Styles of Seriousness
Steven Connor


1Seriously, Though
chapter abstract

This introductory chapter describes the way in which seriousness, and what it means to "take something seriously," is widely assumed to be understood, but rarely articulated or investigated. Rather than reducing seriousness to a single principle, Styles of Seriousness investigates the enactment of the serious through a number of different styles, or modalities. The book is therefore concerned, not with things that seem serious, but what it means for things to count as serious. Rather than providing a full roster of things that we should take seriously, the book aims to convene a number of what seem to be the prominent accents, occasions, or idioms of seriousness. It will need therefore to assume throughout the seriousness of the question of style.

chapter abstract

This chapter focuses on the ways in which the exercise of philosophy might exemplify a way of being taken seriously. The Hegelian hardness or strenuousness of the philosophical enterprise is contrasted with the anti-serious disposition of philosophers such as Democritus, Diogenes, Nietzsche, and Sartre. The chapter examines the history of the idea of sincerity and explores the question of what seriousness, in the sense of really meaning something, or meaning seriously to say something, might mean. From J. L. Austin's exploration of pretending, the chapter evolves an argument for the significance of "not exactly doing things." Finally, it considers what it might mean for philosophy to be seriously playful, especially in relation to philosophical style.

chapter abstract

This chapter considers the qualities attached to what is held to be important, and the importance of the idea of importance in social life, especially through devotion to important matters of thymos, or the reputation for importance oneself. Aristotle's focus on the spoudaios, or serious man, and W. H. Auden's reflections on the nature of importance are discussed. The role of thymos, or demand for esteem in contemporary life, is explored, along with the striking change in the meaning of "identity." The saturation of media systems encourages the angry, identitarian striving for esteem.

chapter abstract

This chapter considers the value of solemnity, both as a feeling and as a symbolic function. Solemnity is bound up with Durkheim's "collective effervescence" and with the periodicities of religious ritual. Solemnity is a way of domesticating the sense of a transcendence that might otherwise be shattering. William James's emphasis on the mingling of sadness and joy in solemnity is discussed, through poetic examples from Milton, Coleridge, Dickinson, and others. Solemnity may be considered as a kind of "formal feeling," which may be regarded in circular fashion, as a solemnization of feeling itself. The performance of solemnity in the taking of oaths, as a means of artificially maintaining seriousness, as objected to by Quakers, is explored. Solemnity is shown always to be unnervingly, but bracingly, at risk of causing laughter or absurdity, as in ceremonial headgear or gait.

chapter abstract

This chapter considers forms of vehement and emulative seriousness, taking the operations of religious zeal, especially among seventeenth-century Puritans, and those, like Swift and Jonson, who comically mocked them, as a model. Zeal is a paradoxical blend of austerity and appetite, which is centered on a radical desire for eradication of corruption of all kinds. Zeal may also be regarded as a form of metaseriousness, or an attempt to maintain the intensity of serious intent. Zeal may be seen, following Peter Sloterdijk, as the desire to outdo God in sweeping away the corruptions inherent in temporality. Jonson's Bartholomew Fair is analyzed as an anatomy of the workings of fetishism in zealotic iconoclasm. Authoritarian energies and enthusiasms in academic culture, propagating through media systems, may be seen as contemporary examples of zealotic style.

chapter abstract

This chapter employs the archaic word rue to draw together the different modes of mourning, memorial, grief, and regret in the contemporary world. Shakespearian examples indicate the importance of outward ritual in the forming and sustaining of regret. The move of the word regret from a private to an impersonal or official register is discussed. The potent but highly regrettable survival of the religious functions of remorse in criminal law and the public drama of the trial is explored. The literary representation of unnamable or unrepresentable remorse in Coleridge and Byron is compared to the libidinally charged coercions in contemporary moral dramas of political remorse.

chapter abstract

Where rue is the style of posterior seriousness, monitory pragmatics, or the social rhetoric of warning, along with the anticipatory denunciation of admonishment, can be seen as the style of anterior or prospective making-serious. This chapter considers the efforts to institute and intensify the sense of seriousness through the widespread work of precaution, as embodied in the spread of early warning and monitoring systems of all kinds, this an embodiment of the principle of "explicitation" described by Peter Sloterdijk.

chapter abstract

The styles of seriousness matter so much because it matters how one does things, with one's way of being serious always a particularly serious matter. An awareness of the literariness in the field of social-rhetorical actions and symbolic comportments may be an advantage, if not necessarily a decisive one, in the work of understanding the work done on seriousness and the work that seriousness does. It can also highlight the strangeness of the libido of seriousness, in which pleasure always consorts with anxiety.