The concept of irony has a rich tradition in the West, and to this day is not only discussed and debated by philosophers and literary critics alike, but can also be seen at use everywhere in popular culture and today’s media. According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary the word ‘irony’ can be traced back to the Greek eiron, which means ‘dissembler’, and is the root from which the Greek eironia, and the Latin ironia are derived (both of which mean ‘irony’). In sixteenth-century English it appears as ironye, ironia, ironie, and yronye, and by the seventeenth-century seems to have settled down to the spelling it takes today (OED).
One writer in 1656 defines ‘irony’ in this way: “An Irony is a nipping jeast, or a speech that hath the honey of pleasantnesse in its mouth, and a sting of rebuke in its taile” (OED). Even though this definition is 350 years old, it gets to the heart of the essential qualities all ironies share. Basically, irony is a message or an event that has two levels of meaning–its ‘face value’, and ‘what it really means’. On the one hand there is appearance, and on the other hand reality. The jest, “He’s such an honest man,” said about a crooked politician has the ‘sting of rebuke’ since it shows the incongruity of reality with what was actually said.
A definition of irony gets into trouble once it goes beyond this nature of having double meanings, because the way of arriving at the ‘real’ meaning can differ from person to person, and some people might take the ‘face value’ meaning for the ‘real’ meaning – in other words not find the message ironic at all. Both the ‘face value’ and ‘real’ meanings of irony are highly dependent on culture, and to get to the ‘real’ meaning, one must be looking for a double meaning in the first place. While people do not always say what they mean, most people can be assumed to be trying to communicate some sort of meaning through their actions. All sorts of things can clue people in to look for an ironic meaning if the ‘face value’ meaning does not make sense. Some cultures might condition people to look for irony by giving it a sense of value. A different style or tone from that expected, understatement, cynicism, and hyperbole are all things that might clue in the observer to look for another meaning. It is almost as if finding irony were a game, or a process of translation.
Irony is a concept that is much less developed in the study of media than in literature and philosophy. Although he doesn’t mention irony, McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ must certainly mean that a medium can be a tool for irony as well (this was seen in the above examples of television and speech). McLuhan claims that all media contain another form of media (for example the content of the movie is the novel), so the conventions may carry over between the two types of media (like film making use of the dramatic irony of the stage). Also, before the conventions of a new medium can be fully developed, one might look for meaning in the new medium by using the conventions of old mediums.
A would-be sender of irony must know how to encode her message, taking into account context, cultural habits, and the limitation of the media through which her message will be sent. Television’s The Daily Show takes other television footage out of context and creates its own ‘fake’ news coverage that ironically highlights the limitations of the television medium. When someone speaks to you in the voice of a radio disk jockey they ironically emphasize how the context for speech has changed when the medium of the radio is absent. Countless examples such as this can be thought up, such as a book being filmed as if being read by the audience, or a photograph of someone looking at a painting.
Many critics agree that affect is a crucial part of irony, as different types of irony have different feelings or colors that are not experienced in its absence (Muecke 44). Thus, affect might be part of what clues us in to the presence of irony. This repetition of past experiences as felt through the affect of irony may be part of the reason irony tends to unite and divide the creators and observers of irony, and why Wayne Booth calls it the distinguishing mark of good literature in the twentieth century. Others have pointed out the tendency of irony to lead to elitism, as there will be one group of people who do not grasp the ‘true meaning’ of an ironic message or event, while another group will ‘understand’ and look down upon the other group (Colebrook 19-20).
Theories of metaphor such as speech act theory are also closely related to irony in that they take into account the dialectic of intention and media – a medium does what we want it to do (send irony), but we also can only do what is possible through that medium (limits the types of irony possible). Irony is also an effective tool of rhetoric, as it at once can advocate a point and show the faults of another. Therefore a master of irony is necessarily a master of mimesis, since one must first be familiar with the argument or image one wishes to denounce.
Although the distinction is not always clear, irony differs from other ways of communicating with double meanings such as metaphor and allegory in that it does not entirely eliminate the ‘face value’ meaning (Booth 22). Even with complete sarcasm, which aims to give a meaning directly antithetical to the one presented, the original meaning cannot be discarded without losing the sense of irony. It is through comparing these two meanings that the degree or type of irony can be seen. Sometimes the ground might be taken right out from under us when irony is aimed at creating complete objectivity, and we are left not knowing what to do. Some see the postmodern condition and deconstructionism as embodying this outlook (Colebrook 20-1, 177-8). Other times the irony might be aimed at making a point, such as in moralistic satire. One example of this type of irony is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (Booth 105-20).
