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I love irony, I really do…

Maybe it’s a Gen X thing. Maybe it’s a need to feel superior thing. Maybe it’s an English teacher sensibility run amok thing, but I love irony. I love teaching irony as well, but here is where I get stuck. When I was a kid, when we never ever loitered on the lawns elderly, cheap […]

Maybe it’s a Gen X thing. Maybe it’s a need to feel superior thing. Maybe it’s an English teacher sensibility run amok thing, but I love irony. I love teaching irony as well, but here is where I get stuck.

When I was a kid, when we never ever loitered on the lawns elderly, cheap verbal irony (aka sarcasm) was one of the best only ways to show superiority over everyone. It was so easy to use! Chuh! I’d love to take out the garbage. It’d be, like, the highlight of my life Mom! This made me fun to be around. Wait! Did he mean what he said…or was he being ironic!

As I grew older and consequently more vulnerable to what other people thought of me, I could use irony to shield myself from ridicule while discussing cultural products that I might possibly find non idiotic. The trick was to discuss my interests in a world weary tone and to pitch my voice at just the right timber wherein it would be impossible to know when I said, I think Bon Jovi is one of the most underrated geniuses of the fauxmetal era. (Insert irony mark) whether I was serious…or ironic!

Now that I’m a teacher, I use irony in class all the time but mostly as a tool of attention. Believe me when I say, this sentence diagramming exercise will change your live and blow your mind. Honestly. Of course, it’s all still pretty much cheap irony. It mostly involves larger vocabulary words attached to my preteen sarcasm. Bad teacher!

But I love teaching irony! Take Alanis Morissette’s Ironic. A cottage Internet industry has sprung up to dissect the song (see here, here, here). Most takes suggest that Morissette was sleeping during that class in LA10 (It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife), but a highly influential conunterintuitive contingent has defended her, suggesting either that a) the song is ironic because it is called Ironic and yet has little irony in it or b) it is an example of cosmic irony. Still, all is forgiven because of the awesome My Humps cover.

I’ve always been a B man myself even if Alanis disagrees with me. The song seems to suggest that all of these bad things are happening to her because the Gods or the Fates have it in for her. Kind of the flip side of the common “Everything happens for a reason” (in this case, because the Gods hate my guts).

However, definitions of irony are almost universally useless. See Bartleby‘s definition:

1a. The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning. b. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning. c. A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect. See synonyms at wit1. 2a. Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs: “Hyde noted the irony of Ireland’s copying the nation she most hated” (Richard Kain). b. An occurrence, result, or circumstance notable for such incongruity.

A) Is crazy. If I say “That shirt is black” when it’s white, it ain’t ironic. B) Is crazier. What’s the difference between apparent and intended meaning? C) Is better but misses other uses of irony, including philosophical or eschatological. 2) gets into situational irony (the Firehouse that’s on fire, Richard Simmons is fat, etc.). None of them get at the traditional Greek idea that the Gods like to build up people only to destroy them later (Oedipus, Croesus).

While teaching irony in writing though, I’ve always wanted to impart to my students the power of a writer who can play with the intention behind his or her words. We expect people to be more or less earnest when writing to us or to be clearly ironic (i.e. Swift’s A Modest Proposal). But one of the innovations of modern writing is the ability to shield or make ambiguous the author’s intentions in writing a piece. This is especially effective in personal narratives or memoirs (see Eggers A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or the short stories of David Sedaris). I like to have students take a sentence in their essays and reshape it to either hyperbole or understatement. Or to say the opposite of what they mean to say.

Irony can be the ultimate expression of self-satisfied condescension or it can be an intricate expression of humility and self-criticism. It’s a testament to the power of language to communicate and conceal…all at the same time.

Image Credit: Abbyladybug CreativeCommons license




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