A shallow meandering attempt to understand irony
Here’s a fun way to generate a headache. What’s the definition of irony?
Is it when you write a song called ‘Ironic’ that lists examples of irony but which aren’t technically ironic?
First, here’s how a movie can get a definition to lodge in your memory.
Exhibit A: Reality Bites. Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, 1994, written by Helen Childress.
“It’s when the actual meaning is the complete opposite to the literal meaning”
Ok, so irony is an opposition. I say X and X, taken literally, means X. But the actual meaning, in the context is -X, the very opposite. So… sarcasm? The words “Well done!” taken literally are an expression of praise, like “Nice work” or “Good job”. But If you drop the vase and it shatters into a gazillion fragments and I say it slowly in an exaggerated tone with my eyebrows raised, then it means the very opposite. Its literal translation, without context or tone, might be “You idiot!”
But this seems incomplete. Irony is used in more ways than to indicate only a clash between literal and intended meanings. It hints at other forces. Dark ones. Good stuff just doesn’t seem to be as ironic. And this definition includes the word “literal”. Literally. Oh God, a word that gives my brain indigestion. They seem akin, do they not?
The way people use the word “literally” is literally ironic.
Is it not interesting that these concepts are often seen together? Irony plays with literal meanings versus reality (whatever that is). ‘Literally’ itself is used to add adjectival force while also keeping it ironic. Despite its own literal meaning. Maybe because of it. You can get mad as hell and not take it anymore or accept that language changes even if its use requires rules and coordination.
Moving onwards. Or backwards. Sideways?
Exhibit B: a divisive list of coincidences that may or may not be ironic or whose lack thereof may itself be intentional or otherwise a case of irony.
- Dying the day after winning the lottery at a grand old age
- A black fly floating in your beougeoise glass of white wine
- A death row pardon arriving 2 minutes after the execution is carried out
- Rain on your wedding day
- A free ride offered after you’ve just paid for one
- Good advice that you ignored
- The one time you confront your fear of flying, and the plane really does crash
- Getting stuck in a traffic jam when you’re already late as hell
- Going out for a cigarette break only to stand under a No Smoking sign
- Looking for a spoon and finding all knives
- Meeting the person of your dreams, then meeting their partner
Also 1994! Alanis Morissette.
Bitterly has this divided the west, into those that hum along and the rest, who call foul, foul!: “NOT IRONIC! (how ironic)”
But switch on your ironometer and consider: You live in the west of Ireland. Rain is a natural state of being. Aha, you declare, not on my damn wedding day. You organise your big day out in the Atacama desert, where it hasn’t rained in years and years. You joke about escaping the shite weather at home. Most people decline the invitations: why the hell are you going so far away? Do you know how much it costs to get there? And then of course it rains. In the Atacama. And back in Ireland, blazing sun. Is there not here the sweet taste of irony?
Now, you may argue that this is just plain old misfortune- a regular-sized portion of coincidence. Ketchup?
Exhibit C: So what do dictionaries have to say?
Definitions of Irony seem to list a few bases. Here be three:
- Using language where the intended/suggested meaning is opposite to the literal/straight interpretation of the expression, often used as wit
- When something happens that is contrary to expectations
- When an audience knows something that a character in a play doesn’t (dramatic)
Definition from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/irony
Seems plausible. Look at the last example though: “The irony is that his mistake will actually improve the team’s situation.” Did he intend the mistake?
The examples have it, but does the definition itself describe how that taste arises, that ‘delicious’ irony that might be ‘gotten’ like a joke. In what direction are the roots?
Like a joke, irony seems to involve reversal and revelation. It also seems to require some kind of jarring juxtaposition or incongruity: a clash between what is expected or literal, and what is actual. Now, if I use sarcasm, it could be argued that the intended, sarcastic meaning implied by tone and context, is itself the expected/intended, even the literal meaning (see, it can always go meta). But there is still a clash here, a use of language to indirectly express a meaning, a usage that includes “I intend the opposite to what the words add up to normally” that is immediately revealed as it is said.
So, getting closer, maybe. Maybe not. There is a contrast. But also, a connection, a… drumroll… symmetry. For example, here’s a non-ironic rain:
- It rains on your wedding day in the west of Ireland
And here, an ironic rain.
- It rains on your wedding day in the Atacama after you travelled there from Ireland specifically to avoid rain. Meanwhile there’s a grand dry day at home
Ok, you can protest. See, you can always protest about the effect of ingredients. But what was added to make it seem much more ironic? I declare that it was this polar symmetry: a link, connection, that the brain immediately recognises and appreciates on a narrative level, the level where we ascribe intention and blame and significance. It satisfies us; resolves like a joke can. Intentions and outcomes, or even different aspects of an event are linked in some tasty way, or on some plane of expression or meaning.
