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What is Irony?: (A Linguistic Meditation)

Updated on December 14, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


It is possible that I have this hub miscategorized. I do mean this essay to be a linguistic meditation, but this is a term (linguistic meditation) that I have coined -- I believe that means 'made up.' As you can tell, if you will look above, I ended up categorizing this under 'critical philosophy.' I could be wrong, but I believe 'critical philosophy' is an approach that critiques other philosophical approaches, broadly speaking.

There is a linguistics category I could have filed this under, but I abandoned it because I could not tell what kind of linguistic exercise I am engaged in here. I'm saying that I didn't know how to choose between computational linguistics, applied linguistics, developmental linguistics, and so forth. I am not even sure its right to call the exercise I am about to engage in, anything to do with linguistics.

If there had been an analytical philosophy file, that would have been closer to what I'm about here. As I understand it, everything with analytic philosophy starts with the word; it is about the business of examining the words we use very closely, and first making a determination whether or not the philosophical problems we frame with those words are valid or invalid. And so on and so forth.

Never mind :D! In any event, we shall have a meditation on the concept of 'irony.' We shall -- without using a dictionary -- try to divine what we mean by 'irony,' and in a casual manner, compare and contrast irony to its distant cousin, sarcasm. Why are we doing this? Simply because the topic popped into my head. If we think carefully enough about it, I think we will find that there are many things we can discover -- at least we can discover many things that deserve to be explored.

If you (whoever you may be) are reading this, don't use a dictionary. If I stopped you on the street and asked you, ("What is irony?"), what might you say?

Personally, if I were caught up so defenseless, so naked, so exposed, I suppose I would say -- and therefore I shall say -- that irony is the coming together of two (no more than two, I should think) "chunks" of reality (let's call them chunk a and chunk b), in such a way that chunk b seems to expess an inherent commentary which says that chunk a has undermined itself.

In other words -- and simpler ones too -- we might say that irony is the process by which a reality (a specific reality) precisely unfolds in such a way that undermines itself, its original intent. For a not-very-good example we might say something like: "The irony of it all is that Charlie was the most patriotic of us all, yet it was he (Charlie) who was deported."

So there is something about the way Charlie pursues and expresses his patriotism that precisely undermines it and renders it all for naught. Chunk a is Charlie's journey, the pursuit and expression of his patriotism. Chunk a collides into chunk b, Charlie's deportation. At this point we can shake our heads and say, "That's ironic!"

Are we done?

Not quite yet!

There's another dimension of irony we need to explore. Once in a while, in literary and film criticism you may come across a sentiment that goes something like this: "This author or filmmaker has an 'ironic' voice." Have you ever heard that?

What does irony mean in this instance? Does the definition we've already given apply? We're talking about someone's creative voice containing the quality of irony. What does this have to do with two colliding "chunks" of reality and the manifestation of the crash in such a way that the second chunk forms an inherent, existential critique of the first that says the first unfolded in such a way that it undermined itself?

Now, I'm going to save some time and skip a few steps, possibly, by saying that two of my favorite writers, the late Mario Puzo and John Grisham are writers whom I think of as having an 'ironic' voice. (For Mario Puzo irony seemed to be his constant, natural literary state; John Grisham, in my opinion, was at his ironic best with one of my favorite novels by him, "The Brethren").

So what does it mean to have a creative voice of irony? Well, I'm going to skip a few more steps and tell you that I believe the idea of the ironic creative voice is relatable to our colliding 'chunks' notion, in a way.

What does an artist do?

Let me say, first, that I believe an artist (painter, writer, sculptor, harmonica player, etc) strives to observe reality accurately, then capture it, jazz it up a bit for entertainment value, and then present it so that it may, hopefully, reveal the same truth to others that the artist, herself, perceived. Follow me?

But there's a problem if we try to relate it to our colliding "chunks" theory. We actually don't want the artist's observations about life being constantly upended, undermined by their confrontation with reality. After all, no artist sets out to make a fool of herself, to reveal herself to the world to be nothing but ignorance. I suppose, in theory, an artist can make a fool out of herself, quite independent of her skill level in technically executing the art. But let's put that aside. Forget it!

Be that as it may, this can't be what the ironic voice is!

How about this?

