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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