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Jul 28 2013

Irony-deficient people miss his brilliant irony chiz chiz

I haven’t found a grab of those posts of Colin McGinn’s but he didn’t take all the posts down, and there is plenty of intolerable smugness and self-admiration still on display.

(Honestly – I’ve read other people who write this way – this horribly arch, self-conscious, pseudo-Wildean, labored, unamusing way – can’t they see how awful it is? Clearly not, but then – why not?)

The real biscuit-taker among the surviving posts is perhaps the one titled “Epater les bourgeios” [yes, sic]. You know what it’s going to be before you read more – he’s a flouter of convention, a wit, a challenger of pieties, and all these peasants have misunderstood. Yawwwwwwwwwwwn – never heard that one before.

My cultural heroes are: Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell, Vladimir Nabokov, Jean-Paul Sartre, Philip Larkin, Kingsley and Martin Amis, Peter Cook, John Lennon, and Larry David (among many others).

Cringe cringe cringe cringe. I can hardly bear it.

I like some of the writing (and in the case of Peter Cook performing) of some of those guys too, but I wouldn’t dream of calling any of them a “cultural hero”…or of making a hero out of any of them even without saying so. I think I stopped doing that once I was out of my teens, and even if I hadn’t, I would have chosen more carefully.

What they all have in common is the quality captured by the French phrase “epater les bourgeois”, which the OED defines as “shock people regarded as conventional or complacent”. We might paraphrase this in a number of ways: taunt the prudish and prim, ridicule the conventional and boring, outrage the pious and conformist. The cultural tradition that falls under this description sees itself as in favor of art, freedom, creativity, spontaneity, playfulness, life, and experience; it casts itself as standing against stifling social norms and dull conformity. It is given to provocation, controversy, and shock tactics. Accordingly, it is often pilloried and persecuted, and of course misunderstood. It does not see itself as against morality as such, but it does view conventional pieties with a beady and skeptical eye. It is on the lookout for hypocrisy, dogma, intolerance, suppression, and sheer dullness of spirit. These to me are admirable values that I try to bring into my own life. I am particularly fond of provocative irony, which has got me into trouble on more than one occasion (especially in irony-deficient America). I am often amazed that people fail to see the irony in this or that utterance of mine.

I trust readers will see the relevance of these remarks to current events.

He sounds like a teenager. Literally. I remember thinking like that, I remember fancying myself in almost that way…when I was fifteen. Then I got over it. I learned not to betray that much vanity with that much reckless abandon. I even learned not to think of myself that way – I learned not to flatter myself in that unabashed way even inside my own head. That’s why that shite makes me cringe so hard – it’s so shamelessly self-flattering and complacent.

And the guy’s a philosopher. Lordy.

Maybe the University of Miami made him resign not so much because of the gross-out emails but because he writes like that.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    tigtog

    Nigel Molesworth could out-philosophise McGinn in a heartbeat, as any fule kno.

  2. 2
    Al Dente

    He strikes me as one of those people who is slightly brighter and better read than most people he comes in contact with and thinks he’s a lot brighter and much better read than everyone else. His smugitude, his condescension, and his pretentiousness just shine through his apologia for others not understanding his wit and acumen.

  3. 3
    anthrosciguy

    My cultural heroes are…

    He forgot Pee-wee Herman: “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”

    And after falling off his bike while doing tricks: “I meant to do that.”

  4. 4
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    What’s the French phrase for “displaying extreme boredom with the planned attempts at being outrageous by pompous fuckwits”? Or maybe we’ll have to resort to some German compound word.

  5. 5
    M can help you with that.

    What’s the French phrase for “displaying extreme boredom with the planned attempts at being outrageous by pompous fuckwits”?

    There’s no phrase for it; it’s taken for granted in French that this is the default state. It’s how you can tell when somebody has gained basic competence with the French language; they start displaying extreme boredom with planned attempts at being outrageous by pompous fuckwits in their sleep.

  6. 6
    Claire Ramsey

    so objecting to sexual harassment is a “conventional piety”? This guy is really deluded, as well as really undeveloped, and really self-congratulatory.

