Thursday, September 20, 2007

What the fuck is irony?

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.