think if you haven’t read it, you will see what I’m talking about. He removes irony from his writing in and it works to get rid of the endless plays on plays of meaning.

    Cheers, Stephen

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. McGilchrist’s book is exceptionally dense with ideas, so some variability is to be expected when drawing conclusions. Although some may hope that we have turned a corner (for the better) in our understandings of the world and the cultures we inhabit, I’m not among them. Some conditions change, which would ideally be value neutral, but many conditions are worsening and accelerating in their declines. I won’t cite chapter and verse here as many of my posts describe this ongoing process.

      David Foster Wallace is a fascinating character and his writing is terrific. I’ve not read Infinite Jest, but it’s been recommended to me lots of time. I’ve read his shorter essays. His pessimism aligns with my own, though I’m not depressed or despairing.

      • bangkoksteve says:

        Thanks much for the response. I wouldn’t argue with you that there is now far too much to be depressed about (as you are indeed very realistic (and depressed), IM notes (p. 84) “The evidence is that this is not because insight makes you depressed, but because being depressed gives you insight.”; this for me was one of many ‘wow’ moments from the book.)

        I also wouldn’t disagree with lots of your cultural observations. Modernism/PoMo has constantly led us to some very ugly humanity. (I was crushed by it in New York when I tried writing poetry there in the late 80s. I didn’t have the theoretical chops so to speak. I wanted to write about life but the so-called scene was focused on vocabulary envy and the deeper meanings of the belly button. They called it LANGUAGE Poetry.

        Rather I guess I’m still high on the fumes from reading about Max Scheler. Haven’t really gotten that far, only into this thumbnail bio (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scheler/). But find lots in his ideas for righting the ship.

        Just after WWI, Scheler was also warning of a coming apocalypse and he died before it arrived. But now here we are, many more than we were (though less the wiser) and the species survived. No doubt about it; we are more than likely to get ourselves into another disastrous.

        I like your writing. Very concise and direct.

  2. Brutus says:

    Finally got around to rereading McGilchrist at p. 84. I don’t remember that particular line depression/insight vs. insight/depression making a strong impression on me. I’ve often remarked that pessimists have a clearer appreciation of the state of the world than do optimists. I lost the link to credible science in support of that contention. That’s not meant to be self-congratulations, BTW. A certain naïveté might actually be desirable, but I can’t unsee or unknow what I now understand.

    I will eventually read the Stanford entry on Scheler, but it’s not a high priority for me. Phenomenology is fertile ground within the discipline of philosophy, and when it’s mixed with tumultuous events of the early 20th century tends to look like prophecy. I’m not inclined to prediction, but as you can easily tell from my blog, some developments seem to me inevitable. For now, it’s a waiting game to see which awfulness manifests first, then we’re off to the races in earnest.

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