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Irony (from the Ancient Greek εἰρωνεία eironeía, meaning hypocrisy, deception, or feigned ignorance) is a literary or rhetorical device, in which there is an incongruity or discordance between what one says or does and what one means or what is generally understood. Irony is a mode of expression that calls attention to the character's knowledge and that of the audience.

There is some argument about what qualifies as ironic, but all senses of irony revolve around the perceived notion of an incongruity between what is said and what is meant, or between an understanding or expectation of a reality and what actually happens. "when the literal truth is in direct discordance, to the perceived truth".

The term Socratic irony, coined by Aristotle, refers to the Socratic Method, and is not irony in the modern sense of the word.[1]

DefinitionsEdit

Henry Watson Fowler, in The King's English, says “any definition of irony—though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted—must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.”

The word 'ironic' is sometimes used as a synonym for incongruous or coincidental in situations where there is no “double audience,” and no contradiction between the ostensible and true meaning of the words. An example of such usage:

Ironically, Sir Arthur Sullivan is remembered for the comic operas he found embarrassing, rather than the serious works he hoped would be his legacy.

The American Heritage Dictionary recognizes a secondary meaning for irony: “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” This sense, however, is not synonymous with "incongruous" but merely a definition of dramatic or situational irony. The American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel found it unacceptable to use the word ironic to describe mere unfortunate coincidences or surprising disappointments that “suggest no particular lessons about human vanity or folly.”

Types of ironyEdit

These modern theories of rhetoric distinguish between three types of irony: verbal, dramatic and situational.

  • Verbal irony is a disparity of expression and intention: when a speaker says one thing but means another, or when a literal meaning is contrary to its intended effect. An example of this is sarcasm.
  • Dramatic irony is a disparity of expression and awareness: when words and actions possess a significance that the listener or audience understands, but the speaker or character does not.
  • Situational irony is the disparity of intention and result: when the result of an action is contrary to the desired or expected effect. Likewise, cosmic irony is disparity between human desires and the harsh realities of the outside world (or the whims of the gods). By some older definitions, situational irony and cosmic irony are not irony at all.

Verbal irony, including sarcasmEdit

Verbal irony is distinguished from situational irony and dramatic irony in that it is produced intentionally by speakers. For instance, if a speaker exclaims, “I’m not upset!” but reveals an upset emotional state through her voice while truly trying to claim she's not upset, it would not be verbal irony by virtue of its verbal manifestation (it would, however, be situational irony). But if the same speaker said the same words and intended to communicate that she was upset by claiming she was not, the utterance would be verbal irony. This distinction gets at an important aspect of verbal irony: speakers communicate implied propositions that are intentionally contradictory to the propositions contained in the words themselves. There are examples of verbal irony that do not rely on saying the opposite of what one means, and there are cases where all the traditional criteria of irony exist and the utterance is not ironic.

Ironic similes are a form of verbal irony where a speaker does intend to communicate the opposite of what they mean. For instance, the following explicit similes have the form of a statement that means P but which conveys the meaning not P:

  • as hard as putty
  • as funny as cancer
  • as clear as mud
  • as pleasant as a root canal treatment

The irony is recognizable in each case only by using stereotypical knowledge of the source concepts (e.g., mud, root-canal surgery) to detect an incongruity.

A fair amount of confusion has surrounded the issue regarding the relationship between verbal irony and sarcasm, and psychology researchers have addressed the issue directly (e.g., Lee & Katz, 1998). For example, ridicule is an important aspect of sarcasm, but not verbal irony in general. By this account, sarcasm is a particular kind of personal criticism leveled against a person or group of persons that incorporates verbal irony. For example, a person reports to her friend that rather than going to a medical doctor to treat her ovarian cancer, she has decided to see a spiritual healer instead. In response her friend says sarcastically, "Great idea! I hear they do fine work!" The friend could have also replied with any number of ironic expressions that should not be labeled as sarcasm exactly, but still have many shared elements with sarcasm.

Most instances of verbal irony are labeled by research subjects as sarcastic, suggesting that the term sarcasm is more widely used than its technical definition suggests it should be (Bryant & Fox Tree, 2002; Gibbs, 2000). Some psycholinguistic theorists (e.g., Gibbs, 2000) suggest that sarcasm ("Great idea!", "I hear they do fine work."), hyperbole ("That's the best idea I have heard in years!"), understatement ("Sure, what the hell, it's only cancer..."), rhetorical questions ("What, does your spirit have cancer?"), double entendre ("I'll bet if you do that, you'll be communing with spirits in no time...") and jocularity ("Get them to fix your bad back while you're at it.") should all be considered forms of verbal irony. The differences between these tropes can be quite subtle, and relate to typical emotional reactions of listeners, and the rhetorical goals of the speakers. Regardless of the various ways theorists categorize figurative language types, people in conversation are attempting to decode speaker intentions and discourse goals, and are not generally identifying, by name, the kinds of tropes used.

