Showing posts with label eiron. Show all posts
Showing posts with label eiron. Show all posts

Monday 3 June 2019

What Is Irony?

What is irony?

Irony is the interruption or disruption of an established or expected discourse.  (This definition might not seem immediately helpful, but bear with me.)   Let's begin with a simple example of verbal irony.  You and a friend are looking out the window on a cold and rainy day.  Your friend says, "Beautiful weather."   Your friend is being ironic.  In the context, the "expected discourse" is "what terrible weather!"  You assume that what your friend "really" means is that the weather is terrible because that is what you would expect him to say.  In fact, some people claim that "saying the opposite of what you mean" is a definition of verbal irony.  However, it is rare that the intended meaning of an ironic statement is exactly the opposite of what is said.  Irony is almost always ambiguous (see Do No Harm:  Avoid Irony).

Verbal, situational and dramatic irony

There are three different kinds of irony:  verbal irony, situational irony and dramatic irony.  Irony resists definition because these three types of irony seem totally different from and unrelated to each other.  Verbal irony is saying one thing but meaning something completely different (nearly the opposite) of what is said. (As in the example above.) Situational irony is when what happens seems surprisingly, strikingly different from what you expect to happen.  (Example:  A ballerina, famous for her balance and grace, trips and falls while crossing the street.)  Dramatic irony is when we in the audience know something that the characters in a play or film don't. (Example:  John's best friend Peter is hiding in the bedroom closet.  We, the audience, know Peter is there and has been sleeping with John's wife.  In this dramatic or comic situation, John's telling his wife how much he admires his good friend Peter is dramatic irony.)  What each of these three different types of irony share is that they are the interruption or disruption of an established or expected discourse.


What is a discourse?

A statement, a speech, an announcement, a text, a paragraph can all be synonyms for "a discourse."  When we talk about "discourse" what we are referring to are all the ways in which sentences or utterances or images are connected together.  Analyzing the discourse of a paragraph, we could be looking at something as simple as the words used to connect one sentence to the next--words like "however," "although," "furthermore," "therefore" and "consequently" which connect one sentence to another and tell us the relationship between two sentences.  In the discourse analysis of a speech or a television commercial or a literary work, we might consider the themes, motifs, tone, style, patterns of repetition, the use of specific words or images; in short, all the elements that hold the parts together.

Disrupting the discourse of a eulogy

Imagine that Felix is delivering the eulogy at the funeral of his best friend George.  In the middle of expressions of admiration and his sadness at the loss of his friend,  Felix inserts "and George was a terrible golfer." This interruption of the tone and theme and formal register of the eulogy would be understood as irony.  What exactly does "and George was a terrible golfer" mean in this context?  It doesn't mean that Felix has decided to criticize George's golf at this moment.  Nor does it mean the opposite, that "George was an excellent golfer."  Exactly what an ironic statement means is always ambiguous.  Why did Felix say it?  We can imagine lots of good reasons for Felix's decision to interrupt his own discourse.  Irony--among men--often signals a bond of mutual understanding and communication.  (You can tell that two men are old and good friends by the way they freely insult each other.)   Felix may have wanted to lighten the tone.  The aside and comic relief are typical instances of irony.  Perhaps Felix knew that too much sadness, even at a funeral, wasn't George's style and this interruption would hold back the pathos. The irony might even make people laugh; even at funerals, it is sometimes good to laugh.

Can a situation be a discourse?

Anything can be called "a text."  (See Structuralism, semiotics and readings of the everyday world.)  Since anything--your life, my life, what happened at lunch today--can be considered and "read" as a "text," it can be analyzed as discourse.  So:  today at lunch you decided to abandon your habit of eating junk food and opted for the "healthful salad" instead . . . and consequently got food poising.  That is ironic.  The expected discourse of your narrative (the story of your lunch) and your decision was that you were going to be healthier, but the opposite (or near opposite) happened--you got sick.

Even dramatic irony interrupts a discourse

The basis of dramatic irony is that we know something that a character doesn't.  The literary critic Northrop Frye describes any literary work where the reader felt superior to the characters as being in the "ironic mode."  In my example above, we can see that John's, the cuckold's, discourse is interrupted and disrupted by our knowledge of the fact that Peter is hiding in the closet.

Where's the irony?

A constant problem in defining irony is identifying where exactly the irony is?  Is irony in the intentions of the speaker?  Is irony a matter of interpretation? Both are possible, but as Linda Hutcheon has argued, ultimately, irony just happens (Irony's Edge).  It happens in life, in situations, in stories and books, in performances.  Sometimes it is intended; sometimes it isn't.  Sometimes it is interpreted, sometimes it isn't.  Like the sound of that infamous lonely tree falling in the desert, irony exists when it is perceived.

