An old teacher of mine, ironically, hammered in his definition of irony and made us repeat it several times: “A statement or event in which the opposite is said or the unexpected happens.” As I reflect on the meaning of irony as a nascent literary critic and academic, I find that this definition really doesn’t nail irony. A statement in which the opposite is said, perhaps, but the opposite is said but really means the opposite of the opposite (to put it pseudo-dialectically). “the opposite is said”—the opposite of what one intended? In this case, would the well-worn joke about Freudian slips constitute irony? “I mean to say please pass the peas, but I really said ‘you fuckin bitch you ruined my life”?
The definition give by Mr. T. (not the Mr. T. you are thinking of) seems to distinguish between two types of irony: verbal and actual. Of course, this is inadequate considering what we call “dramatic irony,” which is concerned with the relative position of an observer of a play or action. We seem to want to describe irony or the situation, but is not the criteria of irony a kind of feeling? Before you rise up in arms against me, I am not trying to equate irony with some sort of Cartesian (or, in this age, Bergsonian) idea of “intuition.” But, we will say to something “isn’t that ironic?” Or, Alanis Morissette will claim that it is ironic when “its like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife.” Morissette tells the story of a man who “played it safe” took a flight (which he was petrified of) and the plane ends up crashing. So—is irony a sort of cruelness of fate? We say sometimes that is “cruelly ironic.” Is this what irony consists in? My god, perhaps Socrates should have asked Euthyphro to define irony rather than Piety does this statement involve itself in ‘irony’ because Socrates is sometimes considered a great ‘ironist’ himself? I do not know and without a clear definition I cannot decide for or against.
In the literary world, irony is one of those concepts that keeps coming up again and again—people deride it and praise it equally. Irony—is it the lack of sincerity? Of aesthetic authenticity? Let us look at some ‘definitions’ (although I hesitate to call these definitions—perhaps, “characterizations” is in order?).
Fredric Jameson characterizes Irony in terms of a Greimasian rectangle in his essay “Synthesis, Irony, Neutralization and the Moment of Truth.” Irony in terms of the G. rectangle is the “complex term,” the “ideal synthesis” rather than the neutral term (which Jameson tries to pinpoint). Irony,
Which promises if not to reconcile the fundamental opposition in question (Art and Life, Private and Public, City and Country, Mind and Body) then at least to allow us to think and practice both at the same time. Irony is thus also a way of unifying opposites. (179)
I have always described the effect of irony as a “stopping” of the mind. . .its like when the dialectic stalls and a pleasureful ‘ironic’ feeling passes over one and action never takes place. Irony is characteristic of the Modernist spirit for Jameson, which is principled on “the modernist value of reflexivity” (178). This reflexivity, for Jameson, exemplifies a state of inaction because it’s a fiction of having one’s cake and eating it too. In political terms, “you can at one and the same time believe in the importance of politics and embrace everything we might lose if we indulged in political practice” (179). Thus, Irony is, for Jameson, a moment of indecision. . .but a moment of indecision that is pleasureful and fulfilling.
In contrast, Jameson wants to offer a vision of the “neutral” term which, rather than “both and” is “neither/nor” and that stays in the realm of the negative. The neutral term, it seems, can only be figured rather than concretely realized. . it is the realm of possibility. This is the space of utopian possibility.
Its interesting to me that the neither/nor, the negative, gets figured as such a utopian space. The neither/nor –the negative moment—seems similar to what Ernst Bloch calls “the not-yet-conscious.” A sort of objective real possibility, which, though it takes work and effort to realize, is still a possibility. Bloch strives toward hope rather than fear and despair. Bloch is a hopeful Heidegger, which is no Heidegger at all (I'm far from saying that one has to be a Heidegger)
Anyway, I have gotten further away from my first subject: irony. Jameson seems to believe we need to—if you’ll excuse the word—transcend irony. Actually, the better way to frame this is that we need to go in the opposite direction, toward the negative.
But is Irony really a synthesis--the both/and term? That we hope for such terms to break out of fiction into the empirical world and as such transform it? Gerald Raunig in his recent book A Thousand Machines argues that Soviet Theater created such tension without catharsis in order for the catharsis to occur in the streets (his own work, while acknowledging this historical precedent, does not engage this question). I always thought this hope of a new world order was kind of silly; not because it could not be achieved, but because our writing about it seems a bit like we hope and we hope and we hope for this one thing to happen, for this world to usher in, but then to cover our ass, realize its inevitable failure. We make this failure an impetus to more hoping, hope for change, hope for a recognition and transformation of the System of Systems, which Jameson would name Global Capitalism.