    And the writing is beyond embarrassing.

  7. 7
    leebrimmicombe-wood

    I can’t believe McGinn is trying to get away with a posh version of ‘it was only a joke; don’t you have a sense of humour?’

    One thing: Peter Cook remains a ‘cultural hero’ of mine even though I’m pushing my fifties. Though I don’t think I want to emulate his self-destructive mode of existence.

  8. 8
    Dunc

    Can somebody tell me what exactly is “ironic” about a professor making inappropriate sexual remarks to a female grad student? That’s not taboo-busting, it’s entirely conventional. Just because we’re trying to stamp it out doesn’t make it edgy, you dimwit. We’re trying to persuade people to clean up after their dogs, but that doesn’t make letting your dog shit on the pavement excitingly unconventional. You’re just an arsehole, and there’s nothing clever about it.

  9. 9
    Argle Bargle

    Shorter McGinn: I got caught being a sexist jerk and it’s everyone else’s fault.

  10. 10
    sheila

    Some of those traditional bourgeois failings are smugness, self-admiration and hypocrisy. Of course McGinn is far too perfect to suspect of anything of that sort.

    Irony deficiency indeed.

  11. 11
    Sili

    Al Dente,

    He strikes me as one of those people who is slightly brighter and better read than most people he comes in contact with and thinks he’s a lot brighter and much better read than everyone else. His smugitude, his condescension, and his pretentiousness just shine through his apologia for others not understanding his wit and acumen.

    http://www.amazingsuperpowers.com/2013/07/smart/

  12. 12
    Ophelia Benson

    Dunc – well I love Peter Cook, and have for decades. But “cultural hero”?

    I guess it’s just that “hero” is such a dubious word. It suggests an abject state of mind…At least, it does unless you distance it or modify it in some way.

  13. 13
    Pieter B, FCD

    Oops, my comment on the previous post should have gone here. It’s brief, so I’ll repeat it.

    I remember thinking like that, I remember fancying myself in almost that way…when I was fifteen.

    I’m reminded of what I see as a type left out of the recent attempt at a taxonomy of atheists, the Contrarian, as typified by Bill Maher and a number of our familiar MRAs.

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes, exactly.

  15. 15
    AsqJames

    Well I’m far from smart or well-read, but it strikes me that all the people Mr McGinn hails as his “cultural heroes” mainly used “epater les bourgeois” as a tool to make others stop and think about something – something they had already thought deeply about and something on which they could articulate a well-reasoned argument against the prevailing orthodoxy.

    Knowing the French phrase for such tactics does not on its own make you a deep thinker. And it certainly doesn’t give you an excuse to be controversial for the sake of it. Before doing so, you need to know what orthodoxy you’re challenging and why you’re using these particular tactics. And you need to have a position you have some idea how to defend without resorting to them.

    Otherwise it’s just a fancy way of saying you’re acting like a pillock.

    I think an illustrative example might be the Femen protesters…

    in favor of art, freedom, creativity, spontaneity, playfulness, life, and experience;

    Check

    it casts itself as standing against stifling social norms and dull conformity.

    Check

    It is given to provocation, controversy, and shock tactics. Accordingly, it is often pilloried and persecuted, and of course misunderstood.

    Check and Check.

    It does not see itself as against morality as such, but it does view conventional pieties with a beady and skeptical eye. It is on the lookout for hypocrisy, dogma, intolerance, suppression, and sheer dullness of spirit.

    Yep, that fits perfectly.

    Now, ask yourself: Is there anything behind Femen’s provocative acts? Do they have any reasoned critique of the societies and institutions they are challenging? And do their provocative acts have any relationship to their overall message?

    Of course they do. You don’t have to agree with their message, but you can’t deny they have one. What exactly is Colin McGinn’s message? What is it he is challenging with his oh-so-provocative, deeply subversive and stereotype challenging act of being lecherous and sleazy towards one of his grad students?

  16. 16
    S Mukherjee

    Of course Oscar Wilde would be one of his heroes — that man was a serial sexual exploiter of boys from poor families.

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