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A Case For Irony

Whatever happened to irony? Not sarcasm, not snark. Jonathan Lear on why we need real irony, now.

(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, a prominent American essayist wrote in a widely-quoted piece that the age of irony was over.  The world had become all too real.  The end of irony was at hand.  And hallelujah.  My guest today, University of Chicago philosopher Jonathan Lear, says hold on.

We need irony, he says, maybe now more than ever.  Not simple eye-rolling detachment.  Not snark.  Not sarcasm.  But the irony that makes us step back and profoundly question how close we are really coming to our ideals.

This hour, On Point: the case for irony.

-Tom Ashbrook


Jonathan Lear, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. He’s the author of A Case For Irony. This speech, given recently at the University of Kansas, outlines some of the ideas developed for the book A Case For Irony.

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst.

From Tom’s Reading List

Salon “One of the points of these questions that I think is very important in the central usage of irony is that it is not the opposite of earnestness. When you’re asking these questions, you’re not just being a smartass, or saying the opposite of what you mean in order to be recognized as saying the opposite of what you mean.”

Time “One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony. For some 30 years–roughly as long as the Twin Towers were upright–the good folks in charge of America’s intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes–our columnists and pop culture makers–declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life. Who but a slobbering bumpkin would think, “I feel your pain”? The ironists, seeing through everything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything. The consequence of thinking that nothing is real–apart from prancing around in an air of vain stupidity–is that one will not know the difference between a joke and a menace.”

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6IHV4MFIZSWLDYVHLMSSWKARZ4 Brennan511

    New World Sociology “left on left” & “East on East” Geographic secondary-norms seen as political scorn.
    I need an asSorted tray of Ironic Hors D’oeuvres, I will then wolf them down and let you know. Or do you have to be IN the know? and therefore AWAY so [that] Irony can flow. 
     ^How^ could I know?

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard
  • Terry Tree Tree

    Irony missing?  Where?  The administration that did NOT use the laws that were ample at the time, did NOT use them, created Homeland Security, 1,3000 Security Contractors, and 85,000 Private Security Contractor Employees, to monitor each other, and the people of the United States, for National Security?

    • Knowitall

      If I understand you correctly, you are wrong. The administration which created all those positions in the wake of 9/11 also used them extensively against loyal Americans who just didn’t agree with them.

      • Terry Tree Tree

        Ironic, isn’t it?

  • Dirk

    could you pls ask prof. Lear how irony fits in with his writing on “radical hope”? thanks

  • TFRX

    The good folks in charge of America’s intellectual life have insisted
    that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. Nothing was
    real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes–our columnists
    and pop culture makers–declared that detachment and personal whimsy
    were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life

    I’m having trouble digesting this. Who is considered to be in charge of our intellectual life by his taking? Are people like Rush Limbaugh, Maureen Dowd, Al Franken and Stephen Colbert considered to be in the same boat by Prof. Lear?

    • tim

      I would think about it more in terms of the postmodern tendency to leave the structures of the past intact, while at the same time, divesting them of any real meaning. Nothing is genuinely heroic or worthy of praise. Lear is drawing heavily from Kierkegaard, particularly “The Present Age” (which is one of the best foreshadowings of  postmodernity) and “The Concept of Irony” (in which Kierkegaard contrasts irony which is simply destructive to achieve an inflated sense of self-importance with irony that makes possible the fact that genuine insight cannot be communicated directly, but rather indirectly.) Genuine irony puts interpretive responsibility back upon the other party. 

      • TFRX

        Serious, deep stuff. I will not claim to anything of Kierkegaard. Thanks.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Ironic!!  Irony declining, along with the decline of the Western civilization(?) methods?  Connection, or just ironic coincidence?

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    A lack of irony?  Don’t we have far too much irony, expressed not by heroes or anti-heroes, but by un-heroes?

  • B. Taylor

    We need a working definition of irony.  It is one of the most misused and misunderstood terms, especially in the high school and college classroom.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Is the irony of the government of ‘NO’ , preaching NO government, after, and while increasing government size, especially with Government-paid-Private-sector-National Security Contractors, LOST?

  • Mcguiganr

    Americans dont really do irony, irony requires self reflection and criticism. not american strengths.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      ALL the posts here, are NOT made by people in other countries. Ironically, America extends from the tip of Chile, to the northern-most Northwest Territory of Canada!

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      You know every American?  Look past your own predjudices, and you’ll learn something.

