Soren Kierkegaard and Stephen Colbert

A parting shot at Stephen Colbert's irony

Let’s give Soren Kiekegaard the last say on Stephen Colbert.

Thumbs up for existentialism!

In his 1841 study, The Concept of Irony, the Dane of fear and trembling writes that if the ironist recognizes that his or her subject is truly concealing something, it sets him or her free: "With irony, the subject constantly retires from the field and proceeds to talk every phenomenon out of its reality in order to save himself, that is, in order to preserve himself in his negative independence of everything."

Then — again apparently describing Colbert — Kierkegaard points out "with irony, when everything else becomes vain, subjectivity becomes free. And the more vain everything becomes, so much the lighter, more vacuous, more evanescent becomes subjectivity. Whereas everything else becomes vain, the ironic subject does not himself become vain but saves his own vanity." 

Hold on, there is just a bit more. Stephen Colbert, of course, is the name of the host who is played by person and comic actor Stephen Colbert. This means, in Kierkegaard’s terms, that Stephen Colbert, whoever he may be, is able to seem vain and vacuous and is in no jeopardy of risking anything. A dual personality, blithely and with malice, he turns the Kierkegaardian screw as far as it can go, and openly, incessantly skewers everything and everyone, including himself because he has no vanity to save since —and you know this is coming — Stephen Colbert is a character formed in and completely defined by a self-created form of vanity, which he regards as his chief virtue. Take whichever Colbert you will and he becomes his own foil and the foil by, for, and wrapped in his own foiling. He is one of the world’s wisest fools who knowingly fools himself to fool others, especially those who hold to their dogmas with an ideologically rigid leash. 

The prescient hipster

So, first of all, who knew Kierkegaard had cable? And who knew he had the insight to not only nail Colbert’s act but to also be savvy enough to capture the two aspects of the contemporary mindset that Colbert most exploits with his pretzel logic: the hipster nihilism of his audience and its corollary, the moronic self-righteousness exhibited by his major targets at Fox News and the United States House of Representatives?

“For irony everything becomes nothingness,” Kierkegaard says, and that applies to the hipsters, who, ironic to the depth of their tattoos and shabby chic fashion, possess such cool as to catch every nuanced Colbert joke, then recoil with boos and pouts when confronted with actually thinking about the implications of the topics on the table, such as global warming and governmental spying advanced by the show's guests.

And that is matched by the self-assuredness and cynical emptiness displayed by the celebrities, financiers, law enforcement agents, and government officials whose follies Colbert parades before us nightly. Ironically, they are totally self-possessed but without irony. Thus, they reinforce the sense of nothingness by affirmations of a plethora of meaningless notions and absurd ideas that reveal how much ado they expend on anything that matters.

Depth in shallowness

Colbert’s bizarre interviews with members of Congress repeatedly prove the point. Why do these elected officials subject themselves to talk to this invariably rude, misinformed, invented character, Stephen Colbert? Why do they wrestle or play games with him? Do they have something to gain or, following Kierkegaard’s insight above, are they concealing their true motives, values, reasons for seeking and holding political power? It is often painful to watch these “responsible” officeholders smirk and squirm when Colbert, or his henchmen, pursue idiotic subjects about their beliefs or districts’ specific qualities. They seem so shallow that the nothingness of their positions – ironically – provides them with depth. 

To be sure, they probably don’t read Kierkegaard, who cannily says, as if he knows about Colbert’s performances to the crook of his eyebrows, “but the ironic nothingness is that deathly stillness in which irony returns to ‘haunt and jest'.” By which he means that there is something funereal about Colbert’s game and how it taunts us with the suspicion that there is something very wrong with our way of life and contemporary course of action. Then it asks us to just jest along. And we do. It is as if, knowing the nothing that is, we need televised and mediated reality to at least delude us into thinking there is a there there.

Unfortunately, The Colbert Report whirligig has stopped spinning. I, for one, am going to miss it.   

Our readers respond

Jack DeWitt

of Glenside, PA on December 30, 2014

This is just the best of the many analyses of Colbert that have appeared recently as the character Colbert gives way to the host Colbert (note the difference in pronunciation). Another Sabatini gem.

Joseph N. DiStefano

of Philadelphia, PA on December 31, 2014

Does Colbert's liberal Catholicism— with its social-responsibility assumptions, occasionally underlined by his on-air "chaplain," the Penn grad Jesuit James Martin— provide a ballast, a motive, and his alternative for Colbert's ironic critiques of Fox, Republicans in Congress, and hipsters?

Author's Response

Liberal Catholicism is ironic itself, not unlike SK's theological positions. As for critiquing the parties in question, I'd think even junior Jesuitical thought would be enough for overkill.

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