The Final Irony
Written by Zoe Williams
'Isn't it ironic?'
You hear it all the time - and, most of the time, actually no, it isn't. It's more likely to be: hypocritical, cynical, lazy or coincidental. But what is irony and why did pundits think it would die two years ago, after September 11? Zoe Williams meticulously, sincerely, un-ironically, hunts it down
Taking its name from the Greek: eironeia (dissimulation), irony consists of purporting a meaning of an utterance or a situation that is different, often opposite, to the literal one.
Maike Oergel, Encyclopaedia of German Literature
Irony is a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.
The New Oxford English Dictionary
Pretty much everything is ironic these days. Irony is used as a synonym for cool, for cynicism, for detachment, for intelligence; it's cited as the end of civilisation, as well as its salvation. Pretty much every form of culture claims to be shot through with it, even (especially) the ones that conspicuously aren't. I read last week that Bruce Forsyth hosting: 'Have I Got News For You,' was an "ironic statement", as if you could ascend into irony just by being old, as you used to with wisdom. I read, too, that it was ironic for Alan Millburn (British Secretary of State for Health)to leave his job to spend more time with his family, when the doctors and nurses under his care don't have that facility; well, it's not ironic, it's just standard-issue self-interest, with maybe a smattering of hypocrisy. I've read claims of an "ironic" interest in Big Brother - nope. Lazy, maybe. Possibly postmodern. Not ironic.
We have a grave problem with this word (well, in fact, it's not really grave - but I'm not being ironic when I call it that, I'm being hyperbolic (overstatement or plausible exaggeration), although the two can amount to the same thing in some instances.) Just looking at the definitions, the confusion is understandable - In the first instance, rhetorical irony expands to cover any disjunction at all between language and meaning, with a couple of key exceptions (allegory also entails a disconnection between sign and meaning, but obviously isn't synonymous with irony; and lying, clearly, leaves that gap, but relies for its efficacy on an ignorant audience, where irony relies on a knowing one). Still, even with the riders, it's quite an umbrella, no?
In the second instance, situational irony (also known as cosmic irony) occurs when it seems that "God or fate is manipulating events so as to inspire false hopes, which are inevitably dashed"(1). While this looks like the more straightforward usage, it opens the door to confusion between irony, bad luck and inconvenience. Most pressingly, though, there are a number of misconceptions about irony that are peculiar to recent times.
The first is that September 11 spelled the end of irony.
The second is that the end of irony would be the one good thing to come out of September 11.
The third is that irony characterizes our age to a greater degree than it has done any other.
The fourth is that Americans can't do irony, and we can
The fifth is that the Germans can't do irony, either (and we still can)..
The sixth is that irony and cynicism are interchangeable.
The seventh is that it's a mistake to attempt irony in emails and text messages, even while irony characterizes our age, and so do emails.
And the eighth is that "post-ironic" is an acceptable term - it is very modish to use this, as if to suggest one of three things:
i) that irony has ended;
ii) that postmodernism and irony are interchangeable, and can be conflated into one handy word;
or iii) that we are more ironic than we used to be, and therefore need to add a prefix suggesting even greater ironic distance than irony on its own can supply. None of these things is true.
Now, after all that effort numbering and subnumbering the points, I'm going to deal with them in the wrong order. That isn't ironic, it's just a bit sloppy. There are four important epochs of irony (unless you count Hegel, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but to do that, I would need to have read them).
Phase one Socratic irony is simply part of a canon of rhetorical tools devised to distract people from the fact that they've been sitting still listening to hard talk for an awfully long time. The technique, demonstrated in the Platonic dialogues, was to pretend ignorance and, more sneakily, to feign credence in your opponent's power of thought, in order to tie him in knots. This is amazingly prevalent in contemporary social intercourse - every one of us, I'd guess, has a friend who engages in an argument, waits patiently until you've said something really trenchant and probably wrong, then cocks his (or her) head to one side and says, "Do you think that's true?"
thereafter pursuing each one of your most ridiculous points and challenging them from a perspective of utter (pretended) ignorance. Weirdly, this is never called irony, even though every other bloody thing that anyone ever says is.
