Modernity has created a reality characterized by distances. There is a grave gap between the categories through which we consider the world and the world as it actually is. We think of political freedom as a constitutive feature of modern society, yet we are often confronted by the contemptible cynicism of our elected officials and the outright hypocrisy of the political system that governs us and which makes an unfunny joke out of our notion of free political choice. We consider free economic choices to be the sine qua non of the modern order, but the monopolistic drive of capital has created such systemic imbalances that the only really free economic actors seem to be multinational corporations and the transnational elites to whom they are beholden. Lastly, individual freedom is the most important feature of the modern social imaginary, but it is abundantly clear that we are extraordinarily self-regulating and that we willingly curtail our personal freedom in order to create a stable society even in the face of poverty, inequality, and injustice. We internalize the world’s distances as the space between who we are and the image of what we think we should be. As the Buddha observed a long-ass time ago, the desire born out of our inability to accept ourselves as we are places us on a wheel of suffering that turns on and on without relief. Modernity has intensified this existential restlessness. We constantly “work on ourselves” in order to change into the image of who we think we should be, or we “give up” and accept that we will never be who we were intended to be. Either choice or their countless variations reinforce the belief in the space between our two different selves.
Irony in modern art is the recognition of this condition. In The Theory of the Novel, Lukács argues that irony is essential to the form-giving ethical intent of the modern artist. In order for a novel to be a true artistic object, argues Lukács, it must be saturated by the ethical intent of its creator, otherwise it remains an abstraction, or, even worse in his mind, entertainment literature. But because the artist concedes that in a world of distances his/her ethical intent cannot be simply incorporated into the work without it seeming one-sided or subjective, s/he must treat that ethical intent ethically and subject it to a kind of objective scrutiny. In other words, the work must treat its own ethical intent critically, must constantly question its own intentions. Simple earnestness appears from this perspective to be painfully naïve or perhaps even stupid.
Self-aware sincerity is a problem for everything I said above. Take for example “Hold On” by Alabama Shakes—or their whole album “Boys and Girls,” which is uniformly great. “Bless my heart and bless yours too/I don’t know where I’m going to go, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she sings. The second verse I cite here is a typically modern affirmation that the aims of life and the manner through which to achieve these aims are no longer directly given. We have all become seekers in a world in which meaning is no longer immanent. But the first verse is a declaration of something totally contradictory: the belief in the transcendental that the song later repeats by insisting, “there must be someone up above/saying […] you’ve got to come on up!” In this context, the sincerity of this belief does not appear naïve or unsophisticated—it is made soberly while taking into account the modern predicament. This kind of earnestness is simply a problem that outlines the contours of the unevenness of modernity, a modernity that has spread everywhere but is experienced differently in every place.