    • Ellen Dibble

      When did you last spend more than say 40 hours reading the banter back and forth between 20-somethings of various parts of our great land.  I’m sure some of them are bullying each other.  But a lot of them are encapsulating very complex interactions into words, which is not direct.  If it were direct, they’d say hi, like, have a nice day, meet me at two — all one thousand friends.  Instead, new ways are evolving.  (I had to miss some of the show just now, so… I hope this isn’t irrelevant.)

  • Ellen Dibble

    If you want to persuade, you need the other person to come up with the idea on their own.  You need for THEM to take ownership of YOUR idea.  In this age of twitter-length communications, being able to put the responsibility on the OTHER to fish for the meaning is crucial.  You know you’re part of the flow when they send back something that ALSO requires interpretation.  No, direct communication is best for summations, not for building a community of concern/interest.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      I do prefer the Socratic method of teaching.  It’s beautiful to watch them arrive at understanding.

      • Anonymous

        I think it is useful to a point but after reasoning is sufficently developed the method isn’t an efficient way to convey information.  By the end of law school I would have helped prepare the hemlock.   

    • Manoog of Providence

      spot on 

    • Roy Mac

      Is that ‘his or her’ own?  And for ‘him or her’ to take ownership?  Maybe you’re just being ironic…

  • Ellen Dibble

    I thought of the New Yorker magazine, which I associate with Roger Rosenblatt — Ashbrook points to his September 2001 article on the end of Irony — I thought the New Yorker sort of attempts to define modern irony — detachment/snobbery.  “destruction to achieve an inflated sense of self-importance.”  There’s a kind of religion of being able to deflate everyone except some “in” group.  But that does not create a cohesive democracy, which can vote meaningfully.

  • Ellen Dibble

    It seems to me a successful polity has friends keeping each other in line, unsusceptible to the detachment (narcissism?) that pulls people apart.  They do it by unending teasing, back and forth.  Like siblings swatting each other with whiffle ball bats, knowing when to stop.

  • TLP

    I have been thinking about irony–looking especially at Socratic Irony–for the last several years as well. I look at it functionally. When Socrates would say something like, “I know, Crito, that you know so much more than I do about virtue, please explain it to me” in Plato’s dialogues, maybe it adds some humor or levity, but functionally that statement and intellectual posture is what allows the dialogue to progress. I agree that Socrates was earnest. Unlike the popular way of thinking about irony, I think functional irony is what allows us to be honest and sincere. It is the uniquely self-conscious (mirror-like) tool that allows us to hold our opinions and explore other possibilities with passion and honesty–honesty being the important word when discussing inquiry.

  • Richard

    Irony is but a part of humor and humor is something that is deficient in our society.

    What we should foster is affiliative humor (where we laugh at ourselves and with others).

    What we should eschew is ostracizing humor (where we ridicule others for their beliefs).

    Perhaps by laughing at oursleves we’ll have less need to symbolically and actually take more life from others ?

    Read: Neil Elgee’s, “Laughing at Death.”  It is at http://www.ernestbecker.org.

    Richard Scheiber
    Cabot, Vermont

    • Anonymous

      Both types of humor are needed.  The only standard should be whether or not it is funny.

  • Kenneth

    Is irony the contemplation of the gap between a sort of platonic ideal, and the reality?

    • Ayn Marx

      Nietzsche’s “pathos of distance”, which he 0.) considered a consequence of the aristocracy he favoured and 1.) believed to be a generator of art sounds like this.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    No irony in $Millionaires, many that got their $Millions by illegal, immoral, or deceitful means, WHINING, and buying politicians to keep them from having to pay taxes on that, so they can survive?

  • Janet Tracy-Landman

    Maybe 2 of the more effective signs/slogans from Occupy are examples of Lear’s irony?
    1) I can’t afford my own lobbyist, so I made this sign.
    2) I’ll accept that corporations are people when Texas executes one?

    • Ellen Dibble

      I saw those exact two signs someplace (not in person).  I totally agree; they are great.  

    • ebw343

      I saw an old guy holding a sign at the Stewart/Colbert rally a couple years ago:
      “I fought Nazis and they didn’t look like Obama.”