Phase two Romantic irony was framed by Schlegel(2) the German philosopher. Here, it became a much more complex philosophical tool, of which the nuts and bolts were that you simultaneously occupied two opposite positions (what you say versus what is real). There were problems with this as a direct path to truth later on, but I'd need a more Socratic grasp of how not to be boring before I could go into them. The point with Schlegel was that irony would give you a divided self, which in turn gives you a multiplicity of perspectives, which is the only way you will unlock the truth of the whole. This romantic (or "philosophical") irony had a great influence on the English Romantic poets - Coleridge's Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, with its commentary running alongside the narrative, divides the perspective (plus, he read Schlegel, so I'm not just making that up).
But irony as part of the British literary tradition doesn't, generally speaking, commence with Romantic irony, but rather with the device that has its roots in Socrates, viz, saying the opposite of what is true in order to underline the truth. So, from this you'd trace a line from Chaucer, through More, Sidney and Milton, arriving at Swift and Austen, where you can see a pleasing bifurcation of irony's literary use. Austen uses irony as a means of being understated. Swift, by contrast, uses irony for polemical purposes, conjuring grotesque images ironically (babies being eaten, mankind enslaved to the morally superior horse) in order to state his case (that the Irish were starving, that humanity was going to the dogs) ever more forcefully.
Phase three Irony as a tool of dissent, a grim but failsafe gag and mainstay of popular culture, took hold during the first world war(3). The gross disjunction between patriotic rhetoric and the reality of the war itself led to a widespread use of irony as a means of puncturing deceitful propaganda. Every convention of today's ironic, satirical news forms (from Private Eye, through Viz, to the Onion) has a germ in the Wipers Times, the First World War trench newspaper (established, independently of military authority, by Captain FJ Roberts of the Sherwood Foresters.) At this point, irony was still purporting to be an overview - to be wading through the mulch of accepted wisdom and exposing its fraudulence. So, for instance, the Wipers Times would print a list of Things That Were Definitely True, and it would contain a proportion of propaganda ("40,000 Huns have Surrendered"), a proportion of enemy propaganda ("The Germans Have Plentiful and Tasty Meats") and a proportion of nonsense ("Horatio Bottomley has accepted the Turkish Throne on condition they make a separate peace"), thus undermining any information coming from anywhere at all (it's interesting that the paper was caustically ironic on the subject of the war itself, but never deviated from the line that home leave was a blessed relief, when, in fact, most soldiers found it stressful and devastating to return to normality after the trenches - there is a limit to how far you can take irony before you have to shoot yourself).
Where irony springs up as a response to being lied to (by authority, or prevailing culture, or whatever), it is still adhering loosely to Chaucer's model - it states the lie in order to expose the lie, and is therefore a route to truth. It has some moral import. It may say "This belief is wrong", but it doesn't say "All belief is wrong". When people call ours the Age of Irony, that's not the kind of irony they are on about.
Phase four: Our age has not so much redefined irony, as focused on just one of its aspects. Irony has been manipulated to echo postmodernism. The postmodern, in art, architecture, literature, film, all that, is exclusively self-referential - its core implication is that art is used up, so it constantly recycles and quotes itself. It's entirely self-conscious stance precludes sincerity, sentiment, emoting of any kind, and thus has to rule out the existence of ultimate truth or moral certainty. Irony, in this context, is not there to lance a boil of duplicity, but rather to undermine sincerity altogether, to beggar the mere possibility of a meaningful moral position. In this sense it is, indeed, indivisible from cynicism. This isn't to say that "truthseeking" irony has evaporated - many creative forms still use irony to highlight the sheer, grinding horror of pursuits or points of view that are considered "normal" (like The Office, for instance; and much of American literature is masterfully good at employing irony with a purpose - to choose at random, Pastoralia, by George Saunders, Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, anything by Philip Roth, The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen).