Irony as a trope or figure of speech

A potential problem with what I've been saying here is that every trope or figure of speech is a disruption of literal discourse.  When Mary announces that "John is a pig," she is speaking metaphorically--even if she is unaware of the fact.  Her statement is a trope, a turning away from, the literal meaning of her words.  She is not saying that John is a four-legged source of pork chops.

As Paul de Mann has claimed, "Irony is the trope of tropes" ("The Concept of Irony," Aesthetic Ideology). Viewed in the other direction, every figure of speech is a shift, a disruption or interruption, moving the discourse from a literal meaning to a figurative meaning. Each of these figurative shifts is minor or subtle or micro or partial or local in relation to the macro shift of irony.  Consider the possibility that when Mary says "John is a pig," she is being both metaphoric and ironic.  The metaphoric level of her words is minor; in fact, would go unnoticed.  However, if she is being ironic--let's imagine that everyone knows that John is obsessively neat and clean--then the shift of meaning is of another magnitude.

Irony as "random"

I find it instructive that when millennials encounter a delightful example of irony, they often describe it, gleefully, as "random."  It is an intuitive observation that irony disturbs a pattern or sense of order by introducing a non sequitur; that is, something disconnected, that doesn't fit and might, in the extreme, seem completely "random."

The origins of "irony"

The word "irony" is derived from a stock character in Greek comedy known as the eiron--the superficially "dumb guy" who turns out to be quite clever.  The eiron is a dissembler who hides his intelligence beneath a facade of ignorance and humility.   There is no verb in English for "being ironic" but, if we wanted to imagine a good possibility, it would be a combination of "dissemble" (meaning to disguise or the opposite of "resemble') and "disassemble" (meaning to take apart--in this case, the expected discourse).  

Paul de Mann suggests that, as a rhetorical feature, irony is basically parabasis; that is, a shift of register in a discourse.  (De Mann's observation is the inspiration for my definition of irony.) The typical example of parabasis is an aside, but the etymological root is the chorus in Greek theatre which would interrupt the actors' speeches with their own comments.

Keeping it simple

If all this seems too much to hold onto, a simple definition of irony would be "The near opposite of what is expected happening or being said." By the way, in this post, I have included the image of an "Irony" wine bottle.  Other than the name the image doesn't have much to do with the post:   I was being ironic.

Also, I've seen Al Morrisette's daughter being criticized because the lyrics of her song "Ironic" aren't ironic.

Actually, the song is about situational irony, and I assume her critics were expecting verbal irony.  How ironic!


Monday 27 May 2013

Do No Harm Part II: Avoid Irony

In Education, sometimes less is more

I used to teach a course on Public Speaking.  It took me three years to figure out how to properly organize and deliver the course.  I think I finally did it right in the third year.  The trick was to abandon my teacher ego (a subject for a future post), get out of the way, take care of administrative and secretarial necessities of the course, and allow the students to perform and to educate each other—as much as I could (which was never easy for me).  A majority of the students who took this course were from the Faculty of Education and consequently destined for careers as educators.  One message I passed on to all the students, especially those planning to become teachers:  avoid irony. 

Every Joke has a victim

This is very complicated advice because if you ask students to list the five features they appreciate in teachers, a “sense of humour” is bound to appear consistently in the list.  (Here is another issue that I suspect teacher training programs never deal with.  Are there any education courses out there on “how to be funny”?)  At the core of any “joke” there is bound to be some form of irony and a victim.  I will try to avoid giving one of my three-hour lectures on the subject of irony, but if you are curious you might look at Linda Hutcheon’s book, Irony’s Edge and/or Paul de Man’s “The Concept of Irony” in Aesthetic Ideology.

Verbal Irony means saying what you don't mean

Verbal irony is saying one thing, but you really mean something else quite different.  The lowest form of verbal irony is the most familiar:  sarcasm.  A teacher being sarcastic with students is trying to be hurtful.  Unacceptable, but that is only part of the problem.  Irony by its very nature is always ambiguous.  No matter how clear or obvious a teacher might think s/he is being when being ironic, the fact is a number of different messages are being transmitted to students at the same time, and individual students are going to have to figure out which message is the right one.  Whatever message they choose, they are going to be wrong because the “real” meaning of an ironic statement doesn’t exist.  Irony is deliberately confusing; it does not transmit clear, singular meanings. If you ask someone what an ironic statement “really” means they are bound to be wrong.  According to Linda Hutcheon, the question would be the same as me asking you what this picture “really” represents.

If irony has to cross languages or cultures there is an exponential increase in the possibility of its being grossly misinterpreted.

Faced with verbal irony, you are never supposed to ask "what do you mean?"

