On Irony and Loneliness

Before I transferred to Amherst, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what my life would be like after community college. I finished my two years at Brookdale without knowing where I was going next – notice of my acceptance came the day after my classes ended, two days before my graduation. While the contents of my daydreams varied (though many involved finally starting the punk band I never had in high school), they all circled around a sense of belonging, of being one among others who were like me.

The reason that I applied to Amherst – the reason that I even knew the College existed – was because a professor made my class watch this PBS documentary from 2005 called Declining By Degrees. The film argues that American higher education has become more concerned with retention rates and athletic profits than with the task of pedagogy. Amherst is featured prominently (starting around 01:03:18) as a counterpoint – a school that is convicted and wealthy enough to make education available for students regardless of their income. Tony Marx is interviewed, interspersed with footage of Sarat teaching in Clark 100.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this documentary lately. Last week, one of my classes changed rooms from Converse to Clark 100. I daydreamed about this classroom for months before I came to Amherst. I sit in that room twice a week and feel something like continuity, if not purpose; when class ends I walk outside, and return to a lonely and estranged singularity.

I love Amherst. I longed to be a student at this kind of school. But I can’t reconcile my love with the emotional isolation that has shaped my time here.

Amherst is a diverse community, which is rightfully a source of pride for the school. However, we are paradoxically not a community of difference – our diversity refers specifically to ethnicity, geography, and socioeconomic strata. Opinions voiced by students differ pedantically from one another, but they are not terribly heterogeneous or innovative. Our community is guided and structured by what René Girard identifies as “mimetic desire”: we see others (either before or around us) succeed, or rather achieve what we have been told is success; we aspire to the same end, thoroughly convinced of the uniqueness of our desire. However, according to Girard, our desires are not unique; they are always provoked by another person. In the object of desire we infer the model of desire (what Girard names the “mediator”) – another person who desires the same thing, who in turn becomes our rival and an obstacle in our pursuit of the object.

The problem with this kind of community – one that is organized around likeness, or around equality (of thought, of opinion, etc.) – is that it requires a lot of effort to keep it from descending into war with itself. Roberto Esposito, in Terms of the Political, writes: “When equality is too much, when it touches upon how desire is ordered, with everyone concentrating on the same object – then equality inescapably becomes reciprocal violence.” To avoid this, communities must adopt scapegoats. I’ve written about scapegoating at Amherst over the past year, and I’ve done a bit of scapegoating too; campus discourses frequently digress into establishing causality and isolating the offender. But I think that, more commonly, we deal with the threat of “reciprocal violence” through irony and ironic distance.

Irony is one of those inflated terms that has lost concrete meaning through its wide application. Depending on who you ask, irony is a revolutionary political aesthetic, some kind of social identity plague, or a name for the infantilizing beams that radiate out of TV sitcoms. The irony I’m describing here is closer to the third, the one Wallace observes –the refusal to mean something definitively, to compulsively distance oneself from the content of one’s words. By speaking from an ironic distance, the pressure of mimetic rivalry is relieved – because nothing is stated, nothing is at stake. Opinions are voiced, but each with a degree of separation between speaker and spoken. There are no consequences: in our community, all opinions are equally valid and deserving of consideration. To suggest otherwise, as I have suggested before and am implicitly (okay, explicitly) suggesting now, would be dismissed as advocating censorship.

Ironic distance is perhaps most visible in discourses of objectivity. Objectivity is a pretty funny idea, when you really think about it: the notion that a person could willingly dispossess herself of all biases and constitutive experience, effectively step outside herself, in order to arrive at a universal comprehension of something. By pretending that objectivity is possible – but moreover, by believing that the objective ought to be privileged over the subjective – we are able to remove ourselves not only from the opinions we voice, but from our actual feelings about the issues. The question is no longer: “How do I feel about X as a Y person?”; it becomes “How ought I feel about X as an abstraction?” From the “objective” standpoint, one ought to be able to evaluate all sides of an issue and reach the conclusion that is most congruous with universal principles. Again, this implies that all opinions are deserving of equal consideration, that there is no polar Right and Wrong, but only shades of verity between the two. This is beyond moral relativism. It’s nihilism.

A consequence of this kind of ironic distance is that we deny subjectivity to the extent that we don’t feel things that we ought to feel; things that we need to feel in order to have an actual community. The position of the subjective is the “I” in relation to others; the position of the objective is the “I” above all others. Irony allows us to say subjective things without investing ourselves. We are thus kept from feeling for one another, though not from hurting one another.

The other consequence of ironic distance is anonymity. In a recent article, Gina profiled the role played by Amherst Confidant within our community. I agree with her, in that I believe allowing hateful opinions to be voiced anonymously without consequence is deleterious and ultimately counterproductive to the kind of community I hope to live in. But it also provides another outlet for the mimetic rivalry that otherwise threatens the community with stasis. Not only is the speaker distanced from the spoken, but the spoken is split completely from the speaker; all that is left is a disembodied phrase, a blog comment, an epithet, attributable to no one, like the swastikas drawn outside of Chapman.

Of course, this isn’t unique to Amherst. This is how most of the world operates. But what’s unique to Amherst is us, despite our efforts to the contrary. Nearly every person I’ve met at this school bemoans the “Amherst Awkward”; last fall, I watched an orientation skit about the desperate need to “just say hi” to one another in Val. And yet it remains. At least in the year that I’ve been here, Amherst hasn’t gotten any less awkward. What is so hard about relating to other people specifically for members of this community? How can we call ourselves a community when we go out of our way to be out of the lives of others? Why have we settled for being lonely? There are barriers between us, ones that are invisible because they are entrenched in our pedagogy, teaching us to privilege the objective over the subjective, the empirical over the anecdotal, the ironic over the sincere.

I spent a lot of time last year in my room. I lived on the first floor of Moore, in a large room with high ceilings on the corner of the building. My mom brought me these pumpkin lights – Christmas lights with paper pumpkin lanterns around them – when she visited before Halloween, and I hung them on the wall across from my bed. For a while, I did this thing where I would turn off every light except the pumpkins, sit on the floor, and cry. I was grateful that I had somewhere I could be vulnerable, but I didn’t understand why I could only be sad behind a locked door. I had friends; I joined clubs; I went dancing. But I was failing to do what the people around me seemed to do with ease – stay on top of work, take care of myself, have a good time, enjoy college. Other people could listen to the issues raised by last year and engage them dispassionately; in contrast, I felt ashamed for how deeply these issues affected me, as though legitimate opinions could only be cultivated through cold and distanced rationality.

I’m definitely not the first Amherst student to write about irony, and I’d like to close by quoting one far more articulate than myself:

And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All irony is a variation on a sort of existential poker-face. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I say.’ So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How very banal to ask what I mean.’ Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands far ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful revel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny.

Our challenge, then, is precisely to be hysterics and prigs: to feel and mean, unabashedly, to signify in the face of discursive violence and feigned objectivity, to argue from a place of agitated love. This article is vulnerable to the same criticism it presents – I’m aware that this sort of “academic” analysis of social problems, or even of a personal dilemma like loneliness, can appear as though written from an intellectual distance. To this, I have no response other than that I am in earnest, and I hope I have left no room to question what I mean. I’m not convinced that we need to feel lonely, nor that everyone feels as lonely as I do; simply that we should have compassion for one another as subjects. I make no claim to any solution or answer; all I can hope is that I may be as vulnerable as I am clear. It isn’t banal to ask what one means; it’s imperative.