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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Shapiro to the NYT on irony

Michael Shapiro sent to me some days ago for The Peirce Blog a copy of a letter that he wrote to the New York Times about its article "How to Live Without Irony." The Times has chosen not to publish it. Here is the letter along with his comments in his post "The Promiscuousness of Irony as a Rhetorical Label" at his blog Language Lore:

Nowadays, in the print and broadcast media everything is all-too-promiscuously labeled irony and/or ironic, to the point where in its November 18th edition The New York Times gave a grotesque amount of space to an essay entitled "How to Live Without Irony" in its Sunday Review section. This low-brow divagation elicited a letter to the editor from your humble blogger, which the newspaper—characteristically—chose not to publish, so here it is for the record:


Christy Wampole's 'How to Live Without Irony' (November 18) offers food for thought but, for all its prolixity, entirely misses stating what is at the core of irony as a rhetorical strategy, namely its negativity, its inability to signify anything of positive value. In terms developed by the modern founder of sign theory (semiotics), the American philosopher-scientist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), irony can never go beyond being an index, merely calling attention to itself and always necessarily falling short of being a symbol, which is the only kind of sign that encompasses positive meaning.

Worse yet, irony always tends toward masking the judgmental nature of what is being paraded as fact or the inefficacy of an effete judgment. The ironic statement thus runs the risk of ending up as just another cliché. That is precisely why the contemporary generation of "temporary sophisticates" (in Wayne Booth's apt characterization of those who assume the ironic stance), with their heavy reliance on digitally-bound signification, can only comment on the object of their ironizing without ever contributing to its real substance.

Apropos, only the most dogged literalist, without any real-life experience of the situational use of the proverb cited in the preceding post ("Language as an Aesthetic Object"), could comment that the mother must have "taken umbrage" at having her child's provenience ascribed to adultery, thereby implying some kind of misplaced cosmic irony in her expressed admiration withal of the proverb's poetic form and of its utterer.