Jameson may be correct that irony resolves conflicts without action—that it allows for some sort of stagnation; indeed, as I characterized above, it seems that irony results in what can only be called an intellectual and perverse satisfaction in a situation that has occurred. Perhaps I am a bit too modernist and perhaps I am too satisfied with aesthetic satisfaction. However, I do want to be cautious of my use of the word “aesthetic,” since De Man’s Literary Theory comes into being
when the approach to literary texts is no longer based on non-linguistic, that is to say historical and aesthetic, considerations or, to put it somewhat less crudely, when the object of discussion is no longer the meaning or the value but the modalities of production and of reception of meaning and of value prior to their establishment. (7)
Rather than aesthetic criteria, De Man argues that we should look at the rhetorical effects: “It is a rhetorical rather than an aesthetic function of language, an identifiable trope that operates on the level of the signifier and contains no responsible pronouncement on the nature of the world” (10). I have been trying to grasp how this relates to Burke’s notion of rhetorical language and his analysis of the rhetorical moments in poetry. De Man writes that language has an ‘autonomous potential’ which “can no longer be said to be determined by consideration of truth and falsehood, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, or pleasure and pain” (10). I’m not sure what to make of this passage in light of Burke’s ideas about the motives of language. Is De Man saying that language forces us to feel the illusion of the word’s connection to these abstract ideas? In that sense, De Man would follow Burke in divorcing the symbolic world from the non-verbal. Furthermore, De Man’s sense of the negative is in line with Burke. As Burke says, “man must spontaneously recognize that his word for a thing is not that thing” (Burke, “Dramatistic View” 461). As Jameson would say, ‘we shall see’ that it is no coincidence that De Man hoped to write on Burke before his death when we reach our discussion of irony. Furthermore, we can understand Jameson's understanding of irony as the ideal unifying of opposites, since metaphor/trope is both the thing and not the thing. The interesting part to me is to work on how these two things are different--how the negative functions--rather than dismiss this as a fruitless task. This is, I believe, what Burke does so damn well.
But let us return to De Man. In her introduction to De Man’s work and life, Lindsay Waters argues that although De Man’s had a radical turn in thought involving the place of rhetoric, he remained committed to the problems of interiority. According to Waters, De Man disliked what he say as the Modernist emphasis on connecting the subject and the object through finding a symbolic objective correlative that reconciles art and fiction, which was also the kind of resolution sought by the New Critics. For De Man, “the separation of subject from object was absolute” (Waters xliv). Waters makes a distinction between Eliot’s modernism and De Man’s work. De Man’s ‘interiority’ or ‘inwardness’ is not about psychology—it has nothing to do with the ego. Rather, De Man follows Hegel (particularly through Kojeve, under the influence of Heidegger):
This abstract consciousness is exactly what the heterodox tradition de Man emulated would focus upon, even though the difficulties of keeping clear the distinction between the ontological self and personal self and keeping the notion of consciousness strictly impersonal would prove difficult given the pathos inherent in phrases like ‘unhappy consciousness and the use of the idea of death. (xxxvi)
Perhaps we can say that the Modernists attempted to make their personal fiction, which was always contaminated by the specific ego’s choice of objective correlatives, the criteria for the world. This is close to the position of Kenneth Burke, who sees poets implicitly arguing for their way of looking at the world—to make the world personal. The world becomes a means of expressing one’s own interior ego, but not consciousness as a self-reflective process. It is this self-reflexivity that Jameson argues is characteristic of modernism. But is this Eliot’s Modernism? To me, it seems that by sucking the consciousness out of the poem, Eliot makes the world a reflection of the personal whereas De Man’s reading of the Romantics argues that in some sense they are trying to empty the consciousness of the personal ego to explore, in a Hegelian manner, the movement of consciousness itself.
We need have this background for De Man’s understanding of irony in “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” For De Man, irony reveals a fundamental distance:
The act of irony [. . .] reveals the existence of a temporality that is definitely not organic, in that it relates to its source only in terms of distance and difference and allows for no end, for no totality [. . .] It can only restate and repeat it on a n increasingly conscious level, but it remains endlessly caught in the impossibility of making this knowledge applicable to the empirical world.
Indeed, if we know anything about Jameson, we can see how a passage like this would be a bit prickly, because it cuts off fiction from making any real change in the outside world; it denies ‘totality’ and it denies the possibility of fiction leading to (or figuring) utopia.
Jameson’s project involves ridding us of a sort of decadent self-reflexivity of the nature of language. De Man is fine with living that contradiction, maintaining even in “Resistance to Theory” a separation between language and reality:
Literature is fiction not because it somehow refuses to acknowledge ‘reality,’ but because it is not a priori certain that language functions according to principles which are those, or which are like those, of the phenomenal world. It is therefore not a priori certain that literature is a reliable source about anything but its own language
Theory for De Man is different than Theory for Jameson (who says in Postmodernism that this ‘resistance’ to theory is De Man’s theory). Theory for De Man involves not only a “reading” of a text, but that theory concerns the act of reading itself. Whereas Jameson wants to move past the reading toward the neutral term, the utopia, the new world order, I get the sense that De Man wants to stay within the reading. Whereas Jameson gets from narrative theory a kind of justification to transcode, De Man still puts (admittedly, perhaps a metaphysical) faith in a distinction between the realm of language and the empirical world.
Let us see if Burke’s view of irony jives with De Man’s. Burke argues, “Irony is the most obvious specific example of the implied feeling for the negative” (461). The negative, for Burke, is also the condition of the possibility for metaphor: “For we could not properly use a metaphor unless, as with the closely related trope, irony, we spontaneously knew that things are not as we literally say they are” (462). We are seduced and persuaded by our metaphors so that “if we find that, over a long stretch of time, a given person’s metaphors all seem to be pointing the same direction, we can legitimately suspect that there is a compulsion within the freedom” (462). Thus, we can understand De Man as making a similar move when he argues that this tropic element of language is its resistance to the world, revealing the rift between the “symbol using, abusing, and making” animal (man) and the surrounding world.
I am not sure which side I am on, but I am attracted to De Man’s willingness to read.