On Irony, and its Dis-contents[1]

It begins, as it always does, with a song. A particular song, which ruined the English-speaking world on what was probably always-already a ruined concept. The concept: Irony. The song: Ironic, by that chanteuse of the north country, Alanis Morisette.[2]

Let us use as our working definition the following:

1) The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning – and, to a lesser degree, 2) Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.[3]

Working with the first (primary) definition, I suggest that the following are not instances of irony:

  • Encountering a person about whom you have recent been thinking or speaking. (This is merely a coincidence – plus, this has nothing to do with language, necessarily, and it is important to note that irony is a figure-of-speech, that is, a poetic or rhetorical device.)
  • Receiving a good grade on a test for which one did not prepare, or on a paper on which one spent minimal time and effort. (This is an example of good luck that might be described as odd – one might argue that the second [lesser] definition applies here, but I say No.)[4]
  • Most jokes. (These might be funny, strangely funny, even absurd, but probably not ironic.)

To end on a positive note, I submit the following as examples of certifiable irony:

Finally, it ends, as it always ends, with a song. The best lyrical-musical example of irony I can think of, at this moment, is Simon and Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock” – wherein the narrator, describing his sad and lonely, love-lost condition, sings “If I’d never loved / I never would have cried / I am a rock / I am island.”

(Please post as “comments” your own real-life examples of irony.)[6]

[1] I am blatantly ripping off Dave Eggers’ tirade about the (ab)use of irony, which can be found on pp. 33-35 of Mistakes We Knew We Were Making, the “addendum” to the 2nd edition of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (New York: Vintage, 2001). Also, I intend a duplicitous meaning of dis-contents – that is, “absence of contentment” and also “absence of content(s) [i.e. meaning].” However, my pointing this out in a rather meta-critical or post-modern, self-reflexive mode is in no way ironic.

[2] I will not belabour this point, as most have perhaps (one hopes) unpacked the internal inconsistency (incoherence, really) of this song. The events and situations described therein are not, in any way whatsoever, ironic. A fly in one’s chardonnay? 10,000 spoons when the task (eating, one assumes) one is about requires merely a knife? Rain on one’s wedding day? These things are not, and never have been, ironic. They are infuriating. They are tragic, perhaps, or even oddly humorous when viewed with a certain level of remove, or coincidentally dissonant when the reality is held up against the ideal. But they do not fall within the category of irony. They simply and undoubtedly suck.

The only situations described in the song that might be considered ironic are: stepping outside for a cigarette (expectation? I’ll be able to have a smoke.) only to notice a “No Smoking” sign (reality? Alas…), and encountering the person of one’s dreams (expectation? This is the One!) only to be introduced to that person’s spouse (reality? Swing and a miss). But, as these only marginally fall within the second (lesser) category of irony (who can say what one’s expectation is, anyway?), they can easily be dismissed as cases in which the songwriter accidentally and coincidentally (but not very ironically) stumbled upon a situation that actually is somewhat ironic in the midst of sundry situations which are not. However, I am not the first to point out that it is certainly ironic that a song entitled “Ironic” should be so devoid of ironic content.

[3] One might immediately think that this second definition would justify “a free ride when you’ve already paid” as a viable instance of irony, but in fact, it still is not. Why would one expect a free ride, especially when one has already paid? I stand by my original claim that this is dissonance between reality and ideal (not ironic), not incongruity between reality and expectation (ironic…sort of). And the story of the unfortunate chap who, after finally mustering the courage to travel by air, dies in a plane crash? That’s not ironic (despite what our aforementioned exegete says here). That’s not even humorous, when viewed from any perspective. It’s rather sad: the guy is dead – and the song even says he “kissed his kids goodby-ee-eye,” which intensifies the sense of tragedy.

[4] However, if one had an essay assignment (e.g. “Trace the development of the concept of the Self from St. Augustine to the current debates about ‘post-humanism’, taking particular account of the contributions of Eastern thought [chiefly Buddhism]”), and one handed in a paper, handwritten, containing only the statement, “I worked very hard on this essay,” this would certainly be an ironic statement. And if the professor returned that essay with the phrase, written in red pen, no doubt, “And for this, I have given you an excellent grade,” this too (provided the professor didn’t actually award one’s lack of effort with a high grade, perhaps to make a point about grace or some such thing) would likely be a case of irony.

