(2003 to 2005)

I wonder if Orwell realised that irony is doublethink?

Sun Dec 28 09:17:00 UTC+1100 2003


In my previous post I mentioned that that I wanted to express my views on irony. But frankly I'm in a pretty flat mood, and have done enough ranting for one day, so I'll let the subject speak for itself.

The issues that one must address while considering this question and acceptance of the implicit assertion that 'irony is doublethink' coupled with an understanding of irony (defined for the masses in Reality Bytes) and doublethink (as coined and described by Orwell, in the book featuring 'Big Brother' - that's right Big Brother is not a television show but rather the personification of totalitarian control) would probably pretty much allow someone who was thinking about this question to realise what my points would be anyway..

Bah! Who am I kidding, I tried to be brief (again) but got stuck on explaining myself, here goes:

Hopefully it is clear that my belief is that irony is abused in society, and is used in a way that is detrimental to our society and does not facilitate clear communication but rather hampers it and paves the way for ambiguity. I find this to be particularly true in popular culture, such as transmitted via radio and television and also in day to day human interaction. I also speculate that irony, in the form of sarcasm particularly, does little more than send messages to your subconscious mind that differ from the literal interpretation of the message to your conscious mind. And, er, well, I'm not kidding, I think it is a problem that is heading into epidemic, if not already epidemic. I'm having a lot of trouble figuring out when irony becomes dishonesty, and I think that the line is far to blurry - too often I find that what is presented as irony is little more than a poorly covered lie, or a truth spoken in jest (which allows the speaker to deny the truth or avoid properly discussing it).

It is funny (this is where I use irony because it is so imbued in society that it seems one can not escape it even when attempting to be sincere, because in this case I say 'funny' but mean 'not funny'), I rarely listen to the radio, but every now and again I do. The radio is full of advertising, and I don't value the banter put forward by the DJs, considering it with the same regard as I do television content, in summary: fundamentally dishonest and therefore pathetic. I've tried talk back radio, but it strikes me that old people aren't as clever as they might have you believe and are more likely frustrated that present society is being conditioned in a manner that they were not and they rarely offer well considered solutions, and typically only present problems. I fear that perhaps that is all I am able to do too, nevertheless my point stands that talk-back radio doesn't have any answers for me. However, it has regularly been the case that I would switch on the radio (and unfortunately no specific examples spring to mind, although I assure you there have been several) and hear some skit, where some ridiculous situation was presented in the form of a parody of a serious news bulletin.

Initially after hearing such a skit I would be shocked, amazed or depressed, and then realise that I was a dill for having been so gullible as having believed it was legitimate (slight irony there, I don't truly regard myself as a dill, even when I do fall for a lie disguised as humour) - in fact what I had heard was a satirical skit, and it was designed to be ridiculous and therefore interpreted as not true but only humorous. Such humour is often quite funny, sometimes quite pathetic, and how any given ironic piece is interpreted probably depends on the receiver and their outlook on life or their political, sexual, racial, cultural and religious predisposition (to name a few, generally probably summarised as 'political' in a broad sense). There are some articles and programs where this type of parody or satire is done very well and is truly humorous while at the same time relaying a resoundingly true and generally depressing message, at the same time not really calling for any remedial action, and generally not proscribing a solution to what is generally presented as a problem.

The odd thing for me has been that initially I would not pick the parody as a 'fake' but rather initially interpret it as reality and wonder about it for some time. This has been particularly true on the radio, where I have not been expecting irony, or where the irony has not been explicitly pointed out. In much the same way perhaps that people responded to the initial broadcast of Mars Attacks (where I have been told many people actually thought that the world was being attacked by aliens since they were being told this was the case on the radio).

There have even been instances where I have had to ask my friends if this thing I heard on the radio were true (and I don't believe that I am an unintelligent person, although perhaps all evidence is to the contrary). At any rate the 'funny' (for lack of a better word, perhaps 'odd' or 'tragic' would be more apt) thing is that as close to five minutes after hearing the satirical news bulletin, I will hear a real news bulletin, in which some piece of news that to me may very well be a joke (since it seems so ridiculous) is presented. The thing is of course that this news is in fact truth, and this ridiculous thing did happen. I therefore seem to have difficulty taking my understanding of what is really true in the world and using it to filter information that is presented to me as irony to find truth in messages. Indeed even when I do find truth, I still wonder if the truth that I found had actually been intended. I regularly fail, often never being able to conclude if what I heard was an attempt at humour, or news. While this particular predicament might sound like I'm joking myself, I assure you I am making every effort to be entirely sincere, this has been, and continues to be a problem for me.