But other strands of media use irony to assert their right to have no position whatsoever. So, you take a cover of FHM, with tits on the front - and it's ironic because it appears to be saying, "women are objects", yet of course it isn't saying that, because we're in a postfeminist age. But nor is it saying "women aren't objects", because that would be dated, over-sincere, mawkish even. So, it's effectively saying "women are neither objects, nor non-objects - and here are some tits!" Scary Movie 2, Dumb And Dumberer, posh women who go to pole-dancing classes, people who set the video for Big Brother Live, people who have Eurovision Song Contest evenings, Char lie's Angels (the film, not the TV series) and about a million other things besides, are all using this ludic trope - "I'm not saying what you think I'm saying, but I'm not saying its opposite, either. In fact, I'm not saying anything at all. But I get to keep the tits." As Paul de Man pointed out, some-time before FHM, "This does not, however, make it into an authentic language, for to know inauthenticity is not the same as being authentic."(4). So, we're not the first age to use irony (as some insist), but we are the first to use it in this vacuous, agenda-free and often highly amusing way.
September 11 and the End of Irony
Politicians especially (but serious minds of all sorts) dislike this newish twist of irony, since political rhetoric relies on moral framework - they may be spinning, they may be sexing up their evidence, they may be lying straight to our faces as we beseech them not to kill innocent Iraqis for no good reason (as an example), but at least old-fashioned protest waits until it knows it has been lied to before it unleashes its irony. Modern irony ridicules politicians regardless, for their sheer un-ironic-ness in holding a position in the first place.
So, upon the giant disaster, many people were glad to declare irony's end. Gerry Howard, editorial director of Broadway Books, said, "I think somebody should do a marker that says irony died on 9-11- 01." Roger Rosenblatt claimed, in an essay in Time magazine, that "one good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony"(5).
This is striking as the kind of American self-importance that leads people to think they have no sense of irony in the first place. But there is legitimacy in the claim - for a very short time, the event seemed so earth-shattering that there did seem to be an absolute and clear dichotomy between good and evil. Once you've got one of those, then a) the act of seeking the truth through irony is pointless, because the truth is staring you in the face; and b) the postmodern ironic distance that eschews concepts like "good" and "evil" has been trounced. Naturally, irony was back within a few days, not least because of the myriad ironies contained within the attack itself (America having funded al-Qaida is ironic; America raining bombs and peanut butter on Afghanistan is ironic). But even without those ironic features, irony would have resurfaced pretty soon - only a very fresh tragedy can silence it.
The end of irony would be a disaster for the world - bad things will always occur, and those at fault will always attempt to cover them up with emotional and overblown language. If their opponents have to emote back at them, you're basically looking at a battle of wills, and the winner will be the person who can beat their breast the hardest without getting embarrassed. Irony allows you to launch a challenge without being dragged into this orbit of self-regarding sentiment that you get from Tony Blair, say, when he talks about "fighting for what's right". Irony can deflate a windbag in the way that very little else can. What people usually mean when they yearn or an end to irony is an end to post-modernism. I'm not sure this will ever happen, since it places itself after originality and progress (what comes after the
afters? Well, cheese, I guess).
Irony and America
There are a few reasons why we think the Americans have no sense of irony. First, theirs is rather an optimistic culture, full of love of country and dewyeyed self-belief and all the things that Europe's lost going through the war spin-dryer for the thousandth time. This is all faith-based - faith in God, faith in the goodness of humanity, etc - and irony can never coexist with faith, since the mere act of questioning causes the faith fairy to disappear. Second, they have a very giving register that, with a sense of irony, would be unsustainable (how can you wish a stranger a nice day with a straight face?). Third, because we think Canadian: Alanis Morissette is American, and she proved some time ago, with her song Ironic, that she didn't know what irony meant (this is so ironic - first, because we think we're the more sophisticated and yet don't know the difference between America and Canada, second because America sees Canada as such a tedious sleeping partner, and yet Canada is subversively sending idiots into the global marketplace with American accents. Of course, I'm being ironic. Canadian accents are not the same as American ones!)
In fact, this is absolute moonshine, since the consummate and well-documented superiority of US telly over British telly is largely due to their superior grasp of irony (as well as the fact that they have more cash). Take, for instance, the opening sequences of Six Feet Under versus the opening sequences of Casualty - they both start every episode with a vignette in which a stranger dies a horrible death or suffers a hideous accident. In Six Feet Under, this will never be straightforward - the porn star will never die because her silicon implants explode, she will die in some way that could happen to anyone; the wheezing, scaredlooking sportsman will turn out to have been just a bit thirsty, while his amazingly strong team-mate will be dying in the background from heat stroke. There's always some cosmic irony, swiftly followed by ironic dialogue. In Casualty, on the other hand - man leaves pub in middle of day; commences dangerous-looking welding job; burns own eye out in drunk accident. Dur.