An artist is, in part, an OBSERVER of life, yes? I would say, about fifteen years ago (not much more than that), modern science gave us the idea that the act of pure observation of nature is not the passive activity that we had always thought it was. The act of pure observation is active. By merely observing a phenomena, you are interacting with it, and even changing it a little.

So, perhaps the artist, this professional observer of life, produces this metamorphosis BEFORE she actually does the creative elaboration for the sake of a novel, painting, harmonica concerto, whatever. Now we're getting somewhere....

Straight Man

I'm going to skip another step and say that, for me, the ironic creative voice serves precisely the same function the "straight man" did in the classic comedy duo. For most of you my age (40) and younger, your idea of comedy is a lone man or woman on stage with a microphone; there's the half-hour sitcom; and if you have really good taste, The Simpsons is your idea of comedy -- ditto for me. That would be about it.

Years and years ago, however, there were other ways of producing comedy. One of these was the comedy duo like "Laurel and Hardy" and "Abbot and Costello." One guy got the punch lines. He was the one the audience laughed at (and with). The funny guys were Lou Costello and Stan Laurel.

The straight man was, what you might call, the ironic foil to the funny guy. Bud Abbot and Oliver Hardy were the straight men. Take Laurel and Hardy, for instance. Laurel would do something bumbling and hilarious, and ensnare and drag Hardy (or "Ollie") down with him. Then Ollie would look at the camera as if to say something like: "Can you believe I'm with this idiot?!" And of course, that reaction makes the joke even funnier.

So, the 'irony' in the ironic creative voice, has something to do with humor. A fair question, then, would be: What is humor? I'll come back to this.

Now, I have said that the ironic creative voice serves the same purpose in art (mostly writing perhaps) as the straight man in comedy. But remember what we said about the faculty of observation, it is not just passive; it is, in fact, very active. Through the mere act of observation you are interacting with the phenomena and changing it. HOLD THAT THOUGHT!


What is humor?

Remember, the only reason we're asking THIS question is because I skipped several steps and said that the ironic creative voice is like the straight man in an old-time comedy duo. From there we determined that irony has some relationship to humor. And so, in trying to nail down irony's function in relation to humor we are lead to the question: What is humor?

Mind you, I could have used the word 'comedy,' instead of 'humor,' since I declared that the ironic creative voice was like the straight man in an old-time COMEDY duo -- in which case we would have been here all day. But I didn't, so we won't be..... "here" all day. In any event, 'humor' is what I mean as opposed to 'comedy.'

For our purposes humor, or something that is humorous, is NOT anything and every little thing that makes us laugh. Something cute your toddler does or says can makes us laugh, but that is not what I mean by 'humor' in this context. You may say something like: 'My friend, Jane, has a wonderful sense of HUMOR." This is not what I shall mean by 'humor' either in this context -- even though that example actually has the word 'humor' in it.

Humor also will NOT mean, for us, the non-laughing sense of the 'funny' concept. As you know, we sometimes use the word 'funny' in a way that I believe most people would describe as "ironic." For example, I might say to you that A, B, and C happened last week, or sometime. You might respond with something like, "That's 'funny' because the day before yesterday, or sometime or other, X, Y, and Z occurred."

Your use of the word 'funny' is meant to suggest that the very fact of the occurrence of the two sets of events [A, B, C & X, Y, Z], and perhaps as well as the timing of the occurrence of the two sets of events is strangely meaningful, or if I may, karmically meaningful. One set of events may or may not inadvertently make a commentary on the other set of events. You and I might agree that "Its funny how the universe works," or some such. But this situation is a coincidence and therefore not at all what we, in this hub, mean by 'irony.'

The two comedians, the late great George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld, were and are both very funny and very talented. However, for our purposes in this essay, only one of them, George Carlin, actually practiced what I am referring to, very specifically, as humor.

What is humor again?

Humor, for me in this instance, is anything which holds life up to the FUNHOUSE MIRROR and stretches and distorts the image for the purpose of revealing or talking about an underlying truth. Those of you familiar with George Carlin's work, know that his comedy was built around social and cultural commentary -- that this seems to have been what his "routine" was built around.

Jerry Seinfeld's comedy, in my opinion, holds life up to the funhouse mirror, stretches and distorts the image -- and that is the joke, which is fine. But he is not, for us and for the purposes of this hub, a "humorist." I want you to know I love, love, love the Seinfeld show!

Let's go back to the ironic creative voice. What is it?

