Wednesday, December 28, 2011

NSK, Laibach, and Romantic Irony, Schlegel

Or, an excuse to talk about Romantic irony.

Laibach and NSK create works ironic commentaries that are camouflaged as innocuous examples of the subjects themselves. Irony, in this case, refers to a higher species of irony than is usually encountered.

The sort of irony they draw from on is dealt with by Friedrich Schlegel in his "Critical Fragments"

"42. Philosophy is the real homeland of irony, which one would like to define as logical beauty: for wherever philosophy appears in oral or written dialogues -- and is not simply confined rigid systems -- there irony should be asked for and provided. And even the Stoics considered urbanity a virtue. Of course, there is also a rhetorical species of irony which, sparingly used, has an excellent effect, especially in polemics; but compared to the sublime urbanity of the Socratic muse, it is like the pomp of the most splendid oration set over against the noble style of an ancient tragedy. [...]"

What Schlegel is talking about in relation to the Socratic dialogues is the process whereby a person is brought to a different awareness of his original question through a series of subsequent questions that eventually circle back to the start. At the end of a Socratic dialogue, a person sees his question in a new context, in a new and expanded environment, and sees how that question was limited. The awareness of the original, very profoundly asked question, as limited within a greater field of meaning is ironic in a higher sense. It's not just saying that the person who asked it was stupid, making fun of him, but provides material to help better answer what the question may have been concerned with in a much more informative way. The dialogue doesn't lead to a dead end, but opens up paths to new meaning. The question, when re-presented becomes an ironic statement, because both its initial limited intent, its expanded form, and the expanded realm of meaning that it's contextualized within, are now all known. The butt of the joke is the individual who buys into the initial question without being aware of any of the other factors. It's the ignorance of this type of person that becomes the object of humor, albeit one that can be easily overcome if informed about the joke. Irony can become instruction, as the Socratic dialogues demonstrate.

For instance, NSK created a famous "National Day of Youth" poster competition entry. They submitted a Nazi poster without the Nazi symbols and with Yugoslav ones in their place, and their poster won. This can be read in a few ways. First, there's the crude thrill of tricking the Yugoslav authorities to fall for Nazi propaganda, generically calling them idiots. Then, there's the meaning viewed within the expanded social and political context that the mistake took place in, that the propaganda apparatus of a (somewhat liberal) Communist State, was unable to differentiate between imagery supportive of it and imagery derived from its mortal enemy that members of the State had fought against during partisan warfare in World War II. The latter meaning was very intentionally included by NSK.

Looked at it from this perspective, the National Day of Youth poster is an ironic commentary more in line with ancient tragedy than with the pomp of splendid oration, as Schlegel puts it. That a self conscious parody of totalitarian art was accepted by the same apparatus as being the winning entry is a profoundly tragic commentary on the system that goes well beyond cheap points scored by rhetorical flourishes.

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