Germans and Irony
Not speaking German, nor watching much German TV, nor having read any German literature apart from Bernard Schlink who, let me tell you, is about as ironic as a dog chasing a squirrel, it's difficult to tell whether or not there's any truth in the rumour that they have no sense of irony. However, since they invented it (well, they invented chlegel), it's more than likely that they've got plenty. To anyone who thinks I'm insufficiently bigoted, I have serious doubts about the French.
Irony in Emailing and Texts
Texting is a truly tricky form for the ironist - very brief texts are difficult to make ironic simply because it's difficult to inject many layers into seven words. However, if you write a very long text, because it's such a bugger to do, your extra effort suggests a sincerity - an un-dude-like urge to be understood - that sits all wrong with the irony. To get round this, forms like "(!)" and "Not" and "have evolved", but they're pretty dumb and basic.
With emails, people with a lot of time on their hands can, obviously, give themselves room to develop an ironic theme, but for people with jobs, e-etiquette demands instant response, which brings you down to the very rudiments of irony - I Love My Boss; I'm Delighted That My Ex Is Going Out With That Attractive Woman; I Really Couldn't Be More Pleased That You've Lost a Stone. Once it's as bald as that, and you're without extra signifiers like eyebrows, there is a danger of misunderstanding. However, I think we're actually more alert to irony than we are to its opposite, sincerity. Take the case of Rena Salmon, who last year shot her husband's lover, and then texted him to that effect. Her words were, "I have shot Lorna. This is not a joke." A perfect demonstration of my point (I don't get many of those) - the first thing you think when you read a text is that it is a joke.
This article has almost exclusively been about rhetorical irony, which has much more fluidity and variety than situational irony. That does not mean that situational irony is entirely straightforward - often, the appearance that God or Fate was attempting to make you think one thing when another was going to happen is down to your own misreading or wilful blindness, and therefore isn't ironic at all. Furthermore, where rhetorical irony can be as simple as saying the opposite of what you mean, cosmic irony is not simply experiencing the opposite of what you thought was going to happen. For instance, if I was having a party, and I thought my dad was going to come, and he didn't, that wouldn't be ironic. If, on the other hand, I was having a party and I didn't want my dad to come, and I spent three weeks working on a brilliant cover story for why he couldn't come, and then my sister accidentally blew my cover, so I had to invite him anyway, and then, on the way here, he got run over and died - that's ironic.
I hope he realizes that example was, well, not ironic, but certainly meant with no ill will.
But, whatever (here, with ludic irony, I'm trying to get out of writing a conclusion by affecting the jargon of the slothful teenager. Obviously, I don't mean "whatever" - I don't share the disaffected carelessness of the standard "whatever" user. But I'm still getting out of writing a conclusion. To know inauthenticity isn't the same as being authentic. Or even, just because you ironically know you're wrong doesn't make you right).
- Jack Lynch, Literary Terms. I would strongly urge you not to read any more footnotes, they are only here to make sure I don't get in trouble for plagiarizing.
- 'In it [irony] everything should be all jest and all serious-ness, everything guilelessly open and deeply hidden... It contains and arouses a sense of the indissoluble antagonism between the absolute and the relative, between the impossibility and the necessity of complete communication. It is the freest of all license, because through it one transcends oneself, but at the same time it is the most prescribed, because [it is] absolutely necessary.'
- This is obviously debatable, but Paul Fussell in The Great War And Modern Memory made the case compellingly. Truthfully, British irony's political usage has to be deemed to have started with Swift, alongside Addison and Steele. Oh, go on, disagree with me if you like, see if I care.
- Paul de Man, The Rhetoric Of Temporality
- Both these quotes are from Michiko Kakutani, Critic's Notebook: The Age Of Irony Isn't Over After All; Assertions Of Cynicism's Demise Belie History
This article first appeared in The Guardian.
Zoe Williams has been a columnist on the Guardian since 2000 She was nominated as Columnist of the Year at the Workworld awards and was shortlisted for Feature of the Year for One World Media Awards. She is the author of one non-fiction book, Bring It On, Baby, about the politicisation of motherhood.