U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Irony: A Response to Hartman (et al)

AdbustersGuest post by James Levy, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

[Updated/edited: 11/17/2014, 10:00 am]
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I want to go all the way back to Andrew’s original post and to insert a defense of – or at least call to take seriously – the question that Andrew is trying to ask us – that is, to consider the politics of employing irony and, in particular, the problem of “ironic detachment.”

But it is impossible to do this coherently with what seems to me to be a confusion or at least very loose merging together of ideas about what even constitutes irony in the first place.

Andrew offered a helpful starting point in the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of irony:  a written or performed act whose “real meaning” is “concealed or contradicted” by the literal meanings of words used;  or, a “situation in which there is an incongruity between what is expected and what occurs.”

But this definition seems inadequate to me because so many things can apply to it.  A good joke would work for this definition.  So would sarcasm.  So would paradox.  As Aristotle would have it, so would tragedy.  If the “what occurs” in the above definition is structural reality in a Marxist sense, then so would the operations of “false consciousness.”

And that seems too broad.  I don’t think Andrew’s question was intended to provoke a general contemplation of humor, of contradiction, or of the rejection of totalizing narratives in favor of uncertainty.    I admire L.D. Burnett’s claim that she embraces irony because it is “not only salutary but downright liberating to practice and nurture a habit of thought that invites me to be a little less certain of my self-righteous certainties.”   But is that enough?  And does her idea require that it be labeled “irony”?

As I see it, there are at least three distinct modes of irony we could be talking about as historians: First, the simple act by historians of highlighting irony in the pasts we observe and interpret (as Andrew and Tim Lacy propose); Second, the employment of the ironic mode by historians in their own writing (as distinct from the “comic” or “tragic” or “Romantic” mode).  Only Jim Livingston (and through his post also Burke, Hadyen White and others) addressed this mode of irony in any substantial way in this discussion so far.   Third, the ironic mode as an attitude, tone or presentational stance as employed politically by the historical actors we observe (as by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart).

I find the first mode least helpful in this discussion – or perhaps I should say, least relevant to Andrew’s question about “ironic detachment.”  When Andrew “highlights” irony in his 1960s/70s feminism example he is not playing the role of ironist, of course, only calling attention to irony.  But neither, for that matter, are the feminists he describes acting in the ironic mode because they do not know about the contradiction they enact in advance and so can’t possibly be deliberately exploiting that contradiction.   They can’t possibly be calling attention to the gap between rhetoric and meaning.  Therefore, I think what Andrew highlights is more paradox than irony.   I’m not suggesting that Andrew misuses the term “irony” – only that the politics of naming something “irony” seem hard to define and, further, that the political effect of calling such moments “ironic” is probably not all that different than calling them “contradiction,” “paradox,” or “false consciousness.”

The second mode pertains not so much to the everyday use of irony which is dependent on tone, but more to a structure of narrative.  This is the stuff of poetics. (For an example of a historian employing the ironic mode, see Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as discussed by Hayden White in Metahistory, p. 55.)  I won’t rehash what Jim Livingston has done much better here or what theorists such as White and Richard Rorty (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity) have written whole books about.  But I will point out that Hayden White and others remind us that struggles and hand-wringing over the politics of irony far, far preceded post-modernism or the “linguistic turn.” According to White, it was the Scylla of Irony and the Charybdis of Romanticism that late 19th century philosophers and historians, especially Nietzsche, were trying to navigate. Indeed, if Nietzsche is the father of postmodernism and if we agree with Hayden White’s reading of Nietzsche and his followers, we might argue post-structuralist thought aims for just the opposite:  The transcendence of irony.

I think it is curious that we blame post-structuralism for the ironic mode we’re in.  Being uncertain about certainty does not constitute irony.  Andrew seems to be especially rankled by the detachment part of “ironic detachment.”  I am too.  But the entire project of post-structuralists was aimed in the opposite direction. They wanted to find ways to  engage politically in a world where certainties had become unmoored (and where, following the Frankfurt school, totalizing narratives had become the basis of abject terror and genocide).   And if this work of debunking these totalizing narratives can be described as the work of the ironist, I think we’d have examples of activist commitment, not detachment.  In other words, can we really claim that irony necessitates detachment?