Here’s another example: Not ironic
- You crash your car
Oops. That’s unfortunate. You weren’t hurt though; it was a hypothetical crash. Now, add something that gives it a taste of irony
- You crash your car on the way to attend a safer-driving lesson
Hmm, can I add some more?
- You crash your car on the way home from a safer-driving lesson
yes, yes, getting there
- You crash your car on the way to teach a safer-driving lesson
Mighty, it stinks of irony!
- You crash your car, distractedly commenting on an article about dangerous driving, while driving to teach a safer-driving lesson.
Interestingly, while this seems strongly to taste of irony, you can still contest. Contesting levels of irony is fun. There’s a website called http://www.isitironic.com/ that allows you to vote on whether something is or is not ironic. Currently, popular results include:
Exhibit E Things whose ironic quality is popularly voted on, on a website dedicated to exactly this sort of thing:
|Paul walker, actor from fast and the furious, died in a fiery car crash?||54% taste irony|
|Bears are actually hairy?||Bear- Bare: 32% taste irony|
|If you have a phobia of longs words you have to tell people that you have Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia?||Ooh 92% taste irony|
So, irony is difficult to pin down in a way that will cleanly cut the ironic from the non-ironic. It’s almost like asking to split jokes into funny and not-funny. Count the laughs? It also shows that some stuff is more ironic than other stuff. At some point most of use will taste it, at another very few of us. It cannot boil down to strictly looking for black flies in (white) Chardonnay, or saying ‘good’ when you mean ‘bad’.
I propose to explain it as I have been using it here, as a taste that is affected by a bunch of things and which may be argued about until the cows come home and listen to Miles Davis while drinking hot chocolate until 5 a.m. But deep down what we are looking for most of the time, at least according to current use, is some satisfying connection or symmetry on some level, plus a conflict or jarring incongruity, and generally misfortune. The conflict/contrast/clash needs to be related in some way to the similarity.
A stab at an alternative definition:
Irony is a quality attributed to expressions or situations involving some revealed intersection of incongruity and symmetry.
Let’s say I say X but mean -X, i.e. sarcasm. There is an incongruity between the literal and actual meanings. Where’s the symmetry? Well, there’s a polar symmetry to opposites, as in black and white or great and awful. The polar symmetry of using opposties intersects with the conflict of saying something that seems to be untrue.
Let’s say I’m in a group trying to organise where to eat, and we go on and on and nowhere will get enough consensus. “Great to see such agreement :-)” I post. I indicate irony with the smile/tone. There is a literal/actual disparity. There is a symmetry of these opposites. It’s not the same as saying “Sad to see such disagreement”. Consider how you might react to it.
Us (loads of texts): Arguing
Me (text): “Great to see such agreement :-)”
You (thought 1): Ok, he said it’s great to see agreement.
You (thought 2): But there is no agreement!
You (thought 3): Ooh, is he doing sarcasm?
You (thought 4): Look, he used a smiley face: yes, definitely sarcasm
The irony is used as a device of wit. What does that do? It points out the disagreement without attributing blame, without challenging the actors. If I say “Jeez, why can’t we agree, it’s simples” people might get defensive. The tone is different. Language that tastes of irony can be a useful tool used with nuance. Wit can allow you to say stuff without directly challenging people. Suggestion not force.
Going back up to the car crash example: You crash your car on the way to teach a safer-driving lesson. Hee hee. You end up doing exactly what you teach people not to do. This symmetry is where irony seems to be very strong.
And the bear/bare? just a pun? But see the contrast between ‘bare’ and ‘hairy’ and then the connection/symmetry between ‘bear’ and ‘bare’. They intersect at bare/bear. It is the opposite (bears are hairy) to the meaning of another word that sounds the very same (bare is NOT hairy)
How about posting this comment: “I think you’ll find its ‘their’ not ‘there'”. Ah the sweet irony of a grammar error in a post deriding a grammar error. What has happened? Message 1: “the grammar be bad”. Message 2 (revelation): Message 1 has bad grammar. Symmetry: the mistakes are the same. And it’s self referential to boot. Irony and its kin contain within the urge to eat one’s own tail. When it appears, is recognised, language loses transparency, shows its mechanics, and a game may begin. Must begin- as when a pun is made and conversation dissolves into competitive pun compositions until everyone gets tired of being meta and language drops back into the service of pointing at things.
