I had a chat today with my good friend Patrick about irony, and what in God’s name this beast might be. I’ve thought about the concept a good deal in the past, and like any self-respecting English major, figured that I had a pretty solid grasp of the idea. Certainly, I’ve always felt confident telling people when something isn’t irony. But the truth is that I only had a vague grasp of the meaning of the word. I think part of the problem is that there are some different kinds of irony that are categories in and of themselves: The two big ones, as far as I can see, are “situational irony,” i.e., irony that comes out of a peculiar set of circumstances; and a sort of “verbal irony,” a more specialized version in which a speaker deliberately describes something in an ironic way to elicit a certain reaction, either from a (real or imagined) interlocutor or from a disinterested audience. An analogy could be made here to situational comedy and stand-up comedy, which are both the same family, but require an adjustment by the audience in judging the relative awareness of the agent (Joey from Friends in the former case, and Chris Rock on stage in the latter) regarding his or her role in the comedic experience.
And, as Patrick and I discovered, “awareness” seems to be a really big part of how irony works. In the instances of irony that we were able to come up with, a common thread is that there is one player in the situation who has a greater awareness of the subtext of that particular situation, and the fact of this awareness is itself the primary catalyst for the ironic effect. Example: An angler is sitting on a rock trying to catch a fish in a stream. What he doesn’t see (but we, the audience do), is that there is a large fishhook in the background, descending from the heavens, that is about to catch the angler himself. It’s the punchline of pretty much every Far Side cartoon you ever read. So here we have a guy who thinks he’s in control of the situation—thinks he’s the all-powerful predator—when in fact he’s really the prey, in the scheme of things. The irony works because we have a piece of information that completely subverts the understanding of the situation that the victim of the irony believes he is projecting.
So in most of these cases, it seems like we need an agent—someone who’s creating the irony (in the case of the angler, the agent would be God, or fate); a victim of the irony (the angler himself); and a third party (in this case, the audience) that can appreciate both the intentions of the victim and the ironic actions of the agent at the same time. The most productive example that Pat and I came up with was the “Alanis Morissette” paradox. This young lady wrote a hit song called “ironic” that, in an attempt to illustrate the ironic circumstances that occur in our lives, describes a number of situations that are in fact complete misunderstandings of irony:
An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late
Isn’t it ironic … don’t you think
[These are all simply unfortunate events—twists of fate. A black fly in your Chardonnay is no more ironic than a cockroach in your coffee, a flat tire on your BMW, or a bad grade on your test.]
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take
Who would’ve thought … it figures
[Murphy's Law, yes. Irony, absolutely not.]
The real irony here, of course, is that Alanis thinks that she’s written a clever song about irony, when in fact she’s written a succession of textbook examples of what irony is not. She’s sitting there, conscientiously trying to reel in a fish, while the language scholars are snorting milk through their noses about the great big linguistic fishhook in the sky that she’s obliviously dangling from. (Ironically enough, the real joke is on the language scholars, who neither have girlfriends nor any way of paying off their massive college debts, while Alanis has long since given up thinking about rhetorical tropes and moved on to dating superstars and enjoying the millions she makes off the sales of her platinum album featuring the smash hit, “Ironic.”)
So much for situational irony. “Verbal irony” is a much bigger pain in my ass. As far as I can tell, it’s just a fancy description of a certain brand of sarcasm. Or, as Ethan Hawke put it in Reality Bites, “It’s when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning.” Who would’ve thought … it figures.
Update: Farfour was killed last month by merciless Israeli soldiers. He has been replaced by Hamous the bee. RIP Farfour, and may Hamous irritate and ruin the picnics of infidel scum with his righteous stinger.
Why is it that propaganda is so glaringly obvious when you’re not in it; when it’s not directed at you? The thought was inspired by a bit of Internet research into a little fellow named Farfour. He is the Mickey Mouse of Hamas’ Al Qasa TV in Palestine. Quite literally — the cute little guy is a dead ringer for Disney’s smiling mascot. But Farfour’s role is a bit different from that of his American counterpart. Farfour totes an imaginary AK-47 and preaches revenge (in the form, presumably, of murder) against the enemies of God.
I don’t intend to take this opportunity to rail against the politics of hatred or the indoctrination of the young into a culture of war and anger, because I think the substance of those ideas springs to mind quite readily when one thinks of this Muslim Mickey Mouse. What fascinates me about Farfour is that those who partake of his particular Discourse — both his creators, who must see him as an acceptable means to an end, and his consumers, who presumably accept him as a role model, a friend, a lovable companion in their journey through life — are able to do just that. He is so transparent to me. Why not to them? Yes, it could be said (and has been) that our Mickey Mouse is the same kind of cynical tool for indoctrination, though on this side of the fence he advocates consumption, conformity, obedience … family fucking values and Valentines Day. But I think that my awareness of those more sinister aspects of our murine mascot is only equivalent to the awareness of Farfour’s creators about their mouse’s function in the social order. It does not represent complete freedom from the Discourse — because I am immersed in it. I can conceive of looking at such a thing with full objectivity — of Total Enlightenment Re: Mickey Mouse — which is a start, I suppose. But I can’t actually do it. It simply isn’t in me. The thing (and I’ve moved on from talking strictly about mice here) is just too ingrained in my consciousness.
Which brings me back to a question that I have been asking for as long as I can remember. How can we be sure that we’re right, when others are sure that they’re right too? Certainty is something that drives me to do a great many of the things that I do. In my work, in my leisure, in my interactions with other people, I act according to basic principles that I am certain of, and I do so because I am certain of them. But looking at the model of Farfour, something that is so clearly hateful and wrong and yet something that real people are absolutely Certain about, I can’t help but question whether Certainty is a concept that holds any weight at all. I’m not talking about fanaticism, because we’re all fanatics in our own way. I’m talking about that feeling you get when you know something is right. Beyond the unlikely notion that we’re all better than everybody else, what conceivable basis do we have to trust that feeling?
Months, perhaps, since my last post. That such initial enthusiasm should turn so sour after such a short time. Or even just that a false start or two is part and parcel; par for the course. I am experimenting with short, impressionistic sentences at the moment. Gently dabbing the idea onto the page; one does not worry quite so much about staying within the lines. Must be a deeply annoying tendency. Unless you’re Joyce.
Then it’s sublimely annoying.
What’s new? Well, I have been learning Flash, playing soccer, plugging away at my other blogs, failing to make out with a lot of different girls. Last night, I gallantly walked two separate inebriated women home at separate times and then turned around and walked home again. Like driving to the Grand Canyon parking lot, then just going right ahead and driving back without exiting the car. Twice. I would like very much to exit the car with someone one of these days.
This just in: Metaphor strains, breaks under pressure.
That’s all for today. I will attempt to be more diligent in keeping this blog up to date. And by next time, we hope, I will have graduated from impressionism to high modernism. Fewer sentence fragments. Saying what you mean.
I turned on my mechanical brain, only to find that my mechanical brain had turned on me.