Passion, compassion, and irony: finding solid ground for activism in a world of unsustainability, injustice, complicity, and paradox.

A summary of and brief response to: “The Post-ecologist Condition: Irony as Symptom and Cure”, Bronislaw Szerszynski, Environmental Politics, Vol. 16, No. 2, 337-355, April 2007.

It seems at first a most unlikely thought: irony as a basis for environmental politics. But according to sociologist Bronislaw Szerszynski, irony as a way of being in the world could – and should – take on such a role. In this post I will present Szerszynski’s argument, reflect on a couple of doubts, and look at how passion and compassion might intersect with irony to form a solid ground for environmental politics and social change activism in a world of unsustainability, injustice, complicity, and paradox.

Szerszynski begins by noting that: “At the heart of contemporary western culture there seems to be a constitutive tension between ecological awareness and ecocidal behaviour” (337) We know what we are doing is ultimately destroying our future, but we keep doing it anyway, because our socio-political system seems to require it.

Where might we find an authentic response to such a complicit, compromised situation? Szerszynski suggests that Western environmentalist thought has been dominated by two “epistemological strategies”: a rationalist strand with roots in the 18th-century Enlightenment, and an anti-rationalist strand with roots in the 19th century Romantic tradition. (338-339) But, Szerszynski notes, there is also a third cultural current, (which he calls ‘cultural modernism’). “According to this current, the human condition is full of shadows, paradoxes and absurdities.” (339) It is this current that Szerszynski looks to, saying: “…it is only by adopting a stance of generalised, philosophical irony, one which recognises the impossibility of the subject escaping the contradictions of finite existence, that an authentic response to our predicament might be found.” (340)

But irony is not a singular concept. Szerszynski identifies three main types of irony:

“Firstly, instances of communicative irony …involve a communication in which the overt, surface meaning of the communication is in tension with the actual meaning intended to be communicated.” (341) This kind of irony “…can be used to describe the disconnection between private belief and public behaviour that can occur in individuals, states, corporations and even environmental organisations…” (342), it is a ‘ruse of power’ (344) and it is a key symptom of the a crisis in political meaning in contemporary western societies. (343)

“Secondly, in situational irony, by contrast, it is not acts of communication but situations that might be seen as ironic, when the understanding of a situation possessed by one or more actors acting within that situation is in dramatic tension with the reality of it as perceived by an outside observer.” (341) Environmental movements frequently work on this level, often simply by drawing attention to unsustainable behaviours, but also with such things as satirical protests. (346) But Szerszynski says that “such tactics can only serve as partial and limited responses to the problem of unsustainability” (347). In particular they are limited because the irony deployed is generally “corrective”, aiming to resolve a tension between two levels of meaning in favour of one of them, and because this approach “positions the ironist as an outside observer of the irony, on the moral high ground looking down, rather than implicated in it.” (347)

[Thirdly, there is] “…dispositional irony, in which it is a person – or more exactly their character, comportment, or sensibility – that might be judged ironic.” (341) “Unlike verbal irony, here there are no separate groups of perpetrators and victims; unlike conventional situational irony, there is no distanced observer, aloof from the folly and blindness they perceive being played out in front of them. Here, irony embraces even the observer, the identifier of the irony, within its grasp.” (348)

It is not immediately obvious how such a (potentially) detached perspective would lead to political engagement and activism. There’s a danger that after recognising the ‘limited and provisional nature of human understanding’ (350) the dispositional ironist might simply withdraw from the folly of the public world. Szerszynski recognises this and argues that while distancing oneself from the immediacy of the horizon of one’s own culture is a necessary step to a genuinely ethical life, it is not sufficient: it offers only a negative freedom. (349) The genuinely ethical ironist will regard their conditioned, finite existence as ‘a home in which to dwell’ (350) “The ironist does not abandon, but returns to his finite, worldly existence, and takes responsibility for it.” (350)

What might an ironic environmentalism look like?

“Firstly, ironic ecology would involve the recognition of the inevitability of failure and error, [due to the limited and provisional nature of human understanding] and at the same time the need to act, with due care, in the very face of that recognition [because this is what a fully ethical life requires of us].’ (351)

Secondly, “An ironic ecology informed by what I have been calling cultural modernism, rather than either dominating or venerating nature, would instead be more likely to value and proliferate ‘impure’ and vernacular mixings of nature and culture…”(351)

Thirdly, “a thoroughgoingly ironic stance would involve a greater reflexivity about the provisional character not just of propositional but also of normative claims. (351)…such a stance would necessitate [of environmental politics] a less moralistic and self-satisfied political style.” (352)

Fourthly, an “ironic ecology would imply forms of political intervention (for example slogans, maxims, eco-labels and protests) that were more ‘knowing’ in their representational practice.” (352)

I would sum it up as an environmentalism that looked more humble, thoughtful, and authentic – and that’s appealling.

But all the same, after reading Szerszynski’s paper, I still find it hard to visualise a movement of dispositionally ironic activists! Perhaps it is because such an irony is not, in itself, for anything? Or perhaps it is because motivation for social change activism seems so often to come from the ‘hot’ emotions and feelings like anger and a deep sense of wrongness, emotions that don’t seem to sit too easily with the quiet reflexivity of the ironic position?

On the other hand, perhaps this is one of the paradoxes and complexities that we must learn to be comfortable with? It is a very old saying that there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven. Perhaps, if we reflect deeply and honestly on our world, including its social, as well as ecological wrongs, we will end up in a place that is ironic, passionate, and compassionate?

It’s not easy to be honest about our world, if we let that honesty touch our hearts. JD Crossan argued (in Jesus: A revolutionary Biography, p.62) that Jesus’ beatitude: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” could be translated in contemporary terms as “Only the homeless are innocent”, and called it ‘a terrifying aphorism against society’ because it speaks not just to personal abuses of power but also to the systemic and structural aspects, in which all but the most supremely destitute among us are in some degree complicit.

Whether or not Crossan is right in claiming that this is what Jesus meant is, for our purposes, beside the point. The truth of the aphorism, as rendered by Crossan, is still frightening, and painful, if we face it squarely, and don’t rush off into denial or distraction. Perhaps understanding our position as paradoxical and ironic can help us find the courage to face this truth? Surely, if we honestly face such realities as the destruction of vital ecosystems, the polluting of land and people, the gruelling sweatshop labour of the poor (for a weekly wage less than most readers of this piece will have around in loose change) surely then we will feel some hot emotion, some passion (and it’s softer associate, compassion), and we will feel motivated to action – hopefully still guided by the humility and reflection of our thoughtful moments.


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