I was working on an ironic post about the liberal arts, prompted by the recent exchanges between Kojo and the Lounge, when I read “How to Live Without Irony” in today’s The New York Times.

My hobby as an ironist was launched by Professor Wayne Booth’s “Rhetoric” class. We read Jane Austen’s Persuasionand Professor Booth asked us to write an ironic essay of our own. I failed, confusing irony with sarcasm. The C- I earned on the paper woke me up to the difference. I strove afterwards to create highly tuned ironies.

Since coming to City Colleges, I have found myself becoming increasingly un-ironic. One reason is that irony is so difficult to pull off, especially when readers or listeners parse every word until speeches become more a series of  fractional distillations than the rich stew of ideas originally intended. I have wondered if the loss of irony indicated a too-serious approach to the job.

Christy Wampoles’ article casts our ironic times in a larger frame. She asserts that

Ironic living is a first-world problem. For the relatively well-educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.

Although later in the article she says that “irony has served useful purposes, like providing a rhetorical outlet for unspoken societal tensions,” the argument is solidly against irony. In her conclusion, Ms. Wampole states:

. . . it is my firm conviction that this mode of living is not viable and conceals within it many social and political risks. For such a large segment of the population to forfeit its civic voice through the pattern of negation I’ve described is to siphon energy from the cultural reserves of the community at large. People may choose to continue hiding behind the ironic mantle, but this choice equals a surrender to commercial and political entities more than happy to act as parents for a self-infantalizing citizenry.

In light of Ms. Wampole’s article, I am re-crafting my liberal arts post for a later date.


Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

7 thoughts on “Irony

  1. Surely you remember your Rhetoric, Don! Irony has a special place at the table, and especially in disputes. According to Aristotle, the advice of Gorgias was make use of humor in controversies: “to kill your opponent’s earnestness with jesting and their jesting with earnestness.”

    Let’s hear the jokes! Rest assured that we will treat them earnestly (or meet your earnestness with jokes…)

    And thanks for the pointer–the part about gifts reminded me of Emerson’s essay on that topic, which is one that seems our students really get into when I’m teaching his stuff:

    “Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me….For the rest, I like to see that we cannot be bought and sold. The best of hospitality and of generosity is also not in the will, but in fate. I find that I am not much to you; you do not need me; you do not feel me; then am I thrust out of doors, though you proffer me house and lands. No services are of any value, but only likeness. When I have attempted to join myself to others by services, it proved an intellectual trick–no more. They eat your service like apples, and leave you out. But love them, and they feel you, and delight in you all the time.”

  2. You still have to be logical when discussing humor. Our best comedians (i.e. what one famous hipster referred to as “the Holy Goofs” as opposed to mere fools, pundits, or – well – Wampole’s “hipsters”) spread insight and enlightenment (like a Bodhisattvas – hence, “Holy”). In their use of humor, they hold up mirrors to society, and we see (however darkly through the glass) ourselves reflected. Humor and comedy can build up rather than tear down, mock, and denigrate. It could be argued that through their use of ethnic humor Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory, for example, helped people travel beyond their comfort zones, make cross-cultural encounters, and return the better for having traveled. Other forms of ethnic “humor,” of course, might garner laughs but at the expense of subordinating certain social groups to reinforcing the dominant social group. I suppose that’s the difference between laughing with someone as opposed to at someone.

    And you still have to be logical when discussing rhetoric. It is Wampole’s (problematic and humorless) argument that is on the table: engage it. Paragraphs two and three offer some old and familiar observations (which I happen to agree with, even though those observations have been better articulated elsewhere and often) about economic and material conditions that contribute to cultural productions. Take issue with Wampole’s (weirdly nostalgic) evaluation of “ironic living,” but take issue with that. (

    Appeals to authority by quoting Aristotle and (the doubtful) Emerson are fallacies, at least if they swerve away from the argument. Ad Hominem occurs when jokes equal “heckling” – or dismissal – that swerves from the argument at hand (or, in Wampole’s case, from the argument spread out “like a patient etherized upon a table”). Aristotle’s quote, I suggest, only becomes meaningful in context or within the shared, common “doxa” that informed classical rhetoric. (For our purposes, we can replace “doxa” with “ideology.”) Wampole laments the loss of some common doxa: she’s fascinated by the fidelity of belief that exists in “very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places.” Without that, there is only “hipster irony,” Emersonian rhetorical flourishes, “fractional distillations,” perhaps, or – the final corruption of “the Holy Goofs’” humor – “jokes.”

    I didn’t read the particular exchange on the Lounge but I did follow the Kojo link. A bit of humor over there wouldn’t hurt. The Lounge could also use some humor. A bit of logic and rhetoric over there wouldn’t hurt, either, as a reliance on charm – or “charming jokes” – is not only fallacious, it quickly becomes tiresome.

    At least that’s some of what my professors taught me.

  3. I can’t speak to motive or any immediate/general context that informs your November 19 post, PhiloDave. I’m only responding to what I think I have to work with.

    Since then I followed the Lounge link but I confess I only skimmed those exchanges and may not have given them the reading they deserve.

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