Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

A Comment On Irony

I've been too teachy-weedy for much blogging lately, and that is likely to remain true for a bit. The end of one summer intensive session, the beginning of the next: hectic. A student (no names, must protect the innocents) raised a question on the course blog that has sometimes come up as a topic here as well. Might as well post the exchange here as well, if only as a placeholder for the blogging I could be doing if I weren't so busy at the moment.

A student asks a question (which I had already answered, and differently, in class) and then quotes as an authority something they found online. This sort of thing comes up rather often, as you might imagine:
What's the difference between verbal irony and sarcasm? In both, words are used to convey the opposite of their literal meanings. Linguist John Haiman has drawn this key distinction between the two devices: "[P]eople may be unintentionally ironic, but sarcasm requires intention. What is essential to sarcasm is that it is overt irony intentionally used by the speaker as a form of verbal aggression" (Talk Is Cheap, 1998).
To this I responded:
I must say I disagree with this formulation, but more than that, to be very clear, I would consider it an error if this formulation was used in a paper as the basis for a reading that is taking figurative sarcasm or irony into account.

A sarcastic utterance definitely does not affirm its literal content, but sarcasm doesn't inevitably convey the opposite of its literal content either, as irony does.

If you respond sarcastically to a question, "yeah, sure" this doesn't necessarily mean "no," it can convey a lack of enthusiasm or confidence in a "yes" that is still more a yes than a no.

Irony remains the classic trope of reversal, it is an assertion of denial through the literal assertion of affirmation. Irony then is the master trope here, given the actual rhetorical tradition, where sarcasm, like hyperbole and litotes, are reasonably treated as variations related to that master trope.

I think there are two more confusions in this formulation.

First: Irony is, of course, a trope that has been widely abused and drained of substantial content -- perhaps most famously in the old Alanis Morissette song premised on the false and facile definition of "ironic" meaning "crappy things that happen" -- and people now often use the word "ironic" to describe unpleasant or unexpected outcomes.

Presumably this looser understanding of the ironic is contributing to the idea of "unintentional irony" in this quotation -- the idea that irony can be an attentional artifact, a way of assuming a perspective on things. In such a case it is no longer appropriate to describe this as "a device" in the rhetorical sense Haiman uses here. Devices are pretty much intentional qua devices -- though you can make a case for a more capacious and symptomatic understanding of the intentional if you want to do, though that is hardly what seems to be happening in the passage in question.

Second: I think the introduction of the term "verbal" here as a special kind of irony (maybe?), and re-appearing as a qualification in the conjuration of a scene of "verbal aggression" seems to confuse the issue here a bit, since intonation as the vehicle through which sarcasm is communicated verbally may simplify the complexity of contextual cues often so indispensable to communicating irony and sarcasm in the written texts.
"Thank you for the clarification," replies the student, to which I append the lesson:
No problem -- needless to say, on this as on so many questions, the debate rages on among scholars. Synecdoche is also roiled by high stakes conflict of this sort. (Was that last sentence an example of irony or of sarcasm?)
What say ye?

No comments: