A Tear In The Consciousness: Irony, Secrecy, and Dissimulation

The latest issue of Harper’s includes a tongue-in-cheek proposal for a study of “weaponized irony” (not, not iron-working; the “it’s ironical” kind of irony), and development of a sort of semantic mapping technology, the “Ironic Cloud”. According to Harper’s, “Last winter, Lockheed Martin Corporation approached Princeton University with a request for research initiatives.” Sounds like a Minerva sub-contract.” In April, [D. Graham] Burnett, an historian of science, and [Jeff] Dolven, a professor of English, submitted the proposal, the cost of which they estimated to be $750,000; Princeton declined to forward it to Lockheed.” The opening para reads:

Irony is a powerful and incompletely understood feature of human dynamics. A technique for dissimulation and “secret speech,” irony is considerably more complex than lying and even more dangerous. Ideally suited to mobilization on the shifting terrain of asymmetrical conflict, inherently covert, insidiously plastic, politically potent, irony offers rogue elements a volatile if often overlooked means by which to demoralize opponents and destabilize regimes. And yet while major research resources have for forty years poured into the human sciences from the defense and intelligence community in an effort to gain control over the human capacity to lie (investments that led to the modern polygraph, sodium pentothal–derived truth serums, “brain fingerprinting,” etc.), we have no comparable tradition of sustained, empirical, applied investigation into irony. We know very little about its specific manifestations in foreign cultures; we understand almost nothing about the neurological basis of its expression; we are without forward-looking strategies for its mastery and mobilization in the interest of national defense. This project–a sustained three-year, three-pronged, interdisciplinary investigation, drawing on social scientists, engineers, and neurobiologists—will position Lockheed Martin for field leadership in a crucial new area of strategic and commercial growth.

This doesn’t really convey the satire that comes up elsewhere in the proposal, so I’d encourage readers to check it out for themselves.

Lisa Wynn at Culture Matters asks whether anyone knows “of other examples of this wonderful genre of grant proposal as parodic critique of the funding source?” There are elements of the proposal, though, that are actually well grounded in serious research. I’m thinking now of Mariane C. Ferme’s The Underneath of Things: Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone (University of California Press, 2001). Or more recently, Maria Dakake’s summer 2006 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, “Hiding In Plain Sight: The Practical and Doctrinal Significance Of Secrecy In Shi’ite Islam.”

There’s a thick literature on the subject of psychosocial compartmentation, and it speaks directly to the ideas in the Burnett/Dolven proposal. Their version: “the general mechanism is clear enough: irony manifestly involves a sudden and profound “doubling” of the inner life of the human subject. The ironizer no longer maintains an integrated and holistic perspective on the topic at hand but rather experiences something like a small tear in the consciousness, whereby the overt and covert meanings of a given text or expression are sundered.”

Dakake’s work on medieval Shi’ism suggests a variation on their theme, grounded in practices of religious secrecy and dissimulation:

The doctrinal importance of secrecy in early Shi`ism parallels the importance of secrecy in other traditions, particularly mystical or esoteric traditions, such as Kabbalah in Judaism or even Sufi mysticism within Islam itself; and the Shi`ite practice of secrecy and dissimulation as a strategy of survival and self-perpetuation has much in common with similar tactics employed by other minority or threatened religious communities, such as those discussed by Hugh Urban or Paul Johnson. However, the role of secrecy in Shi`ism differs from all of these cases in that it is a historical case—that is, while active dissimulation (taqiyyah) may still be employed by Shi`ites today for a variety of practical purposes, the widespread practice of secrecy and dissimulation was limited primarily to the early, formative period of Shi`ism, when the revered line of Shi`ite spiritual leaders, the Imams, was physically present and actively guiding their community. While other scholars have argued for reserving judgment on the content of secrecy, while concentrating on the more empirically knowable and verifiable strategies and sociological effects of secrecy, with early Shi`ism, we have a case in which much (if not all) of this content is now published and widely known, and has been for many centuries. From this aspect, we are in a much better position in this case to examine and understand the relationship between the practical and doctrinal importance of religious secrecy, and between the content of secrets and the social strategies they serve, though, from another aspect, we are at a disadvantage.

Dakake, Maria. (2006). “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Practical and Doctrinal Significance of Secrecy in Shi’ite Islam.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 74 (2), 324-355 DOI: 10.1093/jaarel/lfj086

3 comments

  1. Mike Innes:Is a "tongue-in-cheek" proposal" also an "ironic" proposal by definition? Then we’d have a double irony, and be in Godel-Escher-Bach territory.I really wish I could read the Dakake, but don’t have a library to borrow from.A very nice post, in any case.

  2. D. Graham Burnett

    Cheers. Someone forwarded me this link, and I would like to add a reply to Lisa Wynn’s question: I frankly got the idea for this proposal from a not-entirely-dissimilar proposal forwarded to the NEH back in the early 1980s by a friend of mine, a prof in philosophy in the City College system in Chicago (James Schulz). He wrote up a request for NEH funding to support an initiative called "Humanities for the Dead," which elaborated in lovely detail the way the program would bring humanistic learning to a vast under-serviced community. It made fun of the humanities, its teachers, its students, and its cheerleaders with scrumptious abandon. — DGB

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