Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Blarney in "The Guard"

The new Irish film, The Guard, opens with a horrific car accident on a narrow stone bridge west of Galway, the very same bridge we drove across last March when we were a bit lost, a long quarter-mile bridge barely wide enough for one car.  We crossed in the wrong direction without incident, but on the way back we faced disaster:  a car coming in the opposite direction, moving fast, not about to stop or slow down or even care.  I remember how we all collectively drew deep breaths to make the car smaller and closed our eyes to summon the Bridge Fairie, and thereby squeezed by unscathed.  Great times.

The movie too is a great time, hilarious as blarney.  The fat Irish cop, Boyle, is constantly messing with the expectations of everyone else in the film, especially the American FBI cop played by Don Cheadle.   Boyle feigns veracity or sincerity or ignorance just for fun, acting the racist to get a rise out of the black cop, or claiming to have finished fourth in an Olympic swim meet.  Rather than just saying the truth, Boyle plays around with it, leaving the Cheadle character guessing.  “I can’t tell if you’re incredibly fucking stupid or incredibly fucking smart,” he says, showing that he understands blarney perfectly.  It ensures that neither truth nor the self be taken too seriously.  Boyle’s performance of blarney reminds us that we’re all full of it. 

Just as Boyle presents himself to the American, The Guard presents itself to its audience as pure blarney.  It features a surprisingly flawed and likeably human hero: Boyle is a clown cop with the heart of gold who delights in whores, trips on LSD,  runs guns to the IRA, and gets the bad guy.  It also features surprisingly intellectual and self-aware and thus human bad guys.  The cold-blooded professional killer yearns to settle down with one woman; the socio-path quotes Nietzsche on command.  Kind of like The Commitments meets Pulp Fiction, the film plays around with the action/suspense genre even as it fulfills its moral/emotional demands.  In this mocking performance of its genre, it calls attention to its own artifice, its blarney, and it invites the audience to see that the genre as a whole is blarney, and maybe film and culture and life in general are blarney, which is either incredibly fucking stupid or incredibly fucking smart.

The tourist books say, “Blarney is the attempt to deceive without causing harm.”  Habermas might say that blarney works by intentionally disrupting the assumptions normally necessary for communication.  The resulting humor, once the audience gets it, and I’m not sure Habermas would get it, results in even deeper mutual understanding, because it demonstrates that the assumptions and expectations grounding everyday conversation might be wrong.  In short, blarney communicates a deeper mutual understanding by evoking the fallibility of human communication and understanding.  We all get along better when we know that our truths are blarney.

In this way, Irish humor evokes the poststructural distrust of language evident in Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault.  Language is the medium of meaning, where truth and desire, the objective world and other people, conscious and unconscious experiences become symbolically structured.  Poststuctural French thinkers explore the limits of language, where symbolic structures break down, the gap between language and whatever it attempts to structure symbolically, the idea that language cannot fully articulate truth or desire or the world or experience or the other.  There arises the supplement, the excess, the remainder escaping symbolic structure, rendering meaning forever uncertain.  Thus, both blarney and French philosophy evoke the fallibility of human communication and understanding. 

The difference between blarney and French philosophy is that blarney joyfully understands this fallibility from the beginning, while the French eventually find joy in the end.  The French are teleological, concerned with the ultimate end; or rather, they are anti-teleological, concerned to show that language, meaning, desire never reaches its end, always remains incomplete, uncertain, unsatisfied.  They typically locate the possibility of jouissance in the gap/remainder at the end, the far limit of language and meaning and desire, realizing only at the end that the gap/remainder that was always there always will be there.  By contrast, blarney takes impish delight in knowing itself as blarney from the beginning.  As the speaker knows and the audience laughingly discovers, blarney is always already blarney; that’s why it’s fun. 

My friend Bob says this difference can be explained historically.  The French were European powers, colonists, who discovered only at the end of the colonial process that their imperialist way of thinking was bankrupt at best, a violence toward the other, the world, and the self.   The Irish, of course, were themselves colonized and knew from the beginning that empire and its ideology were shite.

For his part, Habermas has more faith in language, or more precisely faith in communication, coming to mutual understanding through rational communicative action.  His style is to read everything that’s ever been written and integrate it all into his argument, as if everything that has ever been written amounted to one great conversation that comes together in his own model.  Fortunately, he is sure to admit from the beginning that he is constructing a model.  He knows it’s all blarney, but he’s giving it a go anyway, because that’s what we do; we  try to understand and to communicate.  Habermas also implicitly invites the reader to join in the blarney and help construct or reconstruct the model.  All we have to do is read everything that’s ever been written.  In this sense, German scholarship may be more reliable, but not as much fun. 


Tim Craker said...


I enjoyed reading this on a number of different levels, but I want to focus on the different kinds of fun with language you have fun with.

Your distinction reminds me a bit of the difference Laurence Olivier supposedly saw between himself and "method" actors like Dustin Hoffman. Rather than go through the serious work of becoming someone else, Olivier famously suggested, why not just try acting? The distinction between the cheerful insouciance of "just acting" and the seriousness of "method acting" both touch on the instability of identity, but with very different tonalities. But it turns out that there is a whole talmudic conversation on the web about who is serious and who is ironic in that reported conversation, making it even more difficult to decide how to characterize the different tonalities. I wonder if something of the same dynamic wouldn't be true of your enjoyable distinction as well, especially when you add in the "colonial" bit.

Does it matter that Derrida grew up in Algiers, that Lyotard lived and taught in Algeria for two years, that Edouard Glissant would not fit easily in either category of colonial blarney or french theory...? I dunno, but I had fun thinking about it.

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