Flight Journal Excerpt: Irony, Meaning, and Certainty

(Excerpted from a longer journal entry written on an overnight flight from NYC to Dusseldorf, August 15, 2019. No significant edits from original entry. Footnotes added later, to contextualize references.)

+2:22
Ate a sandwich and some peanut M&Ms, but I had to pay for them. Apparently in-flight meals are a luxury now. I was thinking about meaning issues, lack of ability to start or feel motivated. In college I felt a state of certainty, total unambiguity, that allowed me to single-mindedly pursue my work with pleasure. Truth-seeking as a behavior inherently produces ambiguity alongside its twin, ambivalence. Thinking representationally, seeking the full picture1, results in multiplied perspective, such that a certainly loved thing becomes both loved and hated. Hence knowledge produces hatred and ambivalence2. The more you learn, the less any of it seems meaningful besides the experience of insight itself.

It all snaps into focus: "I think therefore I doubt." If we want certainty (which Lacan described as Freud's primary question3), umambiguous meaning, we therefore must eliminate thought, or at least the form of thought that seeks to generate truth and therefore ambivalence. The stopper of thought is flow, ritual practice, etc. But there is the impasse: one feels ambivalent and cannot enter a flow state, but one's only freedom from ambivalence is through that flow state. Pascal's secret--the secret of faith--is to persist through the ritual despite one's contemptuous knowledge, and eventually the illusions that knowledge is predicated on will shatter and be replaced with certainty4. For it is only experience that allows for certainty. Without experience, "absolute truths" are mere words on a page.

But what force can compel someone to "fake it until they make it", how can one overcome the initial barrier of refusal? Since the contempt exists at the level of the ideal ego, a solution is to perform the ritual in a space separated from one's self-image, such that there's no threat to the individual's identity. This sort of space is produced by what we call a "game" (in fact, one could define "games" as whatever situation produces such an effect). Games have rules and masks and provide a "suspended" space where one can try something for which they have contempt5. Irony culture is a game in this sense, but the formal structure of the game is highly abstract, as it revolves around a claim to identity rather than an "activity". But perhaps identity games are social media's equivalent of sport. Each team's fans are certainly as vicious.

Irony culture is bolstered by an inherent perversity. Upon donning one's ironic Carhartt hat, one might thing "hah, I know that Carhartt is a brand for Republican farmers and doesn't represent my identity, but still I love it even more." That is the formal structure of perversion: the gain of additional pleasure through performing an action that one knows is wrong6 (in this case, the actor perceives it as wrong to wear clothing that reflects an identity opposed to their own). But as each ironic shift becomes normalized, the ironist's perception of the signifiers shift from "wrong" to "right", as more people adopt the ironic trend. The sense of perversion lessons along with the pleasure, and a new "wrong" signifier must be selected and consumed.


  1. Leif Weatherby, "Irony and Redundancy": I'm referencing "...what Hegel called “representational thinking,” in which the goal is to capture a picture of the world that is adequate to it." This is in opposition to "...conceptual thinking, which in Hegel’s terms is that thought that is embedded in, constituted by, and substantially active within the causal chain of substance, expression, and history." 

  2. Robert Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners, pp. 69-71.: 

    Ambivalence is due to a conflict of aspirations of which one remains unconscious (or, at least, for the most part)... the popular opposition between belief and knowledge (‘We believe what we do not know’) must, at least in terms of belief, be reversed to its exact opposite: better knowledge forms a necessary prerequisite of each and every belief; we believe precisely what we know better. And this paradox now seems explicable: better knowledge nourishes contempt of the belief [in this case, whichever naive belief is undermined by truth-seeking] and keeps it alive – and does so apparently in spite of all better knowledge and all enlightenment. Therefore, superstitious believers must always be viewed as bearers of a ‘cynical awareness’ that elevates them above matters – and they must also view themselves in this way. There is an ‘I know’ here that must be able to accompany all illusions of this kind.

  3. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 35.: 

    The major term, in fact, is not truth. It is Gewissheit, certainty. Freud's method is Cartesian—in the sense that he sets out from the basis of the subject of certainty. The question is—of what can one be certain? With this aim, the first thing to be done is to overcome that which connotes anything to do with the content of the unconscious —especially when it is a question of extracting it from the experience of the dream—to overcome that which floats everywhere, that which marks, stains, spots, the text of any dream communication—I am not sure, I doubt.

    Now—and it is here that Freud lays all his stress—doubt is the support of his certainty.

    He goes on to explain why—this is precisely the sign, he says, that there is something to preserve. Doubt, then, is a sign of resistance.

  4. Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture, p. 141.: 

    You want to find faith and do not know the way? You want to cure yourself of unbelief and you ask for the remedies? Learn from those who have been bound like you … Follow the way by which they began; by behaving just as if they believed, taking holy water, having masses said, etc. That will make you believe quite naturally, and will humiliate your understanding. (Pascal, Pensées, pp. 155–6.)

    Rather than suggesting a deepening of theological intensification, he suggests an exercise in superficiality. The candidate should simply act ‘as though’ he believes, and the problem – more precisely, his problem – will thereby be solved. A small, playful, theatrical performance of religious conviction will help to precipitate this conviction – whereas, on the contrary, convincing oneself by means of proof is seen as an impediment. Belief must be acted out for some undetermined other...

  5. Ibid., pp. 53-4.: 

    Huizinga describes the increased intensity of affect that play generates as ‘sacred seriousness’. This sacred seriousness – the fascination, the extreme involvement and celebratory affect that is initiated by play – is at work in all forms of culture, including religion, art and sport. Huizinga thus concludes that play presents the origin of all culture. Huizinga even sees religious cults as especially a consequence of the ‘sacred seriousness’ yielded from play. ‘Sacred seriousness’ communicates one of play’s fundamental operations in establishing spatial and temporal borders –between the playing field and its environment, between the length of the game and the time beyond it. This demarcation establishes the decidedly celebratory atmosphere, and the greater involvement of participants as well as spectators – which also applies among religious cults. The particular affective conditions of religions are also the result of such spatial and temporal demarcations. Huizinga therefore concludes: ‘The hallowed spot [is essentially] a playground.’ (Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 20.)

  6. Ibid., p. 93.: 

    In contradiction with classical psychoanalytical theory, perversion can no longer be diagnosed based on ‘deviations’ with regard to the sexual object or goal. Rather than attempting such a material determination, I have carried out a formal, topical determination... If actors have contempt for their practices, and thereby for themselves, this means that their gain in pleasure is organized around avoiding a reference to an ideal ego. The ‘topicality’ of their pleasure gain is different than for those practices that allow their practitioners to triumph by corresponding to an ideal. At the same time, there is also a difference at the level of the economy of the libido and the dynamic level: when the gain in pleasure is achieved by means of self-contempt, then ambivalence exists. The joyful overload of affect is due to an unconscious conflict of opposing forces.


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