Dramatic ironyEdit

In drama, the device of giving the spectator an item of information that at least one of the characters in the narrative is unaware of (at least consciously), thus placing the spectator a step ahead of at least one of the characters. Dramatic irony has three stages - installation, exploitation and resolution (sometimes called preparation, suspension and resolution) - producing dramatic conflict in what one character relies or appears to rely upon, the contrary of which is known by observers (especially the audience; sometimes to other characters within the drama) to be true. The character talking is saying something else and the audience or whatever knows something that the character does not. They are not on the same page.

For example:

  • In City Lights the audience knows that Charlie Chaplin's character is not a millionaire, but the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherill) is unaware.
  • In Cyrano de Bergerac, the reader knows that Cyrano loves Roxane and that he is the real author of the letters that Christian is writing to the young woman; Roxane is unaware of this.
  • In North by Northwest, the audience knows that Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is not Kaplan; Vandamm (James Mason) and his acolytes do not. The audience also knows that Kaplan is a fictitious agent invented by the CIA; Roger and Vandamm do not.
  • In Oedipus the King, the reader knows that Oedipus himself is the murderer that he is seeking; Oedipus, Creon and Jocasta do not.
  • In Othello, the audience knows that Desdemona has been faithful to Othello, but Othello doesn't. The audience also knows that Iago is pulling the strings, a fact hidden from Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Roderigo.
  • In Pygmalion, the audience knows that Eliza is a woman of the street; Higgins's family does not.
  • In Cask of Amontillado, the reader knows something bad is going to happen to Fortunato; Fortunato is oblivious.

Tragic ironyEdit

Tragic irony is a special category of dramatic irony. In tragic irony, the words and actions of the characters belie the real situation, which the spectators fully realize.

Ancient Greek drama was especially characterized by tragic irony because the audiences were so familiar with the legends that most of the plays dramatized. Sophocles' Oedipus the King provides a classic example of tragic irony at its fullest.

Irony threatens authoritative models of discourse by "removing the semantic security of ‘one signifier: one signified’";[2] irony has some of its foundation in the onlooker’s perception of paradox which arises from insoluble problems.

For example:

  • In the William Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo finds Juliet in a drugged death-like sleep, he assumes her to be dead and kills himself. Upon awakening to find her dead lover beside her, Juliet kills herself with his dagger.

Situational ironyEdit

This is a relatively modern use of the term, and describes a discrepancy between the expected result and actual results when enlivened by 'perverse appropriateness'.

For example:

  • When John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, all of his shots initially missed the President; however a bullet ricocheted off the bullet-proof windows of the Presidential limousine and struck Reagan in the chest. Thus, the windows made to protect the President from gunfire were partially responsible for his being shot.[3]
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story whose plot revolves around irony. Dorothy travels to a wizard and fulfills his challenging demands to go home, before discovering she had the ability to go back home all the time. The Scarecrow longs for intelligence, only to discover he is already a genius, and the Tin Woodsman longs to be capable of love, only to discover he already has a heart. The Lion, who at first appears to be a whimpering coward, turns out to be bold and fearless. The people in Emerald City believe the Wizard to have been a powerful deity, only to discover he was a bumbling eccentric old man.
  • In "The Three Apples", a medieval Arabian Nights tale, the protagonist Ja'far ibn Yahya is ordered by Harun al-Rashid to find the culprit behind a murder mystery within three days or else be executed. It is only after the deadline has passed, and as he prepares to be executed, that he discovers that the culprit was his own slave all along.[4][5]
  • After astronaut Gus Grissom's first flight into space, the hatch on his spacecraft accidentally blew off while Grissom was waiting for a rescue helicopter to fish the capsule out of the ocean, causing the capsule to fill with water and sink and Grissom to nearly drown. The hatch system was re-designed in later spacecraft to prevent similar accidents, and, while training for his third spaceflight, a fire broke out inside Grissom's spacecraft, causing Grissom and two other astronauts to suffocate. The hatch redesign triggered by the accident with Grissom's first spacecraft, meant to help save astronauts' lives, prevented Grissom from being rescued in the subsequent fire accident.