  • Jeff

    Was Kierkegaard genuinely ironic?  His body of work could be be said to be ironic – he asks questions he knows the answer to (just as Socrates asks “what is Justice?” instead of telling us what Justice is), and he wrote with a sort of polyphony, but he only uses the term “irony”  from an aesthetic voice.  Once he moves up to the ethic he speaks of the paradox, and when he moves even higher than that, he talks about taking down objectivity and positivism and putting the world in a series of dialectics – self relation of spirit, and so on.  It becomes more about personal relation to the infinite, which is best communicated aesthetically as irony, but isn’t irony itself; an ironic understanding of irony!  While Washington is full of sophists (a law professor president that speaks in poorly defined terms, among others) I am sure Socrates would be quite ironic with them, but what would Kierkegaard do?

  • Ellen Dibble

    The word in my mind is “irreverent,” and some use irrelevant instead.  I see some flutters on the net that are considered cute or semi-meaningful, and I say “irrelevant,” and wonder about the cohesion of the personality at play.
        Irreverent is something closer to irony, to the tone of let it be.  Look at it, laugh at it, take it on board in spite of all the traditional truths (yeah, right).  Religion has to find new footing.  Someone said, there is an unwillingness to toss old institutions just because they can’t change as fast as our fast world is changing.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Tom is saying do we need to be “earnest”?
    Hey, for that we have the large percentage of the population on the Autism Spectrum.  Right?  Those who can’t read between the lines?  And we have a definite place for such an awareness in the conversation, but I suspect it is politically incorrect to laugh it out of the room.  Irony laughs at itself.  Hopefully not at those who are vulnerable in a destructive way to it.  Figure out who is hurt by it, and don’t do it.

  • Manoog of Providence

    In the realm of every prisoner of war or even conscience I have met from Corrigador-Batann to a Iranian journalist I met yesterday at  an Amnesty International letter writing campaign; I have come accustomed to accept that irony and humor is and remains at that central core. When I was engaged by a security official in a US Airport who had revealed he spent 10 years in a “reeducation camp” as I walked away and he called out to me; “how long where you in Vietnam?” I immediately remember the American POW pilot Porter Haliburton who spoke to us and revealed that they can tak everything away from you but your SENSE OF HUMOR. I simple responded;”All F@#in day” as I walked away.. This man searched the airport for me bringing me a bottle of water and fruit he grew in his yard just to seit a while with me.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Thank you!

  • Nutricj

    “But one of the justest and finest pieces of irony, and the most timely and seasonably vented and that deserves perpetual rememberance, is, from the Poet Waller’s Life….”On the Day of the dissolution of the last parliament of King James the First…Mr. Waller out of curiosity and respect went to see the King at dinner with whom were Dr. Andrews the Bishop of Winchester and Dr. Neal Bishop of Durham…there happened something extraordinary in the conversation…His Majesty asked the bishops, ‘My Lords, cannot I take my subjects money when I want it without all this formality of Parliament?’ The Bishop of Durham readily answered, ‘God Forbid sir, but you should- you are the breath of your nostrils.” Whereupon the King turned and said to the Bishop of Winchester, ‘Well my Lord, what say you?’ The Bishop replied, ‘I have no skill to judge of Parliamentary cases.’ The King answered, ‘No put-offs, answer me presently.’ The Bishop answered, ‘Then sir, I think it is lawful for you to take my brother Neal’s Money, for he offers it!’ Anthony Collins, A Discourse Concerning Ridicule and Irony and Writing, 1729.

  • Dananani25

    Current irony in politics is when about three republican presidential candidates in their quest to win christian voters has asserted that they have been ordained/appointed by God to be president. Knowing that God does not lie and only one peeson can be president yet christian conservatives are not questioning them

    • Terry Tree Tree

      AMAZING  case of irony!  Haven’t most, or ALL, of them violated those ‘Christian Values’?

  • Modavations

    Pardon me.My wrists have gone so limp,I’m typing with my nose.This guy is a prime example as to why a liberal Arts College education, is so profoundly worthless.A professor who can’t write Irony,writing books on irony.In high school,not college,I was taught either Socrtaes,or Plato were fictitious.The professor kept giggling nervously about Guantanamo and OWS.I’m sure his book is just Den.Rumpswabery.

    • nj

      Honestly, no one cares.

      • Modavations

        And yet you reply!!!

  • Modavations

    Ever since Ted and Bill’s Great Adventure, I have called him Sokraits

  • leftofcenter

    Expressing irony means being able to freely express views that the Powers that be usually don’t want you to express. Pick an issue: anything from innocent people being imprisoned and tortured at Guantanemo to Occupy protestors being ridiculed for merely expressing their still legal right to free speech. Obviously there’s irony in both of those. Yet, the corporate MSM (and this does include NPR) routinely censor this. Is it because you obviously don’t want to piss off your sponsors? NPR calls itself “public” radio. Yet, you sell commercial time and your format clock for each hour is exactly like a corporate news station. To me, that’s real irony. Now, will On Point censor this post?