If you are a high-school kid and want to get good marks in your finals write your English essay on either Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four and discuss this concept. I'm not sure that Orwell actually realised or considered this however, perhaps the literature teachers out there could consider it as a topic for the class, I just thought of this now, and wish I'd had the opportunity to discuss this one with my class mates while I was in school..

I really think that discussion of the function of irony in communication is important. Try very hard to be sincere in your discussion, and try to spot instances where irony is being used to wrap an ironic statement thus the true meaning was literally uttered, and yet the speaker was not reprimanded for their apparent views, because no-one could claim to have been able to dissect their possibly profound, but more likely unimaginative utterance, and not daring to question it for fear of being rebuked as stupid or caught up in meaningless debate where logic is simply lost in a flurry of words and aggressive and noisy contradictions, or worse yet more irony in the form of sarcasm.

Take for example this definition of irony from Merriam-Webster:

the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning

And compare it to this explanation of doublethink from Nineteen Eighty-Four:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again. That was the ultimately subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.

And so it is that by applying irony to irony in day-to-day life we come to initially accept an assertion as false since it disguises what is obviously and tragically the truth while contrary to the literal assertion, as little more than something that should be accepted in good humour, and then immediately forget that is what we had just done, living our lives in accordance with the doctrine implied by acceptance of the assertion as true even though in good-conscience we know it to be false. A long sentence, but pretty much the most concise way to describe what I'm trying to say assuming you don't lose track of the 'subject' when I use the term 'that' - I ask the reader to think about it and would be happy to get comments on a more concise or effective way of saying, what I hope you understand I am trying to say.

Man, this has turned into an awfully depressing morning. Perhaps I shouldn't have been sitting around all night dwelling on television and irony. To think, when I started I had simply planned to find out a little about the social cost of smoking.. I'm definitely going to have to save that one for another day.

One day I should really revise this post, and supplement it with real-life examples of what I mean, rather than asking the reader to understand what I mean by abstract terms such as 'truth'. The only barrier here is time.

Um, one more thing. Then I'll finish, I promise. I remember something from the Simpson's some time ago (after all the TV bashing that I've done this morning, there may be some irony in the fact that I'm now going to use popular culture to help prove my point). The situation as I recall was basically this:

Lisa: I'm sick.
Marge: OK, you can stay home from school today.
Bart: If Lisa gets to stay home, I'm staying home too.
Lisa: If Bart stays home, I'm going to school.

Bart's confusion then ensues as he gets stuck in an infinite logic loop. Unable to derive any truth, or arrive at any conclusion. It strikes me that this is where irony gets its mystery, and perhaps is simply what someone means when they refer to a statement as 'deep' - you know, so deep that you get a stack overflow (think recursive function with no exit clause). So if for example I make the statement “We live in a free world“ and this is then interpreted as irony, while my literal meaning stands as uttered, my implied meaning might be that “We do not live in a free world“. If one was then to find that this was funny, because the statement “We live in a free world“ is considered ridiculous to the point of being humorous, then again there is irony because the message is that “this is not funny“. However, since we have enjoyed humour, it “was funny“ and since it can not be both “funny“ and “not funny“ we have used logic to allow ourselves to conclude that “We live in a free world“, even though we know that we do not actually hold this to be true. I'm sure there is probably some way to get stuck in a logic loop similar to Bart's above, where two contradictory premises are both held, and then some attempt at applying logic is then used to derive truth resulting in futile and endless analyses, often so confusing that one can not in fact process it in their mind and can do little more than refer to it as 'deep' - having in fact learnt nothing.


OK, having sort of looked all that over, the last thing that I should make resoundingly clear, is that doublethink is a bad thing. Doubleplusungood, even - to use the Newspeak term. If you haven't read Nineteen Eighty-Four, then I really think that you should. Or get the movie at the very least (which is nothing quite like the book). You won't find any answers, at least not happy ones, but you can then walk around and live life with the arrogant belief that you are not simply another prole. At least when you are a prole, they won't kill you for thoughtcrime, nobody cares what the proles say: “they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didnt it aint right not in front of kids it aint“..