[5] Sarcasm is a form of irony. However, in such statements, irony is usually eclipsed by sarcasm, and lost. Furthermore, overstatement, hyperbole and understatement are forms or subcategories of irony. When making such statements, if one is met with the question, “Are you just being ironic?”, one should not be confused by the question (wondering if in fact the questioner meant “sarcastic”) and answer, “Yes.”

[6] As Dave Eggers’ points out, footnotes are not ironic. I would add: Neither is the use of italics. Or sentence fragments. And definitely not hyperlinks, which are unnecessary and should be avoided.


Leave a Comment

  1. Frankly, I find it difficult to conflate ‘irony’ and ‘sarcasm’ – while I understand the operational definition that you are employing in order to get the conversation rolling, I guess I am scratching my head like The Spainish swordmaster,Inigo Mantoya, in “The Princess Bride” and musing “You use this word too much…I do not think you know what this word means…”

    Or maybe this is the heart of irony – we continue to employ the term ‘irony’to show dislocation of meaning only to end up with a “meaning” of the term which strips it of its intended meaning by making ‘irony’ anything but ‘ironic’…?

    Brannon… you are a genius!

  2. Ok, how about:
    1. Jon Brion is just sick! (in reference to his brilliance as a guitarist, producer, harmonium player, etc.) I don’t believe that the speaker of said phrase really means Jon Brion is sick but rather that he is quite well when it comes to his musical gifts (this was a quote from a friend of mine who had been playing bass with Jon).
    2. Get started, Get STUPID, Let’s get it started in here (from Black Eyed Peas, Let’s Get it Started in Here). I don’t think BEPs really are suggesting to their fans to get stupid. Then again…
    3. PHAT like Cyndi Crawford (from some song my 13-year-old has). We all know that phat is really an acronym for Pretty Hot and Tempting, right? Well, appears some musicians were using the term simply as an alternate spelling of FAT to indicate thicker, more expansive guitar sounds. So, depending on your etemological take on the term (or your opinion of Cyndi Crawford) the line if this song could be quite ironic.
    4. Disneyland, the happiest place on earth (need I say anything more?)

  3. dude… I never knew what ‘phat’ meant! I didnt know it was for ‘pretty hot and tempting’… coolio…

    Some good additional ‘examples’, but this only reinforces my thought that ultimately the only thing thing that can lay claim to a robust understanding and example of ‘irony’ is the term itself – ‘irony’ qua ‘irony’ – since it continues to (1) need analogy to employ its meaning, (2) and each analogy, simile, what-have-you only delimits the meaning of the term to an essentialist and reductionistic understanding of the term “this is irony…”, which (3) provokes a tautological turn unto itself which reflects how limited said examples of ‘irony’ actually are (“that isnt quite ‘ironic’ cus…”)which results in (4) the great trope of irony is that the term is ironic in its dislocation of its own meaning by its lack of identifiable interlocutors…i.e. only ‘irony’ is truly ‘ironic’ and THAT is ironic (quoth Alanis) “don’t ya think?”

    This only brings us full circle – all roads bring us back to “Jagged Little Pill”

    Now… back to madonna…

    I stand by earlier st

  4. I also would prefer to separate Irony from Sarcasm because, as I think I noted in a footnote somewhere (by the way, excessive use of parentheticals is, sadly, not ironic), Sarcasm, when employed effectively, tends to drown out Irony. Sarcasm is a completely literalist version of Irony stripped of any subtlety. “It seems EVERYONE is sarcastic these days!” (Exaggeration. But not much.)

    Sensei, to your comments both, truth there much is. It’s like in The Incredibles how Syndrome (in the inimitable voice of Jason Lee) wants to make everyone Super, which will in turn mean that no one is Super. (Which in a strange [but not ironic] way gets us back to the discussion about sin, redemption, eschatology, etc – i.e. we can only recognize the beauty of Redemption by facing the disfiguredness of Fallenness.)