Dramatic, Socratic, and Cosmic Irony
In dramatic irony, an audience knows something important that a character doesn’t. In these cases there is still a disparity: the characters will say and do things that have a titillating symmetry with that audience knowledge. Hamlet will play mad, then Polonious interprets it in a totally different way. The audience sees both. When Polonious talks about the madness they feel that symmetry and the incongruity/discomfort of knowing it. “You fool” you want to shout, “you’ve got it backwards!”. “It’s behind you!” “In the curtains!”
With Socratic irony, Socrayts plays dumb and pretends not to know the meaning of supposedly basic words like, er, justice. Pfffsh! who doesn’t know what that means? “Tell me Thrasymachus, since I haven’t a clue myself, being but a fool- what does this word ‘justice’ actually mean?” In this case, we are the audience and we know that Socrates is feigning. And there it is, the very taste, as he exposes Thrasymachus’s concept of justice as being dumb by himself pretending to play dumb. Educational dramatic ironying?
‘Cosmic’ irony is like dramatic irony and close to the feel of a joke, except the joke is being played, by the universe, on you. This generally involves something bad happening to you that you didn’t expect, and in fact, seems to indicate dramatic irony at your expense where someone or something else knows your situation and does something very specific to screw you up. For example: you haven’t been pulled over by the police for years. Today is the very first time you’ve driven your car without a tax certificate, and boom, you get pulled over, and fined. What are the chances? This is an unfortunate coincidence, but it also draws on expectation-vs-reality and symmetry. The more effort you put into avoiding getting caught for tax, the more irony generated when you do. There is a symmetry and a surprise: the very specific thing that could happen, does happen. Yet it is not simply coincidence. “What can go wrong, will go wrong.” Sod’s Law. Murphy’s Law. It’s a coincidence to bump into a friend on the street. It is ironic if you met him while specifically taking that route and going well out of your usual way, to avoid him. And he is doing the very same thing! You can argue that it is still technically coincidence and therefore not ironic because irony does not equal coincidence.
Wouldn’t if be funny if… ?
Going back to the idea of jokes and a cosmic joke being played. The situation can often be framed in the question form: “Wouldn’t it be delightfully funny if X happened?” , says the Universe itself. An implied human mind at play. Our minds are designed to find this agency everywhere, like seeing faces in towels or rocks or clouds or worn on the front of heads.
- Look, he has gone to all this specific effort today to clean his car today- wouldn’t it be funny if a gaggle of gulls cover it in guano?
- Hmm, she has traveled halfway round the world to make sure it doesn’t rain- wouldn’t it be especially funny if it pours (for the first time in a decade)?
- Ooh, it’s a list of supposedly ironic things. Wouldn’t it be funny if they weren’t ironic at all?
- heehee, he’s writing about how he hates splling mistakes. Wouldn’t it be funny if…?
- He’s walking down the street. Wouldn’t it be funny if a car ran him down?
See how the last one is not the same? Where’s the irony? Where’s that peculiar symmetry between what is going on and what could happen and what actually happens,
to the view of a cosmic doer of do’s? Humour being what it is, and language being what it is, and isn’t, some people will find the poor guy getting run down funny (it’s ok, he didn’t get hurt too bad and doesn’t exist), and some could probably find irony too.
I don’t see this “wouldn’t it be funny…” format as being a pure reversal of expectation. I see this as a symmetry and opposition between plans, intentions, expectations, normality, and actuality. For a person, as cosmic irony, it is taking your plans and intentions and flipping them. They are read and understood by the universe and then deliberately inverted. Such fun! Your thoughts can be heard and they directly impact the future. Santa can hear. Jesus, too. And your parents and partners and kids and friends. And that guy in the office. The world is listening and it reacts. We try to cull those “wouldn’t it be awful if…?” thoughts as they arise spontaneously inside. Don’t even think that. Superstition (writing’s on the wall) Interestingly, this is like dream life, where merely the suggestion of something going horrible when asleep after gobbling a full platter of cheese can make it so. I hope these wings don’t melt… oh darn. I hope that car doesn’t grow teeth and look like my old teacher… shoot! Not a reversal of expectation but a reversal of a feared outcome that you might have worked hard to avoid (the harder you work, the crueler the twist). And in the symmetry between twist and intention, what looks like the hallmarks of intention.
