Turning Into DFW Week

Other than the identity of the author (the blogosphere love some envy), I’m not sure why this essay has been getting that much attention. It’s pretty much like most cultural criticism you find in the Times: fun, engaging, and ultimately forgettable.

I’ll take issue with the second-to-last paragraph, since it’s a little easy to take issue with:

At 20 I congratulated myself on my awareness of the subjectivity of aesthetic judgments, the arbitrariness of critical proclamations, the folly of received wisdom. I pored over the Deconstructionists and the French feminists and advocated, in complete seriousness, the overthrow of language. (Also, the patriarchy.) Then I went to law school and was forced to confront serious practical and ethical questions — Brown v. Board of Education, for instance, and Roe v. Wade — that managed not to be resolved by the insights of Derrida. Now, having entered and abandoned the practice of law and spent roughly a decade straddling legal publishing and the blogosphere, I’m increasingly drawn to directness, which precludes neither nuance nor irony. (For details, see the essays of Mark Twain, who believed that “plain question and plain answer make the shortest road out of most perplexities.”)

The first three sentences here erect much too much of a straw man, since what Derrida wrote about and what the Supreme Court justices write about are for the most part mutually exclusive. (And anyway, that’s a contrived summary of what Derrida, etc, were about.) If you prefer legalistic wisdom over philosophical, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t use one as a cudgel to beat the other. There’s simply no sense in it.

My other issue with this graf is the use of Mark Twain as some kind of emblem of directness. Yes, Twain was by all reports a hugely outspoken, easy-to-anger man–and those character traits went a long way toward giving him cover for his immense, and immensely good, use of irony. (For another, more recent instance of the expert cloaking irony beneath bluster, see “Hitchens, Christopher.”) Really, you’ll be hard pressed to find another American author who was as good with the sneaky argument as Twain was. He should be the last one you recruit in defense of arguments that are made “straightforwardly, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward.” Twain might have given the impression that he didn’t give a damn what you thought, but that was all to the point of giving a damn what you thought.

Besides, I don’t see why there’s such hatred for irony in this essay. Really now, irony is one of the best tools we possess for getting at the truth in this age. For an introduction to the great joys of irony, as well as several concrete demonstrations of truths that can be only reached through its magical means, I heartily recommend this book, first brought to my attention by the great Martin Riker.

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