    Anyway, since, as has been suggested, Irony requires an embodied example to make any sense of its meaning, I offer these examples as a sketch towards discriminating between Irony and Sarcasm:

    “George Bush is God’s ambassador on earth.” (Sarcasm.)

    “Compared to God, George Bush is a badass.” (More ironic.)

    “Condoleezza Rice is a complete and utter dullard.” (Sarcasm.)

    “Isn’t it ironic that Condoleezza Rice can speak four langauges, play concert piano, and earned her doctorate in her early 20s, and yet, it seems she can’t make peace with other nations?” (Yes.)

    (Jon Stewart gets credit for that last one. He often uses Irony with great success.}

  5. You always get a slam dunk with Jon Stewart – twist my arm behind my back and cry ‘uncle!’ time…

    Man… add to the list regarding Condi that she (1) reads Brothers K. once every year…in Russian, and (2) is the daughter of the manse – her father was a Presbyterian clergyman…

    what happened?!

  6. can I throw “literally” inot this mix?

    “The were LITERALLY flying off the shelves”

    “It was LITERALLY pouring ctas and dogs”

    “Condi Rice is LITERALLY the dumbest woman on earth!”

    We, Americans, have LITERALLY misused the word “literally” so profusely that it has become synonymous with it’s antonym, “figuratively”.

    Ironic, huh?

  7. I would say the intentional mis-use of ‘literally’ is ironic.

    Also, ‘seriously’ – when we use this intensifier (as in ‘I’m as serious as a heart-attack!’ [no you’re not], or ‘I am seriously hungry!’ [unlikely, especially if you’re white]), we are rarely ever talking about things that are very serious.

    These examples are GREAT – more, MORE!

  8. Irony is in the eyes of the beholder. I’ve been wondering if that is a true statement. In some of the examples of purported “real” irony in this blog you could argue that depending on your set of beliefs, world view, or understanding of the facts–some filter of some kind–these examples are not ironic at all. For example, if you think that what has “happended” to Condi Rice is that she’s become one of the most powerful and effective diplomats in the world, that she’s associated herself with a political platform and particular administration that you admire then Jon Stewart’s quote is not ironic at all. In fact, one who holds this belief might say that its ironic that Jon Stewart is unable to “get” it when it comes to Condi Rice? So it seems to me there is subjective irony. But is there objective irony? I think so, and maybe its a purer form of irony. If a writer puts a character into a boat on the sea and they have no fresh water to drink it is ironic that there is water all around but that it won’t save the character from dying of dehydration. In this case, expectation= water to drink. Of course if the character knows that he can’t survive on salt water in advance of the dire situation then the expectation is that salt water=dehydration and this is no longer irony but tragedy. But at least until the character in the raft learns the scientific facts this is an example of objective irony and the subject has no influence on the truth that salt water won’t quinch his thirst. Is this a purer irony that the more subjective Condi example or not?

  9. I think I’d defer, again, to Eggers here – the deal is, if there is a ‘pure’ irony, it really isn’t all that interesting as a poetic device. Much of what we’ve discussed so far does indeed have a lot to do with where you’re standing.

    The example you describe of the raft in the ocean is, indeed ironic, but I think I’d assert that it is a particular form of irony that hasn’t really entered the discussion yet – namely, dramatic irony. Another example of dramatic irony, the most common one, is when, in a stage play (or film), the audience is aware of something that the character isn’t – ergo, we know what the consequences of certain actions will be while they do not (think of poor, spying Polonius behind the curtain in Hamlet’s mom’s boudoir). I think dramatic irony is more ‘objective’, and perhaps therefore more pure a form of irony than the subjective mode we’ve been discussing. But as I say, most of the time it’s not all that interesting.

  10. C’mon, let’s use the proper definition of irony!

    The Greeks considered it to be simulated ignorance. The first definition in the Shorter OED is dissiumlation, pretence; esp. the pretence of ignorance practised by Socrates as a setp towards confuting an adversary.

    Sarcasm, on the other hand, is a bitter or wounding expression or remark, a taunt, especially one ironically worded.

    Yes, they are related, but need they be conflated?

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