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The Existential Ironist at Play

by on June 6, 2011

                ‘Rather than engage with his social world either by taking part in or criticizing it, he [existential ironist; my addition] lifts himself out of it altogether.’ (Andrew Cross; ‘Neither either nor or: The Perils of Reflexive Irony,’ The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard)

Kierkegaard’s sense of irony elaborated into the ‘existential ironist’ is paradigmatic of the radical subjectivity found thematically in many of my previous writings; be it on Nietzsche or religion for example. Now, in the context of Kierkegaard’s sense of the existential ironist, the practitioner, as stated earlier, does not attack nor resign from society- but merely plays along. How is this possible without the eventual self-doubting, self-loathing, or even melancholy resulting from this half-assed engagement with society and its many members?

                First off, I believe it is best illustrated through Sartre’s distinction between ‘being-for-itself’ and ‘being-in-itself.’ The former (humans, by nature of consciousness) status is reserved for those who have both facticity and transcendence. As elaborated on in an earlier piece, facticity is things that can be consciously reflected upon and which are things you can’t change- birthday, parents, place of birth, eye color, etc. Transcendence, in its easiest form, is merely your future as you see it happening according to your own goals. Sartre famously states that ‘I am what I am not, I am not what I am’- this captures perfectly the notion that we are continually reflecting on our past while forming our future. Now, with Kierkegaard, the radical subjectivity that he praises arises from the realization that one’s facticity is contingent in that it would not defy logic for you to have been born at a different time, different place, to different parents, or in fact to never be born at all.

                Now back to Kierkegaard’s notion of the existential ironist, he says: ‘He is suspended above all the qualifications of substantial life,’ and ‘for him, the whole given actuality had entirely lost its validity; he had become alien to the actuality of the whole substantial world’ (‘The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates’). The metaphor that Kierkegaard often uses in distinguishing the existential ironist, he summarizes with: ‘ironist has risen above all society, all interpersonal interactions and relationships.’  And is supplemented with the following: ‘Just as he is not personally invested, or defined by, his social roles and activities, so he is no longer personally invested in, or defined by, his relation to others.’ (Andrew Cross)

                This is where radical subjectivity comes into play. As a thought experiment, attempt to define yourself without any societal attachments in which it is your own consciousness that you use to define yourself. As Tyler Durden famously said in the extraordinary film ‘Fight Club’- ‘you are not your fucking khakis.’ This is the key to what existentialists refer to as ‘authenticity.’ Not only consciously refusing to go along with the crowd but realizing the contingency of all that surrounds you. Sure, we have to go to work, pay bills, shake hands, but the goal here is to realize that it is all meaningless in any real profound sense- it is merely contingent on the time and place you are at functioning on customs and mores that you were not present to direct as being in accordance with civility or any other standard. It is those who attempt to define themselves by race, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation that is truly lost. Case in point- on Kierkegaard’s tombstone, as was requested, it simply states ‘The Individual.’


From → Philosophy

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