We have said that the ironic creative voice (in writing especially) is like the straight man in a classic comedy duo. We went on to say that, therefore, irony, in this sense, is related to humor (not comedy); and humor, for us, is anything which holds life up to the funhouse mirror, stretching and distorting its image, in aid of making us laugh and making some kind of critique of society.

We also said that the ironic creative voice of the artist involves his observation of life. We have said that the mere act of observation is an active, not passive, activity in which the observer is actively engaged in the phenomena it observers, and even through this process, changes it.

So, the ironic creative voice (in writing especially), then, observes life, makes its own "joke" of it, by way of presenting it artistically, regards the joke wryly (like the "straight man" regard his bumbling partner); and this presentation -- hopefully without beating us over the head with it -- is suggestive of some fundamental truth.

One of my favorite examples of this is a passage that comes from the famous Mario Puzo novel (this wasn't in the film) The Godfather. For those of you familiar with this novel, you recall that there is one very long chapter which talks about the "origin," to use a comic book term, of Mafia leader Vito Corleone, The Godfather, The Don, Don Corleone. The Godfather has learned that his eldest son, Santino (Sonny) has committed a hijacking with a group of friends.

Sonny is brought to his father's place of business, the headquarters of Don Corleone's olive oil importing business. There, Vito Corleone yells at his son -- mind you, not for the unethical and illegal and dangerous behavior, in and of itself; Don Corleone criticizes his son for the STUPIDITY of the act, there was far too little reward for such a risk.


Then The Godfather says the following: "Don't you want to finish school? Don't you want to be a lawyer? A lawyer can steal more money with a briefcase than a thousand men with guns and masks."

Now, the character, Don Vito Corleone says this in total seriousness. There is no "winking" at "us," on his part. He says without with no sense of "irony," which, in part, is what makes the line ironic.

There is even some relationship, here, to our original "colliding chunks" definition of irony. Vito Corleone's remark is ironic, DARKLY funny. Vito Corleone, The Godfather, believes that a mafioso and a lawyer are ethically -- if not legally -- equivalent. He believes that their goals -- to loot the public -- are the same. This juxtaposition of these two professions, in Don Corleone's conception, interact with each other in such a way that either one could be "chunk a" and either one could be "chunk b." Either one could serve as the commentary which indicates that the other reality has undermined itself, by precisely the way that "reality" has unfolded.

In other words, Vito Corleone's remark says something about the political economy of corporate law and about being a gangster. That "something" is, perhaps that corporate law may be kind of inherently sleazy, tendng toward the criminal. We might just note the interesting reality that in the political economy of corporate law what is legal and what is illegal keeps changing. For example, it has been noted many times that this financial crisis we're still living through is largely a result of what is broadly known as deregulation: specifically the Congressional repeal of the 1930s New Deal-era law known as Glass-Steagal, which kept commercial savings and loan banks separate from investment banks.

Vito Corleone's remark also says something about being a mobster in America, or at least what it ought to mean by his lights. One theme of Mario Puzo novels about the Italian-American Mafia novels is a tension between those gangsters who believe that "Our Thing and Our Family" need to move into a more legitimate, corporatist stance, and ensconce themselves ever more into the fabric of respectable society, and those who want to maintain a more traditionalist, thuggish stance; in other words the latter believe that the position of the former takes all the fun out of being a gangster.

You know, in the second Godfather novel (there are three now, two were written by another writer with the permission of the Puzo estate and the other two a just as good as the first!) there is a great scene between the head of the Chicago "Outfit" (the Chicago operation referred to themselves as 'The Outfit') and The Godfather's son and now Don of the Corleone Family, Michael.

Michael says something about the need for Cosa Nostra to move in the more legitimate-seeming, corporatist direction. He talked about his father's dream that their descendants would wind up as the respectable "movers and shakers," the congressmen, governors, and the like.

The character known as Louie Russo, the head of the Chicago Outfit, said something very interesting. He said, "We got guys like that in our pocket. Why would we wish that on our children?"

So, one Mob leader sees the legitimate corporatist direction as an advance for the descendants of "Our Thing" and one Mob leader sees this very same thing as a regression for "Our Family." Interesting.

Let's go back to Vito Corleone's IRONIC statement about the political economy of American corporate law.

