irony, etc.

Warwick K. Fry wfry10 at
Wed Nov 17 17:42:23 MST 1999


            That's a fascinating question and one which becomes even more
critical with the mass dissemination of literature, and literary (text
based) forms on the internet. I think there are some classic examples in
email, newsgroups and lists, which often fracture under the heat of flame
wars generated by attempts to use irony which are misunderstood. What
happens, I think is that much net literature is decontextualised a little  -
we often pick up irony because of background knowledge of the author, or the
context it relates to. Your example I think, shows how irony is read (or
rather, not read) in an environment deprived of critiques of economic
rationalism. Similarly, I think a lot of newsgroups attract a wide range of
participants, many of whom do not share a common cultural context. Of course
if the common attraction of the subject is attractive enough committed
(serious) participants work through their differences in their backgrounds
and come to appreciate some of the uses of irony and where it is coming
from.(One of our cultural myths, here in Australia, is that north Americans
have difficulty understanding irony ...   :-)

The fascinating thing about the net in general (my own particular area of
interest :) and mail lists in particular is the way new formations are
generated from what were originally literary devices. There comes to mind
one bloke on a maillist who used to scare the hell out of me - I wondered
what the hell this redneck was doing on the list, until I twigged that half
his stuff was tongue in cheek and found it very clever. I also began to
check headings and addresses for little clues he left (changing his handle
to Lou S. Cannon for example ).... Subject headings are another
internet-unique area where we play a lot with irony. And there are always
smileys of course.

I think another interesting angle on this is the constitution of
'privileged' knowledge and the degree to which class interests are involved.

BTW, it can be very embarrassing to be caught out in a public forum where
you don't spot the ironic intent of a post, and I suspect a lot of flame
wars are a by-product of this. I imagine that dealing with potential
embarrassment that is one of the tasks of the teacher.

Michael Yates wrote:

> The issue of ironic writing and discussion has come up on various
> lists.  We had an interesting discussion of this and related topics last
> night in my prison class.  The subject was the drug trade, a subject
> about which my students knew a great deal.  The assigned article for
> discussion was "The Political Economy of Junk," written by novelist Sol
> Yurick and published many years ago (1970, Dec. issue) in Monthly
> Review.  Yurick wrote the article in an ironic style, essentially saying
> that the powers that be say for public consumption that heroin is a
> scourge, but they really act in ways that encourage addiction because
> addiction and the entire drug trade are good for business and act to
> pacify the poor, especially the black poor.
> The article is very sharp and biting, and to those trained to see the
> stylistic "tricks" obviously a sharp attack on the hypocrisy of those
> who control the system.  After writing about how the media portray the
> drug scene:  the tragedy of the junkie, the kid pusher, bombed-out
> houses, the plea- faced entourage of the junk-starved, the heroic social
> worker-he says, "But tragedy submitted to economics becomes comedy for
> anyone with a strategic and long-range outlook."  Then he writes about
> the great advantages of the heroin trade and heroin addiction to those
> with this "strategic and long-run outlook."  In periods of social
> crisis, he says, "How,then, to prevent the fabric of society from
> becoming completely unraveled, does one achieve a reintegration of
> confidence, a restoration of the faith to fight off internal threats to
> economic and ideological world goals?"  Later he says, "Are there
> drawbacks to the growth of an addicted population?  What about the
> deaths?  To view the deaths of a few thousand children as alarming is to
> take the short-term view.  The deaths are merely a function of the chaos
> of the market which is growing faster than it can be rationalized....A
> sort of industrial accident if you will....The deaths have to be written
> off as one of the social overhead of the New Economic Policy."
> Of course, Yurick is speaking as if he were a member of the ruling class
> when he uses the word, "one."  And the statement about the deaths is
> meant ironically.  The trouble was that not all of the students saw it
> this way.  One student said he couldn't be sure where the author stood
> and thought maybe he was a racist.  Another said that he had shown it to
> two friends in the prison and they both thought the author was saying
> that drugs were good and so was the drug trade. ("Where else can the
> unskilled make quick killings?" Yurick says).  Another said that people
> would have grasped the irony better in the early 1970s when it was
> written but a lot of younger inmates might not see that now.
> Now I was there to explain the style to those who did not understand it
> and to explain that MR was a radical magazine and that Yurick was
> appalled by the drug business.  But the writer does not know who will
> read what he or she has written or in what context or with what level of
> schooling and sophistication.  So does the radical writer, one who
> desires a transformation of the social order, have any special
> obligation to write in manner which would make it difficult to be
> misunderstood, especially about a subject critical to those actually
> living in the ghettoes?  Some students said yes and some no. What do you
> think?
> michael yates

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