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Irony and the self

What role does irony play in the formation of the self?

Irony and the Self: philosophical intertextuality

Kierkegaard described the irony he was interested in as a ‘qualification of subjectivity’ (in contrast to, say, verbal games or dramatic irony). Irony in this sense is a way of living, of appropriating what we believe and know. Irony in this sense can be an extreme form of negative freedom. Moving beyond the freedom-from discussed by Marathe and Steeply, irony can be a way of the subject being free not only from external constraint but even from identification with any characteristic. The subject can always say, ‘no, this is not the real me, this is not part of my true self.’ There is a sense of freedom here, what Kierkegaard calls being intoxicated by infinite possibility. But the end point of complete subjective irony is to empty the subject of all content, for there to be no self because there is no content to the self. But for the self to choose to affirm content, to identify itself with some characteristics, makes it vulnerable to criticism and failure. If the self can always negate a virtue or value as not representing its true self, it can never be pinned down for failing to achieve it or for choosing the wrong content.

For Wallace, as for Kierkegaard, the self must be chosen. We can see this process playing out in different ways in Infinite Jest in both Hal Incandenza and Don Gately.

Hal stands in for his generation of postmodern American teenagers. Outwardly successful, he is both an academic and sporting superstar, but inwardly he is losing the ability to feel, and escaping his numbness and the social pressures of teenage life, through an addiction to marijuana, which (ironically) is exacerbating the very problems from which Hal seeks relief. Hal knows a great deal but has not appropriated any of it, he cannot identify with any of it as a component of his subjectivity; he suffers from a paucity of inner life. This reaches a pinnacle in the extract for this week when Hal not only feels nothing towards tennis but feels nothing towards life: it is all the same to him whether he ever plays tennis again or even goes on living. By the chronological end of the novel – which is in fact the first scene – we see the situation reversed. Hal has feelings, is in love with tennis again, has a rich inner life, but cannot communicate any of it externally.

Wallace described his generation as a ‘Hamletish’ one, as indecisive, unable to act, and Hal, whose name resembles Hamlet’s, embodies this. The older Gately, however, is dealing with his own shit and shit of others, doing the hard work of real relationships: ‘Gately has become, in sobriety, a janitor.’ Gately’s interior and exterior lives match up, he has integrity. Gately is choosing to stick with the AA values and practices: even though he doesn’t understand them all, he chooses to trust those who have walked the path before him. This is not a lack of appropriation but a refusal of the myth of autonomy as complete independence. It shows that appropriation takes time. Gately is consciously negating parts of himself, but not his whole self, and it is in service to something ‘higher…that still does not exist’ – he is aiming at his clean self, even though he doesn’t know what that clean self will be like. Thus, he is vulnerable to criticism (see his discussions with Geoffry and Joelle who are sceptical about AA’s methods and aims).

Discussion questions

  1. To what extent do you think Hal is representative of people today? Has the culture moved on or is Hal still relevant as a type?
  2. To what extent is Gately a viable role model? Does his lack of education make him a poor model for people like Wallace? To what extent does Gately’s lack of education help and hinder him in achieving an authentic self?
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David Foster Wallace: Literature and Philosophy

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