I’ve heard it said many times in recent memory: irony is cynical, destructive, and dangerous. This negative perception of irony as a destructive force is also regularly cast as a primarily postmodern issue. The cyclical pattern of this fear indicates a shunning of nonbinary worldviews that manifests regularly due to ideological impatience. (Here, I’m not using ideology as a whipping boy. We’ve all got it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing so much as a thing that’s simply here to stay, and whose worst tendencies toward scapegoating and violence should be actively avoided like the plague.)
Just like the dialectical opposition between the political Left and Right, irony is often seen as a pure contrast to sincerity. Sincerity, in turn, is cast as a direct, purposive means of achieving change within a community, nation, or other sociopolitical body. It is also frequently seen as the only real means of remaining beholden to Truth in a world swirling with the dark profusion of the Lie.
However, to blame irony for a lack of sincerity is commit two errors at one stroke. First, and perhaps most grievously, it is to mistakenly conflate postmodernism with relativist nihilism. Second, it is to dyslogistically pigeonhole irony as a concept with purely cynical intentions. Both of these errors detract from the ability to move beyond simple, or mere, irony and go on to understand irony as more of a tool that can instigate harmful or helpful attitudinal shifts, depending on how it’s used.
In regard to the first error I mentioned, I think it’s fair to concede that postmodernism at least gets a bad rap for honest reasons. After all, innumerable definitions are thrust so carelessly upon it that it often is brought to its knees, unable to sustain the conflicting expectations simultaneously thrust upon it. That said, I’d like to temper the more negative definitions of postmodernism for the sake of dialectical movement. So: let’s toss another definition onto the pile, shall we?
On its face, postmodernism is a playful reaction to the stone-faced seriousness of modernism, with all its post-realism, post-Enlightenment holdovers pertaining to an over-reliance on science. This modernist over-reliance typically manifests itself in positivism and logocentrism. These are viewpoints that have the tendency to oversimplify the material and metaphysical conditions of the world, and postmodernism seeks to “out” these tendencies for transparency’s sake. Indeed, postmodernism also seeks to acknowledge our irrational, passionate dispositions as a fundamental part of our human subjectivity: we are rational animals, yes, but irrationality in the forms of both hatred and empathy still lingers.
Postmodernism, like its predecessors, is a transdisciplinary movement. As such, it feeds into philosophy, art, literature, and so on. In doing so, it seeks to play with the modernist reliance on innovation and logic, which postmodernism views as inadequate (in itself) in approaching what G.W.F. Hegel calls “the end of history.” Now, for the purpose of moving beyond simple irony, it’s not necessary to draw out precisely what the end of history entails. In order to understand irony as a tool with a multiplicity of uses, it will suffice to view the end of history as a theoretical point of sociocultural equilibrium, after which human society will more or less remain constant. Basically, it’s up to us as human subjects to move, behave, and communicate in such ways as to ensure that the end of history is a positive one. Coming to understand irony as a multifaceted tool is critical in this.
Let’s move on to the second of the two errors often committed when speaking of irony: the dyslogistic treatment of irony. In this, irony is scapegoated as an insincerity that stands in opposition to sincerity and capital-T Truth. This pessimistic view need not be the case. Indeed, on its most basic level, irony is a grammatical vessel to be filled with a message, and the accompanying attitude of irony does not in itself signify insincerity. One can be entirely sincere in one’s condemnation of, say, a political regime and yet present their message using the mechanism of irony.
To illustrate how this can happen, I’ll briefly call upon Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte to lay out how irony can be used to move us toward a more positive end of history. In his essay, Marx addends Hegel, writing the following:
“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Here, Marx is of course referring to the campaigns of domination undertaken by both Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew, Napoleon III. While Napoleon I was able to bring a degree of order and stability to a traumatized France following the French Revolution, his jingoistic policies and murderous land-grabs pushed him well into sociopath territory. With the similar reign of Napoleon III, we are left to perhaps naively, yet understandably, question the value of historical studies. If we cannot demonstrably learn anything from history, then what can we do to resist when it inevitably repeats itself?
Irony has a part in this resistance of farce. To continue with Marx’s example of Napoleon, let’s take a quick look at this famous political cartoon by James Gillray, The Plumb Pudding in Danger (~1818):
Here, irony plays an indelible role in making the cartoonist’s point. The visual rhetoric of the image converts the all-too-real atrocities of Napoleon’s regime to a far more innocuous set of tropes. For example, Napoleon’s oft-lampooned stature translates to a sense of childishness that is reinforced by the activity he engages in: feverishly carving up a plum pudding representative of the entire world. Ironically, the effect is that a brutal dictator take on the form of a greedy child, and the world in all its grandeur and complexity a mere after-dinner dessert.
Is this manner of portrayal intended to make light of real atrocities? Clearly not. The irony of the scene is supposed to make the viewer loathe Napoleon all the more, not sympathize with the trace of innocent frivolity evoked by his childlike form. Here, irony encourages the recipients of the cartoon’s visual rhetoric to criticize characteristics of despotism—to resist history from returning to its own vomit, farce, by moving dialectically in the opposite direction.
This is the appeal of satire, which draws much of its strength from the subversive capabilities of irony, which in turn “tarries with the negative” (Hegel’s terminology) to advance toward the end of history. Irony—and satire by extension—explain the enduring appeal of this cartoon in particular, as well as political cartoons in general. Now, direct, unironic usage of the indicative grammatical mood has its place as a fundamental basis of argumentation and everyday speech. I’m not suggesting that ironic modes of communication should, or even can, supplant this condition. What I am claiming is simply that irony can be a rhetorically powerful way of leading others toward an understanding of a particular opinion, perspective, or what one holds to be Truth— but only if we let it.
It may seem silly to consider that someone could mistake the simple political cartoon above for an earnest, de facto representation of reality. However, when one distances oneself—whether by one’s political, social, ideological, or religious affinities—from the context of specific rhetorical engagements in the perplexity of wider communicative circumferences, that is a very real risk. Irony is grounded by context. Trite as it may sound, context is key. To what? Discerning the playful earnestness of irony from the more straight-faced variety. And understanding the difference between those is key to discerning rhetorical intent. And so on. In light of this, let’s not leave “simple” irony by the wayside. Instead, let’s pick it up, brush off its dingy accoutrements, and behold it with something at least closer to appreciation for the fullness of its rhetorical capacity.