Pics or TLDR
Here’s what the taste of irony might look like: a commons image taken from Wikipedia’s irony article (research depth 1)
This seems like a paradox, like the verbal one ” I am a liar; everything I say is a lie, including this”. It is a STOP that has been defaced by a message saying “STOP defacing Stop signs”. This can be put in the “wouldn’t it be funny… format”: wouldn’t it be funny if a sign to not do X was itself an example of x? This could be a coincidence, or ‘cosmic’, or it could be arranged by the writer of a play, or it could be the way that you cope with the absurdity of existence.
I did some more cutting edge research by searching twitter for #irony and making screenshots of ones that I understood; that I tasted irony in (I didn’t get lots of them).
1: A sign where the word ‘QUALITY’ is itself broken. The intention is to express ‘quality’ but this intersects with the brokenness of the actual sign, which suggests the very opposite.
2: Posting on social media that you hate social media. Now, this also seems to taste of hypocrisy, where there is a clash between what you say you will do and what you do… but hypocrisy also suggests intentional inconsistency for some personal gain, i.e., it’s nasty.
3: Following a campaign talking about how the US has tons of problems and so much is wrong and how there’s a giant swamp that needs draining, Trump now swivels to saying “if you have a problem with things here, just leave”. This seems much closer to the strong aroma of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy certainly seems to also contain the ingredients for irony. But whatever. Use it to attack a group of black women senators to energise your racist base. If it angers the liberals, then great- success! Maybe that’s most of the aim, not a side effect? It’s actually not racist, it’s just trolling. This whole thing is about the innards of the big whole of voters and one baiting the other. The direct targets are not even part of it, and that’s just the way it is. Reality, see? Oh dear.
4: We spend our lives trying to get to some happy place, but the journey itself takes up our whole life. A similar example might be spending all your free time reading books on what to do in your free time. But the whole ‘life is a journey’ thing is moot. Do we really dedicate our lives to reach some specific point? Do we have to stop all goal-based-behaviour completely to really live? Where does one draw the line?
The symmetry that seems to be at the nub of irony is often ‘meta’, in that it can be on a different layer or form, or can feed on itself like that coiled snake gnawing its own tail. Here the taste of irony might become a quest, and the quest immediately starts hitting loops, where everything is meta, everything is seen as part of a search to expose irony, and irony is found everywhere, in every bush in town. This state is akin to the general ironic stance mentioned above. A style of language is used to keep fixed descriptions of reality at a distance, while there is always an urge to turn this on itself, to treat this ironic distance itself in an ironic way, to flip in and out of actual sincerity and try to impress or deride strangers on the internet and urge each other to meta meta meta. It can seem that irony itself is an endless loop of no return. There is a whole aesthetic of irony online.
Irony it seems can be a ‘way of life’.
It’s perfectly possible to take a long term “ironic stance” that becomes a hallmark characteristic of your youness. You float off into parody and deflective language, and abandon sincerity having judged all efforts to form systems of meaning to be lacking. Take nothing I say or do at face value as I no longer believe in systems of face value. In the way that so many things can be labelled as ironic, perhaps a whole life or period of life or of civilisation can evoke that taste.
This might be plain old cynicism. If your world view is cynical, you might not maintain the notion of a framework to validate or categorize in terms of a big Truth or a patchwork of little ones. You might start seeing and injecting irony everywhere. But is it pure insincerity or cynicism? Perhaps it is itself a sincere reaction as a stance on the lack of reliable truths or Truth from experience?
Irony here now seems to morph into a blend of self reference, cynicism, and possibly a hint of asparagus… I mean fatalism. Is everything meta or meta-meta or more ironic? If an expression includes a reference to itself as expression, is this irony?
Here’s a final artefact from the world’s wild web: a look at David Foster Wallace on Irony… well, a look at a video that looks at Foster Wallace on Irony but mainly talks about TV shows. Actually I don’t like video essays any more. Is that just me? Maybe I’m jealous. It looks at a shift back towards sincerity and away from irony, where irony is being meta, “Hi, I’m an actor doing an ad… yadda yadda yadda… buy buy buy!” and being cynical and mocking society and your own format.
Exhibit Z A video essay (and I don’t like video essays anymore and I’m not even sure why but I did watch it twice):
And here’s the top comments. Enlightened, much?
Will you now start seeing irony everywhere, or nowhere? Do you already pepper your pronouncements with it? What percentage of the language you use do you reckon is less than literal?
This ‘essay’ started as a ten minute effort to jot down the guts of what irony is in one of those pretentious notebooks. It morphed into this sprawl that yet defies a conclusion. Irony is rich and invasive, circular and evasive. Hopefully I can come back to this and straighten out a thought or two.