Blog Post

Got Reverse Causation?

We're all fairly familiar with proleptic irony: the irony of anticipation in which we know something that a character in a narrative doesn't know yet. Now meet its weird sister, born today: apoleptic irony. (Thanks office hours with a super smart undergrad!) I love it when a new term is born, this time with the help of my handy Woodhouse's English–Greek dictionary

Apoleptic irony is the retroactive irony we feel when a narrative's ending causes us to look back differently at the narrative. The gap between what we thought we were reading and what we are now reading is exploited. (To my undergrads I describe irony as gapsploitation, that is, the aesthetic exploitation of a gap between 1+n levels of signification. Which is more of a mouthful than “gapsploitation.”) 

Apoleptic irony would then seem to be a subroutine within Romantic irony, in which the we realize that the narrator is the protagonist. Wordsworth's There Was a Boy and “The Two April Mornings,” for instance, are drenched with it. In both cases, the death of the supposed protagaonist, reported at the end of the poem, causes us to look back at what we've read with fresh eyes. “Whoah. So the whole time there wasn't a boy, it was just the narrator standing by his grave, mute.” “Whoah. Matthew is dead and the poem is actually about the narrator's relationship with him, not simply Matthew's relationship with his dead girl.”

By the way, I can't get enough of this effect. “Whoah, you mean Deckard was actually a replicant.” I rest my case your honor. It's noir irony par excellence and by extension, it's dark-ecological.

Apoleptic irony is thus also responsible for the thrill of retroactive causation, which is one thing that Hegel and object-oriented ontology share, along perhaps with deconstruction. (Note for instance Graham Harman's approving conversation with Žižek on backwards causality in Tool-Being.)

Since for OOO aesthetics is first philosophy and may be the basis for causation itself, and since the aesthetic dimension is also profoundly significant for Hegel and for deconstruction, I think apoleptic irony must play some fundamental role in causality. I shall have to investigate it some more in my book on causation, Realist Magic. 

In particular it's interesting how irony causes entities to be joined as well as separated...they must join for causation to happen, yet nothing could happen at all if everything just swam around in glue. 

Timothy Morton's picture

Timothy Morton is Professor of English (Literature and Environment) at the University of California, Davis. Professor Morton's interests include literature and the environment, ecotheory, philosophy, biology, physical sciences, literary theory, food studies, sound and music, materialism, poetics, Romanticism, Buddhism, and the eighteenth century. He teaches literature and ecology, Romantic-period literature, and literary theory. He has published nine books and sixty essays, including The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010) and Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007).