First of all, broadly speaking, the global economy underwent operational changes starting in the late 1970s, which many people refer to as neoliberalism: deregulation of business and industry procedures; privatization of state assets; liberalization of financial flows; deindstrialization of advanced industrial countries; the internationalization of the production process.

The most severe critics of neoliberalism think of this movement as a huge abandonment of old values, a move away from compassion, solidarity; some, like Noam Chomsky, refer to the period as an attack on free markets (in other words the criticism is made that capitalism in this phase, broke its own ideological rules of free enterprise as a matter of course -- some people use the term "crony capitalism").

In any event, Vito Corleone's remark is made even ironic today. Matt Taibi, a reporter for Rolling Stone, published an article a while back called "Why Isn't Wall Street In Jail?" The nugget of the piece talks about how the political economy of corporate law seems to have devolved into a mechanism which keeps financial fraudsters out of jail. The idea is that the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) has been drafted into a middleman role.

A corporation worried about criminal liability can go to the SEC and they will make all necessary inquiries on behalf of said corpoation and report back to them. The SEC can and does often intercede and mitigate the matter for the corporation, if there is potential criminal liability and work out a non-jail time, fine settlement, often without the corporation having to actually admit any wrongdoing.


So, I hope that was a reasonably comprehensive discussion of irony, for whatever its worth. I mentioned that I wanted to compare and contrast irony to its distant cousin, sarcasm.

What is sarcasm?

Without using a dictionary, I would say that sarcasm is: the preposterous assertion of the impossible in response to a question. I would say that sarcasm is always an expression of contempt. In other words, the person offering the preposterous assertion of the impossible is always expressing contempt for the person asking the question.

For example, A may see B sitting down, watching the Sunday afternoon football game. A says to B, "What are you doing?" B might make a response, his preposterous assertion of the impossible might be something like, "I'm sunning myself on the beaches of the Riviera."

Now, obviously A is not literally asking B what he is doing. She can see that he is sitting down, watching the Sunday afternoon football game. The question ("What are doing?") is not meant to be taken literally at face value, as B well knows. But B has chosen to take A's question literally, and give a response that actually implies that A is stupid for not realizing that he, B, is sitting down watching the Sunday afternoon football game. Obviously, there are deeper underlying issues in the relationship between A and B.

However, what we can say about sarcasm, therefore, is that it always literalizes, narrows, stupidizes (I just invented the word 'stupidize'), and dehumanizes human communication.

But you (whoever 'you' might be) ask: What about good-natured sarcasm?

To which I would reply: Is there such a thing as good-natured sarcasm? Really?

Movie Reviews

For those of you who at least occasionally read and/or watch movie review shows, as I sometimes do, you may notice that when a critic does not like a particular movie, there is an expression she will sometimes say something to the effect of: "The creators of this movie showed such "contempt" for the characters."

So the critic is making the accusation that the filmmaker has created a character and treated it with contempt. In other words, the filmmaker has made the character(s) in a preposterous way above and beyond what can be creatively justified. Sometimes the critic uses the word 'caricature,' they say that the characters in the film were such caricatures, cut outs, cookie cutter molds, etc.

But let's give an example. Take the Kevin James movie, The Zoo Keeper.

I have not seen the movie, and I don't think I will. But I got all I need to know out of the review of it on the What The Flick? show. Its a good, fun movie review show I found searching YouTube. I don't know what cable or Direct TV channel its on.

Anyway, the question posed by Kevin James character, who is The Zookeeper, is how is this guy, who works in a zoo, going to get the woman of his dreams back into his life. The SARCASTIC response to this question given by the plot is to have the animals James works with, at the zoo, become suddenly capable of human speech. And these animals give James advice about how to win the heart of his object of desire.

Kevin James's character is sarcastically depicted as the kind of man who would, and indeed, takes this advice, up to and including doing interesting things with his bodily functions...... It seems to me that this is treating the main character with contempt above and beyond what can be creatively justified with fiction.

The Zookeeper is not like the Eddie Murphy Dr. Doolittle movies, in which Murphy's character discovers that he has the ability to communicate with animals. With Dr. Doolittle, it is the discovery that he has this ability that lead him down a certain path. With the Zookeeper, it is the preposterous assertion of the impossible -- talking animals -- which gives Kevin James, in this movie, his mission.

Okay, we're done. Ta-Ta! and thanks for reading.


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