Irony in useEdit

Ironic artEdit

One point of view has it that all modern art is ironic because the viewer cannot help but compare it to previous works. For example, any portrait of a standing, non-smiling woman will naturally be compared with the Mona Lisa; the tension of meaning exists, whether the artist meant it or not.

While this does not appear to exactly conform to any of the three types of irony above, there is some evidence that the term "ironic art" is being used in this context [6]. This definition could extend to any sort of modern artistic endeavour: graphic design or music (sampling, for example).

Comic ironyEdit

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice begins with the proposition “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In fact, it soon becomes clear that Austen means the opposite: women (or their mothers) are always in search of, and desperately on the lookout for, a rich single man to make a husband. The irony deepens as the story promotes his romance and ends in a double wedding.

Comic irony from television sketch-comedy has the distinction over literary comic irony in that it often incorporates elements of absurdity. A classic example is where a shark tries to impress his shark friends by learning to surf. He then surfs so well that his friends mistake him for an actual surfer and eat him.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Comic irony has long been a staple of comic strips, in which the action is free to be unrealistic. An example is a notable Far Side cartoon in which a hapless house-cat is glued to a window as the once-in-a-lifetime results of a collision outside between two trucks, one labeled "Bob's Assorted Rodents" and another labeled "Al's Small Flightless Birds"[7].

Post ironyEdit

Post Irony is a technique that uses the juxtaposition of empty symbolism and loaded evocations to create humor whose roots lie not so much in the mocking of any one ideology proper so much as in mocking the stupidity that lies at the roots of the propagation of modern ideologies.

Post Irony exists in the aesthetic lineage of Dadaism and Surrealism. This is evidenced by the premium it places on non-sequiturs as well as its tendency to ignore the meaning of a loaded symbol (such as the Twin Towers falling, a cross, or even some Freudian and Jungian symbols) and to recontextualize such symbols in forums (children's TV show parodies, marketing catchphrases, or pop song parodies) at odds with the gravity that has been ascribed to them. Post-Ironic works also tend to be more reliant on an internal, almost musical logic than on a causal, narrative one.

Irony as infinite, absolute negativityEdit

There is a tradition that sees irony not as a limited tool in the sense of the three types of irony above, but as a disruptive force with the power to undo texts and readers alike. This tradition includes Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, 19th century German critic and novelist Friedrich Schlegel ("On Incomprehensibility"), Charles Baudelaire, Stendhal, and the 20th century deconstructionist Paul de Man ("The Concept of Irony"). Briefly, it insists that irony is, in Kierkegaard's words, "infinite, absolute negativity". Where much of philosophy attempts to reconcile opposites into a larger positive project, Kierkegaard and others insist that irony — whether expressed in complex games of authorship or simple litotes — must, in Kierkegaard's words, "swallow its own stomach". Irony entails endless reflection and violent reversals, and ensures incomprehensibility at the moment it compels speech. Not surprisingly, irony is the favorite textual property of deconstructionists.

The importance of ironyEdit

Much postmodernism sees self-aware irony as central to its own operation.

Some sociologists see irony as fundamental to the operation of society.-->

NotesEdit

  1. Sarcasm Society: Socratic Irony
  2. Hutcheon, p. 13
  3. The Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr. by Doug Linder. 2001 Retrieved 9 September 2008.
  4. Pinault, David (1992), Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights, Brill Publishers, pp. 95-6, ISBN 9004095306 
  5. Marzolph, Ulrich (2006), The Arabian Nights Reader, Wayne State University Press, pp. 241-2, ISBN 0814332595 
  6. Guardian Online: The Final Irony
  7. Page 384 of the Complete Far Side 1980-1994 by Gary Larson and Steve Martin.

BibliographyEdit

  • Star, William T. "Irony and Satire: A Bibliography." Irony and Satire in French Literature. Ed. University of South Carolina Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina College of Humanities and Social Sciences, 1987. 183-209.
  • Bogel, Fredric V. "Irony, Inference, and Critical Understanding." Yale Review ): 503-19.
  • Colebrook, Claire. Irony. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Hutcheon, Linda. Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • for review of Socratic irony see Kieran Egan The educated mind : how cognitive tools shape our understanding. (1997) University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN p. 137-144
  • Lavandier, Yves. Writing Drama, pages 263-315.

External linksEdit


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