Irony and criticism

To the extent that romanticism has ever thought itself as capable of criticism, its figural gesture par excellence is that of irony. This is a gesture of negation purified of objective intention—a withdraw into the absolute will of the ego who is able to live amidst a hostile world only by denying it with a simple “no”. The ironist is the one who is able to live in the world without being of the world. But this is precisely an immediate negation that “is frightened of being polluted by contact with finitude” (Hegel) and easily devolves into the sentimentality of an adolescent defiance of mood at the expense of action. Even an absolutization of negation (e.g., Kierkegaard) cannot free itself from the exteriority of the world for the ironist whose only experience is his own: viz., the power (dunamis) of pure possibility—the possibility always to be otherwise than the objective presence of the world “taken ironically”. The monism of infinite subjectivity, however, precludes the possibility of action and, therefore, of criticism. A simple negation is always beholden to the given; so too “playing with nothing” is obviously undialectical and it is not clear that the ironist is even capable of self-criticism, which would require the mediation of an other. This is why, for example, at least one modernism would look to the sublimation of comic laughter as the transcendental moment of criticism (Nietzsche); another would find, in the late Beethoven, subjectivity as “an irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. It breaks their bonds, not in order to express itself, but in order, expressionless, to cast off the appearance as art. Of the works themselves, it leaves only fragments behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher …” (Adorno). A critical art leaves us, in either case, with the bare, naked object in the only form to which it is available to us as an object of criticism—in the subject pulled out of itself to be dashed against the contradictions and injustices from which it cannot escape since, for us, there can be no escape.

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