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Irony and Irony about Irony

Irony, reflection, and dialectic are all practices that let us become aware of other possibilities.    They can be rhetorical — methods of speech — or methods of thinking, since thought is much like self-talk.

Start with irony.  If we respond to a judgment with an ironic “yeah, right!” we are pointing out that one could judge differently.  If the parent says “Now that you’ve graduated from college you will get a job and be happy.” the adolescent’s response “Yeah, right!” suggests other possibilities — that she won’t get a job, or won’t become happy, or that she might instead die in an automobile accident.

Pointing out possibilities can be bitter and critical but need not be.  It could be joyous.  If we have no money for Christmas and you say “Christmas is cancelled this year.” I can respond “It sure is” ironically, because I think there is another possibility — Christmas is not cancelled because, like the hoos in hoo-town we can have a great Christmas without presents, or because I have a lottery ticket in my pocket I haven’t told you about yet.  However, irony is often used in the service of critique because to suggest other possibilities suggests that the current arrangements might be bad, or at least sub-optimal.

Irony is part of a group of practices that make us aware of other possibilities.  Dialectic is another one — the practice of asking “why do you think that?”.  Reflection is a third one — the practice of taking our judgments or speech as itself a topic of judgment of speech (the metaphor is looking at the judgment and speech in a mirror).

These practices have twins that try to make us not talk about other possibilities that we all kind of know are there.   Sentimentality, hypocrisy, and bullshit are such practices but there are many of them. Unlike the possibility-pointing practices which try to make us aware these try to make us less aware (or pretend to be less aware) so they can be less explicit and conscious.  So simple self-distraction and changing the subject, as well as various forms of splitting and histrionic self-dramatization are part of the complicated modern human being’s tool kit.  People sometimes talk like the ironists are having a field day and the people who just want to get a job and have a family are cowering before them, but this is false;  the powers of the anti-ironic (ant anti-dialectic and anti-reflective) practices are, generally, much stronger.

If it is impossible for us to become aware of another possibility — e.g. we are dying of thirst and confronted with water — irony  and its related possibility-suggesting practices has no toe-hold with us.

It is possible to be ironic about irony.  So, suppose we are confronted with a person who is using irony mechanically.  Without even listening to what we say this reflexive ironist responds “Yeah, right.”  We can say “It’s great how you are using your ability to point out  possibilities” meaning there are other options than pointing out possibilities — in other words there are other possibilities than irony.

The higher order version of irony is irony about irony, about reflection, double reflection, about dialectic, just dialectic, since the possibility of talking about talking is baked into that notion.  These phrases I believe work for any sort of n+1 version of the practice.  In other words, I am pretty sure there is no important difference between being ironic about the possibility of irony, and being ironic about the possibility of being ironic about the possibility of irony.  But if I am wrong please let me know in the comments.

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10 thoughts on “Irony and Irony about Irony

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    Interesting ideas. Ironically — or perhaps not — I’m often unsure if you’re serious and saying something profound, or if you’re just pulling everyone’s legs. I suppose a lot of philosophy is like that. Maybe that’s part of what makes it helpful: trying to figure out if it’s serious or humorous makes us grapple with the issues.

  2. It’s kind of you to care! Sometimes one can make a serious point in a humorous way, try to be profound and fail, or try not be profound and succeed, but if you care to ask about a specific point I will do my best to answer.

    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Maybe I was warped by reading “Atlas Shrugged,” but I’d say that kindness has nothing to do with it. You made interesting points in an interesting way. It’s similar to a lesson that I was slow to learn about dating: It helps to leave a little mystery. 🙂

      • My sense of Rand is that if the weak are able to team up and get the strong to do what they want, then good for them! However I hardly qualify as an expert on her work since I have not read anything she’s ever written and never will.

  3. Mikey says:

    What about earnestness and seriousness? I feel like earnestness is terrible and I would have liked it if you’d have listed it alongside hypocrisy and other things I don’t like. But maybe earnestness is really a truth-seeking attitude or perhaps it’s just a style and it has nothing to do with attitude.

      • I’m walking in a strange neighborhood, afraid I’m going to get mugged. A stranger approaches and says “Hey you look scared. I am too. Let’s walk together and protect each other.” I say okay and follow him. When we reach the alley where his confederates are hiding they kick me in the teeth and steal my money and shoes. He is a hypocrite. Was his statement “let’s protect each other” even a billionth of a percent better than just coming out and saying “give me your money or I’ll kill you?” It was for him. I’d argue it was even worse because I let down my guard and would be less likely to trust genuine friends in the future. Conclusion: Hypocrisy is very very bad.

      • N.S. Palmer says:

        I understand your point, but I’m not sure how much it has to do with hypocrisy as normally practiced. I draw a couple of different lessons from it.

        First, context matters. If I’m walking at the mall around lots of people in the afternoon and you offer me directions to the Apple Store, the required level of trust is much lower than if I’m walking on a deserted street in a bad neighborhood at 2am.

        Second, trust requires knowledge: the level of knowledge required depends on the matter at issue and on the situation. To trust someone is to believe he or she will act in a predictable way, and such prediction depends on knowing the person. In a situation where the risks are low, one can reasonably trust a stranger; where the risks are high, one should be very careful about doing so. Basically, we trust people to be who and what they are, and to act accordingly. If we don’t know who or what they are, then we are foolish to trust them in situations of potentially large risk unless we have no alternative. IMHO.

    • Good to be earnest about what deserves earnestness – like if a friend of mine needs to stop smoking or he’ll die I’ll be earnest. But I will lack credibility if he has just seen me be equally earnest about something that does not deserve earnestness — that he needs to pay his parking ticket on time, let’s say.

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