Sunday, June 3, 2012

Irony, I’m over it. Ironic, I know.

Irony: it will be our undoing and unfettered licence for those we elect

Irony, cynicism, sarcasm. The daily play of teachers everywhere as we are expected to applaud or encourage ‘media-savvy’ students preparing themselves against the vagaries of the real world, to avoid naivety, to circumvent vulnerability.

Irony, cynicism, sarcasm. I’ve been wanting to explore these concepts for a while, in reverse, through the prism of ‘trust’ that underpins my academic writing and thinking. I don’t have as much time to do it these days except here at my Sunday night posting. Such ‘thinking’ doesn’t get one far in the modern academy these days. It’s about outputs, huge grants, contrivances of ‘research’, big bucks. The solitude and engagement required for the modern thinker must be sought elsewhere. Still, I shall leave those issues for another post…

I jotted a ‘note to self’ last Sunday that I must tackle this question of irony. I had used it a few times recently, in partly an ‘ironic’ way, (hehe) but in fact what I was doing was allowing people the get away with being rude, or wrong, or downright insulting and getting away with it because they were being ‘ironic’. Then, in my Twitter timeline a couple of days later, in popped a link to an article by Suzanne Moore of The Guardian ‘I have had enough of irony’ (Wednesday 30 May). In an interesting article her point that the

legacy of postmodernism is this apolitical vacuousness and aesthetic relativism that does not want to call anything absolutely good or bad, that is scared of taking things too seriously

caught my eye because in my work I am trying to get to the bottom of the question of people’s ‘apolitical’ motives, their resistance to trust our elected leaders and those institutions we should trust. My views on ‘trust’ are extensive and subject of further work (the kind of thinking work that doesn’t attract institutional interest or support). I hold the optimistic view that trust in our institutions can be restored and that renegotiation of the social contract is the way to do that.
It is a challenge to teach politics to people when our conditioned reaction is to offer a cynical or sarcastic comment. And there is much in the way our politicians act today that makes it hard for us not to respond in kind. The level of cynicism and ironic response has increased in my classes over the many years I have taught politics to the point that one wonders if teaching is in fact a purposeful vocation anymore.
Now regular readers will probably recall that I haven’t owned a TV since the late 1990s—it blew up the night Cheryl Kernot was featured on the ABC, coincidence, I’m sure—so I have missed a lot of the satire that passes for comedy these days. The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The John Stewart Show and all their derivatives have indeed largely passed me by. Students cite these shows in response to political machinations of the day—they are ironic and cynical and this has become a legitimate form of political discourse. 
But my concern is that if irony and cynicism become our standard response then we are not likely to mend our broken polity. When students are cynical (for which I am reluctant to blame them) I ask them what might they do about it? Cynicism might be OK for the pithy response, but how does that fix things? Seeking answers to these questions often reminds me of the dog chasing its tail—where does the issue begin and will there be an end? On my lesser teaching days, one feels more like the python that started to swallow a tail only to realise too late that it was its own tail—can a python swallow itself?
As is my wont, my ponderings generally lead me to compare expressions in Japanese, just because I can…the English words ‘sarcasm’, ‘irony’ and ‘cynicism’ can all be covered with just one Japanese word hiniku 皮肉 (a combination of ‘skin’ and ‘meat’). There are subtleties and nuances involved, but essentially, to be ironic, is to be cynical, is to be sarcastic, in Japan. Mind you, there are many ways one can play with the language to make a sharp point.
Conversely, in English, our expression of ‘irony’ is a little more complex and can be verbal, situational or dramatic. I wonder if we spent a bit more time thinking about the uses of ‘irony’ we might re-establish a valuable form of rhetoric that might indeed improve our political discourse. Indeed, the philosophical tradition is something I should take up in class more explicitly in future, but for now, consider the following from the Macquarie Dictionary:
‘Irony’ is 1. a figure of speech or literary device in which the literal meaning is the opposite of that intended, esp. as in the Greek sense, when the locution understates the effect intended, employed in ridicule or merely playfully; 2. an ironical utterance or expression; 3. simulated ignorance in discussion (Socratic irony); 4. the quality or effect, or implication of a speech or situation in a play or the like understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters of the piece; 5. an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected. [from Gk eironeia, dissimulation, understatement]
Interestingly, the same figure of speech might be delivered ‘in ridicule or merely playfully’. However, I don’t think the term ‘ironic’ as it is used in current discourse really is intended in any of these ways defined by MacDict. If we are to rebuild trust we need to start to call much ‘irony’ and ‘ironic’ remarks for what they are—they can be barbs, they can hurt, they do not advance our betterment as people by and large. They can be just pointless, smarta@$# responses which simply paper over cracks in the veneer of our social and political discourse. We can do much better than that.
Irony, cynicism, sarcasm. I’m not suggesting that these devices don’t have a place in politics (or elsewhere)—used in a proper context they might serve as a reminder to those we elect that they do not have an unfettered run at personal ambition nor ignorance of their mandate. But I’d like us all to think about our ironic tendencies…can we make a more emphatic point because we really thought about it?