Whereas irony is usually thought of as a form of communication between two people, irony can also have no agent or transmitter and simply come from observation (Muecke calls this ‘Observable Irony’, 36). For example a bodybuilder not being able to open a jar of peanut butter may seem ironic to some even though the bodybuilder is not trying to send any message by his actions. In this case the ‘appearance’ that the bodybuilder would be able to open the jar, as it is a test of strength, stands in contrast with the ‘reality‘ of his not being able to open it. Even in the case of ‘observational irony’, different people may enjoy the same feeling of irony because of cultural conditioning. Even though Kittler is also not especially concerned with irony, his vision of media heading toward a horizon where content is automatically generated would mean the new media would only be capable of producing ‘Observable Irony’ as no agent would be visible.
Irony is a phenomenon capable of being experienced by anyone, but for people to be able to share an experience of irony, or for an author to expect a certain reaction to irony, its interpretation must become a part of the culture. Therefore, in order to understand irony’s use in a certain time period, or to see how we got to the ‘irony’ we have today, one must be familiar with its different guises throughout history.
One of the earliest and best-known uses of irony comes from Socrates as seen in Plato’s dialogues. Usually called ‘Socratic Irony’, Socrates would first appear to know nothing about a problem in order to clarify the opposing stance, and then show inconsistencies in their argument. This form of argument is called ‘elenchus’, and can be seen in the dialogue Euthyprho among others. Socrates’s technique produces irony by showing that the arguments his opponent puts forth cannot be taken at face value. While not an entirely negative technique, this type of irony does not construct arguments that are true or false, and just as irony can change perceptions through repetition, Socrates builds his arguments, in this case, inductively (Plato xv). Note that Plato does not use the word irony to describe this technique, as this is a concept later ascribed to Socrates by Cicero, Quintillian and others (Muecke 17). Also, irony was only used to describe Socrates’s verbal strategy, and only after the renaissance was his behavior also seen as ironic (Colebrook 2).
Throughout medieval and renaissance Europe irony was taken as saying the opposite of what is meant (Colebrook 9). Norman Knox shows how only in the eighteenth century did the word become more widely used in literature, and was developed in various forms such as satire. Along with the rise of Romanticism at the turn of the nineteenth century, the concept of irony took on new meanings during this period. Whereas before irony was something directed by someone at someone, it could now be something ‘unintentional, observable, and representable in art’. Rather than being an act, an ironic outlook on life could be a self-conscious commitment (Muecke 19). Kierkegaard later incorporated this idea of an ironic outlook on life into his philosophy.
The German philosopher Friedrich von Schlegel developed a dialectical understanding of irony in his Dialogue on Poetry. The user or observer of irony goes from a ‘closed’ state to an ‘open’ one, or from a naive enthusiasm to critical outlook. As man is a ‘finite being striving to comprehend an infinite reality’, his productions will be equally as limited when trying to express an unlimited ideal (Muecke 23). Irony is something the Romantic artist should try to cultivate, and allows the artist to infuse his work with its own being.
The now familiar concept of ‘dramatic irony’ was originally developed in an early nineteenth century article, “On the Irony of Sophocles,” by the English scholar Connop Thirlwall. Thirlwall explains that in a play the sequence of events can lead to two different interpretations of the action so far: the situation as it appears to the characters in the play, and to the situation as it really is. Not only limited to the stage, dramatic irony can apply to many types of media, such as when we find ourselves shouting at a character on television, or thinking to ourselves when reading about someone in the paper, “he should have seen it coming.”
The twentieth century has seen many attempts to formulate irony as a coherent concept. Literary critics such as D. C. Muecke and Wayne Booth have come up with scores of names describing different types of ironies, and different ways in which irony is used. Classifying and tracking the history of irony not only clarifies the concept, but also shows how it changes throughout time. Claire Colebrook points out that this modern way of looking at irony by maintaining a distance from it and thinking of its use in discontinuous contexts is itself an ironic attitude, because by doing so we see the ‘truth’ of the past without holding to those truths (3-4). Even though we have to look at irony through the lens of irony, searching for its meaning gives deep insight into the ways people see their own existence.
Booth, Wayne C. A Rhetoric of Irony. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Colebrook, Claire. Irony: The New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Irony: With Constant Reference to Socrates. Translated and edited by Lee M. Capel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965.
Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986.
Knox, Norman. The Word Irony and its Context, 1500-1755. Durham: Duke University Press, 1961.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1964.
Muecke, D. C. Irony and the Ironic. Vol. 13, The Critical Idiom. New York: Metheuen and Co., 1970.
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Plato. The Last Days of Socrates. Translated by Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant. New York: Penguin, 1954.
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Schlegel, Friedrich von. Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms. Translated by Ernst Behler and Roman Struc. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968.
Sedgewick, G. G. Of Irony, Especially in Drama. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1948.
Thirlwall, Connop. “On the Irony of Sophocles.” The Philological Museum. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Deightons, 1833.
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, M.A.: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1977.