We might be able to grapple with this question by considering the third example of the ironic mode: the use of irony in political speech, performance and action (ala Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart).   I should point out regarding Jon Stewart, by the way, that, aside from the fact that he does “fake news” which is itself an ironic (or perhaps oxymoronic) phrase, I don’t think his show constitutes essential irony in the same way that Colbert’s does, even if many of the characters on his show do.  And though I myself am making the slippage in this post, I still think it important to remind ourselves of the differences between comedy and satire, on the one hand, and irony, on the other.  Still, regarding political humor more generally, I don’t think we can say that the use or lack of use of comedy and satire have a direct correlation to political commitment.  The excellent guest post by Campbell Scribner contrasts the humor of the 1930s run of the New Yorker magazine to the politically more serious content of the New Masses.  Yet how can one read Michael Gold’s plays or writings – or those of Clifford Odetts or so many of the Lefty writers and workers’ theatre playwrights – without accounting for the methods of Agit-Prop – their Big Bosses and Big Cigars? Without seeing satire, humor and irony put to very serious political use?

But if I’m arguing that there’s something unique regarding irony and its politics, what it is about irony that makes it unique?   Here’s what I think:   Audience and author intention are crucial to giving irony meaning. While similar things can be said about humor more generally, with irony there is also projected a second imaginary audience, one that is unknowing.   In other words, there is an “insider voice” that irony always points to.  One of the essences of irony is to establish who is and who isn’t an insider simply through hermeneutics – by the interpretation of the tone which, read correctly, assumes a clear distinction between literal and “actual” meaning.  If you get the irony, you are an insider.

If I may venture a guess about what annoys Andrew and so many of us about ironic detachment (as opposed to other kinds of detachment such as say, of the off-the-grid, back-to-the-earth variety) is that ironic detachment seems to be deliberate detachment with an entitled air:  I’m detaching myself because I know that attachment itself is impossible and therefore misguided and naïve.   Perhaps the difference in the ironic variant is that the practitioner claims to be political.  And here we can see how it’s about audience:  The ironist is speaking to politicized individuals who share the discourse. They know they are the audience and are up to the same project, that is, the project of politics.  So the ironist non-committers offer an in-your-face sort of detachment. And we feel condescended to.

Ironically, this form might be what bothers us the most:  Since we’re made uncomfortable by the uncertainty of our position in relation to the joke or to the ironist herself, we become resentful.  There is an air of superiority of the ironist – their self-satisfied tone which suggests that they’ve figured it out and we haven’t, and, worse, that there is no cost associated with their ironic stance.  They can stand apart without accountability.  They can claim humor (“It was just a joke…”) or that it’s “not their job” (as with Stewart and his often-repeated justification that he’s on Comedy Central and in a slot that is preceded by “puppets making crank phone calls.”)

But these claims are exactly the point.   Those are the indicators of detachment, not the irony itself.  It may be true that Colbert and Jon Stewart dismiss politics and are politically non-committal (and make a lot of money in the process).  But they are not are only available sources of political irony.  In fact, there is a whole body of theory, history and practice by politically committed ironists that have not entered this discussion.

In addition to the examples Andrew presents – Colbert, Jon Stewart, Thomas Frank and The Baffler  – we should add Kalle Lassen (Ad Busters) and a lot of recent street-theatre protest – from Billionaires for Bushto Axis of Eve, the young female activist group who sold women’s underwear with such slogans on the crotch as “Expose Bush” and “Weapon of Mass Seduction.”

We can say these groups trade in irony.   And they have been inspired by a long line of activist ironists – from Guy Debord’s Situationists through the pranksterism of Abby Hoffman (levitating the Pentagon) on up to the more recent “culture jamming” of Reclaim the Streets, Ad Busters and others (see Naomi Klein’s No Logo and the recently published multi-authored “toolbox for revolution,” Beautiful Trouble).

Those ironists tend to employ Debord’s concept of “detournement.”  Practitioners describe detournement (literally meaning “overturning” or “derailment”) as “semiotic juijitsu.”    They include bold acts of irony such as projecting the words “Koch Brothers” in coopted Coca-Cola red script font on the wall of the new Koch wing of Lincoln Center during its premier gala.  Here’s how one culture jammer justifies detournement in Beautiful Trouble :

Rational arguments and earnest appeals to morality may prove less effective than a carefully planned detournement that bypasses the audience’s mental filters by mimicking familiar cultural symbols, then disrupting them. . . Detournement can be used to disrupt the flow of the media spectacle and, ultimately, to rob it of its power.  Advertisements start to feel less like battering rams of comsumerism and more like the raw materials for art and crucial reflection.

