Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Review

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Irony is a Useful Tool. Here a Cartoonist Explains Her Ironic Intent

(Click to enlarge)
A pre-emptive alert for the satire-challenged: this strip is obviously not endorsing violence against bankers. It is saying that many in the financial world are real thugs who are never treated the way police often treat black citizens in Ferguson and many other places. The devastation caused by white-collar criminals — the loss of so many people’s homes and life savings, leading to broken families, poor health, depression, and suicide, has caused suffering on an immense scale. Yet bankers have to try very, very hard to get themselves arrested, and even then they usually aren’t successful.
With this cartoon, I am also trying to show just how annoying and unreasonable Ferguson cops must seem to people who live there.

Robertson: Part of the charm of irony is that if you, as reader, "get it," you feel superior to the poor schlubs who don't get it. Among other things, it's a way of creating a sense of community among your readers. It presupposes that you understand what your readers know and don't know and have a sense of their worldview.
The rhetorician Wayne C. Booth has written at length about irony. (Full disclosure: My doctoral dissertation used one of his insights as its organizing principle.) Here's a summary of one of his basic points. (For a fuller discussion of Booth's notion of "stable" irony, look here.)

Four steps to reconstruction:
  1. Reader must reject the literal meaning – recognize a dissonance between what he reads and what he knows
  2. Reader must try out alternative interpretations – eg that guy must be crazy
  3. Reader makes a decision about the author’s knowledge or beliefs
  4. Reader chooses a new meaning based on his beliefs about the author
This process is communal: “The whole thing cannot work at all unless both parties to the exchange have confidence that they are moving together in identified patterns” (13). Booth even claims that real intimacy is impossible without irony (is he being ironic?) (15).

Stable Irony and Satire
  • important to Booth – irony must always have victims, but “the building of amiable communities is often far more important than the exclusion of naïve victims” (28)
  • the reader feels included because the author doesn’t have to spell out what he/she is saying
  • irony is directed to affirmative matters – creates a community of believers even as it excludes (28)
  • “irony is used in some satire, not in all; some irony is satiric, much is not” (29)

P.S. Yeah, this is me, all right: Socratic irony: A stance assumed by a teacher who pretends to be ignorant in order to make his or her students think.  (See any of Plato’s Socratic dialogues.)

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