Having already broken my promise to not write any more, I figure there's no harm in pointing out that Naomi Klein discussed irony in No Logo. Again it struck me that her book was grossly lacking in answers, and bordering on paranoia. I must say I found her use of the term 'irony' and discussion of it to be a little vague, or if not vague simply unclear. I must also say that reading her book I had trouble determining when she was being sincere and when she was being ironic and in truth haven't yet read the whole thing, as all the whining failed to hold my attention (I'm sure this post could be accused of the same). Nevertheless, this is another book everyone should read. And while I'm on it, have a listen to what Michael Moore has to say, but don't be surprised if you are bombarded with sarcasm and again presented with no solutions, every time I finally begin respecting this guy he lets me down again with some remark that is either simply dumb or implies that he holds a view contrary to the point that he is trying to make or empathetic to the point of dishonesty.

In case I haven't expressed myself clearly (I know I have a tendency to be a little hectic, sporadic and undeniably long-winded) the fundamental problem with irony is that true meaning is obscured from communications such that the beholder can never with certainty claim to understand the speakers message. This on top of ambiguity of language itself (and the problem that when using a word you must assert the language, and words in language being defined in terms of other words in the language, and all other such seemingly unanswerable, if barely comprehensible problems) makes it almost impossible for a rationally and logically minded person to remain happy participating in communication. (Note: sometimes I really do feel like a pompous prick when I write stuff like this, but I'm just trying to sincerely express myself here! I assure you I'm not one of these people!) The reason that meaning is not clear is because it is common for a message to be interpreted in so many ways, for example is it literally true and intentionally true, literally true and intentionally false, literally false and intentionally false, literally false and intentionally true, and then delving into recursion for infinity, such as: “the statement was literally false, but intentionally true, but the intended meaning was ironic rendering the 'actual' intentional meaning as false“, which happened to be the same as the literal meaning, but was not necessarily, since one had to arrive at that conclusion through two iterations of irony, and bring their own exit condition (i.e. this has been analysed enough, or I'm pretty sure that this is what they meant based on this context, etc.) For example, if someone said “I think you are a dickhead“, but their body language and the sheer shock of the statement implied that it was a joke, you may interpret their meaning as simply a joke and what they really meant was “I don't think your a dickhead, but I needed to respond so I'm filling in space and taking my turn at participating in this conversation by using irony to remind you that you are in fact my friend“ but if you had suspicion that the person who made the statement did in fact consider you to be a dickhead, you might then realise that what they said was in fact true, and the irony had been in fallacy of what you interpreted as the implied meaning, making their utterance true, but seemingly beyond reproach or redress. In any case the literal utterance would likely still filter through to both your subconscious mind, and the subconscious mind of the speaker, such that even though initially you were friends, eventually you aren't. Such is an example of very poor communication, that in my experience is rife in society and frankly I am regularly guilty of making comments such as these, typically not even having been truly conscious of what it was that I was saying, and possibly not even sure of what I meant.

The very last thing that I will say for myself is that this view of irony is something that has only started to form in my mind over the last few weeks, although subconsciously has been bothering me for a long time (like a splinter in my mind). As such, I am perfectly aware that I regularly use irony and indeed sarcasm, and I'm quite sure that regardless of the sincere effort that I am now consciously trying to enforce on all my communications that I do not use irony as a tool of expression, I have lapsed and no doubt will continue to lapse into irony. I blame my conditioning, which I am working to remedy. The most sincere people that I know do not use sarcasm (I guess that is quite obvious) but taken with the fact that I tend to hold the greatest respect for those who are sincere, and I expect to treat others as I would have them treat me, and I desire the respect of my peers, logically you can conclude as you will..

OK, I went away, and came back, and really felt like I needed to include this comment here too. Basically there is a song titled Ironic by Alanis Morrissette, and as pointed out in a comedy sketch that I saw once (that did contain irony) this song does not actually describe irony at all. In fact it just recounts and lists depressing or annoying scenarios or situations. The funny thing here is that this particular piece of popular culture (if you guessed that it's not popular by my standards you would be correct) actually does not define irony at all, and indeed the actual term 'ironic' it would seem is not at all well understood in society, particularly if a pop-icon can get away with lyrics as ridiculous as those in the song. If you were a conspiracy-theorist you'd be forgiven for wondering if perhaps the Ministry of Truth had commissioned this song. If people hear ironic and think 'pain in the neck' and hear Big Brother and think 'tacky television show' are we actually watching as our language is taken from us?


Copyright © 2003-2005 John Elliot