The effect of irony via this theory of detournement operates in a two-step fashion, from confusion to understanding:  The Billionaires appear to be Bush supporters until you realize they intend to criticize Republican policies by exposing exaggerated versions of their absurdity.  A cigarette ad “jammed” by Ad Busters appears to be selling cigarettes until you realize the ad features a skull with a butt in its teeth  and intends to link lung disease and death to the cigarettes.

The shift from appearance to intention or true message depends on what these ironist activists call cognitive dissonance.  The moment of cognitive dissonance occurs when the incongruity is exposed: That Bush supporter is chanting “Four More Wars!” or “Free the Forbes 400” and . . . wait a minute!   That can’t be right. . . Or, What’s up with that billboard?  Why would a cigarette company include a skeleton in its ad?

The theory is that one’s easy assumptions about the way the world works – systems of advertising, structures of party politics, paradigm of female objectification – will be upset by such cognitive dissonance and therein will lie true revelation.

To critique this theory you could say that in many of these cases such cognitive dissonance is too damn pleasurable since it is nearly always resolved (see Freud Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious).  So our worldviews aren’t actually challenged or threatened.  The ironic twists are respite or release, breaks from the real work.  But, on the other hand, that is exactly how many culture-jamming activists will defend their work:  We’re giving the Left something to feel good about, they say.  We’re making the Revolution fun – an Emma Goldman danceable moment – and, look!, we’ve just recruited 150 college students to the protest because it’s a blast.

What’s tricky is that it’s so slippery.  The trickster never stays still.  So this might match more an anarchist sensibility than a movement building one.  On the other hand, while it may be tempting to say that a post-Revolution world can’t be built on jokes or run well when the seats of power are inhabited by jesters, still we should consider the maxim:  Live the world you want to be in.  Or, Another world is possible.  In other words, start doing what you imagine.

In that case, play is pretty powerful.  The masquerade balls that pop-up flash-mobby in city squares where everyone dances and wears a top hat or tiara might seem goofy but they might also offer the possibility of a world that is much more compassionate and more communitarian than the more rigid, fear-based one we live in.

Contrasting the joyful street play and humor of Situationists to the fascist use of spectacle during Nazi Germany, Stephen Duncombe offers a defense of irony (and political humor more generally):

Jokes are active, social things.  More than any other form of communication they demand participation from their audience.  Meaning in a joke is incomplete;  not all information is given, and the remaining part must be provided by the recipient.  This is why it is possible to not ‘get’ a joke.  When the humor is satire or irony . . . the sense of shared meaning is even more intense.  Given clues to what the author or performer doesn’t think, the spectator deciphering an ironic text has to use his or her imagination to figure out what the creator does believe.  The spectator helps create the message by providing its incomplete negation.  As such, jokes create a sort of interdependency. . . it is . . . what is so magical about comedy when it works, for the audience and the comic create something together.  Good humor confers an instant intimacy between the comic and the audience, both of whom share in the meaning-making.  This narrative independency works against hierarchy.”  (Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, p. 131-32)

Whatever your take on irony, I don’t think it fair to equate it with complacency.  Complacency is the problem of the complacent, whether they tell you to get lost sincerely or ironically.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. James,

    I agree with your conclusion, especially after the persuasive case made above. If I conflated irony with complacency, it probably has something to do with my encounters of irony in the context of academia alone—in the politics of academia rather than real life.

    I detect some Mikhail Bakhtin lurking in the background (i.e. heteroglossia, dialogic, hybrid utterances), especially in relation to Duncombe. I’m not familiar with the latter, so are you aware of any connections?

    – TL

  2. Tim,

    Yes, Bakhtin and discussions of the “carnivalesque” are absolutely relevant. And, yes, Duncombe makes good use of Bakhtin – I think in those same pages where the passage I quoted appears.

  3. From James Livingston (who is having trouble today with Blogger):

    Brilliant. I particularly admire the taxonomy of irony and the politics of ironic engagement (which once upon a time might have been construed as a double negative, or rather an oxymoron). The difference between irony in the activist mode and irony as the pry bar of political (and every other kind of) disengagement can be sampled by reading Beautiful Trouble, open it anywhere and you have a way of keeping your distance and living up to your principles, and then read Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, where irony–“being in two places at once”–becomes the most powerful addiction, worse than heroin. And yet in the 5th volume, At Last, Patrick does kick the habit. That’s where the transcendence of irony becomes his project, as it was Nietzsche’s and as it is James Levy’s comedic rendition. My top hat is off to the guy at Whitewater. There’s a colloquial meaning of “detournement,” by the way, that my fluent-in-French friend Bruce Robbins supplied me: hijacking.

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