  • Anonymous

    I find it ironic that Jonathan Lear began his dissertation (as indeed virtually every other guest on the show does, as well as Tom himself) with “you know” and then proceeded to tell me … at length … what he had just asserted that I already knew.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Then there is the drug culture, and the jail culture, where it is imperative NOT to say what you mean.  So you check in with verbal checks to make sure the listener is catching the double meanings, the unspoken things; you signal that there are unspoken things, twists in meaning. You might say just exactly the opposite of the truth, and with “you know” or “yo-man” (aka, you-know-what-I-mean), you convey that there is an “understanding” between the two minds, and that there is veiled meaning.  You know?   I think there is a linguistic culture that does that someplace in London, where “everything” has separate apparently playful ways of saying things, just to clue you in as to whose culture you are communicating within anyways.  I see the etymology of eirony, dissemblance, appearance, from the Greek for to speak (hmm, really), or to seem, as in eidetic, image — I have always blamed that word “irony” for seeming rigid as iron, whereas it’s really quite filmy, a vowel-like word, the kind of one that in Arabic wouldn’t appear in the writing at all.  From what I have gleaned.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Catholics promoting homosexuallity, while publicly denouncing it as an ‘abomination’?

  • Irene Moore

    Great show.  Wasn’t Oscar Wilde the man ?

  • P. D. McNiggley

    Why is Jack Beatty ever on this show?  He would be a gadfly, if he were not such an irrelevant load.  I mean, really…why does this dink have to interrupt decent shows…continually…blathering on his ancient flatulence?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NDS2BYFUN37U2UVKYGWRIHCO4Q A Yahoo! user

    i would never try to type my feelings, only my thoughts

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NDS2BYFUN37U2UVKYGWRIHCO4Q A Yahoo! user

    irony was something i just had to look up, if only to make sure i never knew what it really is

  • Dan Cooper

    I really disagree with the criticism of this show and Professor Beatty on it.  There are dozens of shows for listing the news and recapping Republican anxiety about Mitt Romney, but few that look deeply and patiently into elements of the human condition this way.  That overall goal is so worthwhile it justifies our listening to what the host’s quest for it yields.  And as for Jack B. just the fact he was able to participate in this challenging topic in a way the author appreciated is a tribute to his intellect.  To me this is some of the best of On Point.  I can understand our current methods of ‘information’ delivery have got us so scatterbrained it’s hard to even read an entire newspaper article, never mind think hard about philosophy, but kudos to On Point for maintaining the standard.

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  • Roymerritt19

    Though I’m composing this long after the show originally aired I must say when the conversation went to Mark Twain and his position as a satirist and proponent of irony I was made to remember Twain’s short story about the strange prophetic man who shows up at a church where the community is sending off  its young men to do battle in the Spanish American War.  He interrupts the occasion and marching down the aisle between the pews takes the minister’s place at the dais.  He then challenges the congregation to put in words what they truly wish the outcome of the conflict to be.  Afterward he says the prayer which turns out to be naught but an entreaty to God to bring naught but  blight and suffering, tremendous carnage and all the wretchedness that is war to the enemy and their kin.
    If memory serves me I believe the story’s title was
    “The War Prayer”.  I also might mention that a production was once made by interweaving this story in with another one of Twain’s tales.  That story concerned the enthusiasm some young men in Missouri had for the Civil War.  They set off as volunteers and when the fear of the war comes upon them they commit murder on a stranger thinking he is a Union Soldier.  Turns out he is an innocent traveler.  The young men now acutely aware of what war truly means retreat to their homes prayerful that it should pass.  The program then moves forward in time and the unknown man who was the victim of those young Missourians becomes the prophetic stranger.  The irony of the tale was palpable.  The title of the program was “A Brief History of a  Campaign That Failed”.  Edward Herman was the most prominent performer in the piece.  He portrayed the traveler who was the sad victim of the rebels and the prophetic stranger.  Herman’s delivery of the prayer was a moving performance I have never forgotten.  As I recall it appeared on Public Television.

  • Svesdkeoqlorr

    I agree with many of these points, but many marketers make incorrect assumptions about the strategy Black Beads, messaging and emotional connections that will resonate with their target audience.

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