Verbal irony can be quite innocent and lighthearted or unintended or very aggressive.  The problem is we can never know, with certainty, which.  Let’s try a case.  You arrive at work one morning and your colleague says:  “you’re looking sexy today.”  If your colleague is old and creepy, you begin to contemplate your sexual harassment suit; if young and attractive, you flash your brightest smile and strike a pose.  However, there is something in your colleague’s tone that puts a question mark in your mind.  (With irony, tone is everything.)  Does your colleague really mean that “you are looking sexy” or is the colleague being ironic and therefore intending another meaning? So, of course, you ask with an earnest glare: “What do you mean?”

The Multiple Meanings of an ironic utterance

We’ve all been there, so we know the answer will be something like:  “oh nothing,”  “just kidding around,” “don’t be so serious,” etc, etc, dodge, evade and duck (or is it a rabbit?).  Now you are left to try and figure out what your colleague really meant and, of course, the more you think about it, the more the number of possibilities expands.  The least likely possibility now seems to be that you are looking sexy this morning; your colleague earnestly thinks so and said so.  You enumerate the possibilities.  You had to get dressed in a rush this morning, missed the bus, etc.  Your colleague is telling you that you look a mess, or at least below your usual standards.  Option two, worse still, you are the least sexy person in the office and everyone knows it.  It is a big joke to describe you as “looking sexy.”  Or maybe the message is quite the opposite; it’s that you are trying too hard or you have overdone it and gone too far.  Your apparel is, in fact, too sexy.  You’ve gone passed sexy to slut/pimp. You are inappropriately dressed for the office.  At the same time, you infer that your colleague wants to initiate a “sexy” conversation with you.  What’s that about? 

Hopefully you are beginning to appreciate the problem.

What teachers say matters

Contrary to popular stereotypes, students are affected by what teachers tell them.  Moreover, there is a pretty good chance that the most passive-aggressive student in the room is also the most thin-skinned and insecure.  Imagine you are a student and your teacher is in the habit of being ironic.  Not only has your teacher confused you with multiple messages that you are unable to decode, but some of those messages, as far as you have been able to figure them out, are personally insulting and hurtful.  Your teacher on the other hand is thinking that s/he has such a great rapport with students that they have a fine time joking with each other.

Humour is a double-edged sword

It may not sound like it from this blog, but humour is an important part of my lecture style, my teaching in general and my personality.  I absolutely believe that teaching by example is the most important kind of teaching, and where teachers most often fail.  (I am convinced that if they were giving a lecture on “The Importance of Punctuality,” a number of my colleagues would show up late—and would have trouble understanding why that was a problem!)  Nonetheless, I have certainly been guilty of irony in my classes.  I have tried to mitigate the potential damage by warning students that I tell jokes (or at least relate anecdotes and recount comic examples) for two perfectly justifiable pedagogical motives:  The first is that I am illustrating a point in a fashion that I hope will make the point memorable (and I beg the students to remember the point I was making and not just the joke).  The second motive is that looking out across the room I can see that everyone is on the verge of falling asleep.  Whatever significant knowledge I was hoping to get across at that moment was DOA, so I might as well stir the room with something random with the hope of rekindling curiosity and concentration a few moments hence.

Comedy and ironic distance

However, tell yourself any two jokes that you know well, and chances are they both involve a victim.  Stories are funny because someone is or does something foolish or something unfortunate happens to them that makes us laugh.  We need a certain distance from these characters in order for us to laugh at what befalls them. Northrop Frye calls this distance “ironic” in his categorization of the modes of literature.  We cannot be too close to the characters, too sympathetic or concerned, or the joke won’t seem funny.   Generally, we feel superior to the characters in a joke or funny story.  

Cuckoos and cuckoldry

In late medieval humour the most common theme was cuckoldry.  A cuckold (just to remind you, because it is not a word often used these days) is a husband whose wife has sex with another man.  (There is no equivalent term for a betrayed wife, but the etymology isn’t quite as sexist as it sounds.  The origin is the cuckoo bird which was known for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests.  The implication is that a cuckold suffers not because his wife has sex with someone else but because he might unknowingly end up raising someone else’s offspring. People who have seen the movie but not read the novel will likely not recognize the intimations of betrayed masculinity—as well as insanity—in the title One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest).  In more contemporary times, until the recent ascendency of political correctness, the “victim” was usual a gendered or ethnic or regional or class stereotype. 

Teachers:  are you ready to be the butt of your own jokes?

If you are going to “be funny” with students, you have to ask yourself:  what is the relationship between the victim of your humour and your audience?  One way you as a teacher can be sure you are not going to victimize someone with your humour is to make yourself the victim.  I do on occasion make myself the butt of my own jokes, but this is not a gambit I recommend for any teacher who may be having concerns about maintaining status, respect and proper decorum with students.  If you observe stand-up comedians these days, self-mockery or at least putting themselves in the role of the “dumb” character is a common strategy.  It is also worth noting that the word “irony” derives from the dissembling character in ancient Greek comedy called the eirôn who appeared to be inferior and unintelligent but would triumph over the braggart in the end.

"No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teachers leave them kids alone"

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